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A Boy and his SBA, A Monarch and His Mastery of Calypso

The first time I heard Machel Montano’s “Soul of Calypso,” I admit I was skeptical – it didn’t immediately resonate with me, and I even quipped, “Why is Machel in people’s calypso with his SBA?”. However, my esteemed colleague, and cultural practitioner offered a compelling perspective, saying, “Machel is exactly what the soul of calypso needs at the moment because the alternative is a toxic debilitating destructive dumpster fire that has done nothing to bring attention to the dying art of the chantwell.” This remark made me reconsider and delve deeper into the significance of Montano’s work in the context of Calypso.

To truly appreciate Machel Montano’s contribution to Calypso, it’s essential to understand what makes a good Calypso and the historical role of a Chantwell. A master of Calypso skillfully crafts songs with lively rhythms and catchy melodies, weaving witty, satirical, and socially relevant themes into their narratives. They use their vocal prowess to deliver these songs with rhythmic expressiveness, maintaining an authentic connection to Caribbean culture. This is where the role of a Chantwell is crucial. Historically, a Chantwell was a lead singer and storyteller, using music for communication and expression during the era of slavery, characterized by their call-and-response patterns and their commentary on social conditions.

In Dimanche Gras 1986, an 11 or 12-year-old Machel Montano demonstrated these qualities with his performance of “Too Young to Soca,” showcasing an innate understanding of the Calypso genre and the skills of a Chantwell. His career since then has been a journey of evolving these skills, leading him to become a neo-chantwell of the modern era.

Montano’s numerous titles such as Road March and Soca Monarch underscore his significant impact in the Caribbean music scene. These titles reflect not just his dominance in Soca but also his deep connection with audiences. His flair for blending infectious rhythms with compelling lyrics has enabled him to introduce Soca to global audiences, thus broadening the appeal of Calypso music.

Fast forward to 2024, Montano’s performance of “Soul of Calypso” at the Dimanche Gras was not just an entry into a competition; it was a definitive statement, a demonstration of his mastery as a neo-chantwell. He infused traditional musical timbres and classic Calypso refrains with contemporary vigor and a profound narrative, demanding a rejuvenation of the soul of Calypso. This performance was more than music; it was a call to action for artists and audiences alike to reinvigorate the traditional art form.

Montano’s journey from “Too Young to Soca” to “Soul of Calypso” illustrates his full-circle moment in personal evolution and mastery of Calypso. This transformation is not only significant for him as an artist but also for the genre as a whole, signaling a pivotal moment in the cultural stewardship of Carnival and Calypso. Montano’s demand for innovation and respect for tradition in his work highlights the untapped potential and value within our Carnival traditions.

Why it matters? Well, Machel Montano’s journey and achievements signify the transformation of an artist who respects tradition while driving innovation, ensuring that the spirit and relevance of Calypso and Carnival continue to inspire and evolve, keeping this vibrant cultural legacy alive for future generations.