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After Carnival's sequined costumes have been discarded and the body glitter has been scrubbed off, Ash Wednesday restores a sense of calm to the twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Most Trinis recuperate from the week-long celebration by washing away their sins in Maracas Bay or receiving religious recompense at a Lenten mass. But not Machel Montano. For the crown prince of soca, the party never ends. The past two decades have been one long blur of grinding bodies, alcohol-fueled fetes, and high-energy performances. While his countrymen take time to cleanse their souls and catch their breath, Montano is already en route to another Carnival.
"Soca music is made for Carnival. After Trinidad Carnival for that year ... we head to Jamaica Carnival right after. Then there are a few of them in the Caribbean. You have Caribana in Toronto, you have Labor Day in New York, Grenada, St. Lucia -- they all happen during that summer period. St. Vincent, Antigua.... We've probably hit almost every Caribbean island in the last couple of months," the 31-year-old Montano says in a voice rough with exhaustion.
After years of being marginalized during Carnival and in insular Internet communities, soca is finally on the crossover border. "I think that it's something that takes time, and it is happening.... Big things are coming for soca music," Montano promises.
Montano's 23-year career has allowed him to observe slow, socially conscious calypso evolve into the pulsing, manic rhythms of soca.
"I was there when it was [Lord] Kitchener and [The Mighty] Sparrow. Then the change came with people like Scrunter. Then there was David Rudder, Tambu, and Charlie's Roots -- they did a little more socially conscious music. And to see the change come up to the infusion of dancehall and hip-hop -- now it's all in the youths' hands," Montano says.
Montano and his band Xtatik have performed alongside musicians ranging from TLC to Destiny's Child, Shabba Ranks to Buju Banton. In Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'" video, Montano drizzles dollar bills on an enthusiastic crowd.
Despite the recognition and the celebrity pals, Montano sounds weary. "I think I've come to the end of the major part of my career, and now the rest of it will be focused on helping others and leaving behind a different kind of legacy. I'm trying to make music that will be around years from now," he says. Montano's ambition is to make the new material from Xtatik more structured, melodic, and unique: "I think songs are important. Learning the essence of writing good, meaningful, long-lasting songs is one of the things that I think is going to help us develop our music further towards international success."
While Montano and others are now making their big push stateside, soca has flirted with mainstream recognition for the past two decades. Montserrat native Arrow found fleeting fame in the Eighties when Buster Poindexter covered his song "Hot, Hot, Hot." The Baha Men's remake of Anslem Douglas's "Who Let the Dogs Out?" was impossible to avoid in 2000 and continues to be a crowd favorite in sports arenas everywhere. Kevin Lyttle's "Turn Me On" found regular rotation on MTV, while Rupee's "Tempted to Touch" became a club favorite last year. With the advent of MTV Tempo, a channel dedicated to Caribbean music and culture, soca's stock could rise.
But until the energetic live music makes its final push from the streets to the airwaves and beyond, Miami fans of soca can enjoy it in its natural habitat. Xtatik will be in town for Miami's Carnival celebration, and as usual, there will be nary a moment's rest. For five festive days, the band will make this imported local celebration come to euphoric, gyrating life. Then it's on to the next island, the next festival, and the next dynamic show.