(BILLBOARD) Before there was Ultra or Electric Daisy Carnival, there was the original fete: Carnival. Across the world, pre-Lenten celebrations have long been among the most debauched (and the most fun). The necessity of sustaining celebrants through hours of drinking and dancing has also encouraged the growth of entire genres of music: samba in Brazil, brass bands in New Orleans, and of course, soca in Trinidad.
Machel Montano, a 40-year-old from Carenage, Trinidad who’s been singing the impossibly fast descendant of the island’s native calypso for over 30 years, is the king of soca — both officially and unofficially. Between his more than 30 albums and unprecedented 5-year-long reign as International Power Soca Monarch (a title bestowed on the winner of an annual contest to determine each Carnival season’s best soca songs), Montano is left with one final frontier: crossing over into the mainstream.
His audience at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre last night (May 10), though, could have cared less about his Major Lazer collaborations or increasingly EDM-inflected sound. The glow-stick bearing throngs that descended on the restored 1920s movie theater were there solely “to feel the power of soca music,” as the evening’s MC put it. “You don’t know how, you just start to feel something in your waist!” he said before prompting the obliging crowd to “take a wine” with him (for the uninitiated, wining is the much-harder-than-it-looks hip motion that is one of soca’s primary themes).
After playing for crowds of thousands around the Caribbean and selling out Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden in recent years, Montano didn’t really need a warm-up act for Sunday night’s comparatively modest crowd. They were on their feet by 8:30, dressed to the nines with Trinidadian flags in hand (or as is custom, back pockets). Also contributing to the evening’s electricity was the locale: Flatbush, the neighborhood surrounding the theater, has been predominantly Caribbean since the 1970s.
Montano (aka Mr. Fete aka Happiest Man Alive aka The Boss) took the stage promptly at 9 to the strains of his 2015 carnival hit “Like Ah Boss,” accompanied by a coed group of prodigiously skilled dancers and a full band (all sporting “Party Done” t-shirts). He approaches his performance with the zeal of a motivational speaker, spending most of the show running across the stage and looking intently at the audience, daring them to do anything but dance. For almost the entirety of his two hour set, the audience did just that (save for a brief ballad section, which was continually punctuated by cries proclaiming Machel’s sexiness). “Are you happy right now?” he asked the crowd. “If you’re happy, you have to get out of your chair.”
The focus was the fete, to be sure — but the importance of family was not far behind. Even with thousands of people in the room, the concert felt intimate, as Machel consistently reprimanded security for keeping his most ardent fans away from the stage, even inviting one (named Gregory) on stage to sing “Getting On Bad.” One woman came with a poster for his dancer (who was about to do a backflip off a 15-foot-tall monitor). “You go home and give that to your mother,” Montano told him.
He eventually brought out his own mother (it was Mother’s Day), and two of his children, who were both born in Brooklyn. It wasn’t all innocent, though — “All my babies’ mothers are here,” Montano added winkingly, “my son’s mother, my daughter’s mother, my other son’s mother…Happy Mother’s Day to them!”
It was about “celebrating where you’re from” — Machel’s continual shoutouts to various Brooklyn neighborhoods got nowhere near the response of his roll call for each region of Trinidad. Angela Hunte and Deputy, Brooklyn-based Trinis who’ve worked with everyone from Jay Z (Hunte wrote “Empire State of Mind”) toRihanna (Deputy produced Rihanna’s “B— Better Have My Money”) were on hand to showcase their work with Machel, symbolic of their island roots.
“I feel like I was in Trinidad — family night,” a grinning audience member said on her way out. “We are Flatbush,” Machel told the crowd. “We are home.”