We sat down with Trinidadian soca singer, producer, and songwriter, Machel Montano, to discuss his new film ‘Bazodee,’ his culture, and his inspirations.
Bazodee was 10 years in the making and tells the story of a soca singer who reignites his passion for music as he falls in love. Along the way, there are difficulties, but the film’s themes include unity and honesty triumphing in the face of adversity. While interviewing Machel Montano, the emphasis on unity is evident through finding out about his character and how unity relates to his film, under the larger influence his culture has on his music and his work.
I heard this project is 10 years in the making, so how does it feel to finally be bringing it to the states and to the world?
It’s exciting, feel triumphant knowing that we stuck to the plan and we dedicated and to really see things happen over that course of the time and I remember that Malcolm Gladwell book The Tipping Point and they say “It takes 10 years to make something great, it takes 10,000 working hours, well this was a lot of dedication and not giving up and really trying and to see it come out in the end is really exciting
Tell me a little bit about the character you play.
I am Lee de Leon. Let’s see, he is a musician that went to London, tried to make it, failed, came back home kind of despondent, and then met someone who was his fan, who loved his music, and rejuvenated his passion for soca, got him back into Carnival and pretty much sounds like me. A couple of times, me going out there being signed to labels, trying to make it, coming back home, and in particular I remember being signed to Atlantic Records, going out to London, Sweden, Norway, really trying to make soca international, and not really meeting with the desired success in the way we thought it would’ve gone, but it brought me back to Trinidad, it rejuvenated me into some of the greatest songs, the greatest albums, and the greatest accomplishments I’ve made in my career. I really dig the fact that it relates to me, and I don’t think it was actually meant to exactly go that way, but I think it was divine intervention, and I think the movie’s story really it focuses on love and what happens in Trinidad and Tobago, but somehow my character is that kind of guy. He really likes music and he really wants to fall in love.
In the film, your character’s grandmother is very important in his musical career. Can you speak about how important your family was in your musical career and some of your support and mentors?
My family is the backbone of who I am. When I say Machel Montano, the star, there is Winston Montano, Elizabeth Montano, and Marcus Montano, my very small-knit family. I had a few years with my grandmother, but didn’t really grow up with her and she made Superman costumes, and she passed early. Really and truly the struggle of my parents, we found music at an early age and they decided to support us; one was a geologist, one was a guidance counselor, but they both became our manager and our PR agent while having their jobs.
They taught us a lot of values of our career, how to read business books, read about the music business, how to save money, how to go and do your homework and your schoolwork before you come home. They allowed us to do music and really helped us to reach out to the community and they really put us to the path towards success musically until we were old enough to do it ourselves. That significance of family really pushing me into music, that would be it. I talk about my grandmother, but really and truly that would be my mother. She would be clearing out the furniture in the living room, giving me a spoon, and saying “Sing! Go over there, do this, do that. Rehearse, rehearse!” That kind of Michael Jackson, Joe Jackson environment, but I will never forget the significance of that we built a star, we built a company, a family business based on music, based on culture, based on soca, based on our parents just teaching us the values of life.
Tell me a little bit about collaborating with Todd and what he brought to the project. He’s not from the Caribbean, he’s a very well-known American filmmaker and TV show creator so tell me a little bit about what he brought to the project and how he immersed himself into Trinidad.
Well I always remember that being one of the important part of the journey to the producer and the writer and finding the right director. When we finally found Todd, and they said “He’s a great guy,” and I didn’t know who he was, but just his personality was so humble, was so quiet, and he looked like he was very meticulous and very easy to work with. Immediately we kicked off because he said “Look, you’re a musician, don’t worry too much about acting classes,” because I really wanted to prepare and come out in a full Denzel mode, but he was like “Take your time; you’re a musician, just relate it to life,” and that really helped me. His calm demeanor, he wasn’t really pressuring me, and he was really looking for something that I learned: simplicity. Don’t overdo it, just keep it simple, and try to stay true. I learned a lot through him, so it was really exciting to know that he was accomplished, but yet he was simple enough to be relatable and to help me truly process a first time acting.
Your music is interwoven, you’re a producer on the film; can you speak about the process of song selection, interweaving the songs, and working on the music for the film?
That was really the catching point for me, the hook that got me interested. Claire, the writer, she sat down and she said, “We are your fans, we love your music, and we feel that in your music there is a story about people coming together and people meeting and forming love.” They took songs, songs like “Real Unity,” songs like “One More Time,” songs that I write with the themes of love and the themes of culture coming together, and sometimes the themes of uniting race for real unity. That really struck a chord to me because I really sat down and focused and I’ve really been singing about this for quite a few years.
To put these songs in the film and to work on that was really a pleasure, and I must give kudos to Claire because she first picked the songs that she wrote into the script and I looked at them and I was like “Well we need hits, and we need jumping up songs and faster songs.” I really had to sit back and look at what these songs meant and I didn’t ever really sit back in my career and look back to see what kind of influence these songs had on people, but it was refreshing and it helped me kind of further choose some of the more current music. We have music from classic Machel Montano days, the classic hits, but we have some of the current songs that were big hits in 2015 and 2016, and it’s a really wide score, and it’s a really good introduction to soca music. So for me, I had to go back and I had to produce all these songs over, add and take away, make different versions, and that whole experience was really interesting for me.
The relationship between your character and Natalie’s character is a beautiful one to watch flourish in the film. Can you speak a little bit about the relationship and how it was working with Natalie?
Working with Natalie was awesome. She was a nervous body, and she was somebody I had the opportunity to choose who I thought would play the role best from the audition. In her audition, she sang this really spiritual Indian mantra-like song, and I felt that she had the depth and she had the passion. When she came on set, she also was very meticulous about how she portrayed her part, how she did everything, knowing the Trinidad culture. She fed off of me to give her that part of it, but I had to feed off of her saying, “No it must be better, no less subtle, more vibrant.” I really learned a lot from her onscreen and we became each other’s “got your back” person to make sure that we were doing what we were doing right and it was really a great friendship.
Speak about shooting during Carnival and how that process was like.
Mayhem. Shooting a movie alone is a big undertaking, but shooting during Carnival, and not just any Carnival, Carnival for Machel Montano, you’re putting on the biggest soca show of all time, and you have like 50 shows in a month. It was really tough. I usually would sleep 3 hours every night, though, this movie took me down to 1, sometimes half-an-hour of sleep because I would go to a fete, perform, come home at 4:00, and have to be on set at 5:00. You know, and be there until 5 PM. It really was a challenge, but it was fun because we were able to interact with the real culture of Trinidad and Tobago and some scenes we had to remake, but it was happening during Carnival, so it was a bit easier to remake and not feel like we were making it up. We got to take the crew to these fetes and take Natalie and the cast to these shows. That helped them understand the culture a little bit more. Trinidad is always more vibrant during Carnival. Most importantly, the pressure of the timing; I had no time to think what I was going to do I had to get on set, get it done, and get off set and get back to my shows.
What was your favorite number to perform in the film?
Favorite number would have to be the new song “I forget.” “I forget” was a song that I got the inspiration for. I heard the beat maybe six years prior to it entering the film. I loved the beat and I thought it was a mix of African and Indian and I always thought a great song would come about. Somewhere along that journey, I said, “hey, this should be a song in the film.” It was actually a song that we wrote for the film and it was a song about forgetting race and race relations, you know, “I forget different races when I see your faces is, love and happiness.” That song was me coming around the corner, being sad, seeing J’ouvert going on, and seeing a street scene and just jumping into singing. There were a lot of spontaneous moments in that song where I just took the tassa sticks and played the tassa drums, but to see everybody in the street who had never heard this Machel Montano song, yet unreleased, really come up to me and say, “this is a beautiful song, we love what it’s saying, we love the mood,” it really signaled to me that this is right.
Was there a lot of improvising on set?
Pretty much. Not a lot, but we had that choice to just make up lines and things sometimes. There were a few moments where that happened. Todd was that kind of director; he was into what would make it real, what would make it authentic. We changed a lot of things on the spot, from some of the improvisation that was going on. Things like me just jumping on the tassa and beating the drums and them saying, “this is beautiful, let’s keep this.” I think there were those moments and those moments made it special.
I love the closing number. Was that fun to shoot?
Of course. That was the Bollywood moment that we insisted that we do. I remember those kinds of movies where they all come together and sing a song in the end. That was fun. It was challenging to get everybody in place at the right time, but we really felt like the song said everything. That was another special song to me; I wrote that song with my dad in a time when it was tough for me. I did that collaboration with Wyclef and it was about the people who come to back you up when you really need them the most. To perform that with the cast as the closing number and we all had such a challenging time putting on this film, it just felt like we were there for each other.
I also want to switch a little bit to current music and current projects that you’re working on. I know that you recently collaborated with Angela Hunte and “Party Done” was a big hit. Can you tell us a little bit more about what’s in the works for you music-wise?
In the recent times, I have been on the search for producers and writers who are going to help me carve the new sound of Machel Montano. That sound of soca music that’s going to carry to the future of what our music will do to the world. We’re hearing soca music showing up in Justin Bieber tracks like “Sorry” and Drake’s “One Dance,” so it’s important for me to keep my finger on the trigger that the music is rising and becoming more popular as we go forward.
People learning more and more about Carnival, people learning more and more about soca, so it’s for me to keep stretching my hands out and working with different producers and writers who can produce the sound, the present sound of soca, which is a sound that is embracing electronic music, embracing more hip-hop, embracing more dancehall, and pretty much Afrobeat, making that music really woven into those things. I’ve been working with Angela on that project; I’ve been working with a lot of top producers. I wouldn’t call all the names because there’s so many, but I have been focusing on trying to put out an album that would be my international offering of what soca is today and what it would be in the future.
I’m also working on significant appearances with soca music. I did this year with Coachella; I closed the main stage with Major Lazer, probably the biggest audience in my life. It was really special to see them react to soca music. I had the opportunity to go to Coachella many times and see huge performers and never dreamed that I would be there. I also opened Kings Theatre with Lauryn Hill this year. She had a festival that she created called “Diaspora Calling!” and it was some of this very same thing, this mixture of African dancehall, soca, and hip-hop and how they are converging on each other.
One of the significant things I did this year was also sing soca in the White House and play my part talking about the influence of Caribbean culture in America. It means the rise of our culture to the world, the recognition that we are getting now. I think that it’s important for me to stay focused on making stuff say that.
I’m doing OVOFEST with Drake on Saturday; it’s a festival that Drake started. He brought people like Outkast and some of the biggest names in the business Jay-Z and now he is embracing the Caribbean culture by giving us Saturday to do a soca event or a Carnival event, you know blend dancehall, soca, and all Afrobeat together. I feel like it’s important to me while releasing this film, which also projects the fact that I wanted to show that unity, to keep making unity happen. Live shows, the songs that I produce.
I’m also working on a Machel Montano documentary that’s coming up soon that would show the philosophies of that movement of new knowledge. That movement of new knowledge is about us learning who we are, by learning other people’s culture and really sharing and interacting together. There’s a lot of exciting things happening for me this year, but they’re all pointing to the the same thing: bringing the Caribbean culture and philosophy of unity to the mainstream.
We hear such a strong soca influence in the latest music that Drake has released. Do you hope to collaborate with him?
Definitely. We have a lot of songs sitting there on the table just waiting to push in his face. It’s one step at a time. We love what he’s doing; he’s reaching out dancehall, soca, Afrobeat, and we think we’re right there in the pocket. Once we keep doing great work, I think our worlds will converge, and they’re already converging because here we are in Toronto for the first OVO Caribbean culture party.
Are there any final thoughts you want to share with the readers?
I just want to invite people to embrace Caribbean culture. Come to the Caribbean; come to Carnival especially. Experience something that’s new. It’s a feeling that you can’t really describe in film or describe in words, you really have to go there and enjoy time and meet people and see that these memories will last and really transcend into that feeling of “I want to learn new things, I want to try different things,” because soca is the next thing so look it up and look out.
Bazodee is out in theaters August 5.