Art is Power: A column where Che Kothari, renowned photographer & founding director/chairman of Manifesto, asks artists to succinctly define the power of art.
I'm probably flying over Jamaica right about now, en route to Trinidad once again. It was exactly one year to this day, since I flew there last, and it feels cosmic to be writing about this again as I'm heading back.
Every time I come to Trinidad it's some kind of epicness. The first time I visited was for my sister's wedding on Maracas beach. It was a full Hindu ceremony and they ended up on the cover of the local newspapers. The second time I visited as part of the official Canadian delegation to the Summit of the Americas, in the company of the Presidents and Prime Ministers of all the Western Hemisphere with the likes of Obama and Chavez. The next time was when my brother AG invited me to visit the islands for Machel Monday and connect with Jonathan Paty, who soon became an amazing friend and our official family and connector of Trinidad. We were only supposed to stay a few days, but Director X and I ended up extending our tickets and living on Jonathan's boat for a week attending all fetes leading up to Carnival and Carnival itself.
Yes, epicness. We have now been invited back by Machel for his legendary Machel Monday, to work on some major projects together and to spend more time with this prolific artist, at one of the highest energy performances events I've ever been to.
If you don't know who Machel Montano is, get familiar. Machel Montano is a Soca singer, record producer and songwriter based out of Trinidad and Tobago. He is pretty much the biggest thing out of Trinidad other than Carnival itself. Think the Jay-Z of the Soca game. He has sold out many shows at Madison Square Garden and is known for his ultra high-level energy performances. He has recorded songs alongside artists such as Wyclef Jean, Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Busta Rhymes, Doug E, Fresh, Pitbull and the list goes on. His most recent collaborations, and the reason we are hear, are "Can't Let Go" with Boyz II Men and "Happiest Man Alive" with Major Lazer. The Boyz track has been released in Trinidad in time for Carnival and will be released worldwide soon.
I caught up with Machel before heading out here and this is how the conversation went down.
How did you get into music?
My brother had to learn to play the guitar and sing and he couldn't do both at the same time so he used to pull me in the room and force me to sing things that he had to learn while he played the guitar. I was about seven years old at the time. My real passion and what really ignited me was watching things like Solid Gold, I remember watching that on TV and being fascinated by electronic drums. I would like the keyboards and the lights and I was really into the technology. So I started liking music and my brother and I were trying to figure out how do they get all this music into this one thing that plays it back.
I started going into DJing and cassette decks, and building my own studio with multiple cassette decks, while trying to record stuff. So I left school at that age of 17/18 and I went to study sound engineering and still today that is the thing that drives me. You know, how they create sound? How do they make beats, you know, how they put technology into the vocals. How do they get things to sound like that? That has really been my passion; I became an artist by default and by singing forms and becoming good at it.
That's such a funny journey for you to jump into where you are now. So since that time, how would you say art has changed your life?
Well at an early age, you know, my life had its course and its purpose was set. Because I started singing and as I'm singing, my brother would say "sing this" and my mother would pass and hear my voice and say 'Ey you should go for singing lessons', and I would said okay. The singing teacher would say "you should sing in choir." In choir they would say "you should compete in the school competition" but it was Calypso. So I got into Calypso. I started singing in Calypso and I liked it and I started winning immediately.
I would always win when I entered any competition. I was thrown into performing in places like Madison Square Garden, singing with adults in a professional environment. Every time I went to sing at these shows, it would only be old people as this time was 1984. Old artists, old people in the audience, and I would ask my mom where are my people? Where are the young people? So she got a show for me to perform at a club in Trinidad and when I started to sing Calypso, everybody was turned off. All of the young people went to the bar, they turned their backs and they started booing. You know they didn't really appreciate Calypso. So right there and then I had to make a decision, you know, do I sing R&B, do I sing Reggae? What do I do?
But something in my mind clicked, and said you know what, you have to make this music different. You have to make it so they like it and my journey started right there and it was like a mission to make the music youthful, make it hip, make it stylish, make it attractive, and I think I have been doing that from the age of 11 all the way until now. Making it more modern, making it reach people like Pitbull, making it reach different parts of the world, making it better. Making it compatible and able to compete against world standards.
And what does "Art Is Power" mean to you?
Well, the question is simple. The power of art is creation. Art is not a job, you know, art is not a requirement. I think for people to participate in any art, it comes from a deep, passionate place. It comes from a place where they are compelled to do it, you know they aren't required to do it. They are not driven to do it by something that's invisible, something that's intangible. You look at dancers, you look at painters, you look at poets, you look at musicians, sometimes they can't even stop doing it, even if they not successful, they are driven to do it!
And it's all about creating something from inside of you, something you are inspired to create, sometimes you create something that has never been created before and I think that gives you the power of the almighty and that gives you the ultimate power that exists. That gives you the opportunity to add something to this story that is called life. To add something to this world, to the planet, to the universe and we have people who have come along and their art has been the light bulb or their art has been the television, but the added something to history. When you have that sort of power it helps you to understand why we are here. We are here to sometimes not even question the unknown but just to do what we are driven to do and it becomes your art. And when you do it feeds your soul, it feeds you and it gives you a power.
When I create a song and I see hundreds of thousands of people loving it, singing it as their own, I see it making them happy, that gives me a lot of powerful feelings. I feel fulfilled, I feel magical and I feel the strength and the energy to do it again. So it's fuel. Power is fuel, fuel to live and when we perfect our art, it's a non-stop power, non-stop shield.
Check out Machel's site: http://machel.mworldonline.com/
Follow Machel on Twitter: @machelmontanohd
To read the full interview with Machel, please visit Che's blog. He will also be releasing a massive set of images from his last Carnival experience there as well later this week.
Check out previous Art Is Power Series Articles:
Che Kothari is a renowned photographer and the founding director/chairman of Manifesto Community Projects, whose mission is to unite, inspire and empower diverse communities of young people through arts and culture. chekothari.com | themanifesto.ca