To love soca is to be its defender. The uninitiated, see, just don’t get it: Trinidadian carnival music, they grouse, is too fast, too frenetic, too mashed-up with recycled directives: “Jump up!” “Wave yuh rag!” “Wine yuh waist!” But lyrics do in soca what they do in punk: accessorize the music. And soca is to reggae as bebop is to swing: Develop an ear for its feverish rhythm (the aural equivalent of Red Bull) and you haters will stop whining and start wining.
One show by Machel Montano is enough to convert the heretics. A Caribbean-wide star since he was eight, Montano—now 32 and the most dazzling performer in a genre glutted with virtuoso exhibitionists—is as famous for his waist as his voice. When he calls himself a “wining criminal” on one hyperactive Book of Angels track, he’s not kidding— from the stage of Madison Square Garden (where he performs this week), Montano’s gyrations are capable of sparking as much anxiety among Middle Americans as Elvis’s did. Montano’s tunes were the soundtrack to Trinidad Carnival 2K7, and they’re all here: the groovy soca jam “One More Wine,” the gospel-tinged duet “Light Up the Air,” and the choir-backed “Higher Than High,” along with its two remixes—a kettle-drum version, and one featuring Sizzla, madly lacing his falsetto across a soca beat. The crowning glory is “Jumbie,” a moshpit-ready banger that won a title in Trinidad: most-played song on the road during Carnival Tuesday. The song directs you to “come out of your cage,” and listening to a tune as manic as this one, there’s nothing to do but lose yourself in the stunning tumult.
Machel Montano and Friends (featuring special guest David Rudder) play Madison Square Garden March 23, thegarden.com.