Kobo Town: sing the beloved country

Based in Toronto but drawing on the musical traditions of Trinidad, Kobo Town fuses old-time calypso with up-to-the-moment poetic lyrics.

  • Drew Gonsalves. Photograph by Paul Wright
  • Back row: Patrick Giunta (guitar), Roger Williams (bass), Robert Milicevic (drums), Jan Morgan (trumpet). Front row: Derek Thorne (percussion), Drew Gonsalves (lead vocal, cuatro, guitar), Linsey Wellman (alto sax, flute). Photograph by Paul Wright
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  • Drew Gonsalves. Photograph by Paul Wright

When Drew Gonsalves first started to sing, his mother, apparently, was less than impressed. Tactfully, she offered to pay for voice lessons for her moody teenage son. It may have been her best investment ever. Today, Gonsalves — now thirty-seven, and based in Toronto — performs around the world, fronting a unique band of musicians known as Kobo Town. The name pays homage both to his Trinidadian heritage — Corbeau or Kobo Town is an old nickname for a Port of Spain neighbourhood along the waterfront — and the music Gonsalves derives from it.

“Kobo Town was one of the centres of kalinda, that gave rise to calypso — all those boastful, taunting chants,” he explains. “There were many Kobo Towns on different islands — any island with a French creole background. The same history creates all the folkloric music across the islands.”

Gonsalves’s music draws on that rich folkloric past, but moves it towards an equally rich future, fusing the irresistible hooks and rhythms of traditional kaiso with the newer beats of dub, rapso, reggae, and zouk. His songs offer a raw and urgent poetry that expresses the love and anguish he feels for Trinidad, his deeply flawed homeland. “Ten years ago,” he muses, “I would have said the message comes first, the music was just a donkey for it to ride on.” But now he finds his lyrics come “from some place deeper than just political conviction — an outlet for the soul that I need.”

Gonsalves grew up in Diego Martin, a north-western suburb of Port of Spain. There, at the age of ten, the poetry-loving Drew formed his first “band.” “It wasn’t a real band,” he says, bashfully — just a few friends performing some of his original rock-based lyrics. “Stuff that embarrasses me now to read!” It may not have been groundbreaking art, but it’s worth noting that several of his early bandmates grew up to form Orange Sky, the popular Trinidadian rock band.

Life took a drastic swerve when Gonsalves turned thirteen. A parental split landed him in Canada, with his mother Jacqueline and three siblings. They spent two years in Montreal, before moving to Ottawa, the nation’s capital. Nursing adolescent feelings of exile, he became passionately interested in the trials and tribulations of West Indian history. “I grew up between T&T and Ottawa,” he explains, sipping tea in a Toronto café. “Every chance I got, I went back, drawn by a sense of being home. Even now, after so long, there’s a certain sense of belonging that always gets stirred up down there.”

His long summer breaks were spent “back home,” re-discovering the island in the company of his old friends, seeing Trinidad through new eyes and appreciating aspects of its culture that he would never have sought out if he hadn’t left. “I’ve often felt on the outside of things — both in Canada as an immigrant, and back home,” Gonsalves says. “That seems to be the vantage point of a lot of my songs.” “Diaspora Blues” expresses this disconnect: “I don’t know how to choose / between my old and my new country / Got two identities / and I’m not sure which one of the two is me.”

Gonsalves describes his teenage self as “very maladjusted, with a head full of loss and rage. It was a lonely, angry time.” He found solace in writing poems and songs, and at age sixteen — despite being “deathly shy and terrified of performing” — he formed his first “real” band. His songs, he recalls, were “very political, in the pretentious way that teenagers are capable of.” After studying history and political science at Carleton University, Gonsalves married in 2002, and abandoned Ottawa for Toronto, having “lost the battle of where we were going to live.” He and his wife Sophia have four children. She is a full-time educator, while he teaches part-time when he’s not busy writing, performing, and child-rearing.

Gonsalves formed Kobo Town — “more of a project than a band,” he says — in 2004. His bandmates, a fluid group, are as hybrid as the music they perform. While percussionist Derek Thorne and guitarist Cesco Emmanuel hail from Trinidad, drummer Robert Milicevic has Slovenian roots, and saxophone and flute player Linsey Wellman is a Canadian of Indonesian-Chinese-British background. Rounding off the line-up are Jamaican bass player Roger Williams and Guyanese trumpeter Jan Morgan. They all “click pretty good” with the calypso rhythms, Gonsalves says.

Milicevic, who has played with Gonsalves since their high school days in Ottawa, sees Kobo Town’s diversity as its strength: the musicians bring elements — such as the flute — that would not be found in more traditional calypso or reggae arrangements. “Drew writes the music, but [the arrangement] is quite a democratic process,” Milicevic says. “If you have an idea that’s different, we try it out. If it works, that’s great — we keep it. We end up with more ideas than we would have if everyone came from the same background.”

Kobo Town released their first album, Independence, in 2007. Partially produced in Trinidad, Independence has a stripped-down sound, spare, like an old-time J’Ouvert band. Guitar riffs, sprightly horns, and lavway choruses echo those of classic kaiso, sparking a thrill of recognition, like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in ages. Yet while the music is solidly rooted in traditional calypso, it also incorporates elements of Jamaican dub and reggae. “Dub and calypso both come from a long tradition of storytellers and wordsmiths,” Gonsalves says. “So I find they go together nicely.” His talent lies in merging the new sensibility seamlessly with the old.

In these earlier songs, Gonsalves swings between anger and redemption. His themes are war (“Birds drop fire / Then retire”), revolt (“You can only push the people so far”), even consumerism (“You are more than what you buy / Far more than meets the eye”). Never flinching from darker realities, he sings of vagrants and madmen, of slums, of broken dreams in a society betrayed by its leaders:

And we, wanting to believe
Let ourselves be deceived
By the well-groomed speech of ambitious men
Who time proved to be thieves
But the years wore on and nothing came
New flag, new name, same old game . . .
Freedom came and faded like a dream
(“Sing Out, Shout Out”)

This view of humanity is dark, but in the end, “Hope [creeps] through a gutter, through the drain like a rat . . . / Creeping like a mouse, hope has no shame.” It is what keeps Gonsalves — keeps us all — going.

Two things make Gonsalves’s compositions stand out from your run-of-the-mill protest songs. The first is the power of his lyrics:

Breakin’ over the mountain like a mighty thunder
Our hope is a restless song
Rising up from the sands like a defiant flower
Holding and consoling us in our darkest hour
Sweeping over the country like a dry-season shower
Our hope is a restless song

(“Across the Dark Waters”)

His influences are literary — Derek Walcott, Kamau Braithwaite — and his stories are vivid, achieving a measure of the universal, while being recognisably Trinidadian. Which of us hasn’t seen the homeless vagrant, the “man bathing in a drain” who thinks he’s “Jesus Christ come back again” — while “a man across the road cussing he for blasphemy”? Gonsalves — and hence the listener — is forced to wonder: “Which man of the two was the blasphemer: / The one who said he was the Lord himself / Or the next one who cyan’t see the Lord in someone else?”

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The other quality that elevates Kobo Town’s music above the realm of dreary social protest is the sheer infectiousness of the rhythms and melodies. Songs on the direst subjects nevertheless leave you dancing. “Abatina” deals with domestic violence, death, and communal responsibility, yet it is impossible not to sway to the music, not to join lustily in the chorus: “Abatina oh, who it is yuh have there breakin’ down the door?” In “St James” (a personal favourite), the febrile night-life of the sleepless Port of Spain district is captured in hard-edged internal rhymes: “Bright night, no respite from the clamour / Of the day, no relief, no delay in the drama / On the street where the heat makes you sway and stagger / Where light cuts through the night like a dagger.” Yet the lyrics are set to a slow, driving beat — the kind of hypnotic shuffle that moves tired feet forwards despite themselves, as Carnival Tuesday heads into Las’ Lap. It is like blood pulsing through a Trinidadian’s veins.

Thoughtful and well-spoken, Gonsalves has sometimes been called “too bourgeois” to have a legitimate claim on kaiso, which has traditionally been the music of the dispossessed. “I was very economically advantaged in Trinidad,” he admits. “Maybe the music would have been different if I had a whole different array of experiences — I’ll never know.” He makes no excuses for his social status. “The correct attitude to privilege, to me, has never been guilt — it’s gratitude.” And he rejects the idea that calypso is exclusively “black proletarian music” — he prefers to think of it as “a rich and varied music that is really the child of so many sectors of the society. Good writing is good writing. You can’t tell who writes it.”

Onstage, Gonsalves cuts a somewhat unorthodox figure, strumming his tiny cuatro, an instrument he loves because “it’s such a rhythmic instrument — both string and percussive at the same time.” But he is a versatile musician, switching smoothly to acoustic and even electric guitar, as each song requires.

His audience in Toronto (and elsewhere) is “a mixed bag,” he says — “some Trinis, a lot of non-Trinis, students . . .” Gonsalves makes no attempt to water down the essential Trinidadianness of either his music or his accent: listeners must meet him on his own terms, in the cultural territory he calls home. Increasingly, they do. Following the buzz of Independence, the band found itself performing at festivals across Canada, as well as in New York and Los Angeles.

In 2008, Gonsalves was invited to Seville to deliver a talk on the history of calypso at WOMEX, the renowned world music exposition. He repeated it in Berlin in 2009, and Kobo Town was soon playing gigs in Germany. German audiences were genuinely enthralled — to Gonsalves’s amazement, they were singing along to classic calypsos like “Jean and Dinah” and “Congo Man”. “You see how the infectious nature of the songs isn’t confined to Caribbean taste,” he says. “Other people get it.

The album also got a fair amount of play on international radio — “more than I would have expected” he says, modestly — particularly on the BBC. It was released in Europe on a German label, and showcased at WOMEX in Copenhagen in 2010. This led to extended touring in France and the Netherlands, Slovenia, Germany, Britain — and, of course, “a bunch of dates” in Canada and the United States.

Finally, in 2011, Kobo Town performed in Trinidad for the first time — a musical homecoming for Gonsalves. He had played solo gigs there in the past, but never with his band. “It was really encouraging to play the songs in the country that had shaped them,” he says. And he yearns to perform in other islands: “A Caribbean tour is my dream.” Meanwhile, he’ll keep busy in 2013 with more tours in Europe, the US, and maybe even China — and with a new album.

Six years after Independence, Kobo Town is finally ready to release their second album, Jumbie in the Jukebox, scheduled for launch in April 2013. It has been a long and winding road, with more than one postponement along the way. Gonsalves is a perfectionist: re-thinking and re-recording songs — repeatedly — are par for the course.

“I like to think I’m always trying to improve,” he says. “I paid a lot more attention, writing these songs, to the arrangements — to make them not just lyrically dense, but also musically rich. This time I really try to let the music capture the mood of the songs.” The mood of Jumbie is darker than Independence — there is no mention of “hope” in the lyrics, and the only dreams here are crazed, or crushed.

To produce Jumbie, Gonsalves collaborated with the “fabulously acclaimed” Belizean producer Ivan Duran, who previously helped catapult Central American garifuna music onto the international scene. Having two creative heads working on the project created “a tension that’s really healthy,” says Gonsalves, even if it was sometimes difficult for “an obsessive songwriter” like himself. “It feels like I’ve co-signed a mortgage with someone else,” he half-jokes. “Ivan is interested in making stuff that is accessible to people, and my concern has always been huddling closest to the music’s roots.”

Duran describes his partnership with Gonsalves as “very fruitful [and] a lot of fun — intellectually stimulating as well.” Noting that fans have for years been frustrated by the direction of contemporary calypso, he points out that “Drew seems to be representing the new calypso, respecting tradition and pushing it forward.” And Duran is pleased with the end result: “At the very least, it’s a very original album. It may sound familiar, but it’s really completely different from anything that’s come before.” However, he concedes, “Getting to the masses is getting more complicated, especially for this type of music, which is non-commercial.”

To boost its marketing potential, Jumbie will be jointly released with Cumbancha Records, an international label that specialises in tradition-based world music. “They’re not a big label, but they have a big reach for their artists,” explains Gonsalves. “They have a reputation for being a little bit on the edge — they back people who are taking a fresh approach to traditional world music.”

And even as Kobo Town prepares to cross yet another threshold into the wider world, Gonsalves’s connection to his homeland remains the source of his passion, and his poetry:

I bow to you, oh Trinidad . . .
You are the land running through my veins.
You are my land, the land of my life,
Your joy is my life and your sorrow my knife,
Your vision my sight and your land my birthright,
You are the land of my struggle and your plight is my fight,
The land of my struggle and your plight is my fight . . .