Speaking through calypso music

Calypso musician Drew Gonsalves.| Photo by Paul Wright.

Kobo Town, Toronto-based band fronted by founder-songwriter Drew Gonsalves on ukulele and vocals, will perform its own blend of calypso, dancehall and reggae music Nov. 2, 2017 at the Evergreen Cultural Centre in Coquitlam. Originally from Trinidad, Gonsalves writes songs based on places and events specific to the Caribbean and its history, but also incorporates themes and topics he feels are universal.

Born and raised in Port Of Spain, Trinidad, Gonsalves moved to Ottawa as a teenager. His cultural and musical knowledge of calypso – a style native to Trinidad – runs deep, but he says it wasn’t until he came to Canada that he really garnered an interest in this style of music.

“I am influenced a lot by old-time calypso, and I grew up surrounded by it in Trinidad, but I wasn’t really interested by it. I guess, like a lot of middle-class suburban Trinidadians, my taste was for foreign things,” says Gonsalves, laughing.

A bookish, introverted teenager at the time, Gonsalves notes that it was through reading about Trinidad and the rest of the Caribbean that compelled him to discover music originating from the area.

“It was really only in Canada that I discovered old-time calypso, hunting through record stores, amassing a collection of it,” says Gonsalves.

Calypso music

Gonsalves says that while reggae outside of Jamaica hit its height in popularity in the 1970s and early ‘80s, the dancehall genre is currently influencing chart-toppers from Drake to Ed Sheeran. He notes the calypso genre, unlike a few of its Caribbean contemporaries, has not seen the same kind of rise in popularity outside of Trinidad in quite some time.

“There have been different times that calypso has enjoyed a heyday, when it was popular beyond the Caribbean in the 1920s to 1930s, and in the early 1950s, but calypso has not the reach and provable impact that reggae
has had.”

Gonsalves describes stylistic similarities between calypso and its Caribbean cousins, but notes a distinct wit and playfulness with the lyrical content of this Trinidadian style in particular.

“The thing that I find that marks calypso a lot is its cleverness, humour, double entendre and storytelling,” says Gonsalves. “Even when calypso addresses a very serious matter, usually it does it with a sense of humour. There’s a real playfulness with words, topics and subjects. It’s a real hallmark of calypso.”

From past to present

On his forthcoming album, Where the Galleon Sank, Gonsalves carries the listener through a kind of history of the Caribbean, accessing the past through different stories, places and events, both current and past. Gonsalves is well aware of the often dark, colonial history of the Caribbean; it’s one of the major themes of the album, and it’s the deep impact of this history that allows Gonsalves to treat the topic through current events and places.

“It’s a region of the world that has suffered deeply in the past and still bears those wounds and scars today,” says Gonsalves. “A lot of the songs [on the album] take their reference points from different moments in history or places emblematic of the history of the Caribbean.”

Gonsalves says that his own songwriting, and calypso more broadly, is hardly unrelatable, even if the music or the topics that he takes on might seem distant.

“I think a lot of people are maybe unfamiliar with the particular details of the history of the Caribbean, even if it’s an often-visited place, but at the same time I find that in writing about particular places, events and things, that they’re part of a wider human experience, so they’re not really beyond the reach of communities here to relate to them,” he says.

For more information on the event & Kobo Town, please visit www.evergreenculturalcentre.ca and www.kobotown.com.

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