Kobo Town: Colourful Caribbean stories through music

Trinidad born, Toronto-based Drew Gonsalves sings songs of calypso.| Photo by Paul Wright.

Kobo Town, winner of multiple music awards including the prestigious Juno award, will be performing at the Wise Hall on Apr. 16. The event is organized by Caravan World Rhythms, a non-profit organization that promotes music from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Founded and fronted by Toronto-based Trinidad singer Drew Gonsalves, Kobo Town is named after the historical neighbourhood in Port of Spain, Trinidad where calypso music was born.

Storytelling with calypso

The root of this music genre is traced far back to the arrival of African slaves who, not being allowed to speak with each other, communicated through song. Other music authorities also cited the genre’s European influence, particularly from medieval French troubadours. In recent history, the music further evolved as a way of spreading news around in Trinidad.

According to Gonsalves, modern calypso is the folk music of urban Trinidad, but it has always drawn on outside influences, from big band and jazz in the 1930s and 40s to funk and disco in the 1970s and 80s. “For me, the calypsonian is a singing newspaperman commenting on the events of the day, with an attitude halfway between a court jester and griot,” he says.

With a music tradition that is rich in storytelling, Kobo Town’s songs are often a perfect mix of danceable rhythms and poetic, witty lyrics.

“The songs are either stories or paintings in words. Some of my songs are just telling the stories of Caribbean histories, some others try to evoke sights, smells, sounds and places that have some sort of importance to me,” says Gonsalves.

Guayaguare, a song in Kobo Town’s award-winning album Where the Galleon Sank, was inspired by a remote desolate beach in southeastern coast of Trinidad where Christopher Columbus was said to have made the first contact with the country on his third voyage.

“Like the lifting of a sunken ship from the ocean bed, many of these songs aim to raise to the surface some of our hidden past: at exploring, lamenting and celebrating our history and the uncertain legacy it has bestowed on our islands and their people,” Gonsalves writes in a note that explains the inspiration behind the album.

He says his own creative process is also similar to ocean waves:

“It is rather random – I know others are more disciplined. I need to wait for the waves in order to do anything; sometimes it comes and sometimes it takes a while,” he says.

Citing diverse musical influences from reggae and ska, all the way to British rock bands such as the Beatles, Gonsalves says he tries to include many new elements to interpret and reinvent calypso music. Trinidad itself is also very interesting culturally with people from all over the world, says the musician, he himself being of Portuguese descent.

Music with international recognition

Gonsalves has been a musician since his teenager years, picking up a guitar at age 11. He moved to Canada at the age of 13 after a bitter family breakup and sought comfort in music during the initial difficult adjustment to a new life. Prior to fully embarking on a music career, he was a school teacher for two years after studying history in university.

Gonsalves put Kobo Town together in 2004 with some of the band members he met way back in high school; he says the band of six has a great repertoire of skills including guitar, drums, flute, saxophone and bass.

“We all met from different circumstances. I feel blessed to be surrounded by these great musicians and, more so, they are amazing people,” he says.

The band debuted in 2006 with the album Independence and quickly became a crowd favourite on the festival circuit. They released their second album Jumbie in the Jukebox in 2013 and with it achieved international fame as the album reached number one on the European world music charts. Their third release Where the Galleon Sank, 2017, won a Canadian Folk Music Award that year and the Juno World Music Album of the Year the following year. The band is currently recording their fourth album.


To learn more about Kobo Town, visit www.rootsrockcalypso.com