Founded by award-winning Trinidadian/Canadian songwriter Drew Gonsalves, Kobo Town is named after the historic neighborhood in Port-of-Spain where calypso was born. Gonsalves grew up outside Port-of-Spain – more interested in rock and heavy metal, but later interested in calypso during subsequent visits after his family moved to Canada. He was inspired by the cleverness, wit and audience interactivity of calypsonians, and formed the group Kobo Town in 2004 with some fellow Trini expats and other musicians in Toronto.
Gonsalves describes a calypsonian as “a singing newspaperman commenting on the events of the day, with an attitude halfway between court jester and griot.” His collaboration with Belizean producer Ivan Duran led to the album Jumbie in the Jukebox, which was recorded in Belize, Montreal, Toronto and Trinidad. I met Gonsalves at the recent Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak/Malaysia (see my writeup here), and he now joins us in this exclusive interview on the power of calypso music, his vision of what music means to the world, and his experiences at various international performances.
Madanmohan Rao – How was your overall experience at the Rainforest World Music Festival? What were the Top Three highlights for you?
The Rainforest Festival was wonderful – the warmth of the audiences, the beauty of the setting, and the camaraderie of the other musicians all made it a deeply touching experience for me.
The highlights? The Balinese Kecak Rite was fascinating – I have never seen anything like that before. I loved the sudden moments of humor as they mimicked the chattering of monkeys and how they used different bodily gestures to draw the audience into their performance.
Also its connection with the Ramayana was very interesting. In my native Trinidad, the common Hindu greeting is “Sita-Ram!” and one of our great festivals is the Ramleela, a dramatization of the epic which runs for ten days and draws people from all over the island. I suppose I am intrigued by the way in which a faith shapes and is shaped by the land in which it arrives.
Another highlight was an impromptu backstage jam prior to the curtain call. It began with a Gambian and Trinidadian drummer exchanging licks, and ended with musicians from Mexico, Sarawak, Reunion, Scotland and Bali dancing, playing and singing along. Often attempts to “gather the world” on a stage seem forced and contrived, but when it happens in such a spontaneous and natural way it is a wondrous experience of music’s power to draw people together across vast cultural distances and to remind us of our common humanity.
Finally, performing our set was also a highlight for me. It was the last date on a tour that took us across Canada and then over to the UK and Europe. I am always a little uncertain how a new audience is going to react to our music and I was immediately struck by how engaged they were from the start of the first song. It was wonderful to end our summertime wanderings with them.
What was the vision behind founding of your music group? What new lineups and instruments have you experimented with since the early days?
The vision was to revisit the roots of Caribbean music, and to create new music that drew from it. Over the years, we have experimented with various instrumentations – we began with a very acoustic sound and some of the instruments typical of very early calypsos – cuatro, bottle-and-spoon, violin, and flute. In the last few years we have moved to a more brass-driven sound and I have leaned more and more toward the warm, somewhat messy sound of old electric guitars.
In the studio, we have much more room to experiment and at various times we have used various string and percussion instruments such as the Cuban tres, viola da gamba and rumba box. For our live shows, we use different line-ups depending on the venues we are playing.
What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
I suppose my greatest challenge as a musician has been to keep my spirits up when times have been hard. For all its joys and rewards, a life in music is an uncertain one – our tomorrows are simply not known to us. And while this offers the excitement of new possibilities, it is also fraught with the anxiety that comes from having no idea what the future holds. Like our struggles and obstacles, our successes are also ephemeral – they so quickly fade into the past – and one must always be creating and performing and reaching out to new audiences, for there are no guarantees of a livelihood and no laurels to rest on. Being a musician requires hope, perseverance and self-delusion in equal parts!
Another struggle is to find the right balance between the pursuit of music as a career and the path of music as an artistic calling. I am very involved with the day-to-day running of the group, dealing with agents, our manager, publicists, record label, tour planning, etc. Caught between the business and the art, it is easy to forget which preceded the other.
Finally, I am a very undisciplined songwriter – songs come to me, often when least expected, so I must always find room in my life to be ready for them when they arrive. And being the father of four small children, that is not always as easy as it sounds.
Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career? Who are some of your favorite musicians?
They are somewhat varied – old time calypsonians like Lord Kitchener and the Roaring Lion, dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka, early dancehall MC’s like Yellowman, Macka-B, Cuban tres player Arsenio Rodriguez – even punk groups like The Clash and The Specials. Any member of our group would give you an entirely different list.
How do you blend different musical influences and genres in your music? How do you bring about this ‘fusion without confusion?’
I suppose it is because we don’t set out to create any sort of fusion. I write what comes to me without considering which genres the songs fall into or which influences they draw from. In most of my songs, however, there is a strong influence of old time calypsos, but calypso itself has always borrowed sounds from other popular music forms.
Over the years, big band jazz, 1950s rock and roll, funk – even disco, hip hop and filmi have all left their mark. I would like to think that our own wayward and wandering approach to the arrangements places us in the wider tradition of a music which is always reinterpreting itself.
How would you describe your musical journey and how your albums have evolved and changed over the years?
My musical journey has been both a great joy and struggle – full of unexpected turns and beautiful surprises. It has taken me to interesting places around the world and brought wonderful people into my life. There are days when I question my choice to leave the stability of a teaching career for music and days when I feel blessed beyond measure that I did so.
Our albums have evolved like those of any artist: they reflect our changing moods and interests, and are shaped by new people – producers, musicians, etc. – who we work with. They still draw from many of the same sources of inspiration, and while each album has had a particular focus, the songs have covered a wide range of subjects and topics.
How does your composition process work?
I write the songs for the group, while my bandmates all bring their own approaches and musical attitudes to the music. Most come from musical backgrounds outside of calypso and I feel that this greatly enriches the overall sound since they play the material in a way that is very fresh and unexpected. Our saxophone player Linsey, for instance, has a strong jazz background and an enormous musical imagination which he brings to the music. Our drummer Robert, on the other hand, is an unabashed rocker and this lends a wonderful intensity to the songs.
I do compose on the road sometimes – there is a lot of time on long flights and drives to gather ideas and think through lyrics.
What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
I feel that we have been spoiled by the audiences at our shows – the reactions have usually been lovely and encouraging. Some audiences, of course, are more expressive than others and now and then there is the occasional person in the front who calls out for songs that we don’t play (Stairway to Heaven was a recent request).
What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums? What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political/economical turmoil?
To be honest, although I am often described as a political songwriter, I don’t think that I am a very political person. My belief in music and its capacity to incite change is a sober one: it can undoubtedly inspire but it is no substitute for daily work in the real world… work which is usually unsung and unadvertised.
Most political music (in my opinion) is simply preaching to the choir – rallying songs sung to the already convinced – and I prefer the messy honesty of poetry to propaganda of any stripe. I feel stories and poetic imagery, for all their limitations of perspective and scope, can better approach the vast confounding complexity of our untidy world and to transport ideas across partisan lines.
However, if I was in the business of manifesto making, my creed would be this: that the human person is of inestimable value, of immeasurable worth – and that any economic system, political ideology or social trend fails to the extent that it does not cherish and protect this simple fact.
Jumbie in the Jukebox (Cumbancha, 2013)
Author: Madanmohan Rao
Madanmohan Rao is an author and media consultant from Bangalore, and global correspondent for world music and jazz for World Music Central and Jazzuality. He has written over 15 books on media, management and culture, and is research director for YourStory Media. Madan was formerly World Music Editor at Rave magazine and RJ at WorldSpace, and can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao.