KOBO Town teaches Calypso Music History in the Cowtown

Drew Gonsalves is, amongst other things, a history teacher. When I inquire what a “cuatro” is, after he describes it as one of the instruments he’s bringing to calgary’s Festival Hall.

Bearded man in suit stands playing 4-stringed instrument
It’s a cuarto Drew’s playing: we know because he told us! Photo by Paul Wright.

“It’s like a 4-stringed guitar . . . You see them played in Trinidad and Venezuela . It’s similar tuning to a ukulele: it’s a little bit deeper; it’s got a bigger body than a ukulele, and it’s played with a very percussive style so it’s almost like a rhythm instrument as well.

“A lot of the old Calypso is played on the cuatro: it’s a folkloric instrument in Trinidad too.I started playing it actually after I came to Canada. My father visited from Trinidad and he brought one for me, and since then I’ve been playing it. It’s a fun instrument to play.”

MUSICAlive! asks (in very lengthy terms) what Calypso is

“It’s a type of music that originates in Trinidad: its roots go back quite a long way. Like all the music of the Caribbean it’s kind of a marriage of African and European elements, to become something completely new. I suppose it’s a cousin to ska and Cuban music, in that way.

“So it goes back to early days after slavery. In Trinidad people started migrating to the cities around the Port of Spain neighbourhood, like Kobo Town which we named our group after, and this music started to emerge.

“Traditionally, it’s kind of satirical and tells stories: there’s a lot of double entendre in the lyrics. In its history it has gone through a couple of periods where it’s had a ‘Golden Age’. In the 1930s Calypso recordings started to appear: the Decca label used to release them. And After the Second World War the Americans had an airforce base in Trinidad: they were given the base by the British who were ruling Trinidad, and these soldiers started carrying stories of this music back to America, and there was this huge Calypso explosion!

“Harry Belafonte came out of that as well. but it’s interesting: it’s a type of music that has become, over the years, more and more marginal: sidelined by other forms even in Trinidad itself. It’s still very alive, but much more confined to its enthusiasts.”

That’s a big part of the inspiration for our group. Of course if you’re going to hear (the original) and then us, you’ll hear how much its influenced us, but you’ll probably hear there’s lots of notable differences, because I suppose our music is a mashup of genres, even if it is an homage to one.”

Album cover for CD
KOBO Town’s Carnival of the Ghosts, April 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

We ask if there’s a Thing which would clue a newbie in that a song is Calypso?

“What would probably tell me is the kind of melody lines. Instrumentation is really interesting because music in Trinidad has always been influenced by whatever popular music was happening elsewhere in the world: particularly in America, right? So the calypsos of any era generally tended to reflect other sounds that are coming into the islands. There’s periods where Calypso sounds like it’s very influenced by Swing or Big Band-type arrangements, you know? In the 70s there’s kind of a Discoesque vibe and a funk influence, y’know. (we laugh)

“But what would normally give it away for me is there’s some rhythms that are pretty common to Calypso; but definitely the type of melody lines, and of course when you hear the voice start to sing, that’s when it’s really distinctly Calypso.”

We ask if by “voice” he means by the accent?

“Not just the accent, but the intonation and the manner of delivery of the voice, and sometimes even in the writing . . Because the best calypso songs sound like gossip! Somebody telling you something that somebody told them! (more laughter) Or somebody recounting some kind of experience they had the other day.

“There’s something in the delivery. I guess the music in the region, it’s this weird push and pull of things that are very strict rhythmically, right? and things that are very off-beat and syncopated; and often the syncopation is in the singing.”

MUSICAlive! asks whether KOBO Town’s style comes more from Trinidad or his Canadian growth?

“The interesting thing I always found about this genre is that the songs could be about anything: there’s absolutely no topic that a Calypso song doesn’t talk about. For instance Reggae music comes out of the Kingston underclass, and the militancy of the Rastafarian movement; it politically came from one place, right? whereas Calypso is the complicated music of a complicated island, where a lot of different cultural groups came from all over the world, and lived there for long generations together. And it was produced by every class of society: you had Calypso from both opposite ends of the economic spectrum.”

We share our joy at the reoccurrence of live musical shows.

“Actually this year marks the 30th anniversary of my first show ever with a band I had in high school and university! I remember we were playing in a high school auditorium for a Battle of the Bands, and I remember spending 2 hours in the bathroom before, almost throwing up!I was so nervous, thinking, ‘What the hell was I thinking? How did I get myself into this?’ (we laugh)

“(But) you know , the guys (in KOBO Town), they feel the same way as me: They’ve also been without something that brings so much joy to all of our lives.They feel the same way I do. we’re all just thrilled to be doing this again!

“We joke around in the band: I say we’re in the joy business, right? The most touching comments are from people who don’t go out a lot: and they come and it’s lifted their spirits. And I suppose that is what drives me now! Both the lifting of other people’s spirits and the selfish lifting of my own spirits!”

MUSICAlive! expresses our own continued joy at the return of live music.

“Man, let me tell you the lasting lesson for me of the past 2 years is that there’s not a thing in life that is not better in person! I heard somebody a while ago saying how, so now Zoom and Teams meetings y’know they’ll replace the family gathering! I don’t think so!”

Thank heavens. And KOBO Town!

KOBO Town Current Tour Dates

Apr 7 @ 7:30 pm, Elks Lodge, Red Deer Alberta
Apr 10 @ 7:00 pm, The Artesian, Regina Saskatchewan
Apr 13 @ 10:00 pm, Festival Hall, Calgary Alberta
Apr 14 @ 7:30 pm, Festival Place, Sherwood Park Alberta
May 21 @ 11:00 am, Launch!, Port Hope Ontario

Posted by Carey Rutherford

Author: Carey Rutherford

Swallowed by the mutual loves of words and music (but far too chicken-shit to perform them with a band), Carey’s writing career started slowly as a freelance writer in 2003, starved him nearly to personal bankruptcy until 2008, and changed directions while writing for FastForward, Beacon Calgary, GayCalgary, and Examiner magazines. With the death of many old-school periodicals, and the explosion of musical diversity in Calgary, the modern approach to writing about live music performance in the Calgary region presented uncluttered landscapes for the focussed passion that Carey’s conversations with musicians, drag queens, festival producers and small animals has uncapped. He was moulded by the brilliance of paper-based periodicals old and new (Life, rolling Stone, Swerve! and Adbusters etc.), and sees the info-verse as needing creative, empathetic, but clear-eyed Agents to communicate these performances.

2 Replies to “KOBO Town teaches Calypso Music History in the Cowtown”

  1. NataliaPt says:

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    But my sister fоund nіce mаn here аnd thеу marrіed, ѕo hоw abоut me?! 🙂
    I am 27 уeаrѕ old, Nаtаlia, frоm Rоmanіа, I knоw Еnglіѕh and German lаnguagеѕ аlsо
    Αnd… I have spеcifіc diѕeаsе, namеd nymрhоmanіа. Whо knоw whаt іѕ thiѕ, саn undеrstand me (bеttеr to say it immеdiatеly)
    Ah yeѕ, I cоok vеry tаstу! аnd Ι love nоt оnly соok ;))
    Ιm rеal girl, not рrоstitute, аnd looking for sеrіouѕ аnd hot rеlаtіоnshіp…
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  2. Carey says:

    To quote Harpdog Brown, they “burned the house down!” 8.5/10 for danceability and joy

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