“If I had the choice I would choose,” Drew Gonsalves sings, “to live back when calypso brought the news.” The song is “Kaiso Newscast” from Kobo Town’s terrific new album, “Jumbie in the Jukebox.”
Gonsalves’s Trinidadian dialect, his plinking cuatro (a four-string mini-guitar), Jan Morgan’s plunging trombone and a variety of island percussion conjure up a time when calypso — or “kaiso,” as it was sometimes called — was a kind of journalism that used metaphors and double entendres to get around Trinidad’s censorship laws.
Gonsalves’s lyrics carry on that tradition, whether he’s singing about petroleum dollars assaulting the island’s capital like a hurricane or death penalty laws sending an innocent man to the gallows. But Gonsalves also extends the possibilities of calypso by shifting from poetry-as-journalism to poetry-as-reverie.
The song “Half of the Houses,” for example, describes a trip to his home town, where he discovers that many of his old neighbors have emigrated to North America, just as he had. He addresses the socioeconomic dimensions but then veers off on this tangent: “When we dream, time and space collapse / Memory brings us back to those long lost hopes and forgotten joys.”
“Youth is a land that we all leave,” Gonsalves, 38, says by phone from his home in Toronto. “It’s a different kind of immigration. Time makes movers of us all.”
Gonsalves grew up near the Trindadian capital of Port-of-Spain when the legendary calypsonians Lord Kitchener and the Mighty Sparrow were still active, but he was more interested in American rock-and-roll. It was only after his Trinidadian father and Canadian mother split up when he was 13, and his mother took the family to Canada, that he became interested in island music. When he returned to Trinidad at 18, his father made sure they visited a “tent,” the local term for a calypso venue — one of the original bamboo shelters or a concrete nightclub.
“My father took me to Lord Kitchener’s tent,” Gonsalves recalls, “which was a sweltering trade-union hall. A band backed up all the different singers, and there was an MC who heckled and taunted the audience. I felt really glad that I had read the newspaper the day before, because there were so many political scandals, and I was able to pick up on the passing references. I heard this particularly raucous laughter from one corner, and someone said, ‘Yeah, that’s the minister he’s singing about.’ ”
After that visit, Gonsalves started buying Caribbean records and persuaded his rock-and-roll band in Toronto to try a few calypso numbers. He began writing similar songs and soon gathered musicians from Toronto’s West Indian community and recorded the 2007 album “Independence” as Kobo Town, named after Corbeau Town, a waterfront neighborhood in Port-of-Spain. He continues to visit the island every year.
“Ever since I left, I’ve had an insider-outsider relationship with Trinidad,” Gonsalves says. “It’s an experience a lot of people have when they move. The culture that they come from stands out more in contrast to the one they’ve come to. In my case, I’m grateful for my situation. Sometimes you have to stand apart to get a better perspective on something. A lot of our better writers from the Caribbean — V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Sam Selvon and Pauline Melville — have lived abroad in the diaspora. They are able to point out the painful truths we can’t see ourselves.”
It took Gonsalves a long time to write songs for his second album, this year’s “Jumbie in the Jukebox.” He worked with Belizean producer Ivan Duran, best known for his work with Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective, who persuaded the singer to peel away the overdubbed guitars and horns to expose a lean, wiry sound. For all its traditional roots, however, Kobo Town plays a very different kind of calypso than the band’s heroes.
“The album has a lot of departures from calypso the way it is and the way it was,” Gonsalves says. “I listen to a lot of different things and they weasel their way into the music. I hear bits of Gil Scott Heron and Django Reinhardt. . . . I love poetry, whether it is T.S. Eliot or Derek Walcott, Gerard Manley Hopkins or the Jamaican dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. I tend to lean toward poetry that has form to it, because I like songs.”
The album’s final track, “Tick Tock Goes the Clock,” drops allusions to Eliot, Walcott, Hopkins and Johnson in its epic reworking of the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
“Let us go now, you and I,” Gonsalves sings, paraphrasing Eliot. He takes us to the Port-of-Spain plaza, “where words abound, surround, confound, a thick cloud of empty sounds”; to the New York stock market, “where at the sound of the bell the hollow men yell”; and to a British park where Johnson is declaiming through a megaphone “like a wolf in the dark.”
This is not his father’s calypso.
“In a lot of political songwriting, that self-righteous quality puts me off,” Gonsalves says, “but calypso puts these dark verses with these manic, jumpy rhythms and bright, major-chord choruses. The humor in calypso prevents self-seriousness. And that often results in the writer being able to loosen up and be more honest about oneself.”
It’s that combination of rhythm, humor, looseness and honesty that makes “Jumbie in the Jukebox” such a major achievement.
Himes is a freelance writer.
at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, 2700 F St. NW.
Show starts at 6 p.m.
202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. Free.
Also appearing Monday with the Garifuna Collective at Tropicalia, 2001 14th St. NW. Doors open at 7 p.m. 202-629-4535. www.tropicaliadc.com. $15.
For a sampling of Kobo Town’s music, check out:
From “Jumbie in the Jukebox”: “Kaiso Newscast” “Joe the Paranoiac” “Half of the Houses”
From “Independence”: “Corbeaux Following” “St. James”