kobo town
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kobo town

Toronto, Ontario, Canada | INDIE | AFM

Toronto, Ontario, Canada | INDIE | AFM
Band World Reggae




"The Live Music Report"

The members of Kobotown snake their way through the audience to the stage, a parade of musicians such as you might hear in the historic neighbourhood of the same name in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Derek Thorne leads the way beating a drum, followed by bandleader Drew Gonsalves playing cuatro and singing, Linsey Wellman playing saxophone, Cesco Emmanuel playing guitar and adding percussion, bassist Patrick Giunta along with drummer Robert Milicevic, striking steel to beer bottle.

Trouping onto the stage, they take their places while continuing to play. I am struck by how African the guitar sounds. They play a tune for all who have “come here from elsewhere to end up in this room in Toronto tonight.” They move on to another featuring the flute, great syncopated rhythms and a solo using all three congas. After this, flautist (and saxophonist) Linsey Wellman asks, “Do you not feel like dancing tonight?” Exactly what I was wondering, this was rousing music.

The swing jazz introduction to “Everybody Waited For Braxton” came as quite a surprise and turned out to be more than just an introduction as the tune continued to cycle seamlessly between reggae and swing.

“Maybe we could take away some of these chairs,” Drew Gonsalves said. “Get some dancing space.” Then, “ah, maybe you’re thinking, I’ve been waiting all night to sit, I’m so glad I have a chair, what a heartless band.” As they launched into an irresistible calypso piece with a skilful rhythmic soprano saxophone people finally did start dancing.

Drew Gonsalves introduced the next piece talking about the history of calypso, or kaiso as it used to be called. It’s main function was to tell the news. “Better than CNN”, he said. “What would you rather listen to?” It was a vehicle for expressing opinions, for satire and for social commentary and an art form in which a facility with words was at least as important as the music. With that, he launched into an eloquent piece about Bush and the war on Iraq.

Kellylee Evans, who had finished her own show earlier that night joined the band for Kobotown’s “Abatina” with its tragic narrative — “You see Harry was a charmer, no one believed that he could harm her” — “in the end Tina was buried in the yard by the church where she was married” — “now we pray that she will forgive us”. Music to dance to? You wouldn’t think so, but well, there was that hypnotic rhythm.

The evening continued with a pan-Caribbean mix of reggae, rock steady, calypso and funk whose vibrations dictated dance. In the end, very few people did not.

Kobotown’s aim is to carry on the tradition of kaiso, following in the steps of people like the Roaring Lion, Mighty Spoiler, Lord Invader, King Radio and Attila the Hun but speaking to the issues of our times and continuing to add to the musical mix. They are doing an excellent job. - Joyce Corbett

"Garage Music Magazine"

Led by Drew Gonsalves, primary song writer, vocalist, cuatro (a four-string mini guitar) and guitar player, Kobo Town has created something unique, a rarity in today's musical environment fraught with the cannibalism of music styles, little innovation or even creativity.

The show started off with friends and fans milling about Club Midway getting lubricated, or should I say prepped for the show. With the music space in the bar's basement (a concession to the new well-heeled residents of Avenue B) I cringed, since the sound in most places like this is loud, shrill and muddy. All right for generic punk, horrible for anything else. When the band took the stage and started playing, to my surprise, the sound was excellent. It was also clear that this band sounded so good because of touring off their new record Independence. There is nothing like touring to make a band tight.

The show started with "Half of the Houses." Beginning with Gonsalves' voice, the song jumped into a full on roots/dub reggae number. Bass player Pat Giunta and drummer Rob Milicevic laid down a serious Roots Radics-style groove, peppered by Cesco Emmanuel on lead guitar and Derek Thorne on percussion, conga and djembe. As they went through a set that consisting mostly of songs off the new CD, it was clear that between their last visit to New York a year ago and this show, that the recording and touring had turned a good band who played a nice set into an awesome band playing great. After this straight up dub, they went to the other pole of their musical world, the traditional sounding calypso tune "Trinity," a sun drenched island love song that got backs off the wall and started the staid Tuesday crowd moving. "Abatina" followed. This song brought forth more of the group's signature sound, a blend of calypso melody, reggae beats and call/response backup vocals.

By this time the crowd of Kobo Town cognoscenti and newbies was on the floor dancing, unable to keep that somnambulant New York City cool pose. While the show, like the CD, had moments of danceable fun (aforementioned "Trinity" and Higher Than Mercy) the overall theme of Kobo Town is hope and struggle, expressed through music that is both marching strong and grooving happily. The song "St.James" is a signature number for this band, especially live, because it has everything that good about the band. The beat is spacious like the best reggae, but the bass line has the strident macho quality of old school Afro Cuban music - think Cachao (if you don't know ask somebody). Percussionist Thorne played melodic riffs on cowbell and conga drums. Gonsalves' cuatro has a folkloric sound that brings up juice from the music's roots. His vocals have an unaffected power and simplicity reminiscent of Peter Tosh or Barrington Levy.

The lyrics express the rebellious spirit of old and new calypso - and the music of cultural resistence everywhere: "In the pool of our sorrow, in the sea of our wrong / Like a pothound sniffs the ground for a bone / For something thrown away to call his own... / Hope whispers into the air of night ‘brother, haul yuh tail this town is mine'/ St James night is falling down / Like an eyelid closing on the town / The whole place like a boil ready to bus'/ St. James pray for us." "Sing Out Shout Out," which opens the CD, closed the set. Over a classic reggae one drop complete with a bouncing step in the bass and drums and sweet, offbeat guitar, Gonsalves sings the story and history of imperialism and control: "New name new flag same old game while the lucky laugh and the poor endure having lost the will to fight again / Well I remember when we were young and hope was strong." Mr. Thorne was a treat throughout the concert but especially on his show stopping djembe solo and conga work on this song.

Overall, Kobo Town delivered. The tightly and powerfully performed songs possessed cohesion, dynamics and clarity that went beyond the recorded versions, excellent though they may be. And isn't that what we all want from a live show?
- Mark Kirby

"Salt Lake Underground Magazine"

Drew Gonsalves’ brainchild, Independence, has many shining points, even though I was apprehensive to listen to the album from the beginning for fear of hearing the same dub style of the previous year. Diaphragmatic diatribes, melodic firepower and smooth beach acoustic make this record a wholly unique dub/reggae album. This album definitely tackles a new theme outside of the normal subject matter of reggae by mixing so many elements of early Trinidad Calypso, Jamaican Mento, Brazillian Forro and Columbian and Haitian Kompa. Independence is very organic in nature, using every instrument Drew Gonsalves could find for his live performance band, he then added the components to fit in the last piece of the puzzle. The result is a collection of songs that sound warm and human. I was surprisingly impressed. - Lance Saunders

"Global Rhythm"

The members of Kobo Town are a complete cross-section of the Caribbean islands where their musical influences stem from-composed of Trinidadians, a Cuban and a Jamaican (as well as a few Canadians), the group fluidly meshes their West Indian roots to form a new reggae/calypso carnival party. Bandleader and lead vocalist Drew Gonsalves has a perfect reggae voice (more authentic and passionate than either Mishka or Matisyahu), and the group's lyrics tackle Trinidad's turbulent past and present-a subject he's experienced firsthand. Taking cues from Jamaican mento, reggae, and calypso (which was born in Kobo Town, Trinidad), Independence is packed with traditional instrumentation and a joyous vibe. "Sing Out, Shout Out," "Corbeaux Following" and "Blood And Fire" are the key tracks, mixing inventive horns, congas, cuatro and contrabass, led by Gonsalves' energetic and smooth patois.

- Matt Schreiner

"World Music Central"

I sought out this CD on a whim, having read a positive review elsewhere. I expected it to at least be pretty good and am instead pleased to report it's well into the realm of great. A mixture of calypso, reggae and Latin rhythms, the music of Toronto-based Kobo Town scores high marks not only for infectious grooves but for lyrics that are unfailingly both conscientious and clever.

Lead singer/guitarist/composer Drew Gonsalves hails from Trinidad and uses his homeland's 45 years of independence as a jumping-off point for these songs that lash out against oppression and materialism while uplifting self-worth and spirituality.

Gonsalves has a deftly engaging, Caribbean-accented voice that fills every rhythm and rhyme full of urgent yet whimsical energy, riding his band's swinging foundation of bass, drums, percussion, flute, soprano sax, trumpet and violin with graceful conviction.

I'll not bother with descriptions of specific songs 'cause they're all beauties. This disc would likely have made my Top 10 of 2006 had I known about it at the time, so I'll now make up for any oversight by saying that Independence will stir your soul, warm your heart, free your mind and render your body unable to keep still. Kobo Town deserve to be the talk of the town.

- Tom Orr

"Nashville News"

Toronto-based reggae-calypso band Kobo Town, brainchild of Trinidadian singer, songwriter and bandleader Drew Gonsalves, is named for the old Port-of-Spain neighborhood that birthed traditional calypso. Though the band's sound is best described as pan-Caribbean, its inspiration and subject matter have firm roots in the history of Gonsalves's native land, of whose turbulent history he speaks with poetic specificity and force.

In "Trinity" he looks down on the land from an airplane: "Her clothes were torn, and her shirt was all tattered/Her eyes downcast, every hope and joy scattered/Dream of my past, bright memory shattered/but I adore her still 'cause I know that all that don't matter." In other songs ("Abatina," "Beautiful Soul") he focusses closer in, examining the lives of individuals. And in "Blood and Fire" he casts his eye on the wider stage of the whole suffering world: "From Gaza to Jaffna, blood and fire/Soweto to Rio, blood and fire...What must fall to be free, blood and fire."

But Gonsalves and his able eight-piece band couch the messages in bouncing beats that elevate the spirit. Flute and violin lines slither through the clever arrangements; Gonsalves himself handles the guitar and cuatro; and Kellylee Evans contributes some laserlike guest vocals. Fans of Caribbean music, world music in general, and meaningful songwriting should grab this CD when it's released next month - it's a beauty.
- Jon Sobel

"The Live Music Report"

It was cold outside. Winter was getting ready to make her slow approach. The dark streets of downtown Toronto were quiet, on this Thursday night, but inside the orange walls of Lula Lounge, six men known as Kobo Town were welcoming us to the release party for their album Independence.
Bandleader Drew Gonsalves welcomed the enthusiastic crown to "a very joyous night". Roger Williams slapped out a dub reggae bass line intro and a chorus of song erupted as the band played "Half of the Houses". A song that, while not on the CD being celebrated, would set the tone for the night.

The cold streets outside were quickly forgotten. Drummer Robert Milicevic played bare-foot, and guitarist Cesco Emmanuel wore the Trinidadian football jersey of the past summer’s World Cup tournament. The song featured vocals and Emmanuel's guitar playing a sweet sounding game of call-and-response. This was old-school reggae, Bob Marley himself would have been proud to hear Kobo Town play.

The next song turned up the heat even more. "Trinity", a bubbling calypso, was played at a faster tempo than the version on the album. Percussionist Derek Thorne beat congas and Linsey Wellman added a passionate flute solo. Emmanuel's guitar was turned up and bright as the Trinidadian sun, as Gonsalves sang to us the skilfully written story of his return to his native land.

Roger Williams' pumping bass line along with drummer Robert Milicevic's tempo introduced "Abatina". While it's difficult to choose just one, this is a favourite piece on the CD. The violin of the recorded version was replaced by a melancholic melody played by Wellman on the soprano saxophone. The sax melody embodied the sad tale of Tina, who was married off to a man that did not deserve her. Kellylee Evans' vocals were missed, but Wellman made up for it with some vicious soloing on the saxophone.
Gonsalves who alternated between tres and cuatro from song to song, dedicated "Higher than Mercy" to the people who inspired him, particularly his father-in-law. Then another song not found on the CD, the incredible jazz/ska-infused "Everybody Waiting for Braxton" turned up the intensity. The group on the dance floor grooved a little harder, Wellman attacked his flute with fervour, and Emmanuel's guitar solo was brilliant.

"Sing Out, Shout Out", the song from which the album title Independence is drawn, was next up. This was a roots reggae rocker. The live treatment was like a 12-inch extended version of the album version and featured another frenzied solo from Wellman, this time on his soprano saxophone.

As if the crowd wasn't having enough fun already, Gonsalves pulled out a calypso sing-a-long about a fictitious character, Henry Marshall, who meets a tragic end. As the crowd was taught their lines, "made up their mind and they want to take his life", Gonsalves joked that no Trinidadian accent was necessary, but it would be an asset. Then we were instructed to sound more like an angry mob. Despite the morbid lyrics, this song was a lot of fun, a real party song.

Gonsalves was hospitable enough to survey the crowd, asking how many of us had to go to work the next day, and how many wanted to stay out and party all night. With that in mind, the band took a short break.

The second set started with Gonsalves alone on stage with his, playing the comedic "Yankees on the radio" (no offence to any American present). This was the story of Gonsalves’ recent trip back to Trinidad where he was disturbed by the Americanization of his country's media, "You may sound like a native in New York City, but you sound like a jackass in Trinidad." The rest of the band joined in near the end of the song, to help on the chorus. Then they launched into "Blood and Fire" a song with an infectious chorus, and addictive guitar riff, a driving bass, funky drums, and some super sax.

As the show went on, Gonsalves and the band became more and more animated. The flute and guitar traded riffs on the extended intro to "Beautiful Soul", which was another fine example of Kobo Town's live treatment of the songs from the album. The dramatic "St. James” followed, which featured a great acappella breakdown.
One of the most fun songs on the album, "Corbeaux Following", was saved for last. Gonsalves' lyric writing is powerful throughout the album, but on this song they are downright profound, and it was a shame that they got lost deep in the mix during the stage performance. Near the end, the band broke the song down and the band members were introduced, each doing dazzling solos in turn, before the song returned with its Creole call-and-response ending. Then Emmanuel put down his guitar and picked up an empty beer bottle, and started to play a beat with a spoon on the bottle. Milicevic followed suit, as well as Williams. The band paraded off stage Wellman continuing to play his soprano sax, Gonsalves on tres, and Thorne playing djembe followed those playing beer bottles into the crowd while continuing the “Corbeaux Following” melody.

The band danced and played in the crowd of dancers in front of the stage before ending the song, and the night. Eventually the warmth of Trinidad faded as we walked out into the frigid night air of our frozen city.

- Tony Shivpershad


Independence is one of those rare records that you will encourage everyone in your vicinity to get. Merging calypso, roots reggae, acoustic performance, dub studio techniques and Trinidadian/Jamaican cultures, Kobo Town is a unique, stylistic, transnational composite of rhythm, poetry and activist journalism. Like the great Calypsonians of his birthplace in Port-of-Spain (Lord Kitchener, the Mighty Sparrow), Toronto-based songwriter Drew Gonsalves constructs incisive social commentary with humour, panache and unforgettable rhythm/melody combinations. Take the jumpy, Carnival-ready “Trinity,” or the moody tale of murder and deception, “Abatinaî,” which are songs of dense graphic and musical description, and cut bone deep into the listener’s subconscious. Likewise, the dancehall-inspired “Across the Dark Waters” and the lazy Kingston skank of “At the Edge of the City” fuse inter-Caribbean sounds, histories and moods in an altogether formidable package. Independence is somewhat of a concept album, recorded between Trinidad and Ontario, of a diasporic son coming to terms with the home country and falling in love with it all over again through the eyes of his new home. Don’t be surprised if you too fall in love with Kobo Town.

What does the name Kobo Town signify? Drew Gonsalves: I named the project Kobo Town as a tribute to the place that helped give birth to calypso. It was the centre for the stick fighting art called Kalenda and there was a lot of rhythm and singing involved while people were jumping around and beating each other up. Calypso grew out of the boastful taunts that people used to sing around the circle of stick fighters.

Do Calypso fans tend to be purists? Well, you find a lot of people that would call themselves Calypso purists have made a peace with the drum machine I could never make! Our fan base is really mixed actually. I’d say about half is West Indian, but we also have college students, the world music crowd and the reggae audience.

Can you tell me a bit about your approach to writing lyrics? One of the things I try to do in my own songwriting is to engage [the] imagination by building songs on stories and/or images. Politically conscious music often gets tied down into abstract phrases and words. Like, for example, what does liberty mean? It could mean a hundred things to different people. The best way to relay a message is to tell a story or present somebody with an image. It is something they can smell, taste and imagine.
- Brent Hagerman


Intoxicating calypso rhythms held straight with a reggae backbone is the best way to describe this Toronto based group's sound. Incorporating instruments like the flute, quatro, violin, saxophone and Indian hand drums, Kobo Town have created their own sound that glides on a musical wave.
Set against a backdrop of social want and need, the sense of urgency heard here makes you want to stand up and be heard. Songs of pride, hope, and an ability to see beauty in troubled times. "Independence" shows how music can be the voice of the people and that the message always rises from ashes. One of the most beautifully intelligent releases...ever!
- Monk' Picks

"Eye Weekly"

WHO Kobo Town


WHEN Thu, March 8, 10:30pm, Trane Studio

WHAT THEY DO Prove that there's more to calypso than Harry Belafonte's grinning. Kobo Town draw on sounds from across the West Indies such as reggae and ska, but their primary goal is to restore calypso to its rightful place as Trinidad's sly and satirical rebel music.

HISTORY Drew Gonsalves left both Ottawa and Outcry, his previous band, with a hankering to incorporate the traditional music of his native Trinidad into dub and reggae. In Toronto, he found other Trinidadian expats and started performing; Kobo Town is now a nine-piece band with a flautist, a tightly wound rhythm section, assorted percussion and Gonsalves' cuatro, a four-stringed instrument similar to a guitar. Last year, they returned to the cradle of their music – the group's name refers to the turbulent section of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where calypso was born – and cut their smouldering debut, Independence. The disc translates early calypso's coded attacks on imperialism into the modern era, tackling evils from commercialism (“Beautiful Soul”) to spousal abuse (“Abatina”). Of course, it wouldn't be Caribbean music if it didn't make you want to tear up a dancefloor, and knock back a rum punch or six.

WHAT EFFECT DID PRODUCING THE RECORD IN TRINIDAD HAVE ON THE MUSIC? Drew Gonsalves (lead vocals/cuatro/guitar): “We were working with Lyndon Livingstone, one of Trinidad's great producers, who has a deep understanding of kaiso. His studio in Maraval is something of a creative oasis for Trinidadian artists, and their presence offered much in the way of encouragement and good advice.”

HANG ON, WHAT'S KAISO? DON'T YOU PLAY CALYPSO? Gonsalves: “In Trinidad, the terms are synonymous. However, for some, 'kaiso' refers more specifically to traditional calypso, while 'calypso' often includes newer developments like soca and rapso.”

TORONTO CROWDS ARE NOTORIOUS FOR GIVING BANDS THE SCREWFACE AND NOT DANCING. HOW DO YOU WIN THEM OVER? Gonsalves: “Trinidadian rhythms are quite infectious... I dare say, irresistible. We sit back and let them do the work.”

IF YOU COULD JAM WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? Gonsalves: “The late Growling Tiger, the lyrical and melodic genius of '30s and '40s calypso. Whether he's singing about an unfaithful wife or the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, his lyrics always attack the topic with wit and hard truth.”

OF THE 500 BANDS PLAYING CMW, WHY SHOULD PEOPLE GO SEE YOU? Gonsalves: “There will be much worth seeing at CMW, but if one is interested in sampling a fresh and novel take on a deep and rich musical tradition, we promise to deliver.”

- Dave Morris


Jumbie in the Jukebox, 2012. Cumbancha Records.

Sound of the World Presents: Beyond the Horizon, 2008. Warner.

Independence, 2007.



Kobo Town has emerged in recent years as one of the most original artistic voices of the Caribbean diaspora and one of the grooviest touring bands anywhere. Founded and fronted by emigre Trinidadian songwriter Drew Gonsalves, an engaging storyteller whose songs draw heavily from the lyrical inventivess of early calypso, their music has been described as a unique, transnational composite of rhythm, poetry and activist journalism.(Exclaim!)

From their home base in Toronto, Kobo Town has brought this distinct calypso and dub inspired sound to festivals, clubs and theatres across North America, Europe and the Caribbean, and their live act has thrilled audiences from Port-of-Spain to London and from Vancouver to Berlin. While Gonsalves' songs betray a deep interest in Caribbean folk music, the band delivers them with an energy, intensity and attitude more akin to indie rock, earning them a considerable audience beyond the niche of world music enthusiasts and calypso fans.

Independence, their much-acclaimed debut album was released in 2007. Recorded between Trinidad and Toronto, it was nominated for an Indie, a Canadian Folk Music Award award and Folk Alliance Award. It recieved frequent spins on the CBC, BBC and community stations on both sides of the Atlantic, and it garnered praise for its strong lyricism as well as its traditional instrumentation and joyous vibe.(Global Rhythm)

Gonsalves grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in Diego Martin, a town just outside of Port-of-Spain. In his early teens, a bitter family breakup brought him and his family to Canada where he sought solace in music during their awkward and difficult adjustment to a new life. Music was both a bridge and safety cushion for me, he recalls, at first it was comforting to surround myself with the sounds of my home country - which I missed very much and to whose identity I clung very tightly - but as I started to write and perform it gave me the opportunity to be engaged with my new community on many levels - intellectual, social, political, artistic. Oddly, in those early years, singing about Trinidad helped make Canada feel like home.

Ironically, it was sifting through bins of old records in Ottawa's second-hand stores that Gonsalves rediscovered the music of Trinidad and became enamoured with old time calypso. On following trips home to Port-of-Spain, he frequented calypso tents where he was captured by the wit and humour of the songs and the energy and cleverness of the calypsonians. Calypso was the music that spoke not only to us, but like us, he explains, it was full of gossip and innuendo and addressed every topic under the sun from every possible angle. Political songwriting can get so self-righteous and dour, and it was always refreshing to hear it done with a laugh and a smile.

The influence of this satirical storytelling tradition can be heard in Gonsalves' own songs which have been been praised for lyrics that are unfailingly conscientious and clever.(World Music Central) Good storytelling carries the listener into the tale, he muses,it puts flesh and blood and a face on the bare skeleton of a social trend or historic event it uncovers the human element behind the reports and statistics. Despite the formidable groove of the band, this impulse to unveil the human side of a story is at the heart of Kobo Town's music, which Gonsalves insists is ultimately about the importance of stories told and retold, of experiences sung and sung again.

Kobo Town's upcoming album Jumbie in the Jukebox was recorded between Trinidad, Belize and Canada with Ivan Duran, the celebrated and award-winning Belizean producer whose work with Andy Palacio and Aurelio Martinez helped reshape Garifuna music, giving it a far-reaching contemporary voice. Duran brought a fresh and inventive approach to Gonsalves' songs. I brought the words and tunes, Ivan brought the dirt and the depth, he recalls, during our first session at his studio in Belize, he placed an old barely-playable electric guitar in my hands and it changed our sound completely. In the sessions, he was always pushing for us to find the right intent for the songs, to create the right mood, to stick to the roots and do the unexpected at the same time.

Kobo Town's Jumbie Sessions took place in basements, living rooms, front porches and studios and the result is an album which is at once brooding and joyous, dark and captivating, intensely poetic and highly danceable. Its songs have been described as a pithy combination of social commentary, dubwise soca and calypsonian wit(Village Voice) a fitting mix for a record that aims to raise up the spirits of the Caribbean's troubled-yet-vibrant past and fire them at the world.

The album will be released worldwide by Cumbancha Records on April 23rd and the band is getting ready for a tour of Europe and North America in the summer of 2013.

Band Members