Calypso band is bringing more than 'Banana' songs to Thunderbird Cafe
If Americans know anything about calypso music, it's probably Harry Belafonte singing the rustic novelty “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).”
Of course, there's a lot more to it than that.
Trinidad's foremost homegrown musical style is as addictively catchy as any across the musically fertile Caribbean. Yet, under the jaunty tropical rhythms and lingo is a combative, competitive art, where cleverness, humor and political subversion are the coin of the realm.
Calypso started out as a martial art, says Drew Gonsalves of Kobo Town, the Toronto-based band that is starting to raise the profile of calypso in North America. They're playing July 7 at the Thunderbird Cafe.
“Calypso has pretty long history, about 200 years in the making,” Gonsalves says. “Trinidad is an island, ruled by the Spanish then English, populated by French Creole-speaking people who were encouraged to migrate there. Creole reflects the marriage of the African, French and English elements. After emancipation, the neighborhoods around Port-of-Spain swelled with people, who brought the folk-music traditions from plantation society.
“One of the things they brought was a stick-fighting martial art called calinda, which was accompanied by music. When there would be a duel, there would also be a war of words. Someone would sing the taunts and boasts. ... You see the remnants of this in the fearsome sobriquets that calypso singers developed: Mighty Destroyer, Lord Invader, et cetera.”
Gonsalves looks like a typical North American rock band's guitar-slinger — until he opens his mouth. Then the lilting patois of his Trinidadian upbringing takes over. Son of a Canadian mother and father from Trinidad, he moved to Canada as a teenager after they divorced. Calypso was everywhere in Trinidad, but he didn't really start paying attention to it until he moved to Canada.
“It tells the history of Trinidad, all its scandals and triumphs like nothing else,” Gonsalves says. “I started going back every year to visit my father. He took me to Lord Kitchener's calypso tent (venue). The performances really blew me away. There was almost a conversational, pattering relationship with the audience, very topical. Luckily, I had been reading the newspaper and could catch all the references to the minister of education, and so on.”
He was especially amazed to see that some of the public figures who were being skewered and satirized were actually in the audience, laughing and clapping.
“In a way, (calypso singers) are almost like the fool or court jester at the king's court — allowed to get away with saying things nobody else could get away with,” Gonsalves says.
For much of its history, there was heavy censorship of calypso, so its practitioners put a premium on subtle innuendo and hidden double-meanings.
A great example of this was the Andrews Sisters' 1945 cover of Lord Invader's song “Rum & Coca Cola.” They seemed to have no idea that it was about the surge in prostitution accompanying American military bases in Trinidad; it was just catchy and fun to sing.
Calypso also was an important source of news.
“I heard from an old man that calypso singers would ride around in trucks and come by and sing the news, with a lot of gossip and commentary thrown in,” Gonsalves says. “There's one about a sanitation law meant to combat malaria, one about when the Graf Zeppelin flew over Port-of-Spain — which lapses into a reflection about modern technology. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, there were whole albums about that.”
In Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in the world, there's a strong calypso scene — but also every other style of music under the sun. Kobo Town draws from roots, reggae and other music, too. But that's well within the calypso tradition.
“Calypso has always devoured songs from other places, like big-band jazz,” Gonsalves says. “Even in the '70s you can hear a strong disco element. It's very musically adaptable in some ways.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.