Last update: 11-Dec-2013 3:58 am
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Los Cumbancheros come to town
With none of the hype or fanfare associated with celebrity music artistes, two men who are contributors to and creators of some of the best sounds in world music slipped through Port-of-Spain last week to join the National Geographic Explorer on a voyage down the coasts of Venezuela, the Guyanas, Suriname, Brazil and Argentina.
The T&T Guardian was fast and fortunate enough to pull off an on-the-wing interview with Jacob Edgar, founder and president of the Cumbancha label and one of the Cumbancha artistes, singer/songwriter Trini-born Canadian resident Drew Gonsalves.
San Francisco-born Jacob Edgar is one of those rare individuals who has made a successful career out of his passions— for travel and roots music.
In his multiple roles as head of Cumbancha, music researcher for Putumayo, host of TV series Music Voyager and guest speaker on National Geographic Expeditions, Jacob travels frequently, in his continuing search for exceptional music.
After an MA in ethnomusicology at UCLA, he joined the fledgling world music label Putumayo as lead music researcher and talent scout, a position he still holds. Putumayo, through its series of compilations, was responsible for making world music accessible to a global audience eager for authentic sounds.
In 2006, wanting to concentrate on artiste development, Edgar founded the Cumbancha label.
Cumbancha (Afro-Cuban slang for “an impromptu gathering or party,” which sounds very close to the Trini lime) launched with Watina, an album which has since been voted “the Best World Music album of all time.” Watina brought together the Belizean Garifuna spokesman, cultural activist and former Punta Rock star Andy Palacio and the multi-generational Garifuna Collective on an album originally produced by the Belizean arranger/musician/Stonetree Records founder Ivan Duran. The project was close to Edgar’s heart—reviving Caribbean folkloric and roots music by using modern arrangements, traditional as well as electric instrumentation to take the music “in new creative directions.”
Edgar had been captivated by the music of the Garifuna (Black Caribs exiled from St Vincent by the British in 1797, who subsequently settled on the coast of Honduras, Belize and Ecuador) when researching in Costa Rica.
He licensed songs from Andy Palacio for Putumayo after hearing him on tour in Canada. He laughingly admits to playing conch shell on Watina, which he exclusively licensed from Stonetree, to give it the benefit of the marketing and distribution his Putumayo/Cumbancha networks offered.
Edgar capitalises on contacts he’s made in the music industry, as guest speaker on National Geographic Explorer voyages and, since 2009, as host of the TV series Music Voyager. It was a partnered voyage with Amnesty International and a meeting with one of Amnesty’s directors that resulted in his signing the amazing Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, survivors (some of them amputees) of just one of the horrendous civil wars which have plagued West Africa in recent years.
Edgar’s enthusiasm for the upcoming cruise down the South American coastline was infectious. He rhapsodised about Belem, hotspot of harrada—Brazilian surf music—and carimbo “Country music goes techno,” a Brazilian equivalent of the blisteringly exuberant Afro-Colombian fusion champeta.
Among other hotspots he’s visited recently he highlighted Sao Tome and Principe, islands off the coast of West Africa, which share common colonial histories with the Caribbean, as does another Creole enclave, Reunion Island, home to weather reporter/singer Yael Trulles, whose mix of Reunion traditional music “with a zouk swing” he’s a fan of.
Besides Drew Gonsalves, who has found an ideal niche as a Cumbanchero, Edgar may extend his T&T repertoire with an album from Calypso Rose next year; not entirely surprisingly, as Rose has rightfully been elevated to the rank of World Music Diva, joining such luminaries as the late greats Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz and Cesaria Evora.
Edgar comes across as a benevolent champion of the best in music, one who’s prepared to support and develop talent wherever he finds it.
“I have successful artistes, but there are others who require support. I’ve been trying to create a brand for me, which is to be a conduit for others to become as passionate about the music of the world as I am. My ultimate goal is to make people look at their world and realise that music will help them understand it better.”
Calypso from Canada
Understanding his Caribbean world and roots is central to Gonsalves’ music. Nephew of local producer/musician Johnny, Gonsalves is founder and leader of the Toronto-based Kobo Town band, whose second album Jumbie in the Jukebox , with its eclectic mix of classic kaiso, roots reggae and Caribbean folk “run through a 21st-century filter” has been garnering rave reviews both stateside and in the world music press.
Born in Trinidad to a Trini father and French-Canadian mother, he left the island abruptly with his mother in 1989 at 13, when his parents separated, and has been based in Canada since. Like many of his peers in Trinidad of the 1980 (including the Rojas brothers, with whom he played briefly), for him calypso and soca were merely a faint backdrop to the heavy metal and hard rock he was into.
Although Kitchener lived up the road from him in Diego Martin, “I wasn’t interested.”
“I discovered kaiso in Canada,” he recalls and the discovery was a transformative experience in the process of resolving identity issues precipitated by his sudden departure from his birthplace.
“I had no contact for a while. It was an awkward age to move to a new country and I had a hard time adjusting.”
As a reclusive adolescent he began reading Caribbean history and was knocked out when a Grenadian friend gave him some tapes produced by the People’s Cultural Association of T&T. “Those kaiso songs told the story of T&T like nothing else.”
He was also deeply impressed by “the cleverness of the singers, their sense of humour” and began collecting second-hand albums by Lion, Terror and Growling Tiger, while admitting that Mighty Spoiler is his especial horsey.
His first trip back home when he was 18, was an epiphany.
“My father took me to Kitchener’s Revue…I was blown away by the cleverness and wit of these calypsonians and their interplay with the audience…from that point on, calypso was always on my mind.”
As the lyrics of Kaiso Newscast, the opening track on Jumbie in the Jukebox, put it:
“If I had the choice I would choose/To live back when calypso brought the news…
“Kaiso don’t use jargon or doublespeak/To put the truth beyond your reach/
“No more big words to bus’ your brain/Even the weatherman would be talking plain…
“And we don’t need no picture from outer space/To tell we what going on in front we face…Kaiso better than Fox News or CNN/Because calypso don’t pretend/To inform without comment/Or separate fact from argument….”
While studying classical guitar and visiting the calypso tents on every trip back home (he also took cuatro lessons from Robert Munro) Gonsalves started writing his own calypsoes.
In 2004 he formed Kobo Town, a band named for the now vanished area on Port-of-Spain’s waterfront which was the centre of kalenda, the stickfighting and singing culture, a major source of early kaiso.
Jumbie in the Jukebox, released earlier this year, is the result of a four-year collaboration with Ivan Duran of Stonetree Records in Belize, where some of the recording was done.
Gonsalves can thank Edgar for the initial introduction, which has launched him as a coming Cumbancha star. Duran and Gonsalves share a common interest in paying tribute to the musical heritage of the Caribbean by taking it into the future, maintaining the spirit (and spirits) with a living and evolving tradition.
Gonsalves mentions Jamaican mento, Barbadian tuk and Guadeloupean gwo ka as formative influences along with Cuban son montuno and its greatest exponent, El Ciego Maravilloso –Arsenio Rodriguez.
Jumbie in the Jukebox has drawn comparisons with British Two Tone band The Specials, Neil Young, Sparrow and even Belafonte. But in truth and fact, it’s original, like all good music.
Gonsalves jokingly refers to his music as “bastardised calypso”—but it’s true to his life experience of being both “inside and out” of Trinidad. His lyrics certainly combine verbal wit with trenchant social commentary; you won’t hear any of the froth of contemporary soca, but you will be stirred to dance —and think—and laugh.
For Edgar, watching audience response to Kobo Town, “The response has been unexpectedly good in Europe. They’re amazing to watch live with their multi-generational appeal. Drew has the rhythm of the spoken word when he sings.”
By tapping into the Caribbean’s multiple heritage with a contemporary rooted expression, Kobo Town’s reception in the wider world proves both the beauty and relevance of what we have in the region but have neglected in favour of fickle fashions and the mirage of commercial success.
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