The first time I saw Kobo Town was a summer 2007 concert in Nuremberg’s Katharinenruine, an outdoor performance venue carved from the remains of St. Katharina cloister, the legacy of Allied bombing in January 1945. The setting was an apt one for the spirit of Kobo Town, which casts a critical eye on the cultural and socioeconomic ruins, now writ globally, of the European colonial adventure in the New World.
Singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Drew Gonsalves is a native of Trinidad transplanted as a teen to Canada, where he studied history and in 2004 founded the band in Toronto. Inspired by the Kaiso tradition of such definitive purveyors as Neville Marcano “Growling Tiger” and Calypso Rose (with whom Gonsalves and the band have collaborated), Gonsalves pens most of Kobo Town’s material. Carnival of the Ghosts, the band’s fourth release, delves more universally than its predecessors into the metaphysical vein that runs through all the ensemble’s work. As Gonsalves relates in the album notes, "While much of my writing has been inspired by the history that has shaped the Caribbean and its diaspora, leaving its marks and scars in all our manners and doings, this album takes a wider look at our human condition—here the lingering past is not just beneath the surface of the present, it is also something we are all quickly becoming part of."
As the anthropologist Sidney Mintz presciently observed, the human condition as it evolved in the Caribbean gave rise to the world’s first truly modern peoples, shaped as today’s world has been by ubiquitous violence, involuntary displacement, subjugation, and the predatory drive of global capitalist accumulation. Produced, recorded, and mixed by Stonetree’s Ivan Duran, supported by key figures from the Garifuna Collective of Belize and Honduras, Carnival of the Ghosts underscores the fleeting nature, carnivalesque vanity, and illusory character of the human endeavor.
Take “Hidden Hand,” which might be read as invoking Adam Smith’s "Wealth of Nations" and its critique of extreme free market economics:
The hidden hand is the ghost of the age
The hand that holds the pen that writes the lines on the page
That holds the scripts and directs the play
That waves the actors on and off the stage.
But it might also be read as reference to the Masonic hidden hand, invisibly guiding human history with satanic intent. Either reading lends itself to the proliferation of conspiracy theories that hold we “Shades of the Living” (the album’s opening track) in thrall, a vision of humans inhabiting a ghostly individual existence with no sense of greater purpose or communal belonging:
Everyone is an island in a sea no one can name
On that silent journey through the underground.
Likewise, the album title track presents the singer’s “dreadful dream” of awakening at carnival after fainting to “the spirits of the dead come out to play.”
But quoted song lyrics cannot do justice to the inspired musicality and ethical purview of Carnival of the Ghosts, which brings equally to mind the realm of hungry ghosts encountered in various strains of Buddhism, humans less than fully alive, tormented by unfulfilled desire, envy, jealously, and greed under the inevitable shadow of mortality. As well this work recalls the Greek myth of Tantalus, whose fruited tree eludes his grasp while the water in which he stands recedes whenever he attempts to drink. “Along the Way,” the closing song observes:
We have been clawing
scratching at our cage
we wore ourselves out wrestling
with the spirits of the age… let us step outside the madness.
As Anne Bradstreet, the first published Puritan poet and free thinker from the New World colonies might have put it, Gonsalves and Kobo Town conjure an orphic force and remind the listener of the vanity of all worldly things.
A live video recorded in 2020