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Kobo Town | Jumbie in the Jukebox

album review by John Powell

Kobo Town | Jumbie in the Jukebox

Calypso had its heyday decades ago with crooners like Harry Belefonte. The 1970s eventually left calypso for other Afro-centric music evolution such as reggae and afrobeat. The fun, head-bopping, dancing joy of calypso never disappeared, however. Any song pulling from the genre will generally have soft drums and percussion, funky bass, layers of guitar, and catchy melodies. In fact, these were the original pop songs, two minutes to get you hooked.

One other thing persisted with calypso, which was the message. Like reggae, while the instrumentation might feel upbeat, lyrically songs can go anywhere. Yes, sometimes they’re simple, (check out the famed “Underneath the Mango Tree”), but groups like Kobo Town have mastered the art of subversion.

Jumbie in the Jukebox is lyrically astute, in fact, being some of the best lyrics I’ve heard on a record in a long time. It’s difficult to write new kinds of lyrics, especially with musical confines like calypso. Granted, Kobo Town also uses roots reggae, dub, and a slue of other musical varieties, but these 12 tracks are politically charged, peppered with sentimentalism, and at times given a chance for pure pleasure.

On “Kaiso Newscast”, the opener, for instance, singer Drew Gonslaves becomes self-aware. “If I had the choice/ I would choose/ to live back when calypso brought the news.” Clearly, Kobo Town knows they are a novelty, not likely found on Billboards top pop hits, but they’re okay being in their own realm. Only Drew can slide in “You will never hear how Bin Laden was seen/ liming with Chavez down by the Muslimeen.” Ouch. Nice job, Kobo Town.

The narrative “Joe the Paranoiac” is funny and sad at once. “They have a satellite watching above his head/ a next camera set up by his bed/ You think Joe would have felt a fool/ when the bomb he found was just a plumber’s tool.” The song is filled with horns, backing vocals, sing-a-longs, and rich with groove. It’s a lesson in hitting heavy topics with light hearts.

That style persists, dropping away only for the quiet “Diego Martin”. Drew isn’t really set up for slower songs. His voice is a bit harsh, wry, and not big on long notes. Still, “Diego Martin” is incredibly sincere. “Diego Martin, I remember/ the smell of sweetbread bloating down from the corner.” Notice, all you songwriters, how specific and forthright lyrics on Jumbie in the Jukebox are. The result is very original art.

The height of the album is “Postcard Poverty”, a meditation on tourists in Jamaica. Kobo Town has a global-to-local perspective, very aware of their culture. Postcard Poverty refers to tourists heading into the town looking to snap pics of “the real people.” “With time to kill and money to spend,” Drew offers, “Come to slum down in the tenement.”

This album hits hard in all the right places. Impressively under the radar, Kobo Town should find its way into your stereo. You’ll enjoy how refreshing it is and appreciate how old school it sounds.

Bottom line: An excellent album that mixes old school calypso with new school politics. Horns, bass, and good song structure. Highly recommended.


 

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