Ottawa Writers Festival: Random Play spins tunes for literacy

Drew Gonsalves and Kobo Town will be be taking part in Random Play, an Ottawa Writers Festival event on behalf of children's literacy.

Drew Gonsalves and his band Kobo Town, don’t get a lot of requests to take part in fundraisers and benefit concerts. But whenever one comes along, he’s happy to take part. He knows the role music plays in community building.

“Any charitable benefit request we get, we do. But we aren’t asked as often as you might think. It’s always a good cause and the folk who come out to support the cause are always welcoming.”

So, on June 6, Gonsalves and Kobo Town will join with CBC Radio’s Alan Neal and performers Lydia Ainsworth, Basia Bulat, Kathleen Edwards and Tom Wilson in Random Play an Ottawa International Writers Festival event on behalf of children’s literacy.

Random Play started some six years ago as a result of a request asking Neal to pull together a songwriters’ circle.

“I was having a hard time coming up with a theme,” Neal said in an email. So he thought he’d just hit random on his iPod “and ask the first people who come up.” The lucky winners were Jim Bryson, Kellylee Evans, Hilotrons and The Acorn. Next push of the button landed “Jenn Grant, Madonna, Michael Penn, this old Wayward Wind song,  a song from the Dallas soundtrack and this Aquaman radio play. It’s a weird iPod, I know.”

The random play list ruled and, in the first event, he got some folks to cover the songs not by locals. 

“It was fun … chaos, but fun nonetheless.”

Random Play does take a lot of research tracking down the songs and the writers, the producers and “the people who worked on it in whatever era it first emerged. It’s amazing to see what you can find out, and often people are quite surprised to be asked,” Neal said.

Every year, the event sees 10 songs performed by artists ranging from Tanika Charles, Craig Finn of the HoldSteady, Rose Cousins, Iskwe, Elliott Brood, Lynn Miles, two members of The Children, Rich Aucoin to Hannah Georgas.

This year it’s Gonsalves’ turn. (You’ll have to attend to find out what Kobo Town will play).

Random Play is coming just as he is about to head into the studio to record a new album. The last, Where The Galleon Sank, was released about two years ago to a fair bit of acclaim. At about that time, Gonsalves and his regular producer Ivan Duran, along with Quebec based musician Manu Chao, worked with the legendary Calypso Rose on the album, Far From Home, that has become a bit of a hit. 

“It took a lot of time in the middle to work with her. It’s turned out to be a great experience for me that’s for sure. She is a pretty inspiring person to work with and quite a character.”

He does tour with her now and again in Canada and the U.S. and does the odd show elsewhere including a gig in Trinidad, his birthplace.

He had met her at festivals and at radio stations so the two were acquainted when her manager contacted Gonsalves and Duran about working on the record. It went so well they have just finished working on a second album which is expected out soon.

The music Gonsalves plays is rooted in the Trinidadian tradition of calypso even though so much of his life has been lived off-island, including in Ottawa as a teenager. But in Toronto, he has connected with the Trinidadian community there and that has strengthened those musical ties.

“I feel inside and outside that scene. Trinidad is the birthplace of calypso and it is a place where a lot of great calypso is being written and sung but it is a much more marginal presence” today as the scene is diversifying with the sounds of dance hall and soka and everything else.

Still, “calypso is very much alive. I hope the huge international success of Calypso Rose has shown people there is a wider scene open for the music around the world far beyond” what it may seem, he added.

Calypso is a major inspiration on what Gonsalves does, along with ska and reggae and old school dance hall.

“Even at the beginning my music had a hybrid quality to it. I listened to all sorts of music and that ends up influencing what I write.”

Calypso does have a lot of things that appealed to Gonsalves. “I enjoyed the narrative and the storytelling aspect of it and the sense of humour in it. I also liked the way it could be serious but not take itself too seriously. I found that very endearing in a very infectious and bouncy and joyous way.”

Even though this Canadian’s music is often lumped into the ‘world music’ category, he’s not bothered.

“The business creates the category. I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves as a world music artist. People have their their genres and their sub-genres and their genres that can only be described in a paragraph. But I do understand the term is for the audience.

“Nor can I begrudge something that has brought music to audiences around the world.”

He settled in Toronto, he said, because “I lost the fight (with his wife) about where we were going to live.” And now he’s been there some 16 years and has four children aged six to 15. So he won’t be moving anytime soon even though some members of his band call Ottawa home.

“I’m really glad for any event that brings me back to Ottawa,” he said, especially if it allows for a tour of the Gatineau Hills.

In about a month, he’ll be in the studio with the band. He has a roster of songs ready to go. The working title is Carnival of the Ghosts, which is a title of one of the songs. It’s about a parade of the dead who all have something witty to say to the songwriter.

The songs are all kind of tall tales, he said. He expects the first single to be released in the fall and the album out for the new year. It will be on Duran’s Stonetree Records label which has studios in Montreal and in Belize, a place Gonsalves has recorded.

Ottawa Writers Festival presents Random Play
Host Alan Neal. With Lydia Ainsworth, Basia Bulat, Kathleen Edwards, Kobo Town and Tom Wilson
Where: Christ Church Cathedral
When: June 6 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.