Drew Gonsalves may have won the lottery.
When the multi-hyphenate, Trinidadian-Canadian songwriter/musician/academic first wrote the song “Abatina,” that appeared on his group Kobo Town’s 2006 album, Independence, he had no idea it where it would lead. It was a huge compliment when the revered “Mother of Calypso,” Calypso Rose, covered the track on her 2016 album, Far From Home (that Gonsalves co-wrote and co-produced with French global music star Manu Chao). But he may have hit the jackpot when he learned in the summer of 2019 that Carlos Santana would also be recording a version of the song (calling it “Breaking Down the Door”) on his latest release, Africa Speaks.
When Gonsalves first wrote the song, he’d found inspiration from a riff in one of the “old-time traditional pieces that come from very, very early in the music. You know, traditional chants that were sung in the street,” that he’d heard over his years of studying calypso’s roots. “I had taken that and had written a whole story and a song around it,” says Gonsalves. Ten years went by before Calypso Rose (the acclaimed “Mother of Calypso” who, last year at 78, became the oldest performer ever to appear at Coachella), heard and loved the song, and decided to cover it. “It spoke to her personal experiences,” he says. It was her version of the track that caught Santana’s attention. “I’m not 100 percent sure how the song got into Santana’s hands,” Gonsalves says. “I do know that it was the Calypso Rose version of the song that he heard. Our manager Derek [Andrews] got an e-mail from Santana’s manager out of the blue.”
“Our manager got an e-mail from Santana’s manager out of the blue.”
And it turned out that Santana wasn’t the only one whose interest was piqued by the song. Not long after the Calypso Rose version was released (and appeared on a movie soundtrack), Gonsalves recalls that, “I got a letter from the Roaring Lion estate.” Unbeknownst to Gonsalves at the time, the calypso superstar had written and recorded the song back in the 1930s.
“My response was a long, gushing letter back about the Roaring Lion,” says Gonsalves. “It was his son that had written me. His father was one of the most lyrically and musically inventive calypso men whose music I’d loved for a long, long time, so I wrote about that.” Laughing, he adds, “After that I was communicating with lawyers. There was no animosity. I’m sure this kind of thing happens all the time… I was very happy to give credit where it was due. We came to an arrangement that made everybody happy.” Roaring Lion’s real name, Rafael de Leon, is now listed as one of the song’s writers.
While the three versions of the song – Kobo Town’s “Abatina”, Calypso Rose’s “Abatina,” and Santana’s “Breaking Down the Door” – all come from the same source, their styles and arrangements couldn’t be more different. That’s perfectly in keeping with the tradition of topicality and diversity in the sounds and subject matter of calypso music. From its inception, calypso played an important role as a means of political expression. According to Wikipedia, the music emerged when, “slaves, brought to toil on sugar plantations, were stripped of all connections to their homeland and family and not allowed to talk to each other. They used calypso to mock the slave masters and to communicate with each other.”
The original, Kobo Town version is lyrically longer and much darker, sonically, than the other two. It’s about a young and beautiful woman from the lower classes who, to the consternation of her neighbours, marries a wealthy, older man. The people think that she’s lucky and has a wonderful life, but in truth she finds herself in an abusive, loveless marriage that, in the end, turns lethal. Both of the cover versions, though different from each other, are more upbeat, have fewer verses, but still share the same somber subject matter. Gonsalves explains, “For the subject matter, it seems more appropriate to have something brooding and heavy and dark, that captures the sadness of the story more, but taking things that are very sad and serious and making upbeat songs and melodies out of them is totally part of the Caribbean, and especially calypso, tradition.”
As for what impact the good news from Santana’s camp has had on Gonsalves’ career (not to mention his bank account), other than many congratulatory calls from global music peers, he says it’s too early to tell. “It takes a couple of quarters before it shows up in your SOCAN royalties,” he says. “It’s like a scratch-and-win lottery ticket. I’m still scratching.”