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.

See for yourself!

Want to compare all three versions of the song?

* Kobo Town’s “Abatina”
* Calypso Rose’s “Abatina”
* Santana’s “Breaking Down the Door”

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.”

If you asked Canadian composers to tell you about the first film they ever scored, few could start their story with, “it takes place in North Korea.” Andrew Yong Hoon Lee can. The Korean-Canadian composer has created the music for Closing the Gap: Hockey in North Korea, a new documentary offering a rare window into North Korean society, as it follows a team of hockey players competing in an international tournament in New Zealand.

“They play hockey in North Korea?” That was Lee’s reaction when he was first asked by the film’s director Nigel Edwards to score the project. “Like most Canadians, my concepts of North Korea are predicated on, essentially, propaganda,” he says, on the phone from New York State, where he’s completing his Master of Fine Arts at Bard College. “Before I committed to the project, I wanted to make sure that this film wasn’t going to be salacious or fear-mongering. But when I watched Nigel’s early footage, I got the sense that he was respectful of the North Korean people, and wanted to bring to the forefront their human stories.”

Lee grew up in Vancouver, where his father conducted a church choir, and played classical music and opera in the family home. He started his first (Nirvana-inspired) rock band in Grade Five, went on to study classical music and visual art, and had an epiphany when he first heard the experimental electronic music of Montreal’s Tim Hecker. “Growing up, I had a distrust of machines making music, as opposed to, you know, playing it live,” he says. “Tim Hecker was kind of my gateway. He made it OK for me to seriously consider musicians who were using computers as their primary instrument.”

The music in Closing the Gap is minimal and atmospheric. The quiet yet expressive score is not unlike the electronic music Lee has previously released under the name Holy Hum, or composed for various audio-visual and sound installation projects exhibited across North America and Europe. For his first score for a narrative feature, he was tasked with a new challenge: a cast of characters that lacked, shall we say, character. Like many raised under the North Korean regime, the hockey players featured in the documentary downplayed their individuality as they competed for the glory of their leader, Kim Jong Un. As a result, Lee and Edwards used music to try to draw out the personalities on screen.

“I had two objectives for the score,” says Lee. “I wanted the music to have a psychological register, you could say. To work on a subconscious level, revealing possibly psychological aspects of the characters. And I wanted it to sound how North Korea looks. When you see the architecture, it has aspirations of the future, but somehow still looks dated. So I wanted the score to sound futuristic, but having a patina of something retro.”

As if creating music for on a film shot in North Korea wasn’t a unique enough assignment, Lee also experienced a rather rare working relationship with the director. He and Edwards spent close to a year on the project, including 10 days together in Lee’s studio in New York. “A lot of the editing choices were actually dictated by this score, which I don’t think is that common,” Lee explains. “Nigel was actually sitting behind me editing the film and I was working on the score. I might suggest extending a certain shot so that it would allow a certain note to be extended, and he was able to make those edits. It’s not the most cost-effective way to work, but we allowed ourselves to experiment.”

 Closing the Gap premiered at the Whistler Film Festival in December of 2019. Lee plans to release the full score this spring across digital platforms, and on vinyl through his independent label, Heavy Lark.

No matter how closed-in one might feel during the saddest winter months, Emerik St-Cyr Labbé’s band is rising on the horizon, and will change everything. Mon Doux Saigneur’s 2017 eponymous debut album was a confrontation, daring us to find where we belong, and find our own meaning in a dense musical backdrop, where vocals sometimes got lost. Horizon is like the light of a summer solstice that illuminates the entire road. We bathe in it, and don’t need to wonder; we know everything will be alright.

“We’ve all noticed how Plume, Félix Leclerc or Philippe Brach write, or wrote,” says Labbé. “I’m somewhere in the middle. I want to tell, in Québécois French, stories about things that are possible here and now, for someone my age, who’s going through what I’m going through.” Labbé strived, on this new project, to be up front with his words, his voice, and his guitar. “I’m grounded in reality,” he says, “but I do allow myself to be a little rosy. It’s always possible to be romantic when you make music.”

His finely crafted wordplay is like a tightrope walker carefully traversing the banality of daily life. “You can’t always be epic or vague,” says the songwriter. “The first degree punctuates the canvas.” People familiar with Mon Doux’s live shows know that he’s keen to change his lyrics on the fly. “The melody is just as important as the meaning of the lyrics,” says Labbé, “and I can sacrifice one for the other, and that’s just as true when I’m composing as when I’m onstage.”

The new album is a testimonial to a friendship forged on the road, both literally and figuratively. Emerik voluntarily created a soundtrack to a road trip with his closest friends. And the road travelled by the band starts from a tragic place and moves towards light and growth together. “It truly is a group thing,” says Labbé. “In 2016, the guys played to accompany me, and learn to play by my side. Now, we’re moving forward together, as one.

“I can’t afford to not choose life,” he says, referencing his father’s suicide in 2016, just as the musician was peaking during the finals of the Francouvertes competition. “I could see that my dad, at 50, was being overwhelmed by a lot of things and he didn’t have the chance I have to express himself through music. He’s the one who enrolled me in guitar classes because he noticed I liked that. When I was a kid, I would listen to Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down. It was far from the blues I play today, but that was how I exteriorized my melancholy. My dad was a photographer, a very silent line of work, that made him interiorize everything. His departure was my reason to say yes to what was coming, yes to the record label, yes to the album. I figured that from that point on, all I could do was make my dreams come true, because I had the tools to let those emotions out of me.”

“Our blues-country-rock talks about the dilemma of choosing between isolation and union.”

Each song is concentrated, with sound that can’t really be de-constructed; everything is divinely in its place. The voice is solidly up-front, while the percussion, lap steel, or guitar fill out the remaining space. Everything is on at the right level. “I do my own backing vocals,” says Labbé, “which means I sometimes have up to four harmonies of my own voice. Nothing beats the human voice. That’s what gives you goosebumps.” As do enthusiasm and intention, according to the singer. “No matter how many instruments there are, everything is right up front,” he says.

The album production and mixing were entrusted, piecemeal, to Tonio Morin-Vargas and Jesse Mac Cormack, and they focused on what was best about each song to create a whole that capitalizes on everyone’s strengths without losing the common thread. “It’s a quilt that makes sense,” says Labbé, who chose Mac Cormack’s more alternative forte, and Morin-Vargas’ roots talents, to allow Horizon to become the expression of his many states of mind.

Labbé’s music evokes a school of thought that’s marginal, but accessible. “Our complaints are complaints of consternation about the choices people make,” says Labbé. “Our blues-country-rock talks about the dilemma of choosing between isolation and union,” he adds, stressing the urgency of trading Netflix for anything that’ll get us out of our homes. “There are many valves through which beauty can be released, and we need to find the one that’s right for us.”

The Horizon rises at the confluence of all the sounds that have marked the spirit of Mon Doux Saigneur’s journey. It makes us want to ride along the same road, without having to worry that the neighbours might complain about the volume. “When I was a kid, we’d listen to pop music really loud in the car,” says Labbé. “My parents would crank the volume up.” Let’s all crank up the volume.


Mon Doux Saigneur Horizon album release, Thursday, Feb. 13, Théâtre Fairmount, Montréal.