Concert Review: Calypso Rose at Pop Montreal

By Melissa Limina

The final show of the 2014 POP Montreal festival was held at Little Burgundy, a cozy dance hall in the basement of Saint Michael church. Late-night shows were held here throughout the weekend. The closing lineup was Fwonte & Poirier, Pierre Kwenders, Kobo Town and Calypso Rose.

I arrived at the venue two hours before the doors opened with no real plan for how I would get inside. There were several doors and I could not be sure which one would open. Eventually some gentlemen arrived, speaking of a friend who was supposed to let them into the venue early. We were ushered into the venue by Drew Gonsalves himself shortly thereafter. I recognized him from the promo photos for the event as the front man for Kobo Town. I managed to introduce myself briefly before he fled to the stage for sound check. 

I had never heard this band before, but I was deeply impressed by their sound check. Kobo Town masterfully blended so many types of island music together that I did not quite know what to do with myself. The house lights were up and the floor was empty, or I would have danced. I already felt like a complete dork for being in there so early without any obvious association with bands or venue, so I resisted the temptation to make a lot of noise after each song they played. Instead I remained seated on the mysterious tuffet of giant bean bags in the back corner of the venue, wiggling covertly to myself for the duration.

A bit later, I was joined on the tuffet by Pierre Kwenders. I recognized him from some photos I found in my preliminary research for the show. I introduced myself and made a bit of small talk. He mentioned that he would be releasing his first full-length album on October 14th, Le Dernier Empereur Bantou. I told him I was looking forward to hearing his music. The intervening time passed rather quickly. Soon the doors were open, the lights went down and the show began.

Fwonte is a Haitian native, rapper and lyricist. His name translates to bold or arrogant in Creole. Since I am new to Montreal and I have not started my French courses yet, I felt I was at a distinct disadvantage during this set. My lingual handicap prevented me from fully understanding the content of Fwonte’s lyrics. My attention was therefore drawn to his energy, the satisfying rhythmic and textural elements of his flow, along with the accompanying beats and music provided by a live tribal percussionist and DJ Poirier. Their combined efforts transcended the language barrier and compelled me to dance.

The next set was Pierre Kwenders’ surreal blend of tribal percussion, otherworldly singing, psychedelic guitars and elements of synth-pop. This was truly unique music, the likes of which I have never heard before. As I struggled to classify what I was hearing well enough to describe it, I had a very important epiphany. I began to realize that I might have backed myself into a corner by limiting so much focus to the music of the past. Just because most new music is lame and uninspired where I come from, it doesn’t mean there is not a whole other world of unique sounds to be discovered outside the United States. For all I fail to know, there could be an entire genre of this music out there. I never would have thought to look for it before I heard Pierre Kwenders. I was so mesmerized that I could barely dance.

I was pretty exhausted by this point in the evening. I am not used to going out alone in Montreal, but my partner had work the next morning and there was no way he could make it through a whole late-night show. Such a short time ago I could not go out anywhere without running into a lot of people I knew. Now I do not know anybody no matter where I go. The feeling is simultaneously exhilarating and overwhelming. If not for the sneak preview I got of Kobo Town during sound check and my determination to hear Calypso Rose, I might have allowed myself to call it a night.

My endurance was well rewarded, as the headlining set turned out to be one of the most uplifting live music experiences of my life to date. Kobo Town started off by playing several songs of their own. The crowd came together while dancing wildly to the tightly executed, upbeat sounds of calypso and ska. After a while, the legendary Calypso Rose finally stepped out to greet her adoring audience. What happened for the next hour defies description, but I will do my best. The members of Kobo Town continued to play behind her as she danced across the stage, gradually shedding various garments such as her shoes and ornately embroidered overcoat. She told a story to go with each song. Everyone listened attentively while taking a breather between excited fits of dancing. The air of reverence and respect her presence demanded was palpable, even among the musicians on stage with her. We were all transported to the carnival tents of Trinidad during game-changing songs like No Madam and Israel by Bus. It was clear that nobody in the room would soon forget this experience.

Despite my exhaustion, I was charged enough after the show to walk two miles home without stopping. I felt transformed, healed, and reborn by the various musical experiences of the evening. As much as I would like to have seen a few other shows at Pop Montreal that day, I am glad I saved my energy for this one. It is my goal to learn more about the new music of the world by this time next year so that I can better navigate the long list of performers at festivals to come.