Local Current Blog

Music History Spotlight: Shangoya

Photos courtesy Lance Pollonais

With legendary bandleader Peter Nelson — who some call a local “godfather of calypso” — Shangoya gave the Twin Cities countless nights of dancing and paved the way for many Minnesota calypso and reggae bands.

“There were no calypso bands in Iowa, none in South Dakota, maybe a couple in Wisconsin. But to have steel drums right here in the Twin Cities was amazing,” said Wain McFarlane of Ipso Facto, who played bass for the group in the early ‘80s.

Nelson founded the band in 1972, and kept it going until his death in 2004. Out of respect for Nelson, band members at the time changed their name to Socaholix. Shangoya’s lineup frequently shifted in its 32 years, and featured appearances from folk-rocker Peter Himmelman and Stokley Williams of Mint Condition. Some members went on to play in other local calypso or reggae bands, like Ipso Facto, The Maroons and Innocent.

“A lot of small bands kind of just sprung out of Shangoya,” said the band’s longtime percussionist Lance Pollonais of Innocent and Socaholix. “Shangoya was more or less the solo university of Caribbean music up here. You had to kind of pass through Shangoya and then you went on your own.”

After getting Minneapolis hooked on Caribbean music, the band’s popularity grew nationally as they climbed into their signature green school bus and country. Shangoya also traveled to other countries including Jamaica and Trinidad, and sometimes opened for famous acts, like The Clash. When they were home, they built a track record of packing the room with music lovers.

“It was always high energy. You go to a Shangoya show, you basically come out of there soaked from dancing,” Pollonais said. “You look out at the audience and you see people just lost in the music, and for me that was the high. If you can get someone for just three hours of the day and just forget everything and just dance like no one is watching … that was a big part of the Shangoya experience. For those three to four hours that you come to the show, you just feel free.”

Most of the band’s fans focused on the music and dancing, which baffled bar owners who saw large crowds but low sales, said Cheryl Davidson, Shangoya’s keyboardist from 1974 to 1983.

Sometimes, Nelson would grab a crew and head over to Lake Harriet for informal concerts.

“People would recognize the bus, so once they saw the bus they’d come out,” Pollonais said. “We had a great time. There was a lot of attention, a lot of love going out, it was hippie time.”

The community atmosphere of a Shangoya show likely stemmed from the familial-like bonds between band members. Nelson often cooked dinner after their frequent rehearsals, McFarlane said, and the group welcomed musicians who hadn’t yet learned the ins and outs of calypso and soca, providing a valuable learning opportunity.

“It’s a lesson you can’t get at the university. You jump right in and they play it so fast … You can’t look back, you just gotta get better quickly by the hour,” McFarlane said.

Nelson held the band to high standards, but also was big on encouraging originality from each of the players, Pollonais said.

“Peter had the philosophy that music is in you. and it’s just a matter of how you get it out of you,” Pollonais said. “All the musicians basically had creative freedom to interpret how they thought of the music, obviously with some guidance.”

Nelson was even interested in hearing new members’ approaches on existing songs he had written, Pollonais said. Each musician came with different influences from their own country, and Nelson’s openness to new interpretations gave Shangoya its unique sound.

“He understood that we’re in the Midwest – we’re not going to get authentic musicians all the time, there’s going to be other influences. And I think he was very open to that,” Pollonais said. “It was sort of a Minneapolis sound for reggae and calypso music, because of the influences.”

For McFarlane, the band taught him lessons beyond counting intricate calypso rhythms.

“They taught me to understand folks from somewhere else,” McFarlane said. “They taught me culturally, you have to keep expanding and learn everything in any country. That will make you a total musician.”

Since Nelson’s death, members have held reunion concerts about every five years to honor his memory, and had their most recent one last September.

“Everyone is always willing to come up and participate just to honor Peter, because he really did start the whole Caribbean movement here in the Twin Cities,” Pollonais said.

Jackie Renzetti is a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is a projects editor at the Minnesota Daily and hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”