Sunday, March 23, 2014
Reggae in Canada in the Twenty-First Century
The Memberz Reggae Band in Sudbury / 8 February 2014
Adversity, reputedly, contributes to the purification and sharpening of intent.
Reggae in Canada, now. That adversity factor exists in critical amounts. Our prohibitive touring climate, vast size, and a virtual media blackout have long contributed to keeping consciousness of the progress of this great global peoples' music from reaching a receptive but disconnected northern public.
The diminution of Reggae's mainstream significance in general, as distinct from its popularity, makes it difficult to expand on an equal playing field into commercial airplay, although, as we know, much of modern pop derives its sound from Reggae innovations. The dissolution of, and lack of support for bands and Canadian-based artists has discouraged many key players, or sent them off to more hospitable climates. By the 1990's, it seemed as if the entire Reggae conversation was closed.
However, strong performers with a good strategy are still able to take the music to the global marketplace. Exco Levi, for instance, with a regular, song-based output dominates the nominations for annual awards, including this year's Junos. Another Jamaican Canadian, Tony Anthony, does well with Caribbean tours and foreign charts, and native Canadians Dubmatix and Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar have synthesized a reggae-ish hybrid that finds favour with American ears. Artists like Tasha T., Tanya Mullings and Steele also have international fan bases.
Urban centers such as Calgary, Montreal and Toronto are keeping the flag flying with multiple festivals, informed radio programs and record shops.
Recent resurgences by 80's bands The Sattalites and Messenjah demonstrate an initiative towards reviving Canada's once-prolific Reggae Band heritage. And in the mid-2000's, American imprint Light In The Attic put out some definitive early Canadian collections, giving fragments of our recorded history a new life, although most of the featured artists had retired or vanished. Currently, solo artists Otis Gayle, Carl Henry and Jay Douglas are performing and recording regularly, but the community that thrived in the 80's around the crucial presences in Toronto of Leroy Sibbles, Johnny Osbourne, Jackie Mittoo, Stranger Cole, Prince Jammy, Babsy Grange Walker and Ernie Smith is a lost tradition, all but forgotten.
In the provinces, Souljah Fyah of Edmonton, Gentlevirus Reggae in Montreal, and Andru Branch (with legendary Studio One bassist Brian Atkinson aboard) and Keith Mullins on the east coast provide beacons of inspiration for local reggae devotees. But the lack of a national infrastucture keeps them isolated. Major touring outreaches by Toronto acts Friendliness and The Human Rights in the west, House of David Gang in the east and The Memberz in the north keep a crucial live social link open to many communities, but for relatively brief periods of time. As live venues have "dried up", so has interest in Reggae on the part of agents and promoters, in spite of an obviously starved audience.
At the weakest link, publicists fail to generate a broad enough outreach, locally and nationally, whether blocked by the frosted glass wall of the mainstream or their failure to connect with the core Jamaican audience. A routine "multiculturalist" frequency upon which our cultural gatekeepers transmit opinion has doomed Jamaican music to sharing an exoticised category with all things Caribbean. The famous annual Caribana Festival in Toronto exemplifies the dominance of corporate perspective on the public's general perception of West Indian culture. Feathers and skin. What little bits of reportage on Reggae's current relevance that do get through are typically homogenized or synthesized, or flavoured with a bewilderment.
Through this adversity, the hope and the certainty of Canada's long-awaited major contribution to the international Reggae lexicon still survives. And when it arrives, the fact that it has done so against all circumstances and efforts to the contrary will recommend it and naturally sharpen its power. As what may be the free-est country in the world, we are committed to returning to a standard of excellence which will benefit the future of the world's free-est music.
~from Paul Corby, incorporating information from a conversation with Clifton Joseph ~ Toronto Canada 18 March 2014