The King Alpha Band. L to R: Perry Joseph, Adriian Miller, Jason Wilson, Sam Weller, Rupert Harvey, Vince Reel, Sunray Grennan, Michael Williams, Michael Shapinko, Carl Harvey, Mike Smith, David Kennedy, Marcus Ali.
In the heart of the winter at Todmorden Mills, huddled in the snow-filled valley of the Don River, on the refurbished site of Ontario’s first paper mill, the concentrated forces of Canadian reggae music defrosted some history of their own. VJ Michael Williams, who attained his cultural influence in the golden days when Much Music micromanaged Canadian music, sat on a cozy stage in front of a 12-piece band, reading selections aloud from the chapters of King Alpha’s Song in a Strange Land: TheRoots and Routes of Canadian Reggae. Its title is derived from the classic spiritual chant “Rivers Of Babylon.” Written by the evening’s ringmaster, keyboardist Jason Wilson, the new book details the social and racial confluences that shaped the character of that most magnetic of tropical and topical musics, as it adapted to a new life in the land of snow.
Many of the book’s subjects were there to perform and to listen to performances exemplifying the high-intensity commitment to Rasta music that enlivened urban centers and suburbs during the late 70s and 80s across Canada. Members of Messenjah, The Sattalites, Tabarruk and Twentieth Century Rebels were present to illustrate lively chapters from the big paperback, which was released by UBC Press on February 14.
From the subversion of colonial quadrilles that developed into the frisky acoustic dance rhythms of mento, through to ska and rock steady, which came north on 45s with the initial influx of Jamaican musicians 60 years ago, the pageant of Caribbean songcraft that eventually burst into full-blooded reggae was authentically recreated by the King Alpha Band, an aggregation of A-list Torontonian players, including three horns, three guitars, two percussionists, master drummer Sunray Grennan, Michael Shapinko on bass, studio manager Sam Weller on keyboards, MC Julion (right) and Toots & The Maytals guitarist Carl Harvey (left) playing lead on his trademark Rastacaster.
The Sattalites’ hit, Wild” was revived by Fergus Hambleton (left). He spent the rest of the evening contributing harmony vocals and acoustic guitar, adding extra-special effect to Tabarruk guitarist (right) Perry Joseph’s rendition of Canada’s first international reggae hit “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” sung by Bruce Cockburn and backed by Toronto’s Ishan Band. Sherriff brought Black Slate’s “Reggae Every Time” to life and Messenjah’s Rupert “Ojiji” Harvey rocked out on their pointed anthem of overcoming “Can’t Root Up This Tree.”
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