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Canadian author looks at reggae's history in Toronto

Observer senior writer

Sunday, March 15, 2020

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AS a musician, Jason Wilson has been part of the Toronto reggae scene for over 35 years. During that period, he became a student of reggae which more than qualified him to write King Alpha's Song in A Strange Land: The Roots and Routes of Canadian Reggae.

Released in February by UBC Press, it is Wilson's sixth book and maybe the most comprehensive focus on reggae and Jamaican culture in Canada's most populous city.

An adjunct professor of history at the University of Guelph, Wilson is a protégé of Jackie Mittoo, the Jamaican keyboard wizard and arranger who lived in Toronto for over 20 years. He began playing in reggae bands in the early 1980s and rubbed shoulders with many of the musicians who helped develop reggae in Toronto.

Describing the book as a labour of love, Wilson shows how reggae helped to make Toronto the cosmopolitan mecca it is today.

“We can say, without fear of contradiction, that the central nerve of Canadian music has nearly always resided in Toronto. When Jamaican migrants brought their music with them to that city in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they forever changed the musical landscape of that city, and therefore the nation at large,” Wilson told the Jamaica Observer.

“By the late 1970s and early 1980s, reggae had become an expected part of Toronto's working musician's vernacular. You were, as a Toronto musician, expected to be able to play reggae music whether you were of Jamaican heritage or not. That had a tremendous effect on the way ALL music was played in the city thereafter.”

Wilson notes that the Toronto reggae scene is not as pronounced as its Golden Age of the 1970s and 1980s. But he credits the work artistes and musicians like Mittoo, Jo Jo Bennett, Karl “Cannonball” Bryan, Leroy Sibbles, Lynn Taitt, Glen Ricks, Ernie Smith, Messenjah put in for helping to craft contemporary music in Canada.

“It impacted and continues to impact Canadian pop, from Bruce Cockburn's hit Wondering Where The Lions Are in 1979 through to our time in Drake's formidable canons,” he said.

Sibbles was an established member of The Heptones when he moved to Toronto in late 1973. He played bass on Wondering Where The Lions Are, a massive hit for Cockburn in Canada and the United States. Drake has not only incorporated dancehall into some of his biggest hits, but worked with Jamaican producers and signed Popcaan to his OVO Sound label.

Through King Alpha's Song in A Strange Land, Wilson projects a vivid scene of the Toronto landscape when reggae pioneers like trumpeter Jo Jo Bennett arrived there in the late 1960s. There were not many Jamaicans there, but with the arrival of Alton Ellis, Mittoo, Taitt, Sibbles, saxophonist Headley Bennett and Willi Williams, a vibrant colony developed.

They lay the foundation for acts like Ricks and Messenjah to secure deals with major American labels in the 1980s. Leading Canadian festivals also fielded reggae artistes and the Juno Awards, Canada's version of the Grammy Awards, added a reggae category in 1985.

Even then, reggae in Canada never exploded as it did in New York, Los Angeles or London. Wilson explains why.

“There were a few reasons for this. First, while Canada had a number of big international stars during this time (eg, Anne Murray, Rush, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell) most of these artistes had to find success elsewhere, either in the US or in Europe. In reality, the Canadian music industry, such as it was, simply didn't compare internationally,” he said. “Britain, for instance, could also boast a larger number of reggae champions from within its own mainstream. Canada may well have had Bruce Cockburn, but England had artistes such as Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, The Stranglers, The Pretenders and many others who made it their mission to offer indigenous British reggae artistes a helping hand. These relationships helped make bands like Steel Pulse and UB40 household names in Britain. Finally, which is perhaps the most difficult notion to wrap one's head around, is that the Jamaican community in Toronto was not as supportive as it might have been of Toronto's own, home-grown, Jamaican-Canadian reggae scene.”

Jason Wilson's latest album, Sumach Roots, was released in January.

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