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Race, Rock and Soul

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Issue: 39 Section: Arts Geography: Canada, Latin America Toronto, Jamaica Topics: racism, music

September 6, 2006

Race, Rock and Soul

Jamaica to Toronto raises questions about Canada's pop past

by Matt Brennan

Sept-Arts_web.jpg
Decades after this photo was taken, the music of Wayne McGhie is finally being recognized. This Magazine
The Canadian media has recently been celebrating the release of the excellent compilation Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk and Reggae 1967-1974:, part of a series of re-issues that are single-handedly prompting the rediscovery of a vital era of Canadian soul music. But they should also provoke Canadians to consider why such albums were forgotten in the first place.

The story of Jamaica to Toronto begins in 1962, when Canada changed its immigration laws in an effort to eliminate racial discrimination, an act that led to an influx of newcomers from around the world. Many of them settled in Toronto, including several talented musicians from Jamaica. One such artist was the young guitarist Wayne McGhie, who recorded an album with his band The Sounds of Joy in 1969. By 1970 there were approximately 45,000 people of West Indian origin living in Canada and a unique music scene was buzzing in Toronto, carrying influences of soul, rocksteady, funk, rock and reggae. Unfortunately, despite their talent and previous musical success in Jamaica, many musicians found it difficult to make headway in the North American recording industry, realizing that reformed immigration laws did not necessarily mean discrimination had lessened in other areas of Canadian society.

As Guy Dixon discovered while conducting interviews with these musicians for a recent article in the Globe and Mail, the musicians affected were still understandably sensitive decades later when remembering the discrimination they faced in Canada in the 1960s. Bob Williams, the singer for the group Bob and Wisdom, recalled: "We were making very good money in Jamaica. We were actually the highest-paid band in Jamaica, back in Montego Bay with Billy Vernon and Celestials. So when we came here, to be actually called a minority, it was very tough." As an example, when Bob and Wisdom recorded an excellent cover of Mac Davis' "I Believe in Music" (re-released on Jamaica to Toronto), Williams recalled that, "We actually took it to CHUM [then the dominant top 40 station in Toronto] and the guy told me that he wouldn't play it. I said 'Why?' And he said it was the best version he had ever heard, but he wouldn't play it because we were black. Straight up. So we kind of got despondent about it. And we just continued to do live shows and stuff, you know? We didn't bother with recordings because there was no outlet for it. So it's ironic that after about 30 years, it has made a resurgence."

Apart from the obvious strength of the music itself, the resurgence is mainly due to the efforts of Matt Sullivan, the co-founder of a small Seattle record label called Light in the Attic, and Kevin Howe, a music researcher and DJ based in Vancouver. For years, an album by Wayne McGhie and his band The Sounds of Joy had been sought after both by record collectors due to its rarity (most copies were lost in a warehouse in 1970), and by hip-hop producers due to its excellent breakbeats by drummer Everton Paul. After much investigation and hard work, Sullivan and Howe located McGhie and re-issued Wayne McGhie and the Sounds of Joy in 2004. Its success led to the expansion of the project to include more albums and songs by immigrant Jamaican musicians in Toronto.

It is wonderful to see the media attention devoted to these fine re-issues, celebrating the discovery of Canada's multicultural pop-music past. One would hope it would also prompt Canadian media to consider why such music needs rediscovering. Unfortunately, the same media that currently celebrates the Jamaica to Toronto re-issues simultaneously turns a blind eye to Canadian pop music of non-white origins in its representations of our music history.

As recently as January 2006, CBC-TV broadcasted a special entitled Shakin' All Over. It was billed as a "joyful look at Canadian music from the 60s" and was based on Nicholas Jennings's book Before the Gold Rush: Flashbacks to the Dawn of the Canadian Sound. The documentary purported to showcase not only the usual suspects in the Canadian pop pantheon—Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the Guess Who, the Band and Gordon Lightfoot—but also many lesser-known musicians who didn't necessarily have any chart hits, but who were nonetheless important in shaping Canadian popular music history. Unfortunately, the only pop musicians of colour represented in the documentary were those we already knew: the Cree folk singer Buffy Sainte Marie and "super-freak" Rick James (James himself appeared to be included only as a novelty rather than an artist, due to his brief stint playing in the same band as Neil Young). The CBC documentary should have included any of the dozen Toronto bands that make up the Jamaica to Toronto re-issue series, especially considering the re-issue project started two years before Shakin' All Over came out, and that the documentary was touted as a programme that would uncover and pay homage to forgotten bands.

The forgotten soul, funk and reggae scenes of Toronto matter—or they ought to, anyway—precisely because they create a better, more accurate, not to mention more ethical, revision of Canada's music history, so that we might ultimately better understand how Canadian culture was constructed in the past, injustices and all.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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