We Be Jamminâ€™ â€” And More
SASKATOONREGGAE AND WORLD MUSIC FESTIVAL
The Saskatoon Reggae Festival celebrates its fifth birthday this year — but The Saskatoon Reggae and World Music Festival is kicking off its inaugural year.
Confused? Don’t be — organizers are simply marking the occasion of this year’s festival with a slight name change, to better describe what this cultural bonanza has now become.
“I wanted to celebrate other cultures,” says festival founder and organizer Oral Fuentes. “Reggae is a coming together, and what better way to celebrate the richness of our culture than to welcome other cultural groups?”
The event started as nothing more than a set of Caribbean and Latin parties held at the Odeon in 2005, but it quickly grew in popularity and into a full-blown festival. Fuentes (who’s been a familiar name in Saskatoon’s music scene for some time now) simply wanted to celebrate Caribbean music — not to compete with the city’s already-established festivals, but to complement them, while showcasing artists from Canada and abroad.
It’s certainly been working — his passion and perseverance have begun to put Saskatoon, of all places, on the Canadian reggae/world music map, which is usually associated with larger urban centres that have a higher Caribbean and Latin population. Let’s face it; Latin-styled, sun-drenched music and steel drums are probably the last thing most would associate with people on the prairie — yet fans are flying in from all over Canada (and other parts of the world) for this family-friendly event.
This year, the festival is expanding once again, though Fuentes is understandably cautious about growing the event too quickly.
“Our festival is still growing,” he says. “We are still taking baby steps to the elevator. As you know, this is our second year outdoors — we’d been indoors for a while. But man, so many people and artists now know about the festival. We get applications from all over the world, and last year we had around 60-plus people from out of town, not counting the many others who came out to the various events around the city.
“This year, I don’t know how many as yet, but I know that there are people coming from BC and Alberta for it. It’s exciting when people are already planning their holidays around the festival.”
As always — but especially now that “World Music”has been added to the festival’s title — the event will feature a wide range of performers playing various styles of music. This year there’s a bit of a focus on prairie acts — but even within that, you’ll still see musicians from all over the world.
“We have K.K. Nogueira from Brazil,” says Fuentes, “Errol Blackwood from Jamaica, Joseph Ashong from Ghana and myself from Belize. Although the festival’s main focus is on reggae acts, we want to also celebrate world beats and the music that reggae has influenced — so also performing is Eekwol with [her] strong aboriginal hip hop [flavour] and Mobadass with their unique ‘island rock’ sound, for example. We also have the Saskatoon Caribbean Steel Band ringing the tunes of the islands.”
Considering his heritage, it’s probably only natural that Fuentes is so enthusiastic about such a wide range of musical styles. His homeland of Belize is a country in Central America with a diverse culture, one that encompasses many languages and forms of music. Formerly known as the British Honduras, it’s the only country in Central America where English is the official language — but the people of Belize also lay claim to the cultural facets of Caribbean and Latin life.
Because of the influence of British rule and slavery, the culture of Belize — and by extension, their music — took on many unique forms; from the xylophone-heavy songs of the Mestizo to the often satirical Kriol music (a.k.a. Belizean Creole), which came from loggers and is often played with drums, a banjo, and a donkey’s jawbone, the country can boast a wide array of styles.
“Music from Belize is a mixture of African and Creole rhythms,” says Fuentes, whose own act will be playing at the Rotary Park main stage on August 14th. “The African beat, ‘punta rock’ was developed by Pen Cayetano, a Garifuna [descendant of African slaves and Carib Indians] from Southern Belize — the Garifuna came to Belize from St. Vincent. The Kriol’s beats and folk songs stem way back to the early settlers of Belize — the buccaneers and pirates, the English, and African slaves. In recent years, this style of Bram music became known as ‘brukdown,’ which was made popular by Creole Wilfred Peters.”
There are a variety of instruments (and donkey bones) used in Latin music, but one of the most recognizable instruments you’ll see at the festival is, of course, the good old steel drum.
“The steel pan, or steel drums as they are called [are a unique instrument],” says Fuentes. “Although the Saskatoon Caribbean Steel Band has been playing at Folkfest for years, it’s still a different instrument for this part of the world.”
African drumming and dance performances will also be part of the festival, occurring at the River Landing Amphitheatre on the 12th. As well, there will be salsa performances and all manner of artistic workshops, giving attendees a unique opportunity to really dig deep into the excitement of the event and the techniques involved in some of the music and dance.
“The drumming workshop and performance will be by master drummer Joseph Ashong,” says Fuentes, “teaching and dazzling the audience with his unique style of West African drumming. Festival-goers will [also] get to see a mixture of Caribbean, African, Reggaeton, salsa and hip-hop dances — and dance lessons will also be at River Landing on the 12th.”
There’s also great news if you’re a fan of awesome food from around the world. The event — like any cultural music festival worth its salt — will feature eats that sound truly brilliant. Caribbean fare, basically, is another reflection of their diverse culture — an amalgamation of the cuisines of Africa, Britain, Spain, India, and other regions. One of the key ingredients is Jamaican jerk spice, which sports a deliciously spicy flavour that sort of reminds you of Louisiana Creole food.
What does Fuentes recommend?
“You must try the barbeque jerk ribs,” he says — no ifs, ands or buts.
If music, food, drum lessons and dance aren’t enough for you — well, you’re weird. Still, how about film as well? The festival and The Broadway Theatre are showing the movie Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, a documentary about a music festival that also delves into the golden age of Jamaican music, featuring some legendary artists from the days of the Rocksteady music movement.
“[The artists] come together after 40 years to record an album of their greatest hits,” says Fuentes, “and to perform together again at a reunion concert in Kingston, to tell their story. The film will show the development of reggae music.”
There’s a lot of excitement building for the festival, which might explain why it has seen steady growth over the last few years. Jim Balfour, singer of local reggae outfit Natural Mistik, thinks that it all goes beyond the music and fun to a place that honours both individual people and humanity as a whole — and while Fuentes may be too modest to say so himself, Balfour makes it very clear where he thinks the credit for the festival’s success lies.
“The full credit for the reggae festival belongs with the commitment and hard work of brother Oral Fuentes,” he says. “He is truly a person who puts the caring for our community and his love for music above all other interests. At one time, I played in Oral’s band, and I know that we share the vision that it is the ‘positive vibration’ which helps humanity grow stronger.”
The festival has a lot of room to grow — and one of the ways Fuentes hopes it will do so is by becoming a way to harness the power of youth. He has some big plans for the event in the future — many of which involve more brother- and sisterhood in regards to the numerous other festivals that dot Saskatoon’s summer scene.
“My desire is to link our festival with other festivals here in Saskatoon, working even closer together. I also want to see a cultural exchange happen — not just artists coming here, but we want to send and support artists to visit other countries. Saskatoon is growing and loves cultural music — music that feeds the soul and moves the body.So I’m not surprised, just thankful, for the many people that are supporting us by coming out to the festival and enjoying the different performers.”
Saskatoon has had plenty of success stories in the music world (hello, Northern Pikes and Wide Mouth Mason) — but in a town this size, it’s still truly exciting when a local band looks poised to take a shot at the big time.
For many observers, Mobadass — the funk-rock project founded by Earl Pereira — is right at the top of any list concerning Saskatoon bands most likely to get the notice of both audiences and industry types. Even better: they’re almost ready to release a new album.
“We’re literally in the studio right now, recording the follow-up to our first record,” says Pereira. “It’s essentially an evolving sound, even though we’re keeping reggae as the sound we launch off from.”
Since their inception in 2004, Mobadass has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of Saskatoon’s top party bands — but their popularity certainly isn’t limited to their hometown. Mixing high energy retro-funk with world beat and reggae flavours, the multi-instrumental band has toured across Canada several times, and played numerous festivals.
These days, Pereira is happy to report that the band finally has a solidified line-up — one which is bringing new energy to the project.
“The key for me was to make Mobadass a more legit and serious project — I think [it’s always] looked that way to the public, but behind the scenes it’s been musicians who have busy schedules and can’t always play,” he says. “Things are now falling into place perfectly. [Our new] keyboard player I met completely serendipitously when I was on tour with Wide Mouth Mason — he was part of an opening act in Ontario, so I ended up stealing him away. And the guitarist is from Trinidad-Tobago — he came here to help out at a studio, and it just so happened that he was perfect for the band with his style of playing.
“The ideas I have in my head are sounding better with these players, which is really fun for me,” says Pereira.
Although the band’s first album, Island Rock, garnered plenty of accolades for the group, Mobadass seemed destined to be a side project for Pereira, who also holds down bass duties in Wide Mouth Mason. But with the release of the new album, Pereira says the band is pushing hard for success — and gearing for up their most ambitious period yet.
“It can be hard to make something a priority when you have another band,” he says, “but there isn’t really anything stopping me from bringing this forward to where I want it to be. We’re definitely doing another tour right away, and we want to spend a good chunk of time on the West Coast. We want to make Los Angeles our headquarters, especially during the colder months.”
L.A.notwithstanding, Pereira is also looking to create more of a presence for Mobadass right here at home.
“I want to be more active in Saskatoon, especially since we took about a year off from playing here since last summer,” he says. “And now we can re-establish ourselves with the new line-up and new songs, so playing the Reggae Festival was the perfect opportunity for that.” /Chris Morin
Spotlight: Dr. J
Dr. J (a.k.a. Jason Armitage) is a familiar name around town — as a local DJ, you might see him throwing down a Friday-night set at 6Twelve Lounge, for example, and as a radio host you’ll hear his show Expansions on CFCR Community Radio, where he spins a wide array of old school funk, boogie and hip hop.
Along with the above, Dr. J. has a passion for reggae — to the point where he’s heavily involved in an underground event called In Rasta We Trust, which happens a few times each year.
During the Reggae and World Music Festival, he’ll be playing a mix of styles, looking to please a wide audience consisting of both experts and neophytes. Here’s betting he’ll pull it off — because Dr. J’s record collection is vast, and includes a mix of popular and uber-obscure artists.
“I try to bring a unique mix of classic roots reggae fused with modern roots and dancehall styles,” he says. “For the most part I try to stick to playing vinyl, though it’s getting harder to buy reggae on vinyl these days.”
With such a diverse group of people attending the festival, knowing what to play at what time is an important skill — and one that Dr. J has honed through years of local and national DJ gigs. Ultimately, his choices aren’t made simply from the look of the crowd — instead, they’re made from the vibe of the room as his show progresses.
“I tend to bring a wide spectrum of music to shows and let the mood dictate what I play,” he says. “Typically, mature audiences lean more towards the roots reggae, while younger crowds navigate towards the energy of the dancehall stuff.”
Between his DJ work and radio show, he’s already a busy guy — but as a true audiophile, he’s also working hard at developing one of the most unique undertakings Saskatchewan has ever seen.
“I’m in the midst of developing a travelling display [and] store called the ‘Analog Museum,’ which will feature everything from vintage audio equipment to collectibles and rare music memorabilia. I’ll be launching things sometime in September, and can’t wait to see people’s reactions!”
For now, Dr. J is focused on playing the Reggae and World Music Festival — which he says is a great help in growing Saskatchewan’s reggae scene.
“After having helped promote the ‘In Rasta We Trust’ reggae parties in town for a number of years now,” he says, “it’s nice to see things develop to the point where a full-on reggae festival can see the light. There’s a definite market in Saskatoon for reggae, and my hat goes off to the promoters for bringing something new to Saskatoon. Saskatoon’s music scene continues to build and diversify.” /Craig Silliphant
Spotlight: Natural Mistik
Natural Mistik may be decidedly pasty in terms of what we expect reggae musicians to look like, but make no mistake — these guys are serious about their genre, taking pride in both honing their chops and reaching back through history to understand the music they love.
The band came together in 2002, jokingly referring to themselves as “Rasta-prairians” at the time. The downside to that, however, was that they felt they were being viewed more as a novelty act, as opposed to serious reggae musicians — so they tightened their sound, found some unique tracks to cover and spent time with Jamaican musicians, to dig deep into who they are and why they do what they do.
“In each of the past two years,” says Natural Mistik singer Jim Balfour, “I’ve spent a month in Negril, Jamaica, and have been fortunate to meet a number of Jamaican musicians and been invited to perform at many different venues. I have to say that I’m living a dream; [some local people were even] calling me ‘White-Bob’ and ‘Pin-can-mon,’ [which stands for] Pink Canadian, mon.”
Natural Mistik describe their sound as anchored in the roots of traditional reggae — a throwback in a time when much of reggae has evolved into “dancehall” and “lover’s rock,” styles where instruments like synths provide the fills.
“I enjoy that music,” says Balfour, “but Natural Mistik prefers the classic ‘one-drop,’ with a full horn section providing the melodic and harmonic fills. We also play a few songs in rocksteady and ska style, which were forerunners to reggae. I agree with an acquaintance of mine from Jamaica, who recently told me that good reggae brings meditation and peace of mind.”
Though Balfour generally comes up with the starting point for their songs, he’s quick to cite the rest of the band for using their formidable skills to bring life to the tunes, creating interesting and appealing arrangements.
“An excellent reggae band begins with the rhythm section,” he says, “and Brent Burlingham is amazing on drums, as is Lloyd Tomczak on bass. Geoff Assman keeps the pulse on keyboards, [and] guitarist Blair Finley rips off amazing solos throughout any given show and is always in the groove. Our beloved horn section has well-known musicians Sheldon Corbett on sax, Don Griffith on trombone, and Shaun Dyck on trumpet and vocals, and jazz vocalist and musician Gillian Snider assists with lead and back-up vocals.
Reggae is a strange animal: the songs make you feel like dancing, but lyrics often touch on the darker side of humanity — themes that on the surface don’t seem to lend themselves to party time. But Balfour doesn’t see this as a contradiction — instead, it’s simply a set of principles that inform the music that he loves.
“The roots of reggae music come from the people of Jamaica and their struggles to survive, and of course, these struggles are universal and they are shared as a community at Reggaefest. As a friend once said to me, reggae has important things to say, but with a happy beat to make happy feet, and you can be certain that everyone will share the joy of the music. You have to dance to reggae, and that’s my favourite part of Reggaefest. Let’s be jammin’ and dancin’, mon!” /Craig Silliphant
Saskatoon’s hip-hop scene is a seriously interesting place these days — oozing with raw talent, and featuring many performers who seem poised on the cusp of major success. Indeed, despite being far removed from any major urban industry, Saskatoon’s MCs and DJs are commanding the attention of local and international audiences.
In many ways, everyone else in the scene can thank Eekwol for that.
Eekwol (aka Lindsay Knight) has long been offering a unique and spirited vision to Saskatoon’s hip-hop and activist scenes. As an aboriginal performer, Knight has consistently put equal weight on both her flow and her politics, something that’s always set her apart.
And she’s versatile, too — despite working mainly in the world of hip-hop and stripped-down beats, Knight believes her upcoming gig at what is predominantly a reggae and world beat festival is entirely appropriate.
“This is definitely a good thing,” she says. “There are a lot of similarities between hip-hop and reggae, and there are a lot of artists who tend to combine the two really well.”
Traditionally, both genres of music tend to feature political overtones, meaning the Reggaefest should provide Eekwol with an excellent platform to share her beliefs. And though her local performances have tended to be few and far between lately, Knight has definitely been doing a lot of that while touring across Canada, albeit with a crucial difference in her travelling entourage from previous years — the addition of her young son.
“This summer has been crazy with me,” says Knight. “I’ve just been doing a lot of traveling with my son, as well as whoever can come along and take care of my son while I perform.
“Motherhood is enhancing my style, although my son is at that stage where, if I’m performing, he gets jealous and wants to go out too,” she adds with a laugh. “He doesn’t really talk, but it’s like he can rap because he has that rhythm or cadence. Both my husband and myself are musicians, so he’s definitely surrounded by that — although I guess he could grow up to be an accountant, and we’d have to respect that.”
Although she’s loving her family responsibilities, Knight remains a performer at heart — and as her recent, absolutely incendiary gig at the 2010 Ness Creek Festival proved, motherhood is in no way slowing her down musically. Best of all, while parenthood has obviously necessitated a few lifestyle changes, she promises we certainly haven’t seen the last of Eekwol — either onstage or in recorded form.
“I’ve slowed down with a lot of the late night shows, because it’s obviously gotten a lot harder to get out,” she says. “I guess my focus has been more on the activist side of things. I’ve always seen the importance in performing and talking about social issues and being a part of change in any way I can, so I’ve been giving lectures at university classes, and I’ve toned down on the bar shows.”
“[But] I’m working on a lot of new music — and I’ve been playing guitar a lot more, even though I’ve been too scared to perform with it,” she laughs. “But I definitely have a lot of new songs to play.” /Chris Morin
Ever since it was developed in Jamaica during the 1960s, reggae has typically combined fiery social commentary along with highly danceable rhythms. It’s an effective mixture — which is why, although the formula hasn’t changed much ensuing decades, bands like Edmonton’s Souljah Fiya are playing to packed houses across the country.
They’ll also play pretty much anywhere, says vocalist Janaya Ellis, who says the five-piece group’s live shows are all about pushing the current popularity of the genre even higher.
“We’ve played for close to 10,000 people recently, but we will still play for 60 in a club,” says Ellis. “We love playing at festivals and the diverse audiences that it brings — it’s a good chance to show people who think that they don’t really like reggae that there’s something in it for everyone.
“It’s always a lot of energy and sweat and jumping at our shows,” she says. “It’s usually a really positive experience, and everyone leaves feeling uplifted and charged.”
Souljah Fiya first began playing in 2001, and released several albums, including their last album, Truth Will Reveal, in 2008. Along the way the group picked up several awards – they were nominated for a 2009 Juno Award, and won the 2009 Canadian Reggae Music Award for best band – in addition to garnering plenty of airplay on CBC radio.
Although the true strength of the band is in their live delivery, according to Ellis, Souljah Fiya also pays homage to the genre with the inclusion of both politics and personal lamentations in their lyrics.
“Truth Will Reveal is about different social matters,” says Ellis. “But we will have a new album coming out very soon. We parted ways with our guitarist from the previous album, but that hasn’t really been reflected on our songwriting. We are really lucky to have our new guitarist. The new album will still keep that approach, with socially conscious lyrics and a positive outlook. Hopefully it will showcase our growth as a band, but to our fans it will still be the same Souljah Fiya.”
With the passion the display in their craft, Souljah Fiya are clearly part of the larger entity of reggae music – a fact duly noted by fans of dancehall and other forms of music that have taken their cues from Jamaica.
“Life influences us creatively,” adds Ellis. “There aren’t a lot of other specific influences other than the things that go on around us.”