Canada a haven for Caribbean musicians


This article by Nigel A Campbell appeared in Trinidad’s Guardian.

Over the recent Carnival season, two Trini expat jazz musicians resident in the Great White North of Canada—Toronto, to be exact—returned home for sustenance, vacation, and creative idyll.

Anthony Pierre, founder of Caribbean jazz outfit Kalabash, and Brownman Ali, multiple award-winning trumpeter, informally “pressed the flesh” with local musicians and fans, both outlining their plans for 2013. Their common experience in Toronto is one that can set a template for local musicians who seek favour in the world beyond the Caribbean diaspora cities.

Kalabash, featuring Pierre, has just finished recording a new CD—its second in 12 years—and is shopping it around to the summer jazz festival promoters as it seeks to get back into the active jazz performance scene after a quiet 2012.

Brownman is the epitome of a busy musician, performing close to 200 dates per year when not also teaching and doing workshops.

He returned to T&T after Carnival to perform two small gigs with top jazz drummer Sean Thomas and bassist BJ Saunders as a trio, exploring modern electric jazz, originally defined by Miles Davis after his Bitches Brew period.

The return of Pierre and Ali led to questions about the sustainability of a music career outside of this space, and especially a jazz music career.

Toronto seems to be a haven for the Caribbean migrant seeking fortune in the creative industries. Caribbean-born authors have found commercial and literary success there.

Canada has been described, in recent times, as post-ethnic and trans-cultural, so the idea of Caribbean-born musicians playing jazz, influenced by their homelands, to an eager market there is not unreal.

It is a more open-market than the introverted United States, which is genre-restricted and defines music with jargon terms such as world fusion jazz, ethnic jazz or non-western jazz.

Brownman and Kalabash represent test cases for the examination of the possibility of local musicians making a space in the crowded global music market.

Organised music markets like Canada have the range of commercial opportunities in recording, music publishing and live performance with supporting legislation, corporate structure and high levels of subsidy to enhance and stabilise them.

Too often, locally-based musicians decry the conditions and the business environment here in T&T: low levels of copyright infringement prosecution; low local content played on broadcast media; minimal promotional opportunities outside of Carnival; fewer venues for live performances; high production costs, low prospects of return on investment, based on all of the above.

As a sector of the creative industries in Canada, the music industry there has yielded some of the biggest artists on the planet across multiple genres: Celine Dion, Justin Bieber, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé, Drake, Shania Twain, Nickelback, to name a few.

The ease of entering the lucrative US market from Canada is surely a plus compared with the nearly improbable task of exporting to Canada from the Caribbean.

Its mandated quota system, CanCon (Canadian Content) seems to allow for easier access to radio airplay by small and diverse niche acts. Acts including Brownman and Kalabash, as well as Caribbean jazz outfits like CaneFire featuring Trinidadian pannist Mark Mosca and Grenadian-born keyboardist Eddie Bullen.

Scott Henderson, writing in Popular Music Journal in 2008, noted:

“The rise of a successful Canadian ‘scene’…demonstrates the impact of policy in creating a national music culture that is confident enough to no longer have to be explicitly Canadian, either sonically or lyrically.

“CanCon regulations would appear to have aided in situating Canadian acts comfortably within a wider music culture within Canada.”

Theoretically, that may be the case, but stories vary among nationals there.

Music industries are difficult to manoeuvre everywhere. The subjective nature of popularity varies from locale to locale. The idea of an all-encompassing multicultural Toronto has not ebbed despite the apparent difficulties in breaking non-pop music from there to everywhere else. Trinidad-born writer, Neil Bissoondath has bashed the official policy of multiculturalism in his book Selling Illusions: The cult of multiculturalism in Canada, for seeking to preserve the differences of its many immigrants and “exoticising and trivialising culture.”

Anthony Pierre says to be relevant and in demand, he had to modify his sound from a calypso-based fusion—influenced by his apprenticeship with Carlton “Zanda” Alexander and his Coalpot Band, then resident in Toronto in the 1990s—to a more Cuban-based one.

The growing population of Cuba’s musicians in exile in Toronto may be affecting tastes in the city. Audience and festival programmers are determining what works, and Kalabash needs to work.

Brownman leads a variety of Latin-jazz ensembles. He markets himself as being from Trinidad, yet avoids melodies or rhythms from this island.

His lengthier immigrant experience renders him neutral to niche market genres, and points him towards what sells: hip-hop and Latin jazz. He says he just plays jazz! Even within this calibrated music market, the exotic is “gentrified” to irrelevance.

Ultimately, Toronto is a less commercially competitive music market than LA or New York, but the minimal gains of Caribbean-born artists in all genres in terms of wide commercial appeal define a pattern in North America of native appeal superseding foreign and more so foreign-sounding music.

“Someone else’s local music” is never enough. Multiculturalism, be damned!

Brownman is a constantly gigging globe-trotting musician while Kalabash’s performances have been focused on a few cities.

The recording opportunities beyond performance remain untapped in this city of potential. The template for a music career outside of T&T would need to focus on popular similarities rather than exotic differences.

For the original report go to

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