Friday, 12 April 2013

Not so cool in the Great White North: Toronto and the Caribbean Jazz experience¹

Over the Carnival season recently ended, a couple 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 and exalted 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 our musicians who seek favour in the big world abroad beyond the Caribbean diaspora cities.

Kalabash featuring Anthony 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 recently returned to TT after Carnival to perform 2 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. (Full Disclosure: This writer is a producer of the annual Jazz Artists on the Greens, and both Kalabash and Brownman have been featured artists there.)

Their return led to questions of the sustainability of a music career outside of this space, especially a jazz music career. Toronto, for all it’s worth, 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 that 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 and prescribed US, which is genre-defined and has restricts music with jargon terms such as world fusion jazz, ethnic jazz or non-Western jazz.

Brownman and Kalabash represent test cases for our examination of the possibility of our 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 TT: 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 large and 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 (such as 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 that,
...the rise of a successful Canadian ‘scene’, spearheaded by bands such as Arcade Fire...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 policy of multiculturalism describing it as a cult in his book Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada for seeking to preserve the differences of its many immigrants and “exoticizing and trivializing culture.”
Anthony Pierre says that to be relevant and in demand, he has 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. Many Canadians see Cuba through tourist’s eyes and the influence of the native music and rhythms of the growing population of Cubans including musicians seeking refuge and succour in the US’s neighbour to the North is having an impact beyond our Caribbean equivalent. 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 jazz 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 concentrating on live performance while Kalabash’s performances have been focussed on a few cities. The recording opportunities beyond performance remain untapped in this city of potential. The template for a music career outside of TT would need to focus on popular similarities rather than exotic differences.


The attempts to support the shallow pool of local jazz artists has made the production company to which I belong look to the diaspora for new talent. Toronto, Canada is the home to a number of Caribbean jazz artists with commercial recordings reflecting a more mature approach to the industry. Popular TT artists have also made that move north including ShazelleKobo Town, Kerwin DuBois, David Rudder, and Anselm Douglas.

The phenomena of immigration, assimilation and accommodation in Canada—Toronto more specifically—has long been used by modern anthropologists and writers to describe the plight of Caribbean immigrant. Neil Bissoondath has aptly described “the cult of multiculturalism in Canada,” a nationally legislated exercise in social engineering, as “exoticizing and trivializing cultures to create “mental ghettos for the various communities.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has admitted since 2010  that her country's exercise of  multiculturalism has "utterly failed." Trinidad went against the tide of modern history and created a Ministry of Multiculturalism.

Many writers of Caribbean birth make use of the mature publishing industry to their profit: Bissondath, Clare Harris, Dionne Brand, NourbeSe Philip, Rabindranath Maharaj, Shani Mootoo, Ramabai Espinet, the late Harold Sonny Ladoo, all of Trinidad; Austin Clarke and Cecil Foster of Barbados, Olive Senior and Nalo Hopkinson of Jamaica, Richardo Keens-Douglas of Grenada are identifiable authors of multiple volumes carving a space in the Canadian publishing industry.

  1. An edited version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published as Canada a haven for Caribbean musicians

© 2013, Nigel A. Campbell

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