by Howard Campbell
TORONTO, Canada – With its long winters and small black population, Toronto seemed an unlikely place for a reggae musician to lay down roots in the 1960s. But that’s just what a handful of Jamaican acts did over 50 years ago, laying the foundation for a community that made an impact on Canadian pop culture.
Jason Wilson, an academic and musician, recaptures Canada’s Golden Age of Reggae in his book, King Alpha’s Song in A Strange Land: The Roots and Routes of Canadian Reggae.
Released by UBC Press in February, it recalls the growth of Jamaican music in Toronto during the 1970s when a number of noted acts including Jackie Mittoo and Leroy Sibbles moved there. It also focuses on the 1980s and early 1990s when the age of live reggae peaked.
Born in Ontario to Scottish parents, Wilson cut his teeth on the Toronto reggae scene in the early 1980s, working with Mittoo and acts like Messenjah. In ‘King Alpha’s Song in A Strange Land’, he recalls his personal and professional relationships with Jamaicans, as well as traces the genesis of the Jamaican presence in Canada.
“This is my sixth book and writing it was a real labor of love. It’s occasionally semi-autobiographical, as I was part of the scene at the very tail-end of the so-called Golden Age of Canadian Reggae. So, in some ways, it has taken a lifetime to formulate my ideas,” said Wilson. “In terms of the actual writing, however, I began putting pen to paper during my PhD and it went through several transformations before arriving at the finished product it is now. All told, it took over a decade from beginning to end,” he added.
The 50 year-old author paints a vivid picture of Toronto, especially in the 1970s when Jamaicans migrated there in droves. Some went to escape the perceived threat of Communism in their country; others took advantage of a tolerant immigration policy instituted by Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
At different stages, singers Alton Ellis and Johnny Osbourne called Toronto home, so did saxophonist Headley Bennett who played on Bob Marley’s first song. Trumpeter Jo Jo Bennett, Mittoo, Sibbles, saxophonist and Karl “Cannonball” Bryan, Trinidadian guitarist Lynn Taitt, and singers Willi Williams and Glen Ricks, lived or continue to live there.
Though he knew many of the artists, musicians and promoters intimately, Wilson had eye-opening moments during his research.
“I was amazed at the number of Jamaican artists that lived – at one time or another – in Toronto. I knew a few of the main players and was fortunate enough to have played with many of them (e.g., Jackie Mittoo and Willi Williams), but it was amazing to discover over and over again another name to add to Toronto’s Reggae Directory!” he exclaimed.
Unlike New York and London, Toronto did not produce any major reggae artist or hit songs. But Wilson, an Adjunct professor of history at the University of Guelph, says the music retains a healthy following.
“There is certainly a strong scene in the city and reggae has left a considerable mark on the way local musicians perform music in Toronto. Still, one laments that there is no longer a central venue, a mecca if you will, which the Golden Age of Canadian Reggae enjoyed in places such as The
BamBoo Club on Queen Street West,” he explained. “On any given night, you could hear Leroy Sibbles, or Jay Douglas, or The Mighty Diamonds, and so on.”