Sounds of history: researching black music in Canada

On Thursday, black musicians of all stripes — from gospel to hip hop — will begin converging at York from across the continent to participate in a unique three-day conference about black music in Canada. They aren’t coming to listen to academic papers. They are coming to make history. For the first time, they will sit down together at roundtables and talk about their music, and their conversations will be videotaped for posterity. Hence the name of the conference, Researching Black Canadian Musics and Black Music Cultures in Canada.

The purpose of the roundtables, says conference co-organizer Leslie Sanders, is to “start collecting history,” because black music in Canada turns out to be surprisingly virgin academic territory.

“This is a real coup for York,” says Sanders, acting coordinator of York University’s Centre for the Study of Black Cultures in Canada, which is sponsoring the conference, and a professor in the School of Arts and Letters, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies. “It’s the first time ever that there has been a conference on the history and culture of black music distinctive to Canada.”

Black Canadian music “is just seen as an extension of music from elsewhere, especially the US and the Caribbean,” says co-organizer Natasha Smith, whose MA thesis sparked the idea for the conference. She was having no luck finding material on a black Nova Scotia a cappella group called For the Moment.

“There was virtually no research in the area of black music in Canada at all,” says Sanders. “And there is a really large and complex history.”

While there are few papers in the archives, there is a wealth of documentary films. So Sanders and Smith have scheduled two full days to show them all. The CBC has loaned a precious copy of the rare “Jodie Drake – Blues in My Bread” about the legendary blues and jazz singer who broke new ground in Canada. The National Film Board, Vision TV and other film producers have loaned a “rapumentary” and documentaries about Nova Scotia-born contralto Portia White (right), who sang in the ’40s and ’50s, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, black singing families, prairie musicians and dancers, and Canada’s jazz giants Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones.

During the day, roundtables at Founders College will draw together musicians to talk about the history of reggae, dub, gospel, African, R&B, soul, jazz, blues, calypso and hip hop music in Canada. Speakers include Norman “Otis” Richmond, historian of Toronto’s black music scene; Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, whose Nathaniel Dett Chorale, named after an African Canadian composer, brings little-known Afro-centric music to stages all over North America; Winston Smith, who hosts the CKLN jazz show “Expressive Language”; and Rinaldo Walcott, scholar of contemporary urban music.

In the evenings, musicians will take to the stage in Winter’s College dining hall. On Friday, Kingsley Ettienne will play R&B and Michael St. George, reggae. On Saturday, the Joe Sealy Quartet, then Archie Alleyne with Kollage, play a little jazz. On Sunday, the evening features calypso with Kong Cosmos, then Macomere Fifi and hip hop with Motion.

This is the centre’s fourth conference since it was founded a few years ago by graduate students, says Sanders. “York is really the centre of black Canadian studies even though it doesn’t know it, and all because of a few graduate students. Our purpose is to look at the African diaspora from the place of Canada, which always goes missing” in the study of black Canadian music.

Registration for the conference is $50, or $25 for students. Performances cost $12 each evening. For the conference schedule, visit or call 416-736-5292.

The conference is sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts and the CBC, as well as several York faculties, colleges and departments.