Our story starts with a drumbeat: a crisp tattoo on high-hat, bass drum, and snare that lasts only 10 seconds before Meters-esque chicken-scratch guitar and organ swoop down and take the song over. "Dirty Funk," a cut on an obscure, self-titled record by a group of Caribbean-Canadians named Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy, has had hiphop producers and beatheads scouring the bins since the early '90s.
These 10 seconds of hard and crisp beats, banged out in 1970 by drummer Everett "Pablo" Paul led, some 30 years on, to an archival project from Seattle's own tireless diggers Light in the Attic, exposing the music made by Jamaican musicians transposed to lily-white Toronto. The wealth of music that resulted from those immigrants trying to maintain sanity in the snow hits this summer with the Jamaica to Toronto compilation, 16 cuts documenting the first wave of Caribbeans playing American soul, hard funk, and nascent dub that serves merely as the tip of the iceberg: Six other releases are slated to follow, fleshing out the wide range and creativity of the West Indian community in Canada, including a long-lost Wishbone album from Jamaican legend Jackie Mittoo.
LITA recording artists the Sharpshooters (Mr. Supreme and DJ Sureshot) hepped label boss Matt Sullivan to the break. "Well, they kept talking about it, but they'd never play it for me," Sullivan laughs. Sullivan runs LITA out of his basement, with records and discs piled high. At his desk, he recalls that fateful day when the Sharpshooters stopped teasing him and finally dropped the beat. "From the first song, it was just beautiful, but with this nice Caribbean flavor to it."
Hooked, Sullivan set about finding McGhie, a near-impossible task since the man hadn't been seen since 1979. It required the assistance of another Canadian record fiend, Vancouver-based DJ and crate-digger Kevin "Sipreano" Howes. The soft-spoken Howes reclines on a bench in a Seattle park and recounts his initial experience with this curious hybrid sound. Growing up on Bob Marley and the punk made by reggae fans the Clash, Howes was shocked to hear that far from Jamaica's Trenchtown shanties, in wintry Toronto, some heavy reggae was emanating. "I got this Half-Moon 45 [one of the first black-owned recording studios in Canada]. It was a soul tune, but it just had the most whacked-out production: superreverb and echo." Howes started digging deeper.
Sullivan and Howes began using the white pages to track down every name listed on the back of Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy. Over three years of sleuthing culminated in LITA reissuing the album in 2004. Tapping into this nearly forgotten community of musicians, the two finally tracked down McGhie via his sister. Bringing some of the old 45s they had unearthed, they met her at her Toronto house. Howes recalls the effects of spinning these old sides: "Everyone's in tears while we're eating this amazing... West Indian meal his sister had made for us. It was really emotional." It dawned on Sullivan and Howes that there was also much more happening there than just one funky drum break. A whole community was waiting to be dug out of the snow.
Singer Jay Douglas, who's crucial to the Jamaica to Toronto story, breaks into a deep chuckle as he recollects that first blast of arctic wind after a childhood spent in tropical Jamaica. Douglas was deeply involved in the era's music scene and was integral in tracking down many of his old band mates and session participants; he was also an early immigrant to Canada. While Canada's borders had been closed for most of the 20th century, they opened in the '50s and '60s when the need for registered nurses and domestic workers spurred an influx of West Indians.
Douglas migrated with his mother in the early '60s, but suffered homesickness. He fell in with some Jamaican musicians and jammed not only on his home country's music, but also "American music: R&B, soul... it broadened my perspective." Playing music also eased the pangs of being in a foreign land. Fronting the Cougars and several other bands through the years, Douglas also sang for keyboardist Mittoo at a 1970 gig they played at New York's posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
It's hard to overestimate the impact and importance of a player like Mittoo on the scene. He was a founding member of the Skatalites, the main man for Studio One in Jamaica behind Sir Coxsone Dodd. Mittoo's playing and arrangements created not just ska, but also rock steady and reggae. The rhythms he sussed in the mid-'60s continue to get excavated and recast as dancehall riddims.
But even a player of Mittoo's caliber had trouble getting noticed in mid-'60s Toronto: "He created the foundation of modern Jamaican music," Howes explains. Yet when Mittoo arrived in Canada, "nobody took [him] seriously... they [could] never fully understand his breadth." So Mittoo began to adapt that raw Jamaican sound into sweet, string-laden instrumentals for the Canadian Sound Library, recasting rude-boy sounds as gentle tropical breezes. Mittoo's track on the comp, "Grand Funk," is what Sipreano calls just "hard funk with a communal sort of party tagline; it sounds like an outtake from a Santana album."
Other comp highlights include a trickling cover of "I Wish It Would Rain" from the Cougars and a bittersweet dub showcase from Noel Ellis, son of legendary rock-steady singer Alton Ellis, called "Memories." Its melancholic piano lines (courtesy of Mittoo) sum up that passed time even as it enters into the present.
Everyone I interview, from Sullivan and Howes to Douglas and dub producer Jerry Brown, speaks of the love of the music that roots the whole endeavor. "It's all about love and unity. If we look at the money, we don't do nothing," reiterates Brown.
And as for the beat itself that started it all? When I ask Pablo about it, he laughs: "The drums I played... were influenced by the Band. I thought, if these guys can play that style and get airplay, I'm gonna play that and get airplay."email@example.com