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Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium returns May 26-28 to Waterloo Region

"The Reading Lounge is a rare and beautiful 300-person concert space with high ceilings, top-notch acoustics, and inspiring art installations. And our production partners outfit the venue with state-of-the-art sound, staging, and lighting."

~ Nathan Stretch, KPL's community development manager

JUNO Award winner Carlos Morgan. Kareem Ajani photo

The old cliche is that a library is a quiet place overseen by a shushing librarian.

That certainly wasn't the case at the amazing concerts I attended last year at the Kitchener Public Library.

KPL was the perfect venue for a multi-artist concert last May celebrating the late legendary bluesman Mel Brown. I attended the whole Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium at various venues in Waterloo Region and saw live performances by Joni Nehrita, Alysha Brilla, Ehkaya, Errol Blackwood, Haviah Mighty and Miss Angel Brown.

And, this April 1, the library will announce the performers for the second annual Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium, happening May 26 through 28.

This year's multi-event, multi-venue festival features performances and talks celebrating Black music and art: concerts, workshops, keynotes, roundtables, youth and emerging artist initiatives, and discussions held in venues in Kitchener's Civic Park area.

The producer and curator of the event is musician Carlos Morgan. I got to know Morgan when I co-created, with my podcasting partner Sara Geidlinger, a three-part series for our Bonn Park Podcast about the inaugural Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium.

Joni Nehrita performs at The Jazz Room in May 2022. Sara Geidlinger photo

Carlos Morgan, a JUNO award winner for Best R&B/Soul Recording, told us, “My hopes for the Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium is that it will be a yearly event addressing anti-Black racism in Canadian educational institutions and the music industry, featuring Black music and artists from the Waterloo Region and across the province.”

The upcoming second festival in May is presented by 98.5 CKWR radio, and will again transform KPL's reading lounge into a surprisingly awesome alternative concert venue.

The KPL concert as part of the Mel Brown event last year was a one-of-a-kind experience -- a series of performances by artists like Muhleak, Quinton Barnes, and Glenn Morais & The Mojo Train that crescendoed into an astounding set by Canadian hip hop artist Haviah Mighty that had the audience going wild.

Quinton Barnes performs at KPL in May 2022. Sara Geidlinger photo

I recently caught up with Nathan Stretch, KPL's community development manager. He says the novelty of seeing a high-energy concert at a library is part of what makes the experience so memorable.

Marshall: Tell us about the 2023 Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium and fundraising event and concert on April 1 at KPL.

Nathan: The Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium is made possible this year thanks to the generosity and support of the community, and the fundraising concert is an opportunity for individuals and groups to support the festival and experience a one-of-a-kind performance. Support for this event means we will be able to keep ticket prices low, workshops for youth free, and contract top talent for the MBMFS.

The Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium fundraising concert featuring JUNO Award Winner Carlos Morgan and his band will be held in Kitchener Public Library's Theatre at Central Branch. Bar service will be provided by Mark's Caribbean Kitchen and Seafood.

Carlos Morgan, producer and curator of the 2023 MBMFS. Eli Morris photo

Marshall: What is Carlos Morgan's role in the 2023 Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium?

Nathan: Carlos is the producer and curator for the Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium and the organizing committees are excited for the opportunity to "curate the curator," if you will.

Carlos is the owner of Solroc Music, and is a multi-award-winning artist -- we focus on his JUNO award of course, but he has been honoured for songwriting, performance and more throughout his career. He is a dynamic talent with a prodigious vocal range and control. Carlos is an R&B, Soul, Pop/Dance & EDM, and Country Soul artist.

He holds an MA in Community Music from Wilfrid Laurier University and is an in-demand lecturer with a focus on the music of the Black diaspora, and racial and social justice.

Marshall: Can you reflect on last year's inaugural MBMFS, specifically the live performances at the KPL and transforming it into an amazing concert venue.

Nathan: The inaugural MBMFS was funded by a research grant, and emerged as a surprising and reciprocal success that was "more than the sum of its parts.” The MBMFS benefited from a dedicated, flexible and responsible group of community practitioners influenced by communal principles, and with a history of community organizing and practical action.

We know that the Kitchener Public Library is considered an unusual venue for a concert event, but we pull out all the stops! The Reading Lounge in particular is a rare and beautiful 300-person concert space featuring high ceilings, top-notch acoustics, inspiring public art installations, evocative lighting design, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Our production partners out-fit the venue for the MBMFS with state-of-the-art sound, staging and lighting.

Haviah Mighty performs at KPL in May 2022. Sara Geidlinger photo

Marshall: Let’s talk about the partnerships and collaborations that make community events like this happen, and how invaluable they are when it comes to grassroots projects like this one, and community building.

Nathan: Wilfrid Laurier University and Kitchener Public Library continue to be stalwart partners, providing the administrative support and operational acumen that can be so valuable to grass-roots organizations as they emerge.

We have been very impressed by the businesses, foundations, community organizations, municipalities and other funding bodies that have coalesced around this project: their enthusiasm and intentional partnership are inspiring and motivating.

We are experiencing a shift -- we think -- in the funding model away from arduous bureaucracy towards a focus on upstream investment that is flexible and relational in nature.

Emergent and grass-roots organizations like the MBMFS are benefitting from community trust and the ethical audit of our funders and will reward this trust with innovative, diverse, surprising and meaningful community service.

Marshall: Sara and I love the idea of transforming a library into a live concert venue.

Nathan: Part of the joy of transforming the library into a concert venue is working within the perceived tension of the space and the event: being loud in a traditionally quiet space.

Kitchener Public Library is a forward-thinking, and innovative organization working thoughtfully and practically towards integrated, genuine and equitable daily practice, so the tension is largely in the perception -- it's exciting rather than transgressive.

Social norms and normative understanding of public space can be ethically disrupted, the result of which is a useful and creative tension that can scaffold exciting community performance and participation. We saw this on full display at the library last year.

Glenn Morais & The Mojo Train performs at KPL in May 2022. Sara Geidlinger photo

Marshall: When we recorded our special three-part podcast series about the inaugural Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium, Sara and I felt last year's event at the KPL had such a positive vibe as we could see artists supporting and celebrating each other throughout their performances.

Nathan: We felt similarly to you -- it was very gratifying, rewarding and mutual to say the least. I think we knew right away that we would try to make the MBMFS an annual event, but it was far from a sure thing practically. Our inaugural funding was a one-off, and we needed to build up community support to fund a second year from scratch.

We are thankful that the community responded to the MBMFS by embracing the programming, partnering and resourcing the inaugural event, and by funding year two!

Holding a show at such a unique and important local venue seems a fitting way to pay tribute to Mel Brown and give rising stars a stage on which to shine.

Join the Mel Brown Music Festival and Symposium organizing committee on April 1 at KPL for a one-of-a-kind fundraising concert featuring Carlos Morgan, and a special announcement about this year’s festival line-up of performers and speakers.




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