Episode 144: Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium Part One
Legendary blues musician Mel Brown brought the sound of the Mississippi Delta to Waterloo Region. And although Mel himself is gone, his legacy lives on. In celebration of that legacy, the region was home to the inaugural Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium that happened May 27 through 29 at The Jazz Room, Maxwell’s Music House, Kitchener Public Library, and TheMuseum.
Join Sara and Marshall for the first episode of a special three-part series about the Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium, featuring Joni NehRita, Alysha Brilla, and Rufus John.
Errol Blackwood: Yeah.
Errol Blackwood: Mel Brown and me, man, from the first time he came here, he used to play on Queen Street and they had a toonie event.
Errol Blackwood: And so I came there.
Errol Blackwood: That's where I met him.
Errol Blackwood: And from I met him, he just like he called me on stage without even knowing who I am
Errol Blackwood: And then from there, every time he's playing and I come down, call me up.
Errol Blackwood: Hey, Babe, get on stage and jam with him.
Errol Blackwood: Really?
Errol Blackwood: That's one of the greatest musicians.
Errol Blackwood: He was so humble.
Errol Blackwood: The greatest are always the humblest.
Marshall: This is the voice of Reggae artist Errol Blackwood.sharing some memories of Mel Brown.
Sara: Blues musician Mel Brown brought the sound of the Mississippi Delta to Waterloo region, and although Mel himself is gone, his legacy lives on.
Sara: In celebration of that legacy, the region was recently home to the inaugural Mel Brown Music Festival and Symposium, and it happened May 27 through 29th, 2022 at the Jazz Room, Maxwell's Music House, Kitchener Public Library and the Museum.
Errol Blackwood song.
Sara: Welcome to Bonn Park.
Sara: I'm Sara Geidlinger.
Marshall: And I'm Marshall Ward.
Marshall: And we are so honored to be...
Sara: Sharing with you part one of our special three-part series on the inaugural Mel Brown Music Festival and Symposium.
Sara: We're going to be hearing from Lee Willingham.
Sara: He's a professor of music at Wilfrid Laurier University and also the Director of the Laurier Center for Music in the Community.
Sara: Then we're going to be hearing from Carlos Morgan.
Sara: Carlos is a Canadian soul and rhythm blues singer.
Sara: He's most noted for winning the Juno award for best R and B soul recording at the Juno Awards of 1997 for his album Feeling Alright.
Sara: Carlos is also responsible for the inception of the Mel Brown Music Festival and Symposium and key to its role in our community.
Sara: He is the curator and artistic director of the event.
Sara: So Blues legend Mel Brown was the driving force behind a Blues revival in our area.
Sara: Brown brought the sound of the Mississippi Delta to Waterloo region.
Sara: As a renowned guitarist, Mel Brown collaborated with great acts like Etta James and BB King, among others and decided to put his roots down right here and his adopted hometown of the Waterloo region loved Mel Brown.
Sara: In an interview, when asked how he'd like to be remembered, Mel Brown said, if my music could touch somebody's heart and bring you closer to love, then that would be it.
Sara: People need to take time to think about what love is and how they can insert their love into life.
Sara: Now let's hear more from the organizers.
Lee Willingham: Thank you, and it's great to be here with you and with my good colleague Carlos Morgan.
Lee Willingham: We're really excited about a whole bunch of things around this festival and symposium that address what we think is something really missing in our community, and that is a focus on a feature of black culture and black music with some incredible artists and creative people and connected to that is the legacy that Mel Brown left us by his influence and his generosity and accepting people of all backgrounds and musical experiences to sit in with him, to learn from him.
Lee Willingham: This festival and symposium was born out of an idea that really came from Carlos around elevating music.
Lee Willingham: But then I took it to the level of, well, how can I, as a white privileged person in a position of power in a university, how can we address what we think are systemic issues in our university?
Lee Willingham: And the key issue, the elephant in the room, if you will, is that our program privileges the music of Eurocentric white composers, most of whom are dead, and a little bit of jazz.
Lee Willingham: I have to say, though, that since the opening of our community music program, there's been a wider lane for musical genres of all different backgrounds and styles.
Lee Willingham: That to say there's still an imbalance in the racial makeup of our professors and our student body.
Lee Willingham: Carlos, I really am grateful to be working with you, and I value what you're doing already in this project that is making it come alive and making it exciting for our community.
Carlos Morgan: Thank you, Lee.
Carlos Morgan: This is very exciting.
Carlos Morgan: I'm honored and grateful to be a part of a team of people who share this vision, bringing and highlighting and featuring black music in Kitchener and Waterloo with Mel Brown and his legacy and his indelible musical contributions that he brought with him and his history and his knowledge of music, Blues and what he did for the community here, building upon his foundation, building upon the roots that he brought to Kitchener-Waterloo to his music and his passion of music.
Carlos Morgan: And so on this three day festival, happening May 27 to 29th, happening at three different locations, the Jazz Room on May 27, KPL Kitchener Public Library on the 28th and the Museum on the 29th, it's going to be featuring different musical acts and genres of music, black music, which will include the Blues.
Carlos Morgan: And we're happy and delighted and proud to say that Miss Angel Brown will be the headliner for the whole festival.
Carlos Morgan: So she'll be performing along with Glenn Smith, the Waterloo Region Mass Choir, Alysha Brilla, Rufus John, Ekhaya, and hopefully we'll have Glenn Marais, the Grammy Award winner.
Carlos Morgan: So we're going to be focusing on and highlighting these aspects of black music, which again, was built upon the foundation of Mr. Brown in the Kitchener-Waterloo region.
Marshall: As a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University and a former art instructor there as well, I was so delighted to learn that the university's venerable music program is supporting a festival and celebration of this kind.
Marshall: I have so many fond memories of seeing Mel Brown perform live right here in this area at venues like Pop the Gator and Lulu's Roadhouse.
Marshall: I saw him so many times, and those concerts are still so vivid for me.
Sara: Marshall, I really enjoyed traveling around from venue to venue and hearing live music again.
Sara: It was very exciting to me and it reminded me why we go and do this.
Sara: Okay, I'm going to tell you a funny story.
Sara: My cousin Matt.
Joni NehRita: Hi Matt.
Sara: Matt made me a fake ID when I was a teenager so I could get into Pop the Gator and enjoy some of this live music, including Mel Brown.
Sara: Don't worry, I wasn't using it to drink.
Sara: I was just a music nerd that wanted to go and see shows, and I learned a lot.
Sara: Like, there were a lot of names and places in Brown's vibrant past, and he'd been playing music and performing since his childhood.
Marshall: We just marvel at the long list of diverse artists Mel Brown recorded and performed with in his illustrious career.
Marshall: And we're talking about names like John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, James Brown, Doris Day, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sam Cook, Chuck Berry, Lightning Hopkins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy.
Sara: Snooky Pryor, T-Bone Walker, Bobby Blue Bland, Albert King, Van Morrison, Sonny and Cher, David Bowie, Wayland Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Marshall: Many local fans have long wondered why Mel Brown, a renowned guitarist who had collaborated with all the greats, sought to put down his roots in the area.
Sara: So Brown attempted to answer this question many years ago in an interview.
Sara: What he said was that's the most asked question.
Sara: I can't give a reason as to why I like it here.
Sara: It was like a calling of the Gods.
Sara: I guess you could say, I don't want to say it's the greatest city in the world or nothing, but it's spiritually motivated.
Marshall: Pap the Gator, a popular nightclub in Kitchener, became synonymous with Mel Brown as he hosted a Blues jam every Wednesday night with his band The Homewreckers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was there that local Blues fans discovered America's loss was Canada's gain.
Marshall: As Mel Brown settled into a house on Cameron Street in downtown Kitchener.
Sara: And we invited ourselves into the inner sanctum of Glenn Smith's home, which looks more like a 20th century music Museum.
Marshall: Glenn Smith provide us with some tremendous personal insight into how KW became Mel Brown's adopted home.
Glenn Smith: Oh, now you're ready?
Glenn Smith: Hello.
Glenn Smith: Glenn Smith here for Ethel's Lounge opened in 1994 and hopefully we can be there for many years.
Glenn Smith: Before this life, though, I had another life running Blues bars and bands in this town a long time ago.
Glenn Smith: And one of the smarter moves in hindsight and luckier moves was bringing Mel Brown to town, which led to a whole other set of stories and turned into a whole animal and a monster all onto its own.
Glenn Smith: So this is the story of Mel Brown coming to KW.
Glenn Smith: I was familiar with Mel Brown back in the very early 70s.
Glenn Smith: He was a guitar player, and he played with Bobby Blue Bland.
Glenn Smith: That's when I found him.
Glenn Smith: Before that, he had played with Jackie Wilson, and he had been involved with music for a long time.
Glenn Smith: I only became aware of him again but I didn't know the man then.
Glenn Smith: I just saw him on stage playing.
Glenn Smith: I saw him in Toronto at the Island Blues Festival in 74.
Glenn Smith: And in hindsight, I look back at some of the movies.
Glenn Smith: I used to walk around with an eight-millimeter movie camera all the time.
Glenn Smith: And I saw that.
Glenn Smith: I had movies of Mel way back then, that I wasn't aware of.
Glenn Smith: But when I saw him again, I was in Texas at Anton's in the mid-80s, and I was leaving one night.
Glenn Smith: The lights were up at the club and somebody was still on stage playing guitar.
Glenn Smith: It was the end of the evening, and I said, who's that?
Glenn Smith: And I turned around and this man playing guitar by himself, electric guitar, was just staring into the abyss, and he's playing it.
Glenn Smith: And they said, oh, that's Mel.
Glenn Smith: He always plays guitar.
Glenn Smith: People are leaving the club.
Glenn Smith: And I was flabbergasted how awesome it was one guy with a guitar playing by himself.
Glenn Smith: So I went back in and we got talking, and they have really tough liquor laws in Texas, so when it's time to go, you have to get out of the club.
Glenn Smith: And the liquor inspectors in Austin love closing clubs down because you're not adhering to their liquor law.
Glenn Smith: So I didn't have much time that night.
Glenn Smith: And Mel said, we'll meet up the next day, which we did, and we were driving around and he was showing me stuff when we got talking and it just started.
Glenn Smith: That was day one of a friendship then that went on for a whole bunch of years after that.
Glenn Smith: Then I had a bar upstairs to the Mayfair Hotel called the Hoodoo Lounge after I booked shows at the Kitchener Legion in 85 or so.
Glenn Smith: And I started by doing it and to see how well it would go.
Glenn Smith: It went well enough that I was actually booking Blues bands in this town three days a week, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, which was crazy in hindsight that had legs enough to do that.
Glenn Smith: But people were coming out and Mel Brown came up with a lady.
Glenn Smith: Her name was Angela Strehli and she was a singer from Anton's and basically the Anton’s House Band, which was George Reigns, who still plays with Jimmy Vaughan, Denny Freeman, who was a guitar player who then went on he was in Bob Dylan's band for about eight years.
Glenn Smith: He's on about six of his records, Sarah Brown and Mel Brown.
Glenn Smith: And it was an amazing group.
Glenn Smith: And that would have been about 87.
Glenn Smith: And in those days we used to do a picnic out in Frogs Hollow out in June in the summer.
Glenn Smith: And Mel and that band were in town right when we were doing that, that was on a Sunday.
Glenn Smith: And they went out there to play and loved it.
Glenn Smith: And then I started realizing what Mel loved about this community.
Glenn Smith: And then about a year or so later, he had another band called Silent Partners, which was just a three-piece drum space and Mel on guitar and sometimes on organ that came up and they played the Gator in like 89.
Glenn Smith: And that was that.
Glenn Smith: And then when I went to Texas again later after that, I saw Mel again.
Glenn Smith: And then that's where we were out driving around again.
Glenn Smith: We went out to Willie Nelson's golf course.
Glenn Smith: And when we were out there, I said to Mel, I said, I got this club now, Pop the Gator.
Glenn Smith: I need a house band.
Glenn Smith: Would you think about coming up, moving up and run the house, man?
Glenn Smith: And he said, okay, that was it.
Glenn Smith: That was the whole thing.
Glenn Smith: And a month or so later we were having our Christmas party at the Walper Hotel.
Glenn Smith: I remember looking out the window, snowing out, and this big Delta 88 pulled up and Mel Brown was here.
Glenn Smith: That was the beginning when Mal came to town at the time.
Glenn Smith: Once he said yes, you then have to figure out how am I going to deal with this?
Glenn Smith: Where's he going to live?
Glenn Smith: How much can I pay him?
Glenn Smith: How's he going to make a living?
Glenn Smith: I don't want to disappoint him.
Glenn Smith: He said, yes.
Glenn Smith: When I discovered later he had moved around quite a bit.
Glenn Smith: He's from Mississippi, went to California early in his career, found out he wasn't good enough, went back to Mississippi worked a lot harder.
Glenn Smith: Back in the early 60s, he was touring with Etta James all over the south of Mississippi, which was a whole learning experience for him at the time because Etta James had a bad addiction and she didn't show up at every gig.
Glenn Smith: Him and the band were in one station wagon and she was in another one, and they'd go to a club and play the opening hack opening.
Glenn Smith: Mel would show up and not every night did she.
Glenn Smith: So some nights they got chased out of the club without getting paid.
Glenn Smith: But that was a learning experience for him.
Glenn Smith: He learned a lot.
Glenn Smith: Then he was back to California and then he was living in Nashville, and then he was living in Austin, Texas.
Glenn Smith: And then I showed up.
Glenn Smith: Now, this is all what I found out later.
Glenn Smith: I was looking for a guitar player to run a house band, and I wasn't just going to ask some guy from Toronto to be my house band guitar player.
Glenn Smith: It was an authentic Blues club that I was running with authentic top notch acts.
Glenn Smith: And I was going for someone that had the ability to play guitar and run the band and be an asset to the club.
Glenn Smith: So somebody of Mel's caliber fit that perfect because the guy had all the chops, knew how to play.
Glenn Smith: And he may have been looking for a change in his life right at the time I showed up and looking for a band leader.
Glenn Smith: So it worked out for both of us.
Glenn Smith: And probably why he said yes at that time, because Austin, for its reputation for music and everything else, has 500 bars to book music, but there's 10,000 bands all looking for a gig.
Glenn Smith: So he was one of the many fish in a big pond where he moved to Kitchener.
Glenn Smith: He was the big fish in a small pond and he was the King.
Glenn Smith: And it was the real deal.
Glenn Smith: Bands would come into town that were from all over the States and say, I'd say, blah, blah, blah, Mel gets up and do a set and go Mel Brown.
Glenn Smith: He lives here and then would go into like, why?
Glenn Smith: And I'd say, why not?
Glenn Smith: The only reason things don't work is that you don't make it work.
Glenn Smith: And I got tired of that very early in my life.
Glenn Smith: I've lived in KW all my life where people say, oh, well, you can't do that in Kitchener and I’d go, why not?
Glenn Smith: The only reason you can't do it is if you didn't try.
Glenn Smith: And Mel instantly we shot up in everyone's regard as to the quality of what we were playing.
Glenn Smith: And some bands, Albert Collins and Buddy Guy, who had played with Mel on records through the years.
Glenn Smith: Instantly I would have a shot at getting them to play here where they may never have as their prices were going higher, as their careers are getting bigger in the Mel helped in a big way.
Glenn Smith: And then I found out that he loved the people in this town.
Glenn Smith: When I grew up in Kitchen in the 60s, there wasn't a lot of black people.
Glenn Smith: There wasn't a very integrated community.
Glenn Smith: It was like a lot of old white German guys, which I love bringing Mel into, because instantly I like to shake things up sometimes.
Glenn Smith: And Mel was a shaker.
Glenn Smith: So he loved the people, loved all the young, beautiful ladies in this town, and he loved the weed.
Glenn Smith: We had some of the best weed anywhere.
Glenn Smith: And Mel dove into that head first and he enjoyed all he could find.
Glenn Smith: So now that it's legal, we can talk more about it.
Glenn Smith: He loved it here.
Glenn Smith: And for all the years he lived here, even when he passed away, I remember saying, I said, well, it looks like I'm going to Mississippi for a funeral.
Glenn Smith: And he's still buried here on Memory Gardens, going out the Guelph.
Glenn Smith: So every time I go by, I honk my horn, so I let him know I'm still around.
Glenn Smith: But no, he loved KW and consequently KW loved him back.
Glenn Smith: I think he enjoyed life here.
Glenn Smith: He was also at an age where he could not have to be on the road all the time, driving to gigs and moving around, not making any money.
Glenn Smith: And he could settle down here, make enough dough playing for me one night somewhere in Guelph, the next night somewhere else, another night, and he could pick and choose where he played.
Glenn Smith: It was close enough to Toronto that the Toronto Blues Society got very enamored with Mel and they were putting events around him and showcasing him and he probably felt special and they all treated him good and he loved everybody.
Marshall: We asked Glenn Smith if he had a favorite concert memory at Pop the Gator.
Sara: And here's what he had to share with us.
Glenn Smith: When Albert Collins came to town, Albert Collins had a part of his show was a thing where he had a 200-foot guitar chord and he would play and walk through the audience.
Glenn Smith: He was known to walk out the front of a club.
Glenn Smith: Buddy guy does the same thing.
Glenn Smith: It all came from a guitar player in New Orleans in the 50s.
Glenn Smith: Magic Slim used to do this.
Glenn Smith: But one night, Albert Collins saw the Cafe Mozart across the street from and they had all the German Decadent bakery and big creamy doughnuts, and he wanted one.
Glenn Smith: And while the band was playing and this is a packed house, Albert Collins walked down the front stairs of Pop the Gator and was going across the street with his guitar chord and cars are driving over it to go get a doughnut.
Glenn Smith: And he realized either he's running out of chord or his guitar chord.
Glenn Smith: Getting his chord run over wasn't a good idea.
Glenn Smith: Mel Brown just pulled up at that time and he knew Mel.
Glenn Smith: He said, Here Mel.
Glenn Smith: And he handed him a guitar mid-song without skipping a beat.
Glenn Smith: Mel Brown now had to imitate another guitar player who has a very distinctive sound.
Glenn Smith: No one plays like Albert Collins because he puts the capo way up on the neck and has a whole sound of his own.
Glenn Smith: And Mel played it and nailed it so good that as Mel now walked up the stairs of the club to go be in the club full of people and the band just cooking.
Glenn Smith: This guy had horns and everything.
Glenn Smith: Well, Albert Collins is across the street buying a donut.
Glenn Smith: But people didn't even know it was a different guy.
Glenn Smith: When Mel Brown walked in, the place lit up and it was just wild because they were all laughing that they had been fooled.
Glenn Smith: But it was a whole other guitar player.
Glenn Smith: One guy walks out playing and another guy comes back in, but he's playing the same style.
Glenn Smith: So nights like that are irreplaceable.
Marshall: Hey, Sara, let's head to the Jazz Room for the opening night gala, an evening of RnB, soul and global roots fusion.
Sara: I'm very excited to see the performances by Joni NehRita, Alysha Brilla, and Rufus John.
Carlos Morgan: Welcome to the Mel Brown Music Festival and Symposium.
Carlos Morgan: I want you all to put your handa together and give a big Mel Brown welcome to Joni NehRita
Joni NehRita: My husband is in the place…
Joni NehRita song
Marshall: At the Jazz Room we felt really fortunate to be able to go backstage and chat with some of the performers
Sara: We speak to Joni NehRita
Marshall: She talks about creating her new record and what it was like to perform those new songs live.
Marshall: We also ask her about the song Perfectly Imperfect, which was such a beautiful, amazing song to hear live in the Jazz Room.
Sara: And it's funny, with this interview, you can hear Carlos Morgan in the background about to introduce Alysha Brilla
Sara: And he's talking about the rest of the festival.
Joni NehRita: Yeah, I mean, most of it was written during the pandemic and recorded over the pandemic because I had just started recording my album before the pandemic hit, and then it was like my producer and engineer pulled out pandemic.
Joni NehRita: So I just decided to carry on by myself at home.
Joni NehRita: And most of the album is just me tinkering away in my room over a very long time.
Joni NehRita: And, yeah, I just looked at all the stuff that I had written over the last two, two and a half years and thought, okay, what's the stuff that I really want to offer for my first show back?
Joni NehRita: I wonder this sometimes karmically or energetically, was my brain like, let's make a really hard and chordy and there's odd bars and stuff, so that when you perform it, you have to remind yourself that you're not going to maybe get it perfect.
Joni NehRita: And you have to make peace with that.
Joni NehRita: Every time I sing it.
Joni NehRita: It's just actually, like, really a relief to just be myself and be okay with whatever happens as long as I'm singing from the heart.
Joni NehRita: It doesn't matter if I sing a wrong note or play a bum chord.
Joni NehRita: That's why I got so emotional.
Joni NehRita: You saw me crying.
Joni NehRita: It's like, oh, there's the harmony, but I'm not singing it up on an album.
Joni NehRita: She's singing it.
Joni NehRita: And, wow, there's that bass part.
Joni NehRita: And yeah, it's humbling.
Joni NehRita: It's a beautiful thing.
Joni NehRita: And I maybe missed it more than I realized.
Joni NehRita: Powerful.
Joni NehRita: I came in when Rufus was doing his sound check, and I was like, music right there.
Joni NehRita: Music.
Joni NehRita: And then there's like, yeah, it's amazing.
Carlos Morgan: So, ladies and gentlemen, one more time…
Alysha Brilla song
Alysha Brilla: And what I love about Sanskrit, amongst other Indigenous languages around the world, is that there are so many words that have such conjoined meaning of things, and this is one of them.
Alysha Brilla: Ahimsa encapsulates that whole philosophy.
Alysha Brilla: And so we're going to sing this tonight, and we're going to dedicate it to all of your hearts, as well as the grief that I think the world collectively is filling a lot.
Alysha Brilla: So I hope you'll sing along.
Sara: Alicia's song, Ahimsa, was incredibly moving to see live.
Sara: I was just standing feet from her, and I really felt that message of nonviolence.
Sara: Let's hold each other up.
Sara: We can all do better.
Marshall: I love the fun excitement of being backstage.
Marshall: We hung out with Sammy Duke, Gerima, and Alysha Brilla, and I want to share that I've known who Gerima is for years and years and I always love seeing him perform in Victoria Park or the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market
Marshall: I've tried to strike up conversations with him over the years, and he's always very appreciative and says, thank you for coming out to the event and that.
Marshall: But he really is a man a few words.
Marshall: So I think Sara and I were both really struck by the fact that he really opened up for us backstage.
Marshall: And anyways, you can hear it for yourself.
Sammy Duke: My name is Sammy Duke
Sammy Duke: Alysha, we've actually known each other since high school, believe it or not, but we've been kind of playing music on and off for probably 15 years, I think probably eleven years on, like, a serious, though, that kind of thing.
Sammy Duke: And yeah, I was joining her on the bass tonight
Sammy Duke: We just had a freaking dance party.
Sammy Duke: That was fun.
Sammy Duke: We are pumped.
Sammy Duke: I'm sweating like a dog right now.
Sammy Duke: Well, Alysha there's a few songs that we've been playing for a long time that they are always like very powerful songs, great messages that always go well in terms of audiences.
Sammy Duke: And a few of the tunes that we played tonight were actually from a brand new record as well.
Sammy Duke: And the record really was born out of the idea of isolation.
Sammy Duke: During this whole pandemic era, obviously, a lot of people are feeling isolated.
Sammy Duke: She's no exception to that.
Sammy Duke: Music industry, of course, been an interesting time for that.
Sammy Duke: So just be able to project this music out to fresh audiences, to be able to join Alicia with spreading these great messages, be able to just have the energy of everyone in the room ready to just go right back to playing live music.
Sammy Duke: It's just an absolute blessing.
Sara: So Sammy is referring to a moment where Alysha is playing a really great rhythm.
Sara: Sammy and Gerima are playing a beat, and Carlos later told us he was overcome with emotion to get on stage and asked Alysha permission.
Sara: And she said, of course.
Sara: And here's the outcome.
Marshall: From the moment Carlos Morgan took the stage, that Jazz Room was on fire.
Marshall: And for days afterward, Coral Andrews of SM 98.5, she raved and raved about this show, and you can imagine how many shows Coral has seen at the Jazz Room over the years.
Marshall: She said she's seen many, but she said all those people dancing and shouting and singing together, she's never seen anything like that at the Jazz Room.
Sara: I think we can both agree, Marshall, that we were in the presence of magic.
Marshall: Yeah, we sure were.
Marshall: Speaking of magic, Gerima Harvey brought so much to this festival, and we asked Sammy Duke what it's like to perform with a musician like Gerima Harvey.
Sammy Duke: Brings just an unfathomable spirit.
Sammy Duke: Unlike anyone else in the entire Southern Ontario, as far as I'm concerned.
Sammy Duke: He is an absolute master of his craft, an absolute joy, and so humble with his gifts as well.
Sammy Duke: He dedicates everything to the music
Sammy Duke: He's just the absolute greatest person in the world to work with.
Sammy Duke: Very blessed to be his friend and his fellow musician.
Gerima Harvey: Thank you.
Gerima Harvey: My name is Gerima Harvey, and I am also a musician of KW and abroad.
Gerima Harvey: Well, my singing comes from a special place of listening to roots reggae music and to traditional South African music.
Gerima Harvey: So I bring that to the table.
Gerima Harvey: And roots reggae music and African music is very deep, and I love that music because I represent that.
Gerima Harvey: My drumming started when I was very young.
Gerima Harvey: I started on pots and pans, and then when I was in teenager years, I started doing Djembe drumming and self taught and taught by the drummers.
Gerima Harvey: I've been around with a lot of people, and, yeah, I play other instruments, but the drum is my main, and it's a beautiful thing
Sara: After the show we shared with Alysha that we really enjoyed hearing her harmonize with her sister.
Sara: And here's what she had to say.
Alysha Brilla: Oh, man.
Alysha Brilla: Well, it was hard for me to not cry when I was singing because we sing together a lot, actually.
Alysha Brilla: I have three sisters who are here and we all sing together a lot.
Alysha Brilla: And we often do cry when we sing, even at home when we're just harmonizing.
Alysha Brilla: And it's a really important as for our hearts and keeps our relationship strong, I think so doing it on stage feels like a really sweet way of sharing that with everyone else.
Alysha Brilla: Just what comes naturally for us through music.
Alysha Brilla: I met Sammy in high school.
Alysha Brilla: We were both about 15 or 16, and when I had an 18th birthday party.
Alysha Brilla: I invited a lot of people and he was the only one who came.
Alysha Brilla: And this is before I got any Junos or anything like that, talking about the birthday party story, my 18th birthday, where you were the only one who came.
Alysha Brilla: Now we’re friends for life.
Alysha Brilla: And then Gerima, I also met on the street, actually, he was jamming with his Djembe and I told him I'm a musician and said we should jam together.
Alysha Brilla: And that was also about twelve years ago or so.
Alysha Brilla: And the three of us are very much like a family, truly.
Alysha Brilla: Now it's been two years since we've performed at all.
Alysha Brilla: And that was what I used to live for.
Alysha Brilla: That was like, see, if I was lucky enough for that to happen at a show that's like the biggest, most beautiful high I could possibly experience in my life.
Alysha Brilla: And so when I start to see the people come to the dance floor and like you said, you feel the energy build.
Alysha Brilla: It feels like alchemy.
Alysha Brilla: It feels like taking what so often for me is a sad heart in this world.
Alysha Brilla: And I'm sure for a lot of people and seeing visually how music is a transforming modality.
Alysha Brilla: Yeah, it was special.
Alysha Brilla: Carlos is an incredible performer and it's wild because he organized a festival and he's very humble.
Alysha Brilla: But I had mentioned that I, when I was 15, would go to The Still and Jam, and that's how I came to see Mel Brown and Carlos used to go to that jam as well.
Rufus John performs
Rufus John: In a situation where I was hanging out with some cats and making poor choices and I found myself in trouble from time to time.
Rufus John: And this one particular time, I found myself in some serious trouble.
Rufus John: We all got picked up in that situation.
Rufus John: And it was the point in my life where I knew I had to go left or I had to go right.
Rufus John: But the point is I knew I didn't want to be where I was in that moment ever again.
Rufus John: So I chose a different path
Rufus John: You know, when you're at Church and as an adult, you understand and appreciate those gems and that knowledge from your mom
Rufus John: But when you're, like, 15, 17, 18, you're like, you're old.
Rufus John: I hear you, but you're not really hearing her.
Rufus John: And she raised four of us on our own.
Rufus John: There was good times, there was bad times, but there was always, always love amongst the struggle.
Rufus John: I grew up near Conestoga Mall
Rufus John: I was just not far from you.
Rufus John: Yeah, our house in that neighborhood was the house was a safe space for kids to come.
Rufus John: Just relax, Sister John, get cooked.
Rufus John: So, Sister John, you knew if you went to the John's house, you had a good feeling.
Rufus John: But regardless, my mother worked at night, and because she worked at night, I could do whatever I wanted at night.
Rufus John: And when young kids’ minds idle, it's only a matter of time before they find that group of kids that are outside during this time.
Rufus John: And then you find yourself doing the things that kids that are outside doing during that time you find yourself doing, which is what got me in a lot of trouble.
Rufus John: So while I was sitting, because I had nowhere else to go, I decided to write this song called The Reason for My Mom.
Rufus John: I did take in the Mel Brown documentary and again, like, just the energy that this man had and how he exude love.
Rufus John: And from what I saw, just a man that wanted people to appreciate music the way that he appreciated music.
Rufus John: And he came from a place where he could have picked any musician in the world, but he chose to come here, and he's like, If I'm going to choose to live here, I'm going to take these cats under my wing and I'm going to show them a way.
Rufus John: And again, that's just the brilliance of that man and how we touched lives just by doing what he loved, the community embraced him, which I think was a great thing, because it could have gone a number of different ways.
Rufus John: But they embraced him and he took it around with it.
Rufus John: He took it around with it.
Rufus John: And a lot of great musicians were spawned from either the people that he touched or people that literally were connected to him.
Sara: We asked Rufus about playing with his band Mama's Kitchen.
Rufus John: Mama's Kitchen.
Rufus John: Again, it's been a while for collecting or finding my guys, but now that I have my guys, it's a family.
Rufus John: And that's really what I wanted was a family again.
Rufus John: Mama's Kitchen says it all.
Rufus John: I want to give people the same feeling literally I get when I walk into my mom's kitchen.
Rufus John: It's just a place of safety, comfort, love, everything.
Rufus John: And I want people to leave with that same feeling when they come and see me.
Rufus John: And I've taken time to find the members of the band to allow us.
Rufus John: I shouldn't say me.
Rufus John: It's not me.
Rufus John: It's us to allow us to do that.
Rufus John: This is what it's about.
Rufus John: This is at the end of the day, it's not about you.
Rufus John: It's not about her.
Rufus John: It's not about that person.
Rufus John: It's about the collective.
Rufus John: Carlos is an undeniable force that you can't reckon with.
Rufus John: He owns that stage when he's on there.
Rufus John: I remember Carlos when I was a teenager coming up, watching that man do what he does, and he's definitely one of my inspirations coming up in this community.
Marshall: So after the whole night was over, Sara and I caught up with Carlos Morgan and shared with him that we had just been backstage with Rufus John, and we all agreed that Carlos with this show tonight, he hit a home run.
Carlos Morgan: Thank you so much.
Carlos Morgan: This has been a great evening.
Carlos Morgan: I'm excited.
Carlos Morgan: It's so wonderful to see all the people, the community come out, supporting the artists, supporting the festival, supporting this initiative, the inaugural festival of the Melbourne festival.
Carlos Morgan: I'm just so grateful.
Carlos Morgan: I'm so appreciative.
Carlos Morgan: Thank you both, Sara and Marshall, for all the support that you've been given this festival so far.
Carlos Morgan: And I'm having a good time.
Carlos Morgan: I was nervous, but I was like, okay, but, you know, I just think the energy and the people are just smiling and enjoying the music.
Carlos Morgan: I'm just hearing live music again like this, and it's focusing on black music.
Carlos Morgan: Black artists in Kitchener and Waterloo.
Carlos Morgan: Yeah, this is exciting.
Marshall: So you did that.
Marshall: Carlos took a moment to reflect on jumping up on stage and performing with Alysha Brilla tonight.
Carlos Morgan: Man, when I heard them doing her song, the rhythm had such a dance hall reggae vibe to it.
Carlos Morgan: I was like, oh, h*** no, you aren't going to do this.
Carlos Morgan: And I'm going to jump on the mic.
Carlos Morgan: And so I was, like, just throwing that vibe.
Carlos Morgan: That was fun.
Carlos Morgan: I didn't want to perform this weekend.
Carlos Morgan: I just wanted to just focus on supporting the artist and supporting the cause and the festival.
Carlos Morgan: While I'm holding that groove, I'm like, okay, I do a little bit.
Carlos Morgan: So it's funny.
Marshall: Before heading home, Sara and I stopped at the merchandise table, and that's where we met artist Ken Daley, whose beautiful painting adorns the official T shirt of the Mel Brown Music Festival and Symposium.
Sara: We asked Ken all about his life as an artist as well as the inspiration behind the painting of Mel Brown.
Sara: We also wanted to know what it felt like to see everyone walking around wearing these T shirts with his art on it.
Ken Daley: My name is Ken Daley, and I'm an illustrator and artist, and I love doing a lot of musical themed artwork.
Ken Daley: So I do a lot of jazz and Blues images and musical themed and Caribbean artwork as well.
Ken Daley: I'm also a children's book illustrator, so I do illustrations for children's books and I've been doing that for a couple of years now.
Ken Daley: I found out that Mel Brown is actually from Jackson, Mississippi, and I had the opportunity to live in Jackson, Mississippi for about three years.
Ken Daley: And so that was actually some of the inspiration in this piece.
Ken Daley: In Mississippi, there's a lot of juke joints, and apparently that's where he actually started playing in Jackson juke joints.
Ken Daley: So I wanted to kind of show that in the artwork so you can see a juke joint behind him and he's playing the guitar there.
Ken Daley: Jackson is also a beer brand in Mississippi, so I use that as I want to kind of keep it in, like reds, blues and yellows.
Ken Daley: So like a primary scheme just to kind of represent, like the grittiness as well, like with Blues.
Ken Daley: My inspiration when I work, I like a lot of abstract realism and impressionistic work, so that's my inspiration to create this piece, too.
Ken Daley: I'm so happy how they turned out because actually today is the first time actually seeing the T shirt.
Ken Daley: So I'm so glad and actually just amazed that my work has been seen around and people are actually responding to it, and I'm really happy about that.
Sara: Leaving the jazz room that night and stepping out into the rain, Marshall and I felt elated.
Sara: Having had this magical live music experience in this small but full venue of The Jazz Room
Marshall: I think I had not been to a live concert in three years, and this was really an experience that I had no idea that I missed so much for me personally.
Marshall: Walking back into Wilford Laure after 15 years.
Marshall: I had been a student there for many years, and then I was an instructor in the fine arts program.
Marshall: Reconnecting with that campus and meeting Lee and Carlos, that was a personal journey for me, just in itself.
Sara: Join us next week for part two of our special three-part series on the Mel Brown Music Festival and Symposium
Sara: We'll be visiting the symposium and we'll hear from many voices like Dr. Brent Hagerman of Wilfrid Laurier University
Brent Hagerman: And then it's developed into this sort of symposium and festival that's on one hand celebrating the music of Mel Brown, the legacy of Mel Brown, the festival itself celebrating black artists, contemporary black artists, and the symposium, the part that I'm doing in it is really putting a spotlight on the legacy of Mel Brown in Kitchener-Waterloo
Sara: And we hear from keynote speaker and spoken word artist Dr. Afua Cooper
Dr. Afua Cooper: Thank you, Lee, for such a warm introduction.
Afu Cooper: Thank you all for coming out.
Afu Cooper: And I have made it a part of my presentation to honor my African ancestors.
Afu Cooper: They died.
Afu Cooper: They crossed the middle Passage.
Afu Cooper: They were brutalized.
Afu Cooper: And somehow somebody survived that I could be here.
Afu Cooper: I often think of it.
Afu Cooper: I said, someone survived.
Afu Cooper: Someone survived the crossing of the ocean.
Afu Cooper: Someone survived the brutality in the homes of the slavery on the plantation and so here I am and that to me is a miracle because it could have been otherwise.
Sara: We also hear from Sam Nabi who curated the emerging artist showcase at the KPL.
Sara: It's going to be night of Blues, rock and funk world, Afro reggae and hip hop featuring artists like Glenn Marias and the Mojo Train, Ekhaya, and Haviah Mighty at the Kitchener Public Library main lounge.
Sara: This is a major transformation of this space and we are so excited to be a part of it.
Sam Nabi: So we're here at Maxwell's Music House. I'm Sam Navi, curator of Tri-City Hip Hop.com.
Sam Nabi: I'm a local hip hop artist and we just heard John Corbin say that hip hop is power and I think that's so true.
Sam Nabi: Hip hop is a way that marginalized communities have been able to take back power, speak truth to power.
Sam Nabi: It's a very political genre and it's a very personal genre.
Sam Nabi: We're going to see a lot of more of that tonight at the Kitchener Public Library when we've got our emerging artists showcase.
Marshall: Join us next week for episode two of the Mel Brown Music Festival in Symposium and so much more.