Episode 146: Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium Part Three

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 the Waterloo Region Mass Choir, Errol Blackwood, and Miss Angel "Blues" Brown.

Episode 146:  Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium Part Three

Sara: Legendary blues musician Mel Brown brought the sound of the Mississippi Delta to Waterloo region.

Sara: And although Mel himself is gone, his legacy lives on.

Sara: In celebration of that legacy, the region was recently home to the inaugural Mell Brown Music Festival and Symposium.

Sara: And it happened May 20, 729 2022 at the Jazz Room, Maxwell's Music House, Kitchener Public Library and the Museum.

Marshall: Just days before the festival, Sarah and I visited the KPL Theatre for the last session of a hip hop workshop for Black youth, facilitated by John Corbyn.

Jon Corbin: My name is Jon Corbin.

Jon: I'm a high school teacher by day and creative by night.

Jon: I've been in the creative world for about 20 years.

Jon: I started in Waterloo region as a student at Wilson Lauren, first as a radio host and the DJ concert promoter.

Jon: Became a writer, hiphop writer, poet, podcaster, and a whole bunch of great stuff.

Jon: I've developed a program called Spark Rap Coaching that takes young people through the process of writing a hiphop song.

Jon: And I believe that there's a wealth of creativity and skill in it that can impact a student's life going forward.

Jon: Skills that they can build as well as contributing to the work of anti racist.

Jon: Being a high school teacher for 15 years, there's a lot I can pull into it, but it's really the idea of experiential learning is something that maybe I wish there was more than the classroom.

Jon: So we really want students to be able to engage, first of all, where they are, to be able to sort of acknowledge and self identify their place in this work of creativity, and then from there try and provide nuggets of information that will propel them forward.

Jon: So experience teaching, experience teaching, sort of this back and forth model.

Jon: But one of the things that's really important to me is just wherever the student is, that's where we start.

Jon: And so it makes for a fun and dynamic experience, at least for me, because there's nothing cookie cutter about it.

Jon: But then also when you do it in a group setting, you can foster positivity, you can foster leadership.

Jon: As you see, some students have strengths in different areas.

Jon: So it starts with me and kicking things off, but then moving forward, a group dynamic takes over.

Jon: One of the advantages of this work right now is talking about the history of hip hop because it's such a ubiquitous art form and has such a significant influence on our world in so many different ways.

Jon: It's all around us to this point, but there's fewer and fewer people that understand its history.

Jon: We get together under the mantle of either the creative experience or interest in hip hop, and then from there, we can talk about the essence of it in its origin, which is the four tenants: peace, love, unity, and having fun.

Jon: So it does come with me in some of our checking activities and some of our early exchanges that I need to be positive and peaceful and fun loving, but very quickly connecting that to the history that exists.

Jon: This is what we do as part of the hip hop culture.

Jon: Mel Brown came up at Laurier in the early August, and Mel Brown's legacy was still there was palpable in the music scene and what he had done.

Jon: And then both of these guys, Lee and Carlos.

Jon: Carlos is someone I've met in recent months.

Jon: I've been co writing educational resource on hip hop and social justice.

Jon: Carlos has been on the advisory council for that.

Jon: And it's been really great to connect with more people to understand the history of hip hop, especially in the Canadian context.

Sara: We get a chance to speak with John about his podcast project as well.

Jon: Yeah, so The Jon Corbin Podcast, which is the creatively titled podcast that it is, does encompass my experiences or it seems, that I hold dear.

Jon: When it comes to creative work, creativity itself, inspiration, community, and learning, these are things that are really important to me.

Jon: What I found is that over 20 years of being involved in the creative world, the thing that stands out to me the most is stories.

Jon: And so I wanted to shape a place where we could tell stories.

Jon: I remember organizing a studio session, this is about seven years ago, to work on a song.

Jon: And in the room were a variety of people who had long standing history in Canadian hiphop.

Jon: I invited them.

Jon: It was so and so studio and such and such an artist.

Jon: And it was hard to get to work because of all the storytelling.

Jon: And I thought, I have those things as well, and I'm respecting these people who have more experience than me.

Jon: I have these things.

Jon: Remember this show at the Surface Room or The Boathouse?

Jon: Or when we went to Wilson and Shadow, who has just graduated and was headlining the concert, that was one of the best shows I ever went to, was when I organized at Wilson 2005.

Jon: And I've been able to keep going.

Jon: So I thought, Why not create a space where we can tell those stories?

Jon: And the hope is that some of the personal stuff would be ubiquitous or be universal, and at the same time, I would pursue learning.

Jon: So from there, it's people that I've come in contact with and we've learned something from each other, or I'm learning from them.

Jon: So, yeah, it's my own pursuit of finding the stories, reminiscing a little bit, seeing where the universal truths are in terms of creativity, inspiration, how that might help other people.

Jon: And so, yeah, that's the goal.

Marshall: We asked John Corbin about his approach to teaching in his hip hop workshop.

Jon: So it's a coaching approach.

Jon: Right.

Jon: So students will be in a certain place with certain abilities.

Jon: I'm not sure right now where you are part way through this session where all the students are with music.

Jon: Last week, they left with drum power.

Jon: Right.

Jon: So we might be building something out today.

Jon: Nigel has the musical ability and went to school for it, and he wanted to take his own.

Jon: So where is each student?

Jon: I think there's one student that we said, you only need a drumbeat.

Jon: That's the way that you've written and the vibe that you possess, you only need to drum beat.

Jon: So at this point, it's a tight rope, in a sense, to make sure that you've got a balance of encouraging a student forward.

Jon: But if they have never picked up the mic before, we can't really sweat too much about what the music sounds like.

Jon: It all has to come together in some way, but it's unique every time.

Jon: So, yeah, this will be a fun session.

Jon: Some people like the microphones, and some people do not like the microphone.

Jon: Covered musical theater shows in the back there.

Jon: Ready?

Jon: I had to keep them away from the microphone.

Jon: All of you put in outstanding work, and the work is really moving.

Jon: I spoke to everyone individually, but I'll just say this as a group.

Jon: The showcase is designed to showcase the work that we've done over the last four weeks.

Jon: It's not about a perfected song.

Jon: It's about the work that we've done.

Jon: And so, based on what was shared, I do not want to deprive anyone of the opportunity of hearing this stuff.

Jon: If you think about, no one has done this before, and there's real truth in what you're saying.

Jon: It's done artistically and it's very moving, but it is work that we've done.

Jon: And I'd like us to consider that in terms of a showcase.

Marshall: The Black Youth Music Showcase, facilitated by John Corbin, happened on March 28 at Maxwell's Music House.

Jon: I remember playing the other locations of Maxwell about the size of that stage, and I've been doing this song for a long time.

Jon: It's really about the essence of hiphop, which is peace, love, unity, and having fun.

Jon: So this is about having fun, and now you're going to help me with this.

Sara: When we heard the aspiring young hiphop artists at the showcase, Marshall and I were incredibly impressed with how far they had come, even in the few days since the last workshop.

Jon: Nigel had a very strong sense of rhythm and where he wanted to go with his musical training, but surprised us all.

Jon: When we did our first little practice exercise and he was delivering rhymes, he was like, you sure you've never written before?

Jon: Never.

Jon: And he continued to elevate week after week after week.

Jon: I wanted to tell this quick story because we've been connected with the region for so long, but I haven't seen how beautiful the Kitchener Public Library is in its renovations over the years.

Jon: So we're in this wonderful meeting space with big windows and clear glass doors, and it was just a wonderful environment for us that would allow us to run around the space.

Marshall: After the showcase, we spoke with Gun Ho, who's a graduate student in the community music program at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Sara: He also served as a research assistant for Jon Corbin's workshop.

Gun Ho: Right, so we had over a month.

Gun Ho: We spent four sessions working with these kids, and John was incredible.

Gun Ho: He would always start with some exercises to get us into a creative mindset, like free writing, getting us to rhyme words.

Gun Ho: And then we started talking about form and structure and rhyme.

Gun Ho: And he would always ask us questions that would get us thinking about our identities, our purpose, our philosophy is really inspiring to see some of the Shire students get up on stage that last day and just with such confidence, speak their minds.

Gun Ho: It was very moving.

Marshall: On May 29, the last day of the Mel Brown Music Festival & Symposium, Sara and I headed to the Museum in downtown Kitchener for an afternoon of music called Soul Inspiration, featuring performances by the Waterloo Region Mass Choir, Errol Blackwood and festival headliner Miss Angel.

Marshall: Upon arrival, we chatted with Steve Strongman.

Steve Strongman: Well, my name is Steve Strongman, born and raised here in KW, and I was very lucky to basically grow up listening to Mel.

Steve Strongman: And he really took me under his wing like he did with so many people.

Steve Strongman: He's so incredibly generous with his time.

Steve Strongman: And I used to play with Mel from the time I was about 16 years old on and still I'm a professional musician, that's what I do.

Steve Strongman: And there's no way I'd be able to do it if it wasn't for Mel.

Steve Strongman: I have so many memories to reflect on when it comes to playing with Mel.

Steve Strongman: One thing in particular is just that feeling of me being very young and being exposed to a world class artist like Mel.

Steve Strongman: And I remember very vividly him handing me his super 400 guitar and I just thought that that was the coolest thing in the world, that he would let a teenager play his guitar like that.

Steve Strongman: But, I mean, there's so many things to talk about.

Steve Strongman: He was generous like that, not only with me, but with so many people in the community.

Marshall: We asked Steve Strongman to just share some personal insight on knowing Mel Brown.

Steve Strongman: He was always very gentle and he was teaching without actually you realizing that he was teaching.

Steve: He would never tell you, do this or don't do that.

Steve: He wasn't like that at all.

Steve: He led by example, as you said, he loved everybody.

Steve: And I think he fell in love with Kitchener, with KW.

Steve: And I would ask him many times, like, why Kitchener?

Steve: What happened?

Steve: And I think it was the community.

Steve: He just loved being here so much and he fell in love with it and that's all he wanted to do.

Steve: He wanted to play music for people that love music in a great community.

Steve: So he was a very gentle leader.

Steve: That's how I would put it.

Sara: We had a lovely moment with Errol Blackwood out front of the museum in downtown Kitchener.

Sara: We asked him about being a musician in Waterloo region and also his time with Mel Brown, and he shares a really special song with us.

Errol Blackwood: Where I learned to play, my first time in a stage was in Woodstock, actually, but there was a band in Kitchener and a guy named Jackson Jones Band, and so I followed them all around.

Errol: They couldn't get rid of me, I just wanted to sing.

Errol: So they were playing in Woodstock, they had a matinee and they said, I could come up and sing.

Errol: So after I went up to sing, after that, they get me everywhere to sing.

Carlos: So it's cool.

Errol: Mel Brown and me now, from the first time he came here, he used to play on Queen Street and they had a toonie event.

Errol: And so I came there.

Errol: That's where I met him.

Errol: And from I met him, he just like he called me on stage without even knowing who I am.

Errol: And then from there, every time he's playing and I come down, call me up, hey, babe, get on stage and jam with him.

Errol: Really?

Errol: That's one of the greatest musicians and so humble.

Errol: The greatest are always the humblest.

Sara: So Miss Angel Brown, she was the wife and musical partner of Mel Brown.

Sara: And just like Mel Brown, she's a blues legend in Waterloo region.

Marshall: I've seen Miss Angel perform so many times over the years, but I've never had the opportunity to speak with her before.

Sara: But following Miss Angel's headlining performance at the Museum on Sunday, May 29, we actually got a chance to sit down and speak with her.

Miss Angel: They call me Miss Angel “Blues” Brown, I prefer Miss Angel and my band, the keyboard player and the bass player, they were Mel Brown band home record and magic.

Miss Angel: The drama used to sub when bought.

Miss Angel: Couldn't make it.

Miss Angel: But now he's like a fixture and I love him so much and appreciate him for playing for me.

Marshall: We asked Miss Angel about the song Just Your Fool and the beautiful footage you can find on YouTube of her and Mel Brown performing it.

Miss Angel: They have that on YouTube.

Miss Angel: And I didn't actually know that that was going to happen.

Miss Angel: I was working on my new album.

Miss Angel: That's the way I tumble.

Miss Angel: And so Mel had little Gibson guitar, acoustic and in the studio, and he played it as I had the headphones on.

Miss Angel: So I sing it.

Miss Angel: I had no idea that they were taping it, that it's going to be on YouTube, but that's how that came about.

Miss Angel: And then I sing it and the people like it and they ask for it.

Miss Angel: So I keep saying it.

Miss Angel: They always want to hear I'm Just Your Fool.

Sara: As lifelong locals of the Waterloo region, Marshall and I were curious if Mel Brown ever had a favorite venue to play at.

Miss Angel: No, he didn't care.

Miss Angel: He played that's for what I know.

Miss Angel: He played the same way in the backyard on the River Bank house party as he did on a big stage, the music was he put it out and he gave 150% each time he picked up a guitar.

Miss Angel: If you had a keyboard, he would give me the keyboard and it was the same thing.

Miss Angel: He was like, I can't explain it.

Miss Angel: He made everything…

Miss Angel: My last CD I did with Sean Kellerman down in Mississippi and Mel was playing everything and he programmed a drum machine, but he's playing the rhythm, the lead and whatever music you hear on there, he's doing the whole thing.

Marshall: When I think about that long list of all these performers that Mel Brown performed with and names that some people may not know, like Sonny and Cher, David Bowie, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, one name that really I'd love to know more about is he performed with Doris Day one time and we asked Miss Angel about that.

Miss Angel: Oh, yeah, she had a sitcom 30 minutes show where she was on the farm, and then she went to New York.

Miss Angel: This was a segment of the show and the guitar you hear when she gets to New York and Marlin, that's Mel Brown.

Miss Angel: That's the connection.

Marshall: I've been such a big fan of Errol Blackwood for so many years, and when he got up on stage this afternoon, play with Miss Angel, I was so thrilled.

Marshall: So we asked her, what that's like to perform with Errol Blackwood.

Miss Angel: I just love Errol so much.

Miss Angel: He's so wonderful.

Miss Angel: And we often, if we're in the same place, playing the same place, either he's going to get up with me or I'm going to get up with him.

Miss Angel: But we're going to do some togetherness when we're both in the same room.

Sara: Throughout this entire weekend at the Mel Brown Music Festival and Symposium, we heard educators, musicians, promoters, producers, community builders of all kinds reiterate a common thread that was Mel Brown's life.

Sara: Like a blues riff through a song, he taught and inspired others with quiet leadership.

Sara: He stood back and watched them blossom, finding their own creative path in our community.

Miss Angel: Well, Mel didn't like to tell nobody what to do.

Miss Angel: He would like to plant a seed and give you food for thought.

Miss Angel: He would never say, Oh, you did this wrong, or you shouldn't do this.

Miss Angel: But he would say something to you that made your mind think about it.

Miss Angel: And that's the way he talks.

Miss Angel: That's why he was so good at it.

Sara: Whether they saw him perform at the Boathouse, the Flying Dog, Pop the Gator or the Kitchener Blues Festival, countless local blues fans will attest that over the past 30 plus years, Mel Brown inserted love into their lives through his inimitable guitar playing and his honest, soulful voice.

Marshall: Before we hear from Darren Hamilton of the Waterloo Region Mass Choir and a song with them, we asked Carlos Morgan to recap the weekend.

Carlos Morgan: As you mentioned, Sara, Friday evening was magical.

Carlos: Indeed, Joni and Alyshaa and Rufus at The Jazz Room and everybody there, and just the energy and the vibe when people are just being cooped up in the past two and a half years.

Carlos: So having the first night turn out to be the way it was and the way it did again was magical.

Carlos: And I'm just so grateful for that night and the camaraderie between Rufus, Alysha and Joni, and you could feel it and see that I just loved being in the background, supporting.

Carlos: And of course, I have to get up and jam a little bit because I heard that groove that Alysha was putting down.

Carlos: I was like, Oh, like I said, can I get on?

Carlos: But that was fun.

Carlos: And then last night at the Kitchener Public Library with Sam Nabi curating the Young Emerging Artist Showcase with Muhleak and Quinton Barnes and Elaquent and just highlighting and showing the young talent that's in this region in hip hop.

Carlos: And then we got into the concerts with Glenn Marais and Ekhaya and then, of course, Haviah Mighty that just took it to the next level.

Carlos: I felt like it was a stepping stone, just like Friday night, but definitely a stepping stone with Glenn and then a Ekhaya taking it higher and then Haviah just with everybody just pumping their fists and then right in front of the audience.

Carlos: It was a great night.

Carlos: It was energetic.

Carlos: And I heard from some people, they thought it was so energetic that there was a buzz.

Carlos: They felt like energized.

Carlos: And then today, starting with Water Region Mass Choir and bringing the spiritual and the gospel and the soulful and preaching the message of Jesus Christ and love and coming together and healing and encouragement.

Carlos: And then Errol Blackwood with the regular vibes and Miss Angel with the blues, just the various genres of black music that were featured and highlighted.

Carlos: This is what I wanted.

Carlos: This is what I wanted to show that Kitchener and Waterloo has a black music scene here.

Carlos: And so to be given the opportunity to be a part of this festival with Lee and Nathan and the rest of the team, I'm very happy, I'm grateful.

Carlos: I was emotional, I'm overwhelmed, I'm tired.

Carlos: I'm going to take a couple of days, just relax and reflect.

Carlos: Again, I cannot thank the both of you, Sara and Marshall, for your support, for your love, for your encouragement.

Carlos: Thank you all so much.
Carlos: What I'm going to remember most is Friday night, more than the performances, was the audience and how open I felt, how open they were and seeing people dance and seeing smiling faces and people connecting again and talking with each other, talking to each other and seeing people walk out and just the positive energy that was all around for me, that is what I'm going to remember most of all.

Carlos: For this weekend.

Carlos: Just the joy that I saw everybody have.

Carlos: And again, it was a full house.

Carlos: I was on Facebook.

Carlos: And again, Sara, thanks for all the great photos you took.

Carlos: Beautiful shots, beautiful pictures.

Carlos: And looking at the pictures and seeing the smiling faces, that, for me for this weekend, is what I'm going to remember most of Friday night.

Marshall: Sara and I would like to thank Carlos Morgan, Lee Willingham and the Kitchen Public Library.

Marshall: We made so many new friends over the weekend and we want to thank everyone who took the time to speak to us.

Marshall: Carlos and Lee, we can't thank you enough for bringing us along on this journey to the inaugural Mel Brown Music Festival and Symposium.

Marshall: Thank you.

Marshall: Carlos Morgan grew up singing gospel, R&B and reggae, and we can only imagine how emotional that was to see the Waterloo Region Mass Choir perform.

Marshall: Sara and I sat down and we were just so taken back by this powerful performance.

Marshall: Here's Darren Hamilton of the Waterloo Region Mass Choir.

Darren Hamilton: My name is Darren Hamilton and I'm the artistic director and co founder of the Waterloo Region Masque, and this is a community gospel choir.

Darren: We've been around in the KW area for four years now, since 2018.

Darren: I am a choral conductor and also a music educator, and it is just an honor to be able to lead a group of gospel music.

Darren: Gospel music conducting is very different from traditional choral conducting.

Darren: So you're not doing a beat pattern, but you're really engaging the choir in being able to internalize the music and then bring out the music in their singing and in their voices.

Darren: With gospel choir music, there is no sheet music, so they're not reading off of a score.

Darren: And so the conductor in gospel music is the score.

Darren: We are giving cues for the choir and the band as to the musical form of the piece, giving cues for when we're moving on to the next section, when we're singing in unison versus when we're singing in three part harmony.

Darren: And so all of the cues, both the musical cues and the vocal cues, are being communicated through the conductor.

Darren: And then, of course, cosmic music has a lot of energy.

Darren: And so the conductor's role is to help this fire to keep the energy up and just to remind them to keep that energy up as they're performing.

Darren: Carlos and I actually go back a long time in my very first year of teaching.

Darren: And when I started teaching in the field District school board, I invited Carlos to be a guest at my vocal music class.

Darren: So he did a whole week of vocal workshops on RnB music and we just stayed in contact over the years.

Darren: It's been over ten years since I've known Carlos, and ironically, I moved to Kitchener in 2017 along with my wife, and Carlos ended up getting connected to Wilford Laurier through his community music graduate program.

Darren: And so we just happened to get connected in the same city.

Darren: And so when he was planning the conference, he just reached out to ask if a bodily region, mass fire can be a part of it.

Darren: Carlos, definitely.

Darren: He's a class act.

Darren: He's a great performer, great communicator.

Darren: He exceeds so much positive energy.

Darren: And what he's doing here with the symposium and the festival in terms of just bringing awareness to the legacy of Mel Brown through this festival, it's just an amazing thing.

Darren: And also creating opportunities for artists, marginalized and racialized artists, black artists in the Kw area, to be able to have a presence and a space to share their music, it's just an amazing thing.

Darren: And so my hats go off to Carlos.

Darren: I can only imagine how much work it's been planning this symposium, but him and the community have done an amazing job.

Sara: We asked Darren Hamilton all about the Waterloo Region Mass Choir song Not Powerless, which we're closing out the show with.

Sara: Thanks, everybody, for joining us.

Darren: You know what?

Darren: Not Powerless was written by myself ten years ago.

Darren: And I was at a point in time in my life where, to be honest, I was going through a period of depression and just feeling really powerless, for a lack of a better word, just going through a lot of emotional issues, financial issues, social issues, relationship issues.

Darren: And I grew up in the church and I had a strong faith in God and I grew up on the Christian faith.

Darren: And so as I was going through that period of time, I was just reminded that although things don't look great, that there is hope and I can find strength and hope to get through those circumstances through prayer.

Darren: And so the song just kind of got deposited one day.

Darren: I was just sitting and I just started thinking about what was going on.

Darren: And as I shared earlier in the concert, the words came to me, things might seem hopeless and you've accepted that your hands are tied.

Darren: And as those words came to me, I literally imagined myself tied up, like, my hands are tied, I'm against the wall.

Darren: I can't do anything about the situation that I'm going through, but even in that state, I'm able to use my mouth and I'm able to pray, and I'm able to pray to God and ask God for help through that situation.

Darren: And so that's where that song came from.

Darren: I know that we've been going through a very challenging situation with the pandemic, with wars, with so many different things going on in our world in the past few years.

Darren: And we felt when we were planning to do our EP recording, that this would be such an appropriate song to be the lead single and the title track for our EP.