"Reggae or Not" Spotlights Toronto's Contribution to a Jamaican Genre
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“Reggae or Not” Spotlights Toronto’s Contribution to a Jamaican Genre

A new photo exhibition and event series at the Gladstone looks at the early musical links between Toronto and Jamaica.

Reggae artist Noel Ellis and a friend on St. Clair West. Photo by Beth Lesser.

Reggae artist Noel Ellis and a friend on St. Clair Avenue West. Photo by Beth Lesser.

Reggae Or Not: The Birth of Dancehall Culture in Jamaica and Toronto
Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen Street West)
February 1–28

Toronto is one of the major centres of the Jamaican diaspora, and so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this city has a long history when it comes to reggae music. What is surprising is how little the city’s contribution to the genre is talked about.

A new photography exhibition and accompanying series of events at the Gladstone Hotel explores the musical links between Jamaica and the city. It’s called “Reggae or Not: The Birth of Dancehall Culture in Jamaica and Toronto.”

At the core of “Reggae or Not” is a collection of pictures by local photographer Beth Lesser. A huge reggae fan, Lesser began travelling to Jamaica in the late ‘70s with her now-husband, reggae DJ Dave “Lord Selector” Kingston. She started taking pictures of reggae musicians.

“Originally, we wanted to do a fanzine about Augustus Pablo and his Rockers International organization,” she said. “We made contact with him and we went down to Jamaica to talk to him…From there we started going down to Jamaica twice a year.”

She and Kingston soon realized that there was also a thriving reggae scene in her hometown.

“We saw this poster saying that Lui Lepke was playing at a dance, who was a pretty hot DJ at the time,” she said. “We went at around 10 o’clock. We were so naïve, we didn’t know that no one went to these things until one or two. We were the only people there, so we started talking to the promoter and getting to know him and he liked what we were doing, so he started introducing us to people.”

Her photos wound up forming the backbone of a fanzine, called Reggae Quarterly. They’ve also been published in four books, and they’ve appeared in albums, but they had never been shown in a gallery before now. According to Lesser, that’s because no one wanted to see them. The artists she photographed—the pioneers of the drum machine-based sound that would become known as dancehall—weren’t taken as seriously as their roots reggae predecessors.

“People were used to Bob Marley and Black Uhuru, and people thought that this was garbage music…that it was the moral equivalent of disco,” she said.

Both Lesser and Wedge Curatorial Projects Executive Director Kenneth Montague, who curated the show, say that Toronto’s reggae scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was much larger and much more active than most people realize. Many high-profile reggae musicians recorded albums at Canadian studios, and some, including Johnny Osbourne and Leroy Sibbles, lived here for a time.

“People were doing production in Canada that would go back to Jamaica,” Montague said. “Jamaican artists would come up here and record at studios owned and managed by Jamaican-Canadians.”

Montague added that after a while, there was even a distinctive sound associated with artists recording in Toronto.

“People would go to shows at the Concert Hall, and DJs would have a filtered idea of what was happening in Jamaica, so it became this unique Jamaican-Canadian hybrid,” he said. “Jamaican artists who were visiting would take back that sound and you’d hear it in the next batch of records…You’d get a little bit more of a rock flavor, and a little bit of our filtered take on black American music, too. That R&B influence was key.”

Lesser said that because of the somewhat ad-hoc nature of the Jamaican record industry at the time, it’s hard to know how many Jamaican artists recorded in Toronto.

“The way the Jamaican artists were working at the time, nothing was pre-written,” she said. “They went into the studio, heard an instrumental and made up something on the spot. So it’s incalculable. Some of it was released in Toronto, some of it in Jamaica. Some of it was never released at all.”

In addition to the photo exhibition, “Reggae or Not” will also consist of DJ nights, film screenings, and discussions throughout February. Montague adds that even after “Reggae or Not” ends later this month, the project will spin off into an online archive of local reggae artists, courtesy of Reggae Toronto’s Toronto Reggae History project.

“They’re looking at compiling a living, breathing archive where you can just go online and check those artists who were important in the reggae scene in Toronto,” he said. “That’s going to be the lasting legacy of this show. We’re going to pass the baton on to them.”