Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Caribbean Canadian Heritage Month?

Caribbean Canadian Heritage Month?

By Norman (Otis) Richmond

Why is multi-cultural Canada always tailing the U.S. on racial affairs?
Why did U.S. president George W. Bush sign into law making June Caribbean American Heritage Month? Why didn’t the forward thinking Liberal governments of Jean Chr├ętien or Paul Martin not think of doing this before the president of the country known as:” the land of the tree and the home of the slave?”

These were some of the questions that ran though my mind as I read Colin Rickards’ column, “Caribbean Heritage Month?” The Caribbean Camera, June 22, 2006. Rickards wrote, “The U. S. Bill, authored by Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland, was designed to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of Caribbean Americans to the growth and development of the United States.”

The Texas-born, Lee's willingness to stand on principle earned her
international attention when she was the only member of Congress to vote against the resolution authorizing President Bush to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons ."

In addition to being one of Congress' most vocal opponents to the war in Iraq, Congresswoman Lee has been a leader in promoting policies that foster Pan-Africanism, international peace, security and human rights.

The anti-war Lee must have had Harry Belafonte in mind when she authored this call for legislation in support of Caribbean American Heritage Month. In my judgement Belafonte ranks a very close second to his idol Paul Robeson as an example of a role model for an artist.

Belafonte, like Robeson, is not an “art for art sake “type. Belafonte like Robeson feels that art must serve the world’s oppressed and not the world’s multi-national corporations. It must be mentioned that the “pretty boy” Belafonte has consistently called out U.S. president after president as well as former secretary of state Colin Powell.

Rickards maintains that Black History Month (February), South Asian Month (May) and Black Music Month (June) should continue as they are. He correctly points out, “It may also be worth remarking that the February and June celebrations focus on Black people – those of African descent – with which I have no problem. Nor do I with May highlighting those of Indian descent. However, as Share used to say years ago, in a little box which ran in every issue: “Not all Black people are West Indians and not all West Indians are Black…”

Many years ago, broadcaster Milton Blake and I who helped popularize Black Music Month in this city. We followed the lead of African Americans such as Kenny Gamble of Philadelphia International Records, Dick Griffey of Solar Records and Ed Wright, ex-prez of the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers.

However, we never followed the U.S. leadership blindly. We had our own agenda that included plugging African Canadian music maker into the international music market and making our contribution to Pan-Africanism. We led delegations of African Canadian musicians to conventions in New York City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Miami Beach where Toronto music makers rubbed shoulders with Betty Wright, who recorded with Peter Tosh and toured with Bob Marley and the Wailers, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Ashford and Simpson and others.

Moreover, the biggest coup that the BMA was involved in was bringing Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder together at one of their first conventions. Carol Cooper captured this moment in Pan African musical history. Said Cooper, “DURING A DEFINITIVE rendition of "Exodus" which capped an hour-long show by the Wailers, Stevie Wonder joined Bob Marley on stage and moved 2,000 members of the Philadelphia-based Black Music Association to their feet in a visceral optimism so strong that for a palpable moment all the tensions and doubts provoked during last week's conference seemed resolved. Music has been known to do that.”

This took place in 1979.

I can site one other concrete example of how the BMA/Toronto Chapter helped promote African Internationalism with music. On Johnny “Guitar “Watson’s 1980 release, Love Jones, he included a song "Asante Sana".

“Asanta Sana” is Swahili for "Thank you very much". This song came about as a result of a meeting that I arranged between the Houston, Texas born Watson and Eduardo Mondlane, Jr. Mondlane , the son of Eduardo Mondale founder of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), an organization that led the fight against Portuguese colonialism. I was introduced to Mondlane during a visit to my family in Los Angeles.

Mondlane was interested in guitarists and was impressed by Eric Clapton and other UK artists. When I attempted to tell him that Clapton and the others were all copying African American blues men he dismissed me as a ”Black American racist” . I’d heard that many times before.

As it happened, I had an interview with Johnny “Guitar” Watson and asked Mondale if he wanted to roll with me. He agreed. Not only was Watson a top shelf vocalist and guitarist but he mastered piano and many other instruments.

When I introduced Watson to Mondlane, it was love at first sight. The
legendary Watson was impressed to meet the son of a leader of a liberation movement.

“This brother is the son of the chief, right?” I laughed and said, “Sure,
your right”. Watson explained to Mondlane that T-Bone Walker, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Guitar Slim were his influences. Jimi Hendrix, who had gone to England and blown the minds of Clapton and others, was influenced by Watson.

This lesson convinced Mondlane that I was not the “racist” he thought. That was one of my favourite hook ups. When Watson passed ten years ago on stage during a tour of Japan I thought about Mondlane.

The history of the links between the politics and music of Africa and the Western Hemisphere is dying to be written. Hopefully, I can make my contribution to this chapter of the history Africans at home and aboard.

Norman (Otis) Richmond can be contacted by email at:

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