With his towering frame and supple baritone, Leroy Sibbles is an imposing presence on any stage. But when he sauntered into the lights at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens last week, he didn’t expect to be recognized by many of the 14,000 fans solemnly awaiting the arrival of The Commodores, the most popular black band in the world. Nevertheless, as his band dug into the opening vamp of I'm Thankful, the single from his new album, there was a roar of recognition from the crowd. Sibbles was surprised: though still a star in his native Jamaica, he is relatively unknown outside reggae circles in Toronto, his home for the past nine years.
After sailing through a confident set of rhythm and blues spiked with incendiary reggae, he strode into the dressing room and exclaimed,
“They’ve heard the record!”
The record is Evidence, an album that marks an oblique breakthrough for Toronto’s thriving, but untapped, reggae scene. At the age of 33,
Sibbles, long regarded as the patriarch of Jamaican music in Canada, is the first local reggae artist to be adopted by a major label, A&M Records.
But only a third of the songs on Evidence are reggae; the rest are a cunning mixture of soul, R & B and jazz-scented rock. The package was carefully balanced to circumvent a widespread bias against reggae airplay at radio stations. “Reggae’s just not a big musical form,” says John Parikhal, a media consultant who helps about 25 Canadian stations meet their formats. “It requires a little getting into for people. And nearly every major black musical form ever has had to be covered by white people — from Elvis Presley to The Police—to become popular.”
Although a new generation of reggae bands has emerged in Toronto in the past year, each determined to play its music undiluted, some veteran Jamaican performers, such as Ernie Smith and Carlene Davis, gave up trying to thaw out the Canadian market and returned south. Instead of leaving, Sibbles has survived by adapting his music. To bolster his commercial and musical clout, his manager, Stuart Raven-Hill,
recruited a legion of well-known Canadian musicians to record Evidence, including Bruce Cockburn and most of his band. Backed by another band composed mostly of white musicians, Sibbles headlined well-received concerts in Calgary and Edmonton in mid-June before opening for The Commodores at the Gardens and the Montreal Forum.
The crossover from a localized reggae audience to the broader national market seems to have worked. FM sta-
tions across the country are playing the album, and the single has become one of the very few reggae tracks to reach the AM airwaves. “Straight reggae is hard to fit into our mix,” says Bob Saint, program director of Toronto’s CFTR, where I'm Thankful has already climbed halfway up the station’s chart. “But this time around Leroy came up with a very mass appeal sound.”
Attaining a high profile in Canada has not been easy for Sibbles. When he moved to Toronto in 1973, seeking relief from Jamaica’s economic ruin, he was leader of The Heptones, one of the island’s top bands. He is still the only performer who has been invited back to Sunsplash, Jamaica’s annual reggae ex-
travaganza, for five consecutive years. The son of a small businessman who owns a tire factory, Sibbles was raised in “upper” Trenchtown, the Kingston ghetto that spawned reggae superstar Bob Marley. At 16 he quit school and spent two years studying electrical welding before forming The Heptones. The group’s biggest hit, Fatty Fatty, while banned by radio for its suggestive lyrics, hung at the top of the local charts for months in 1969. As a result, the band was whisked away on a British tour with Toots (Hibbert) and the Maytals.
Astounded by Hibbert’s vast popularity abroad, Sibbles set out to carve a similar niche for himself in Toronto, which has the world’s thirdlargest population of Jamaican expatriates. But he did not foresee the hardships of trying to break through the Canadian bar circuit. Sibbles recalls travelling to Chicoutimi, Que., in the dead of winter with a shudder: “The van broke down, and, even with the heat on, there was ice forming on the inside of the windows. I thought, ‘ This is the end of the road.’ ”
Crucial to Sibbles’ eventual graduation from the bar circuit was his assimilation of black American influences. He grew up listening to Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, The Platters and The Temptations. However, the American influence on his music has not eroded its Jamaican foundation. When the band kicked into the raw reggae of Evidence at the Gardens last week, the song was evidence itself that Sibbles’ roots and social conscience still remain: Those warplanes and tanks/G eneráis and men of higher ranks/Say they're all instruments of peace/All I can see is the mark of the beast.
The prophetic tone of the song, written a year before the Falklands crisis, is typical of the Rastafarian vision that Sibbles shares with many reggae artists. But his decision to work with a nearly all-white band and cater to a broader audience is a departure from the sometimes doctrinaire politics of the music. “Reggae is trying to bring together all the people,” he stresses, “not just the black people.”
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