music

Reggae got soul...and calypso, and jazz

Fusion trio Bedouin Soundclash is dedicated to collapsing musical boundaries

NANCY MACDONALD November 21 2005
music

Reggae got soul...and calypso, and jazz

Fusion trio Bedouin Soundclash is dedicated to collapsing musical boundaries

NANCY MACDONALD November 21 2005

Reggae got soul...and calypso, and jazz

music

Fusion trio Bedouin Soundclash is dedicated to collapsing musical boundaries

NANCY MACDONALD

Fresh from the U.K.’s Reading and Leeds festivals, behold Bedouin Soundclash: the classification-defying musical fusion outfit behind the summer anthem When the Night Feels My Song, now ubiquitous on the airwaves. You’d assume, for all its sunny Carib cheer, that the song sprang from a Montego Bay dance hall. Not so: the trio formed in Kingston—Ontario, that is, known for its university, not its teeming slums. But the band’s sound is infused with beats from the Jamaican capital’s Trenchtown neighbourhood—seemingly as alien to Canada as a block heater to the tropics.

As a freshman at Queen’s, Vancouver-bred frontman Jay Malinowski shared a residence, and a milk-crate collection of Jamaican 45s, with Peterborough, Ont.-born bassist Eon Sinclair, whose West Indian roots attuned him to calypso. Kingston drummer Pat Pengelly brought to the mix a fondness for the syncopated rhythms of jazz. Before they sat for their first exams, they had started work on a demo.

The result, four years and three degrees later, is a joyful collision of sounds, evident in the band’s debut album, Root Fire (2002), and further refined in this year’s Sounding a Mosaic, which features When the Night Feels My Song. There’s been a growing acceptance of the group’s genre-bending, but when they started in 2001, critics pronounced them reggae and declared Canadian kids can’t make reg-

gae. They weren’t the only skeptics: the band’s

own label had doubts. “When they first heard When the Night Feels My Song, they said it would never get played on the radio,” recalled Malinowski before he stepped onstage for Bedouin Soundclash’s sold-out Vancouver show last week, the start of their current crossCanada tour.

Although the band, now based in Toronto, acknowledges the ska/reggae basis of its sound, the three musicians resist being slotted into a single category, insisting that their intention is to collapse musical boundaries and blend styles. Malinowski considers the band’s latest album a definitive break from the CanRock tradition—which is, at its core, white rock ’n’ roll—and predicts “a new wave of bands” that will further depart from that canon. “We’re trying to be part of the mosaic—whatever that is, whether that’s a reality or just an ideal,” he says. “We’re sounding out what that mosaic could be.”

Take Gyasi Went Home, which opened their Vancouver show: imbued with the buoyant vibe of Afro-pop, its sped-up guitars also conjure calypso—a genre that, like American blues, sprang from slave culture as a medium for social commentary. The song originated in a visit Sinclair, 23, made to his parents’ native Guyana, where he came up with its walking bass line. Malinowski’s lyrics were inspired by Sinclair’s discovery of a homeland divided by racial tension. True to form, the song’s

festive tone belies the angst of its message.

Malinowski, 23, a fine arts grad and professional painter (who recently showed at Toronto’s Gallery Bibianne), often weaves stories of fictional characters into his lyrics. But he doesn’t shy away from dark or weighty sociopolitical issues, as with Shadow of a Man, which alludes to the walking dead who inhabit the devastated corners at the centre of most cities. In a poetic nod to workers, the champions of reggae’s past, Immigrant Work-

'We're trying to be part of the mosaic/ says Malinowski, 'whether that's reality or just an ideal'

force tells the tale of a man of “stalwart stock” who has placed his hopes on North America. The track might have been titled Immigrant Workhorse, as the melancholic monotony of its bass line echoes his life’s plodding drudgery, beginning “when the alarm goes off in the blue morning dark.”

To Malinowski, these songs are as alive as club tracks: “You can come out and dance, or you can listen and learn from them.” The young Vancouver crowd, a curious mix of earnest punks and coiffed ffat boys, preferred to dance and seemed, at times, bemused by the band’s eclecticism, as when Pengelly, 24, stepped from behind the drums to sing with Malinowski in a spare rockabilly encore.

With Malinowski’s symbolic, messageladen compositions, his gravely lyrical delivery, and his occasional gritty rebel yell, Bedouin Soundclash often seems to be channelling Bob Marley’s early Wailers. But there’s a more upbeat quality to the band’s sound, a brazenness and optimism that seem unmistakably Canadian. M

MADONNA HAS SOMETHING TO SAY

I don’t like cities, but I like New York/ Other places make me feel like a dork/Los Angeles is for people who sleep/Paris and London, baby you can keep / Other cities always make me mad/Other places always make me sad/No other city ever made me glad/Except New York/1 love New York / If you don’t like my attitude, then you can F-off / Just go to Texas, isn’t that where they golf? — from / Love New York (Confessions on a Dance Floor)