Five Questions With… Sumach Roots' Jason Wilson
The acclaimed Toronto reggae musician and history professor combines both fields in his fascinating new project. He explains the concept here and also discusses his creative journey, boyhood musical memories, and a drunken first gig.
By Jason Schneider
Since the early 1990s, Juno nominee and best-selling author Jason Wilson has been able to balance a music career with his academic pursuits in Canadian history. They have become more intertwined in recent years, and now fully converge with his latest project Sumach Roots, a stage production and album available on Oct. 4.
It takes audiences on a bold and innovative audio/visual exploration of Toronto’s evolution over the past three hundred years while drawing from a deep well of sounds—from traditional British folk to bebop jazz and classic reggae—to tell the stories of those who built Toronto, both literally and culturally.
With a top-flight cast of performers in tow, Wilson delves into the late 18th Century diaries of Elizabeth Simcoe, the impact of the Irish Famine, the great Toronto fires of 1902 and 1904, the construction of the CN Tower in the early 1970s, and other crucial moments that illuminate the host/immigrant experience in Toronto. Sumach Roots follows Wilson’s acclaimed 2016 album Perennials as the second part of his Valley Road Trilogy, a celebration of “place” and an invitation to bridge the various enclaves and ethnic borders that demarcate the city.
Wilson’s musical journey began with the internationally successful reggae band Tabarruk, whose debut album featured a guest appearance by Alanis Morrissette. His subsequent profile in the reggae field led him to work closely with Jamaican-Canadian reggae pioneer Jackie Mittoo, as well as recording and performing with UB40. Wilson has also collaborated with the legendary Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin and James Brown/Van Morrison saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.
Another major project has been Soldiers Of Song—a tribute to the First World War Canadian army performing group The Dumbells—recorded with the late, great Fairport Convention fiddler Dave Swarbrick, and performed live across Canada. Sumach Roots takes that concept to a new level, and if you’re in Toronto you can catch a performance on Saturday, Oct. 5, at the historic Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke. Ticket link here, and more info at JasonWilsonMusic.com.
What inspired you to create this project, and what was the process like getting it together?
I have always liked the “telling the untold stories” approach. In this case: Upper Canada across 400 years. This sort of approach combined my worlds of being both a musician and a history professor. I chose about 15 themes for the album and settled on 10 songs in the end—although we recorded 12. I wanted to draw on primary and secondary sources and, where possible, consult with someone from a specific community or someone who had written seriously on the topic. Then I would distill the info and come up with central lines with which to start building a melody around. Each tune took approximately three to four months to write.
What songs on the record are you most proud of and why?
I think Posthuma is one of the stronger songs I’ve ever written. It’s probably not the “catchiest” tune on the album, but I’m proud of the musical arc from the piano-driven singer-songwriter vibe to the blazing jazz soprano solo by Marcus Ali, to the straight-up roots-reggae choruses. The arc suits the narrative too: The verses have Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe considering Toronto as it was in 1793 in its bucolic state; the choruses have Governor Simcoe raging on about Upper Canada and the issues of slavery and land claims. Both are dealing with the loss of Katherine, their only Canadian-born daughter, who was buried at Fort York. Around the same time, Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant)—who had an interesting relationship with the Simcoes, though one which differed greatly as regards to the affairs of land claims as it pertained to First Nations—also experienced the loss of his son at his own hands. Actors Herbie Barnes and Sara Moyle nail this relationship in the sketch that precedes this song in the full production of Sumach Roots.
How would you describe your artistic evolution so far?
I feel that even though I hit the half-century mark next year, I’m still discovering new colours to bring to my palette and still making interesting art. I do not labour under the impression that post-modern jazzy-reggae with a deep reverence for Canadian history will take the world by storm, but I also know that those who like this blend REALLY like it! That keeps me going as an artist.
What are your fondest musical memories as you were growing up?
I come from a very musical family from Scotland. I was the first Canadian-born. So, there was a lot of Scottish folk, pipe tunes and “popular” music in my upbringing. My mom was a piper, my dad sung and taught himself how to play the organ, and my sister is a multi-instrumentalist and has a beautiful voice—she’s on the record as well. She was crazy about Elton John, Queen and Rod Stewart, so I probably appropriated a lot of their approaches and harmonies unknowingly. But by the time I got to school with all of my friends, including many Jamaican pals, reggae became part of my musical vernacular, part of my culture really, hearing it every day as I did from about age 10 onward. The jazz and classical stuff came much later, in my late teens and early twenties.
What do you recall about your first time performing in public?
My first real gig was with my best friend Richard Harvey—younger brother of Carl, the bandleader for Toots & The Maytals —and Rupert “Ojiji” Harvey of Messenjah. Carl and Rupert are both on the Sumach Roots album as well! It was December 1982. I was 12, I was drunk, and I puked before the show. We knew eight songs, and there were 300 kids who paid $2.50 to see us. So we had to play the same eight songs twice. Brilliant really. Sadly, we lost Rich only four years later.