Text, photos, and video © Robert Barry Francos
Photos can be enlarged by clicking on them
When one thinks of reggae, the tendency is to imagine palm trees swaying, warm breezes blowing, and a possible hint of a green aroma in the air.* That being said…
February 18, 2011 was a cold and blustery evening, and it was also the opening night of the Bassment’s Mardi Gras Fest 2011, and the band they chose to be the lead-off was the Oral Fuentes Band. Some of us went down there to check out just the first of the two 1-hour sets, but we joyfully ended up staying for both.
The Bassment is one of the eminent jazz club of Saskatoon, unassuming from its side entranceway of the old post office building. Many great musicians play at the small club, whose stature has risen over the years. The last time there I was able to catch master pianist Don Griffith.
Oral Fuentes is probably the best known reggae musician in Saskatoon, who moved to the Saskatchewan city in the early 1990s, from his native Belize. He brought with him a rich culture of music and open-mindedness. Over the years, he has started and leads the Saskatoon Reggae and World Music Festival during the summer months, but for this show, he was there for his musicianship.
It would be completely filled, but when we got there, we grabbed a table up front, so we had a wide open view of the stage, and of the musicians, who all also play in various other groups, mostly jazz-oriented. From left to right, they were:
Originally from Ghana, percussionist Joseph Ashong was a total powerhouse, moving around the stage with his various drums, intermingling with the other musicians, and obviously having a grand time, which passed some energy to the audience. Everything about him was expressive, from his facial expressions to his bulging biceps. It was so obvious he was having fun.
On lead guitar was Randy Woods, who also fronts one of the town’s exceptional funk groups, Absofunkinlutely. A big man, he quietly stood in the back and let Oral be in full control. Randy and Oral have been playing together for years, and they both appear on each other’s albums. Randy is great at both keeping rhythm and tearing the atmosphere on his solos. While I’ve seen his group perform at the Pride Festival last year, and have enjoyed his two albums, this was the first time I had the opportunity to talk to him, albeit briefly.
Front and center is Oral, whose specialty is (according to the Bassment’s program) “reggae, soca, punta-rock, and brukdown.” They left off the most important one: fun. There are two Orals on stage housed in one body. The first is the person who gets into the music on an obviously spiritual level, flowing with the sound and singing from the heart. The other is the bandleader, who knows exactly how to work the band into a solid unit through subtle signals and signs. As this group has worked together in various forms over the years, they can “read” each other, permitting experimentation and solos without egos bashing. Oral does well in giving the others times to shine.
In a neat shirt and tie is drummer Kevin Pierce, well known in the jazz circles in town. He sets a rhythm going, and doesn’t let up. And not once did he loosen the tie, alone worth the marvel. Add the stick-work, and you have yourself a powerful juju.
Mike Kereiff plays a mean trombone, one with a South Park image on the end. He may not have killed Kenny, but his playing would do away with boredom, that’s certain. He wielded it like a sword and cut a swath through the sound.
Dave Nelson, on trumpet, was, as far as I knew, the only other Yank than me in the room. Up from Washington, he shone during his solos. After the sets, I went over and said hi from one American to another. Cool guy with a hot horn. His solos were something to wonder at in admiration.
Last is Zender Millar on electric bass. His long beard and even longer pony-tail (going well down below his belt line) belay a firm bottom that completes the rhythm section. He is a solid player, and while not moving around the stage much, his playing line gave everyone room to both move, and a rhythmic residence to for the others to come back home.
The dance floor of the Bassment was set up to the far side of stage left, and people were definitely swaying to the riddem. At some point, two of the dancers (Dave and Kirsten, an artist who works in leather hides) danced in front of the band during the last number of the first set, which was fun to watch.
By the time we went home, we were exhausted from the energy level in the room. We bundled up for the very snowy and cold evening, and hurried home, both shivering from the weather and warm from the echoes of the sounds left in our heads.
* Unless you’re a British punker, of course.
More photos can be found here: