Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos
No one can deny that the Prairie winter of central Canada is a bit on the cool side, sometimes dropping down to -40, even before the wind chill. What better way to warm up a frigid night, than a hot reggae band?
When I first moved to Saskatoon from Brooklyn, I was tooling around my yard trying to figure out what was what, and started talking to a very enthusiastic and upbeat neighbor. A native of the Central American country of Belize and now a Canadian, he’s in a reggae band, he informs me. Later I find out that not only is he “in a reggae band,” but he leads the premier reggae band in the city, if not the province. Everyone I talk to knows of Oral Fuentes, and what I hear back is always positive.
Oral Robert Fuentes (no kidding) not only leads a band that plays regularly around the city, including at many of the festivals around town (Jazz, Blues, etc.), but started and runs his own fest. It started out as the Saskatoon Reggae Festival a few years ago, and recently was updated to the Saskatoon Reggae and World Music Fest, to allow a wider range of sounds.
Speaking of name changes, the Oral Fuentes Reggae Band, as they used to be known, have one CD as of yet, Oral Culture (what a great name to the ear of this Media Ecologist; Fr. Walter Ong would be proud), full of original slow and sensual beats. Supposedly (and hopefully), there is a new recording in the works, hopefully to be released by the 2011 festival.
Finally, after a over a year of joyfully talking over the fence about life and music, I had the chance to see the Oral Fuentes Band in action. At the Bassment, a top-notch jazz club in downtown Saskatoon with friends, we were all planning to see the first one-hour set of two, at the Mardi Gras Fest 2011. It should surprise no one who knows the band that we all stayed for both.
Shortly after, someone at the local community newsletter asked me to write a piece about Oral. The next day, I whipped off a bunch of questions and emailed them to him. When they came back, I turned his responses into a short, easy read piece, the kind neighborhood quarterlies are known for. However, I wanted to put the full answers out, so here they are. Note that I left Oral’s written patter pretty much untouched and unedited, with his permission, because he writes like he talks, in a lilting accent that sounds similar to Jamaican, but smoother in tone. I find his talking and writing manner musical, as well.
FFanzeen: Is it the Oral Fuentes Band, or the Oral Fuentes Reggae Band? Did you change it, and if so, why?
Oral: Fuentes: Although the band name was “Oral Fuentes Reggae Band,” we have change it to just “Oral Fuentes Band.” We did this change because we don't just do only reggae music, but other Caribbean rhythm and beats.
FF: Where else in Canada have you lived? In the world?
Oral: I have lived in Ontario, Oregon, Longview (Texas), Guyana and Belize.
FF: What can you say about how you feel about Saskatoon in comparison to Belize?
Oral: Man, I love both Saskatoon and Belize. The thing is the cold of course and Belize don't get this cold. But when it’s warm and hot, you feel right at home. I feel that I should be here for some reason... sharing and being an ambassador to my culture.
FF: Is there anything you miss from Belize?
Oral: I really miss the food. We have so many good food and fresh fruits. Although you can get some fruits here, it’s not the same when the products have to come so far. I also miss my family and friends.
FF: Is there a name for Belize-distinctive reggae?
Oral: Not really. It’s the same reggae “riddim” as we say... my style is that I mix it up with Latin sounds. Both Belize and Jamaica has the same influences of reggae artists. Most of the time though... these artists are not so much reggae artists but “dance hall” artists. Dance hall and reggae are two different things.
FF: Who are some of your inspirations?
Oral: Belizean Lord Rhaburn, musician Lord Laro, Ernie Smith, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan.
FF: Do you prefer to play the slower reggae or ska?
Oral: I like both... the slower reggae gets us in the groove. Then we put it up a notch, and by the end of the evening, people can't stay in their seats.
FF: Do you play any other kinds of music?
Oral: I play punta rock, Bruckdown (music from Belize), some dance-hall and a bit of soca.
FF: Do you play any other instrument than guitar?
Oral: I play the drums, (both) congas and djembe.
FF: Is there a set Oral Fuentes Band, or do the people backing you change from gig to gig?
Oral: Yes, we have a set band. Most of the fellows in the band have been with me, some for 15 years, some for 7, others for 4 years. We also get a few people to help out from other bands. Both Randy [Woods, guitar] and Geoff [Assman; keyboards] help me out at times, from Absofunkinlutely Band.
The Oral Fuentes Band:
Joseph Ashong – percussion
Oral Fuentes – vocals / guitar
Mike Kereiff – trombone
Zender Millar – bass
Dave Nelson – trumpet
Kevin Pierce - drums
Nigel Wright – lead guitar
FF: What other bands do you play in, here in Saskatoon?
Oral: Just with this band.
FF: What is the competition like here; is there a community or it is aggressively competitive?
Oral: If there is a competition I don't see it. All of the musicians know each other here. If we don't know each other personally, we know the band or heard the name. Each genre or style of music seem to have its own community of friends or people they hang out with. I personally try to stay about from all types of bad vibes or negativity.
FF: What was the music scene like when you first moved here in 1992?
Oral: The music scene was already going, but a lot of people were doing just covers at the time. My band, with a few others, were the only ones that were doing originals. At the time though, none of the night clubs would even hire me, because I wasn't a cover band and not known. People would laugh at me and said that it won't work, just doing my own songs. Others left the band because I wasn't doing covers. But I stick with it and saw the vision for it. We have to be ourselves in this business.
FF: How is it different now?
Oral: There are so many original bands now, which is awesome! Many of the night clubs and festivals want to hire people that writes their own songs. I, myself, have played many times at these clubs that had bias, via the booking guys, against us... and we bring in large audiences for them.
FF: How is the Saskatoon audience these days?
Oral: The audience in Saskatoon is awesome. Saskatoon loves cultural music and the celebration of other cultures. We have so many people that come out to see us. I am thankful for that!
FF: Is there a regular audience that comes to see you play, or does it vary from time to time?
Oral: Yes! We have our regulars that come out to see us. But it depends on where we play. At the night clubs we have that crowd, and at the Jazz Festival we have the family crowd, which is also very large.
FF: Is there anything you'd like to see change about the music scene here (for example, I would like to see a Folk Festival, like the one in Regina, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, etc.).
Oral: We are already trying to do some changes by bringing in the Reggae Festival. Making it accessible to other cultural artists or performing groups.
FF: Why did you start the Reggae Festival?
Oral: I saw the need to have a Festival that celebrates reggae and world music culture. There is a vast amount of people that supports this type of music here. The Festival changed from “Saskatoon Reggae Festival” to “Saskatoon Reggae and World Music Festival.”
FF: How did you go about starting the festival?
Oral: I started the Reggae Fest a few years back in 1995. The Festival started with many Latin and Caribbean shows at the Odeon Events Center, hosted by our band and DJ Juan Valdez. Then it develop into the Reggae Festival. We are now a registered non-profit.
FF: How do you recruit bands?
Oral: Bands hear about the Festival online [saskatoonreggaefestival.com]. When they apply, I get all their infos and go thru it. I usually check for Band's content... whether they are positive or not. I want to find the right fit for the Festival.
FF: What about the high level of homophobia in some reggae bands; how do you get around that in choosing bands to play at the Festival?
Oral: Most of these bands will not get hired at this Festival. I check online to see if these bands are like this, and they will not hear back from us. That’s just the way it is... Also, if a band gets hired we make sure that they know as part of their contract that they can't use profanity or any homophobia statement on stage. If they do there will be consequences.
FF: Since starting the Festival, you have expanded from Reggae to include World Music. What do you consider World Music? And why it's inclusion to the Reggae Fest?
Oral: I consider World Music all afro-beats or other musical cultural rhythm.
FF: When will it be this year (2011)?
Oral: On August 11 to 13th at the Friendship Park, downtown. Last year was at the Rotary Park... but have to be change because of the construction.
FF: How does someone go about hiring the Oral Fuentes Band?
Oral: People usually hire us via my website: oralfuentes.com, or after they see us at a show.
FF: How can someone go about buying your CD, Oral Culture?
Oral: People can buy our music online at cdbaby.com/cd/oralfuentes. It is also at 40 different online stores.