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The Vancouver Crate Digger Mining Buried Music Gold

Kevin Howes has made a life's work of ferreting out lost classics, and giving them second life.

By Doug Ward 23 May 2015 |

Doug Ward is a Vancouver-based freelance writer who was previously a reporter with the Vancouver Sun. Find his Tyee stories .

One night not too long ago, Kevin Howes, a Vancouver deejay who goes by the name Sipreano, hauled a box of vinyl records up a flight of stairs to the China Cloud arts space in Chinatown -- and shared some pressed-wax love.

As young indie music fans slowly filled the small venue, Howes set up two turntables and a mixer, and began selecting songs from a stack of about 100 45s, seven-inch and 12-inch singles and LPs. Most of them were hard-to-find obscure gems from the massive vinyl trove that fills his rented studio-loft.

Early in the evening, Howes played some early dub music from Jamaica by Prince Buster with plenty of reverb and echo. Next was a calypso version of the theme song from the 1961 hit movie Guns of Navarone.

Then Howes switched gears, playing a song most Canadians have never heard, but which he believes belongs in this country's musical canon: "Eskimo Named Johnny" by Inuk musician Willie Thrasher. "There's an Eskimo Named Johnny who lives in the city," goes the opening verse. "But he was born in the wild."

The guitar-and-harmonica folk lament recalled Woody Guthrie and early Bob Dylan. The song by Thrasher, who was stripped of his culture by the residential school system, is a tragic fable about the cultural dislocation experienced by generations of aboriginal people in Canada. "It doesn’t get any more real," said Howes, of the song he'd searched for over five years, finally buying it from another record collector. [Editor's note: To read Doug Ward's short profile of Willie Thrasher, go here.]

The China Cloud event was two months after the December 2014 release of Native North America Vol. 1: Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985, a critically-acclaimed album assembled and curated by Howes in collaboration with Seattle-based reissue label Light In the Attic Records.

Native North America is a startlingly fresh collection of tracks recorded by Canadian aboriginal musicians in the 1960s, '70s and well into the '80s.

These indigenous artists, often based in remote communities or reserves, used global pop -- folk rock, blues, country-rock and garage rock -- to explore their own cultural roots, and to simply rock out. The songs are full of grief and exuberance. On many of the tracks are echoes of Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, even Black Sabbath.

The songs on Native North America contain personal stories that "have shaken me to the core," said Howes. "This music really touched my heart and soul. Over time I became passionate about it and felt people should know about it."

Unfortunately, he added, the Canadian music industry ignored these artists over the years due to the economics of the record business and racism.

"I love artists like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen. But there is so much more to Canadian music," said Howes. "I'm tired of hearing stories about the Guess Who. Let's hear stories about aboriginal musicians like Willie Thrasher. Their music is equally stirring."

Native North America has many critics agreeing with Howes' point. Rolling Stone Magazine praised the compilation for "illuminating a stash of music that's sweeping, under-appreciated, barely documented and surprisingly close to home." The Guardian newspaper in Britain called the album "a goldmine of forgotten fusions." A reviewer at the Georgia Straight said Native North America was a "monumental achievement," adding that among its 34 tracks there was "not a stinker in the bunch."

The record sold so well during the Christmas period in Vancouver that it quickly became unavailable, prompting its surprised but delighted record label to order a second pressing.

Exhuming lost classics

Howes is a crate digger, an obsessive collector of vinyl records. The term comes from the way vinyl music is often stored in milk or produce crates. He's a music geek who became a cultural anthropology sleuth, relentlessly mining for buried treasure. Over the past 15 years, Howes has dug deep for vinyl in messy record stores, flea markets, weekend swap meets, dusty thrift stores, rummage sales and in public and personal music collections. Not content with the vinyl available in Vancouver or its suburbs, Howes regularly hit the road, searching for marginalized music in cities and small towns across the country.

"I'd come to realize years ago that there was all this great music that was as good, if not better, than the songs on the radio or in record stores. It was more personal and more intimate."

Native North America stems from Howes' passion for vinyl music that is off-the-grid. He looks for songs that are authentic and rarely heard -- and then he goes: Listen to this.

Howes' interest in aboriginal music began about 15 years when he was on the lookout for musicians recorded on the now defunct imprint Summus, which had recorded one of Howes' favourite reggae artists, Jackie Mittoo.

He came across the 1971 debut album on Summus by Mi'kmaq singer-songwriter Willie Dunn. "It had the Ballad of Crowfoot, on it and I remembered that I had seen Dunn's film of the same name in high school. So I began checking out his music and any other album by aboriginal musicians I came across."

A few years ago, while at a record swap meet in Vancouver, Howes found an almost extinct 1975 recording by Sugluk, an Inuit hard rock band who were once well-known in the Arctic, but nowhere else in Canada. "I put it on my turntable at home and couldn't believe it. I'd never heard this kind of heavy rock from the northern regions before."

The idea of a compilation of aboriginal music came to Howes about eight years ago. He pitched the idea to Light In the Attic and they agreed. The label now considers the album the most important re-issue it has ever released.

Hear the album's opening acoustic folk track, "I Pity The Country" by the Montreal-born Dunn, and you quickly realize why Howes devoted the last five years putting this album together. Dunn's voice is as eloquent and deep as Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen -- and the lyrics are scabrous. Straightaway, the song grabs your attention.

"I pity the country, I pity the state. And the mind of a man, who thrives on hate. Small are the lives, of cheats and of liars. Of bigoted newspress, fascist town criers."

Besides the ear candy, Native North America comes with a book of extensive liner notes, detailing the political context behind the music and the personal histories of each performer or band.

We learn, for instance, how Quebec aboriginal artist Willy Mitchell embraced rock and roll on a Quebec reserve as a teenager. And how an ill-fated prank -- stealing some Christmas lights -- led to a trigger-happy policeman shooting him in the head. Mitchell won a meagre court settlement for the injury and spent some of the money on his dream six-string guitar: a white Fender Telecaster Thinline.

Howes reached out to each artist to hear their backstory, which wasn't easy considering that many had drifted off into obscurity or lived in some of Canada's most isolated places. He heard that Tayara Papigatuk, a founding member of the hard-rock band Sugluk, of Salluit, Quebec, might live in tiny Cape Dorset, Nunavut. The local radio station there put out the word that Howes was looking for the Sugluk musician. "Two hours later, my phone rang. It was Papigatuk himself! While the songwriter didn't have a phone line of his own, he had dialled from a neighbour's house… I was flabbergasted," Howes said.

Over the past 12 years, Howes has worked with Light In the Attic on lost-gold archival projects featuring Jamaican musicians in Toronto (Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk & Reggae 1967-1974), Motown musicians after the legendary Detroit label moved to Los Angeles (Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love: Motown's Mowest Story 1971-73), Irish psych rockers Thin Lizzy, and the discordant proto-punk group Monks, a group of U.S. GIs stationed in Germany in the early '60s.

(Full disclosure: Howes is my tenant. Over the years, records for his various projects regularly landed in the mailbox on my front porch.)

Given his zeal in ferreting out lost classics, it's not too surprising that he played a minor role in the bittersweet comeback story of Sixto Rodriguez of Searching for Sugar Man fame. Before the release of the Oscar-winning documentary, Howes visited Detroit and interviewed Rodriguez, whose great music was unheralded everywhere except South Africa. "I'd been listening to Rodriguez for like 10 years, because we deejays were always looking for obscure albums. And Rodriguez was doing this Dylanesque, stream-of-consciousness folk rock on top of funky music. It was a match made in heaven for a crate-digger."

He found Rodriguez to be a tough but fascinating interview subject: "He's very shy and withdrawn and often answers questions with a riddle. But he's very kind and intelligent." Howes got enough material to write the liner notes for the re-release by Light In The Attic of Rodriguez' two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality.

Keep on diggin'

Growing up in Port Coquitlam in the '80s, Howes was a rabid music fan and dreamed of being a MuchMusic VJ. He enjoyed his parents' music -- the Beatles and Rolling Stones -- but it was early rap which captured his musical imagination. He loved Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, and later, the Beastie Boys.

"I gravitated toward music that came out of this rap, sample-based aesthetic. And then I found all these records, obscure records nobody had heard, and I would make mixed tapes for friends. And then I realized that I could be playing these records at clubs, and be playing to 50 or 100 people.

"And then my work later with reissues of music became an extension of this desire to share what I was discovering." 
Howes gradually understood that the rhythm tracks on the rap records he loved were sampled from older soul, funk, reggae, jazz and rock music -- "and as soon as I realized that, then a whole new world opened up to me of music and wanting to dig into the roots of it and learn more."

Howes' passionate pursuit of new vinyl was in part driven by his search for new break beats he could use when deejaying. He developed a reputation in the crate-digging community as an authority on reggae and early soul-funk -- a profile that led him to Light In The Attic, which was formed in 2002 to re-release albums which failed to receive the exposure they warranted.

Among the unsung singer-songwriters who caught the ear of Light In The Attic was Wayne McGhie, an obscure Jamaican-Canadian musician who was behind a 1970 soul-funk album called Sounds of Joy. The album was never promoted, and most of the copies of the record were destroyed in a fire. By the mid-'90s, interest in the album began to revive as hip-hop producers began to use break beats from it, and record-collectors began talking up its virtues. "It was a coveted album, and to have it meant you were really deep into crate-digging," said Howes.

Light In The Attic wanted McGhie’s permission to re-release the album. But nobody could find him. Then two hip-hop producers and record collectors in Seattle, Mr. Supreme and DJ Sureshot, advised the record label to contact Howes because of his extensive knowledge about Jamaican-Canadian music history.

Howes convinced Light In the Attic to let him write the liner notes to the re-release of Sounds of Joy. He and Light In The Attic founder Matt Sullivan eventually located McGhie and flew to Toronto. Howes played songs from Sounds of Joy on his portable turntable during an emotional dinner with McGhie. Howes and Sullivan decided during that visit that they needed to release not just Sounds of Joy but a compilation of music created by Jamaican musicians who moved to Canada. The result was the album Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk & Reggae 1967 – 1974.

These days, Howes is eagerly waiting for the second pressing of the Native North America to hit record stores in Vancouver and elsewhere. At this point, he can’t imagine a life when he won’t be picking through vinyl crates -- and then trying to give great but obscure albums the attention they deserve.

"I approach these projects as an artist, and while this work is definitely a labour of love for me, my ultimate goal is to bridge generations, cultures, and eras of technology, something that I don't think happens enough in today's digital age.”  [Tyee]

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