Derek Andrews talks to Elaine Bomberry about Rez Blues and the Indigenous roots of the blues
Elaine Bomberry deserves to be much more widely known among Canadian roots music fans, and we here at Roots Music Canada will do everything we can to shout from the rooftops about how great she is.
On April 3, 1993, she launched Rez Blues, initially a showcase of Indigenous blues musicians at the Edgewater in Toronto. It rapidly grew into a brand comprising concerts, a radio documentary, workshops and a television show on APTN. When she wasn’t creating Rez Blues, Elaine was booking and managing artists. She was instrumental in establishing the Juno Awards’ Indigenous music category, and she’s been a tireless advocate for Indigenous artists in the Canadian roots and blues scene. And that’s only a sampling of her achievements.
The Toronto Blues Society co-presented a series of streaming concerts celebrating more than 25 years of Rez Blues earlier this fall, and president Derek Andrews also held an online conversation with Elaine. He gave us permission to transcribe it and share it with you here on Roots Music Canada. (Thanks, Derek!)
If you have yet to learn about the Indigenous roots of the blues and the Toronto venues that became destinations for residential school survivors in the 60s, read on, friends. Elaine has some more of that history they didn’t teach us in school.
(Note: This conversation has been edited and redacted somewhat for readability. Scroll down to watch the video.)
Derek: Let’s go all the way back to the Edgewater. The trigger for producing the event involved our friend, Jani Lauzon, and you were reminding me, you came into the office. You weren’t on an official capacity. You and Jani came – and you said with your sisters – and talked about the idea?
Elaine: Yes. Yes. It was just so amazing that Jani was there on the board. And that’s when you we’re all creating the women’s blues review at the same time, right? It was about bringing underrepresented musicians, blues musicians, to the stages. And she was also instrumental. And so just for both of us to talk about it and say, “Let’s do this pitch to the Toronto Blues Society and have a show, right? Let’s have a show together.” Both my sisters, Tracy and Nancy, Bomberry, were with me, as I had to have backup, you know? When we did the pitch, I remember us discussing that with you guys with your board and figuring out what size of a venue we would have. Would it be like 250 or 300? And I was wanting a club for like 500 or 600 people. And then when you guys were saying to me, “250 people,” I said, “That’s my friends and family alone.” And what happened that night, Derek? We were sold out at 8:30. And with Jani, of course, she said, “We’ve got to bring our drum, you know? Because that’s the root of the blues, right? (Elaine starts clapping out a blues rhythm) That’s the heartbeat of Mother Earth, right? That’s our drum.
Derek: Sold out at 8:30. The room was packed. I think it held between 500 and 600 people. It was quite a big bar and just jammed. You couldn’t move around. It was pretty intense.
Elaine: It was awesome. And then what I also very vividly remember from that evening was at 10:30 that night, you pulled me aside and you said, “Okay, you want to do another one of these Rez Blues? We can do it in 10 months. And I went, “Yes! Yes!” And then we went to Danforth, the Danforth, and that old Bingo hall or whatever it was, and we had like 1,200 people the second Rez Blues. It was wild. It was awesome.
Derek: Let’s talk about the Blues Summit…. Barry Dolins was the producer of the Chicago Blues Festival, the biggest and most notorious of all the blues festivals — notorious in an impressive way. And you’re after him to get down, and he saw you and liked you and invited you.
Elaine: Yeah. And Barry, when I was talking to him about the whole Indigenous influence on the blues, and I was just finishing up my radio documentary on the subject, and I told him that there’s just such a wealth of talent, and people don’t really understand or acknowledge the very early roots of the blues. It was a cross-cultural thing, you know, with runaway African slaves and Indigenous people down in the south. And so when I was telling him about this, he goes, “Well come. I want you to be part of this workshop right at the Chicago Blues Festival. And he goes, “I can’t pay you. But I’ll give you a room.” And that was good enough for me. I was going anyway, because I was the agent for Murray [Porter] and Pappy John’s band. But it was just a bonus, you know? And then that started it. And so we’ve been able to do these Rez Blues workshops over the years. We’ve done them at many music festivals, and also universities as well. Like two years ago, no last year, we were at McGill University’s school of music to talk about the subject.
Derek: Let’s go back again to the Edgewater for a moment, just because that was a magical night, and it created an energy that was remarkable and probably energized you not just to have a bigger audience the following year, but for 25 more years, and all those shows that you produced, a television show, etc. But I was asking you about your favourite moment from that night, and you were saying it was the jam at the end of the night?
Elaine: Yeah, it was at the end of the night. It spoke volumes about what was going to happen in the future I think for Rez Blues, because Rez Blues we could never predict who was going to show up. You know what I mean? Like there’d be guest musicians coming through town or whatever, then boom, we get them. Almost every show had a guest performer. I want to give props right now, proper props, to Mr. Gary Kendall, Downchild Blues Band, and all the work he did at the Silver Dollar. And you as well. You guys have been so instrumental in my career. I don’t even know what I’d be doing if I didn’t know you guys.
But with the Silver Dollar, what was interesting about it is it used to be an all Indian bar downstairs, right? That’s where everyone would come back in the day. You’d see people in business suits; you’d see people in their sweats. But like it was a place for people to gather. It started I think in the late 60s, when residential school people were leaving residential schools and trying to go home, and they didn’t fit in at home. So a lot of people would come to Toronto. And so there’d be dances and stuff they would have through – the late Pat Turner from Six Nations had a North American Indian club. And you know what? It was right around the corner from the Silver Dollar, where the dances were right? And so that was a very familiar area. So for us to do Rez Blues after it was an Indian bar downstairs? It just made perfect sense. Everyone knew where to go. And you know what we called it? The buck. So that’s my little Silver Dollar story.
Derek: Why blues? We saw that there was something happening with blues in the Indigenous community. Why is it a natural fit? What is the relationship there that that might be helpful for people understand?
Elaine: Yeah, I think I touched on it a little bit before in talking about the heartbeat. You know, what’s the heartbeat of the blues? (Elaine claps out a rhythm again and hums a blues lick)
You know, that’s the heartbeat of Mother Earth is the blues. And, I’m not the first one to talk about this – this whole cross-cultural pollination of our musics. You know, the blues is our music too. And we own that. Because what happened with the runaway African slaves, when they were in the plantations, their drums were taken away from them.
Derek: Except for Congo Square in New Orleans.
Elaine: Yes, exactly, every Sunday, one day a week. That’s what they got, right? And so that whole cross pollination – like how do we not know [that] from that came the birth of the blues? You know, as the slaves were after emancipation and coming up north on the underground – they call it the underground railroad. But what is it really? The underground railroad are old Indian trails. And you know, Pura Fe also enlightened me on that, because those were her people, the Tuscarora people who helped bring the slaves north. And, you know, they talked about that whole thing and the Northern Star and everything, but that was all our trails leading to the north, and it was the Tuscarora people right there on the Niagara River who helped the slaves come to Canada, and then our people were on the other side to help them, you know? So again, how do we not know [that] as a result of this cross-cultural exchange came the birth of the blues?
Derek: Rez Blues became a television show for APTN?
Elaine: Our first season was 2005 I believe. Then it took us a few years to do the second season after we got renewed. We produced 13 one-hour shows on Indigenous Blues. And comedy as well, because you know, that’s for entertainment. That’s a good fit, right? Music and comedy. So that’s why for the second season, I got our comedians to actually be our hosts as well, because I [saw] it on television. You know, the comedians make the best hosts of any show, you know? Awards show. Music Show.
Derek: So your connection to the Smithsonian and the festival that invited you down there – what came first? APTN first or the recognition in the States, and are they connected?
Elaine: The States, and it was in 1992, actually, that both myself and Murray Porter were invited down to the Smithsonian for, it was called the Festival of American folk life, and a fellow named Tom was working for the Smithsonian and somehow heard about us or whatever, came up, and took us out for lunch and then invited Murray to perform and then for me to be an MC, and I had never been an MC in my whole life on a concert stage so that was really kind of cool. And we were down there for like a two-week festival. And this is before, leading up to the National Museum of the American Indian, and those plans were obviously in place to build our own museum. So when the museum did open, we got invited back and, again, another two-week festival, and everybody was there. Like everybody. It was just phenomenal. They had a whole hotel for all the artists. It was great. Buffy Sainte Marie. Six Nations Women Singers. Sadie Buck, and oh my God, it was [an] endless list. It was just fabulous.
Derek: I want to talk about the Juno category and how that came together. You were involved in developing the Indigenous category with Buffy [Sainte Marie] and Shingoose. I know, Tribe [Called Red] were reluctant to be categorized.
Elaine: And, you know, that’s something like when people try to say that having an Indigenous category ghettoizes our music, that’s not true. That’s not true. You know, we need access. And the artists need something to aspire to. So I’ve never felt it was a ghettoization of our music at all.
Derek: We’ve been together at the Folk Music Ontario conference, where I’ll never forget you saying to a little gathering of people, “Wherever you are in Ontario, you’re not very far from a community, from a reservation. So you don’t have to work that hard to find the content that you think is so difficult to involve in your festival.” It must feel like a lot of hard work to make those changes, you know, Juno category and everything else?
Elaine: Yeah, you know? It’s just about access and for artists to have a platform where they can go, and they can sing, and they have access to all these different awards and then festivals as well. And coming back to the whole festival comment, I would encourage those artistic directors, I would say, look at each of your festivals, and I see like three reserves around here. Have you done any outreach to our communities? And everyone just went, “No.”
Derek: The Canadian Aboriginal awards, you’ve been an advisor there?
Elaine: Actually, no, but those were the first awards that emerged after our Juno category, the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. Remember they did the Skydome powwow thing? But right now I’m signed on to work with the Summer Solstice Indigenous Music Awards out of Ottawa. We were supposed to happen this past June at the National Arts Centre, but again because of COVID it’s been postponed. So we’re going to juggle it and figure out how we’re going to do it. More than likely we’ll be virtual for next June, but we’re going to do it during the summer solstice, obviously.