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Review and Analysis: The 2024 Maple Blues Awards

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At the 2022 Toronto Blues Summit, a series of workshops and showcases that are part of the Toronto Blues Society’s annual blues bacchanale, their first ever Black keynote speaker, singer Diana Brathwaite, addressed the “different, unwritten laws” and “topics that are uncomfortable here.”

She argued and urged for the inclusion of more Black and Indigenous blues musicians in the proceedings, artists who have traditionally been largely peripheral to Canada’s blues infrastructure.

Bandleader Raoul Baneja, who has hosted the Maple Blues Awards and earned several trophies, responded immediately on his Facebook wall, “We have [a Black woman] pivotal to the Canadian Blues scene telling us what we need to do and how to do it. Let’s do it!”

At this year’s Maple Blues Awards, Afro-Canadian superstars like the Francis sisters and Dawn Tyler Watson stood at the back of the room discussing their favourite couturiers, Garnetta Cromwell, all asparkle, awaited her turn to present some trophies, and the legendary Blackburn Brothers, with nine nominations, were relaxing after playing a fiery opening medley of The Neville Brothers’ “Sister Rosa” and Sly Stone’s “Thank You”.

While this happened, perennial winners from years gone by once again stormed the stage to hoist their prizes and acknowledge “the creators of this music.”

They were all white, with the obvious exception being the inaugural Indigenous Artist Of The Year Award winner, the pride of Manitoulin, Crystal Shawanda.

This was a major glitch in what had promised to be a return to the roots for the 27th edition of the Maple Blues Awards. By restoring the ceremony to the Phoenix Concert Theater, with its indigo shadows and acoustic ebullience, guests were offered spacious socializing opportunities during the show. The space also featured a taco stand and three bars, which were flowing continuously throughout the evening.

After years in the fussy soft seat hush of Koerner Hall, the audience welcomed a return to the atmosphere of a true blues room. Another upgrade involved bringing in a newer, younger house band, The Maples, to furnish some tang for solo performers and to bolster the firepower of already solid ensembles.

Highlights of the show included the presence of Quisha Wint, whose scintillating, upbeat personality eased audience members through the night, acting as emcee and cheering section, and throwing her shoes onstage after Ottawa’s Angelica Hunter stepped out from behind the microphone and opened up all her impressive vocal valves, filling the sizable room with her unamplified voice.

Angelica Hunter. Photo by David Hynes.

Suzie Vinnick gracefully sang her acceptance speech, and multiple winner Matt Andersen acknowledged that he was initiating a movement to bring plaid shirts back into the blues.

Time-honoured award recipients Sue Foley (Blues With A Feeling Lifetime Achievement Award winner) and Colin James (Electric Act of the Year trophy) were back on Zoom, and the Indigenous Artist Of The Year, Crystal Shawanda, had her tiny daughter share the stage for the night’s finale, a skyrocketing version of Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle.”

Further drinking and dancing expanded into a star-studded afterparty, until an absolutely enchanted blue midnight was achieved by the entire unified Canadian blues family present.

The morning after, with the news that all of the winners had tended towards the periwinkle shade of the blues spectrum, the elephant in the room hit the fan. Harpist Raoul Baneja came back into the Facebook forum.

“Let’s not be fragile about it,” he said. “The reality is, all Black artists were shut out of the Maple BLUES Awards. This is worthy of reflection.”

Reflections began to accumulate immediately, and they continue to flood through the socials to this day, two weeks after the event. Unsurprisingly, the majority of comments originate from concerned white people, who risk little to nothing by offering their opinions freely.

One useful summation of the situation was delivered in short order by The Maple Blues Band’s boss bassman, Gary Kendall, who had skipped the ceremony for the first time.

“After some reflection, here’s my take on [Raoul]’s post. By my count there were 18 Maple Blues Awards presented Monday night. Two were chosen in advance, The Blues Booster by the TBS board and the Indigenous Award by a group from that community. Ten were voted on by the Canadian blues community, the people, the fans. All had Black artists included as nominees,” he said.

“The lack of diversity in winners stood out strong, and I knew
there would be questions asked in the days that followed. In the early days of the MBAs, Toronto artists dominated. That changed when other communities across the country rallied behind their heroes to increase the vote support. I suggest a movement like that should come into play in the future but we should still applaud this year’s recipients and nominees.”

Gary added that criticism and questions should be directed to the community as a whole and not the organization that presents and manages the MBAs.

Derek Andrews, the producer of the Maple Blues Awards show brought Roots Music Canada up to date on the situation:

“Paid advertising was banned some years ago, and as a result of the Blackburn result, voting will likely be fixed to avoid artists with [a] dominant social media profile [getting an advantage]. The public won’t be eliminated, but there will be an attempt to adapt to the current social media landscape,” he said.

Derek went on to say that this edition of the awards featured some changes and highlights, including the work Elaine Bomberry did to introduce the Indigenous Blues Award.

“It was great to have Diane Keye-Kohoko and Amos Keye in from Six Nations to present Crystal Shawanda with an award before we got to see her close the show,” he added.

Manny DeGrandis was the coordinator for most of the production and stepped up to fill the big shoes left behind by Gary Kendall as bandleader. The four musicians he recruited were a refreshing step forward.

People may recall the year that Drake hosted the Juno Awards and got shut out in six categories. This edition of the MBAs tragically did the same to Toronto’s Blackburn Brothers in nine categories. Matt Andersen took home four trophies and some have observed that he could be considered Canada’s “Taylor Swift of blues.”

Though they declined to comment further, the Blackburn Brothers released an online statement:

“Our deepest gratitude to all our supporters. We hear you, and we see you. It’s the stuff that keeps us going, keeps us motivated, and makes us dig even deeper to deliver and share with you everything we’ve got. We couldn’t do it without you.”

Roots Music Canada also reached out to Joni NehRita, a Kitchener-based singer-songwriter of colour who does not identify as a blues player. She offered the following thoughts:

“The first thing worth saying is that, while I have immense respect for the blues and its Black musicians, it is not a community/scene that I’m part of. That said, I think it’s fair to say that for all of the declarations of allyship we’ve seen since 2020 (e.g. a Black square for a day), there is much to learn for white folks who make a living from performing and presenting historically Black music.

Perhaps a first step is to listen without needing to respond. If you are in defence mode, you are not really listening. Getting in your feelings about the stone-cold truth is a weird flex to me. I mean – come on — the blues is Black music. This is, or rather should be, uncontested and uncontroversial. Anyone getting their feathers ruffled because Black artists dare to say this and that they deserve to be considered for awards as much as what’s-his-dude-in jeans would be funny, if it wasn’t maddening.

Again, I’m not a part of this community, but this could be said also of reggae, R&B, etc. One should not be offended by the truth. If one is a white gatekeeper that claims to be progressive or an ally (their word, not mine), you should welcome the feedback of the people whose music you have co-opted. This is basic. Until we can have at least that as a base, it’s impossible to have any meaningful or nuanced dialogue about these issues, in my opinion.”

The Toronto Blues Society finally responded publicly to the situation on Feb. 23, stating in a Facebook post that it will be consulting with the community and listening with the intent to responsibly address the problem.

It added that it will hold consultations to reconsider the voting process to make procedure more transparent.

The creation of a sense of opposition runs entirely contrary to the aims and aspirations of the Toronto Blues Society and the Canadian blues community in general.

The confrontational reactions that are currently abounding on Facebook decrying white privilege and systemic racism, are muting the legitimate frustration and disappointment that many outside the social media universe are feeling, and are exercising, and amplifying the same sense of privilege that they are decrying.

Resilience and perseverance are the twin tributaries that have fueled the blues since its birth, and tribulations such as these will never destroy the blues spirit, as long as its roots remain clearly in focus.

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