Kevin “Sipreano” Howes
For over 15 years Kevin “Sipreano” Howes has been scouring the vast Canadian landscape in search of some of the most intriguing stamps on cultural history this young country has to offer. As a result, he has an exceptional collection of art and artifacts that spill from boxes and cover shelves in his small east side home. To most, listening to any one of his thousands of 45s might invoke a shrug of the shoulders and an apathetic glare. But to the trained ear and archeological mind of Howes, he hears something completely different. His ability to trace sounds back to their roots and draw lines that connect various artists is what makes Howes a professional in his field and perhaps the most knowledgeable individual on Canadian independent music from the 1960s and 70s. “It’s like a museum in here. Thankfully my wife understands,” he states with a wink. “This work is a labour of love. At the root level, I simply dig music and want to share my discoveries with the world. To show people the breadth of talent we have here. It’s a total honour working with musicians whose sounds we so admire. We’re bridging generations, cultures, and eras of technology in the process and it feels good. It’s all a journey of learning, really. Something that will never end.”
The music he unearths helps to create a broader understanding of our past and our present. The traces left behind by one artist from 40 years ago can lead down a path that ties to insulated musical communities from a small town or the larger municipality that released “off-the-grid” garage rock or orchestral pop or reggae that would rival anything released today. It’s debatable whether or not some of the artists we value today would ever have produced what they have without the contributions from many of their all-but-forgotten forbearers, especially considering the revival and retro-minded tastes that continue to unfold. The poetry that came out of what were often marginalized populations whose land and values were under threat by encroaching agricultural monopolies, or who were simply ignored in the developing cities, are the voices that we can still hear today and learn from as a result of the records they cut or the books they wrote. Most of these artists were never acknowledged in their own time and would never be given a second glance today without recent efforts by record archaeologists like Howes.
Over the last 10 years, Howes has worked closely with Light In The Attic, a prominent American record label that specializes in reissuing long out-of-print music from around the world. His first project with the label was Jamaica-Toronto, a series of six LPs that chronicled the group of musicians who immigrated to Canada in the 1960s and 70s from the West Indies. The collection has received accolades from music press around the globe and has relaunched the career of performers like The Mighty Pope after a close to 20-year hiatus. “15 years ago I was digging for his [The Mighty Pope’s] vinyl, now we’re family. He’s such a dude, the first black artist in Canada to record a nation-wide major label soul LP. Hearing him sing live for the first time [after months of encouragement, Pope was deep in retirement mode] literally brought me to tears. From the crates to a return to the concert stage, such a trip!”
The music scene that developed in Toronto went largely unnoticed to the rest of the world but happened to create some of the funkiest, soulful reggae records of the time. A compilation record, Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967-1974, and full length reissue LPs by Jackie Mittoo, Noel Ellis, Wayne McGhie & The Sounds of Joy, and Earth, Roots & Water, paint a vivid picture of a generation of musicians making music in this unlikely landscape that pulled sounds from their home country as well as Detroit and Chicago soul. At that time in Toronto R&B had exploded and reggae wasn’t paying the bills. Until the rise of Bob Marley in the 1970s no one was interested despite the best efforts of Mittoo and producer Jerry Brown – owner of Summer Records, the first black-owned recording studio in Canada. Summer Records was also profiled in the Jamaica-Toronto series with Summer Records Anthology 1974-1988, chronicling the birth of the reggae community in Canada. Sipreano’s persistence and thorough research is largely what makes these projects burst with historic relevance and undeniable importance in Canada’s history but also Western music as a whole.
All of his work comes complete with extensive liner notes that have been drafted using the direct words of the artists represented. A large part of Sipreano’s practice is to get the grit on the music and people he’s representing. The stories are a huge part of what makes this music resonate and it’s only by tapping the source that the words gain new breath. The passion Howes brings to his projects is of a genuine urgency; a lot of the people behind these records are getting old. They’re dying off one by one. Howes related to me how in the making of the Jamaica-Toronto series his inability to sit down with Jackie Mittoo and get the goods from this incredibly talented and influential man was just heartbreaking. Mittoo passed away on December 16, 1990, well before the project took its footing. Penning songs that became hits for the Wailers, and releasing a hit record himself called Wishbone, one of a handful he made while living in Canada, he was an enormous influence on the music coming from Jamaica at the time. Mittoo also sat as music director at Studio One Records, often referred to as “the Motown of Jamaica,” and was a much-revered member of the seminal, genre-shaping, Skatalites.
Even without the verbal accounts of Mittoo there was still a wealth of knowledge as well as first-hand accounts from some of the artists, producers, families, and key behind-the- scene players alive and well and still living in Toronto. For Howes however, time is always of the essence. At a recent visit to his east side apartment we got to talking about his current undertaking, one which requires just as much or if not more hands on research and development and perhaps his most historically important yet. For the past decade, Howes has been keeping an eye out for 45s or LPs from Aboriginal artists dating back to the 1960s. He has amassed a dense collection of work from artists like Willie Thrasher, Willie Dunn, and Shingoose whose take on folk and rock and roll deals with a lot of topical issues of the time ranging from the highly localized to a more universal plight. Beyond the harsh political climate and first-hand tales of injustice, the poetry and sounds are brutally honest and inspired.
Dunn, one of the more respected and recognized First Nations/Métis artists of the time (also a filmmaker for the NFB), would fit in well alongside the likes of Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. His lyrics and songwriting are stripped bare and his low baritone voice weaves familiar melodies that cut right to the soul of the listener. “This isn’t [necessarily] music that will set the Top 40 charts afire, but rather music that will enlighten future generations about what it was like to be a real Canadian: people with struggles, people with dreams, people who shot for the stars, and people who expressed themselves with their hearts on their sleeves,” states Howes while fingering through a stack of records. He hands me a copy of Willie Thrasher’s Spirit Child LP. The cover is a photograph of an Inuit mother with a young child peering over her shoulder from inside her hood. The liner notes on the back explain how “most of his music centers on 200-year-old Inuit ballads translated into his own style of rock and roll.”
One truly incrediblepiece of Howes’ collection is a 45 by Sugluk. The group was made up of four teenage boys from Salluit, QC, (at the mouth of the Hudson Bay) in the early to mid 70s. It was recorded by a local branch of the CBC, likely for broadcast in the Northern parts of Quebec and maybe the Eastern Northwest Territories (now Nunavut). According to Howes, this would have been the first vinyl recording of Inuit hard rock and I’m sure it would make a lot of the popular garage rock bands today bow their heads. The record itself had an extremely limited pressing and was sent out only to CBC stations as a transcription disc. There was no record store distribution and in fact even the CBC had limited evidence of its existence. Howes is currently in the process of raising funds for a trip to Salluit to meet with the members for an interview and documentary that would be included in the release of a 12 artist, 22-track compilation that will be released on Light In The Attic in the near future.
It amazes me as I sit and listen to a lot of this material with Howes how much of it went so underappreciated and devalued. So many questions come up around race politics, how access has changed, and the ruthless nature of the music industry and media. There’s also the physical product – the artifact. It would seem that we’re very fortunate a lot of music was manufactured in the way that it was on vinyl and preserved for years before being rediscovered by an enthusiastic aficionado like Kevin “Sipreano” Howes. “It’s my duty, these records are literally becoming extinct,” says the reissue producer. What will happen in 50 years from now as more and more work is being sent straight through digital channels is yet to be seen. As the artists whose passion and unrewarded dedication to their craft and to their gifts get older, it’s in these final years that we have the opportunity to understand what was happening in their lives and what drove them forward. Ultimately it’s the music that tells the greatest story, however, and without the tireless efforts of Howes and others like him, those stories might never be told again.
Scott Lewis is an artist and musician living in Vancouver, BC. His work has been exhibited nationally and in the United States. In his spare time he runs a record label and curatorial project called Storyboard (www.storyboardlabel.com) and has recently constructed a new artist-run studio space facilitating 12 emerging artists and designers in the Fraser street area of Vancouver. His latest music project, Mirror Lake, recently released their debut 12″ EP via Storyboard to critical acclaim and regular live performances and touring.
All photos of Kevin “Sipreano” Howes by Scott Lewis