Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Sounds of the Islands

Looking for a subject for my next post, I searched through my backlog of unfinished drafts, and found this piece that I had begun after interviewing longtime Victoria busker Swan Walker in June of 2011.

Originally from the Caribbean island-nation of Grenada, Swan came to Canada in 1986. After a short visit to Victoria, he went to Toronto, where he spent three years, before returning to Victoria in 1989.

Playing keyboards and guitar, Swan had been gigging with Reggaelution, a local reggae band, when he realized that he needed a more steady source of income, so he began busking in 1996.

“I looked for more employment, [but] it was kind of difficult for me to find a regular job,” he said. “I’d been encouraged [to busk] by friends too, you know, so, I decided to try it.”

Over the next fifteen summers, (with the exception of 2008 when he was living in Japan), Swan sang and played the steel drums and guitar, keeping the rhythm with his kick-drum and sock-shakers, essentially bringing the sounds of the Caribbean islands to the inner harbour.

Besides his obvious reggae and calypso influences, Swan also cites soul, country and jazz as influences. He said “A lot of things influence my stuff. I try to play a variety of things in my own style, so, not everything is reggae.”

Swan told me a little bit about his musical beginnings and influences from when he was a kid growing up in Grenada.

“I started playing music, I used to play steel drums. They had a steel drum band in our village [that] I used to play in,” he said. ”Prior to that, I used to be singing in church, about 7, 8 years old, until I was like 12, 13, probably.”

I was quite surprised when Swan told me about some of the music that he was exposed to as a child in Grenada. He said “In the islands, there [was] a day, I think on Saturday or Sunday, when the radio station just played country music. A lot of people in the islands [were] big Jim Reeves fans, and we used to hear all these songs when we were children, because my parents, and people around [us], they had his records, and [we were] hearing it all the time.”

“And [Wolverton Mountain], well, I don’t remember the country version, I know that version in reggae, because a lot of reggae musicians back in the islands, they sort of changed some of the country songs into reggae.”

“A lot of gospel songs, and a lot of soul music too, ‘70s soul music, they always played a lot of those songs too, because they had at certain times on the radio station, they call ‘Oldie Goldie’ times, when they played all the old songs.”

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Swan also plays the keyboards and writes his own original songs, twelve of which are featured on his first CD Takin’ A Chance, which was released in 2001. He also released a CD of cover songs in 2005.

As for future recording projects, he said “It’s time for me to be working on another one, [but] I’ve got a home studio, and the environment where I’m living now is so close to the road, there’s just so much noise. I’m motivated to write more things and create stuff, but I’m not motivated to record because I need to get out of there and to be in a space where it’s quieter.”

So, what does Swan enjoy most about busking? He said “Just playing the music, performing. Busking is a hard thing to do, you know, it’s not all musicians that want to busk, and not all musicians would have the patience to busk. Yeah. It’s the music, I think.”

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At the time of this interview, Swan had mentioned that he was thinking of moving to Toronto, but nothing had been confirmed. He seemed a little ambivalent when I asked if he was looking forward to going. He said “I want to try something new, see how my music does in other places, [but] there is a part of me that don’t want me to leave, but, yet I feel l should go. I went to Japan and spent a year and a half, saw how things are there. I mean I’m in Canada, I should be able to go to Newfoundland if I feel like it, and try it out.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t until this past summer that Swan shared the news that he and his family would definitely be packing up there gear and making the move east.

In late July, just before he left, I along with fellow causeway buskers, Dave Harris, Jaime Nolan, John McCallum, Jean Bedard, Landen Shaw, gathered together to do a farewell set with Swan, to try to raise some funds to help him with his trip. It was a fun event with us all taking turns in varying combinations playing with each other and with Swan. I had to leave early, but it certainly was a highlight for me to join Swan for a countrified version of a song from his repertoire, Bob Marley’s One Love. Swan’s leaving will definitely leave a big hole in the local busking scene, and he’ll be missed by his fellow buskers, and his many causeway fans.

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Swan has now been in Toronto since August, and he successfully auditioned with the Toronto Transit Commission for a busking permit, and can now be found busking in the subway stations there.

When I interviewed Swan, he told me that he has good memories about Victoria. “You know, I spent most of my life here in Victoria, more than in Grenada.”

Did he think he might be back? Without hesitation Swan said “Yeah!”

In ending this post I would just say that Victoria’s loss is Toronto’s gain.


You can watch video of Swan by checking out the following links:
Swan busking in Toronto at Yonge & Bloor subway station