Rhythms International rocks

Radio DJ Angus Mackay is spreading the gospel of world music, one Iraqi at a time. Garry Steckles is a convert to the cause

Angus Mackay in his studio. Photograph courtesy Angus Mackay

If you happen to be within easy reach of a computer – and who isn’t, these days? – you might want to call up the following website before reading this column: www.rhythms-international.com.

In the centre of the site, below the paintings of scenes from Jamaica, there’s a list of Rhythms International shows. Click on any one of them, then on the “play” arrow that pops up immediately to the right. You’ve just opened up a virtual Pandora’s Box of music from around the world, the sort of multi-cultural smorgasbord you’re not going to find on mainstream radio or among the mostly dreadful and predictable video channels on television.

Now that we’ve set the mood, on with the column. The mellifluous voice you’re listening to belongs to Angus Mackay, a veteran and hugely respected radio DJ in Montreal, my old home town and one of my favourite cities in the world. Angus is an old-fashioned kind of radio host. First he tells you a little about the music he’s going to play. Then he plays it, in full, start to finish. Then, without fail, he does something that should be mandatory in the broadcasting business: it’s known as back-announcing, which consists of telling you who you’ve been listening to, the titles of the songs he’s just played, and the albums you can find them on. You haven’t just heard a song you absolutely must get your hands on and then been left hanging, wondering what it’s called, who it’s by and if you’ll ever hear it again.

Before telling you more about the programme, here’s just a handful of the artists who were featured in the dozen shows I’d heard – most of them repeatedly – at the time of writing: The Specials, Angelique Kidjo, Peter Tosh, Hugh Masekela, Etana, Tony Rebel, Kassav, Ska Cubana, Buena Vista Social Club, Blk Sonshine, Tarrus Riley, Krosfyre, Jah Cutta and Determination, Ismael Lo, Afro-Cuban All Stars, Salif Keita, Brooklyn Funk Essentials, Tinga Stewart, Desmond Dekker, Wyclef Jean, Papa Wemba, Alpha Blondy, Collie Budz, Manu Chao, Sparrow, the Skatalites, Monto Santamaria, Oliver Mtukutzi, Daddy Yankee, King Sunny Ade, Cheikh Lo, Leon Caldero, Celia Cruz, Dubmatix, More Kante, Jah Cure, Lucky Dube, Queen Ifrica, and Jimmy Cliff.

Rhythms International’s current incarnation, as a podcast, is not only an all-too-rare platform for artists from around the world – you’re not going to find them popping up on MTV; it’s also the latest chapter in a musical odyssey that takes me back to my days working for the Montreal Gazette, where I was entertainment editor for much of the Eighties and where one of my favourite freelance contributors was a fellow music-lover called Daniel Feist.

Daniel’s lively and informed coverage of world music was instrumental in his being asked by Rob Braide, the innovative general manager of one of Montreal’s most popular radio stations, Mix96, to host a programme featuring non-mainstream global music. Rhythms International went on the air in 1986, and it was to become an institution. Daniel used the show to champion the work of many up-and-coming young artists who were to become internationally renowned, including Trinidad & Tobago’s David Rudder, South Africa’s Johnny Clegg and Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour. Mostly, though, he loved African music, and he continued to host the show while living for four years in Johannesburg.

Sadly, Daniel died in 2005. But the show he created lives on. His old friend Richard Lafrance, another veteran Montreal broadcaster, took over the hosting duties, and was soon joined by Mackay. They co-hosted the show successfully for several years until, in 2008, Mix96 was taken over by Virgin Radio and Rhythms was promptly axed. Apparently the new owners wanted something “more lively”…although how anything could be more lively than the Mahotella Queens singing “I’m in Love with a Rasta Man”, or Rachid Taha belting out the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” or Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”, is beyond me. Mackay was confident another Montreal station would pick up the popular show, and, as he puts it, he decided to spend some time at home, enjoying the company of his two young sons and waiting for the phone to ring. It didn’t.

Early this year, Mackay decided to go it alone. “In order to keep the flame alive I had to explore other avenues, and the one that made the most sense was a podcast. Knowing next to nothing about cyberspace, I enlisted the aid of a super computer whiz who designed the Rhythms website and set me on my way.

“I produce the show on my computer at home and choose the music according to my mood, the weather and the news. Mostly this is music I want to hear and share with the world. The idea that someone in Iraq is digging jit jive from South Africa and reggae from Jamaica … what could be cooler than that? My mandate is simply to spread the gospel of world beat music, even if it’s just one Iraqi at a time.”

And not just Iraqis. The new incarnation of Rhythms International, although still in its infancy, has listeners in places that include Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Latvia, the Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Seychelles, Ukraine, the UK, and the USA. And, of course, the Caribbean, where Jamaica has been Angus Mackay’s home away from home since he fell in love with the island, its music and its people in the late Seventies.

Check out Rhythms. Trust me, you’ll love it, particularly if you’re a fan of music that strays from the mainstream. Thanks, Angus. Not only from me, but from the wonderful Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. You’ve just helped them sell another CD.

Remembering Lincoln “Sugar” Minott

Another of Caribbean music’s greats has left us, and it’s hard to put into words how saddened I was to learn of the passing of Lincoln “Sugar” Minott.

My colleague David Katz has documented Sugar’s career admirably – as he always does on these occasions – on Page 39, so I’ll say my farewells with a personal anecdote going back to the Eighties, when I was living and working in Montreal and was a regular at the church and community centre basement dances that were a staple of the Caribbean social scene in Canada’s greatest city.

There was considerable excitement in the Jamaican community when Sugar was advertised as the headliner at a show around 1984 – 85, and I was among the hundreds of fans eagerly awaiting his appearance. As sometimes happens, there were some technical glitches at the hall, and, around 3 am, it became obvious the show wasn’t going to go on. Sugar was there, though, and I was introduced to him backstage. We ended up having a conversation that lasted well over an hour. Along the way we discovered we were both Geminis (his birthday was May 25; mine’s May 26) and I couldn’t have been more impressed by his intelligence, humour and warmth. My wife Wendy – who I didn’t even know back then – met him at another show a few years later, and couldn’t wait to tell me how much she’d enjoyed his company and how pleasantly surprised she was to find out they had the same birthday (yes, it was a Gemini thing all round).

Not only was he a thoroughly nice guy, but Sugar was one of reggae’s finest vocalists, a pioneer of the dancehall genre and an electric stage performer. One of his first big JA hits, “Oh Mr DC”, is still on heavy rotation in the Steckles household, and, like countless reggae fans around the world, we’re going to miss him.