Nikkei Bluesman Plays Big Date With American Stars

October 18, 2013 at 4:36 am


by Mel Tsuji

TORONTO – A small, dimly-lit club was the scene recently of one of the most successful blues playdates in recent Toronto memory.

The headliners were two of California’s most famous musicians, guitarist Junior Watson and piano player Fred Kaplan.

They were in Toronto for a one-night stopover, enroute to Quebec to complete an album produced by Bharath Ramkumar, a famous Montreal-based blues harmonica player, who is also a successful blues music producer.

“That was unbelievable,” said a Japanese Canadian sansei after a table-thumping first set at the Paddock Tavern, one of Toronto’s oldest.

“Incredible,” said another sansei, who was part of a group of JCs taking in this rare appearance of famous American blues artists.

Big blues attractions like this one have become rare in Toronto because blues music has lost its favour to fans. In its place, the club scene has been overtaken by a melange of bands offering rap, hip hop, soul and big city blues.

It’s rare to get the thumping, rocking blues styles of Chicago of the 1950s and 60s, or the Mississippi Delta, where singers like John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Big Bill Broonzy laid the groundwork for the blues and R and B singers to come.

That’s the feeling of Sugar Brown, a Toronto-based blues singer and guitarist, who’s trying to bring back that original blues sound. He’s been partnering up with Ramkumar, playing both Montreal and Toronto with their unique take on the blues.

Ramkumar is giving a fresh and stylistic sound with his many harmonica solos. Blues fans haven’t heard or seen his artistry since the 1960s, when Jimmy Reed and Brownie McGee used to play Toronto clubs dates regularly. Sugar Brown’s deft riffs on the blues guitar provides a new sound to old blues favourites.

Sugar Brown’s real name is Ken Kawashima, whose full-time job is professor at the University of Toronto. He’s a Japanese-American from Ohio, educated in New York and Chicago, but has made his home in Toronto for the last 10 years.

It was his band that headlined the Paddock Tavern appearance. Watson and Kaplan were invited as guest artists because of their connection to Ramkumar. While the American musicians are relatively unknown in Toronto, they’re near legends in California and across the US, where they often played with names such as the famed Hollywood Fats Band and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Watson himself was long associated with the Los Angeles-based Canned Heat band. They’re both considered Angelenos blues pioneers.

Based on this one-night stand, the new partnership promises to bring some exciting performances and hopefully bring some renewal to the languid Toronto blues scene.