Martin Luther King would have approved his “Playlist”

Kerroy Williams, Sacha Williams, Denise Willaims and Jackie Richardson

Last Friday, on a fresh winter night, the cozy Parkdale Hall on Queen Street West, was the venue of one of the last celebratory moments of Black History Month, just ended two days ago.

A night of song and reminiscences with the curious name “King’s Playlist” turned out not to be as curious as it seemed at first glance. For Black History Month there is only one King, and that is Martin Luther King (MLK), the man whose memory was celebrated in songs that the producer of Culchahworks Arts Collective imagined would have been on King’s Playlist. 

Culchahworks is described as mandated “to celebrate stories drawn from the African-Canadian, Caribbean-Canadian and African-American cultural legacies, having universal resonance, through the arts…concert presentations, musical theatre, dance, film and television, documentary, or a combination of any of the above.”

As per the mandate, the songs were of struggle, inspiration, deliverance and celebration; and a fine collection it was. Although one wondered why on a night dedicated to MLK, the show was led off by Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song”, yes, Daaaaay O! 

The madness was shown to have a method to it: Harry Belafonte, who is still kicking at 96, had great success with his 1956 calypso album. The LP sold a million copies, and the proceeds helped fund Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaign. So the King’s Playlist show got a double whammy from Daaay O! – it put the largely Caribbean-rooted audience into a familiar tempo and launched the celebration of the epic and international struggle for Black human and civil rights.

Kerroy Williams, Ray Robinson and Andrew Craig

The producers ensured that the music of Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cook, Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, The Staples, Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke got a proper airing through the voices of some of Canada’s finest vocalists: Jackie Richardson, Kerroy Williams, Ray Robinson, Sacha Williamson, Don Ross, Denise Williams, plus the incomparable, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Craig.

Craig, founder and artistic director of Cultureworks, was musical director of the evening’s proceedings. And he would have adequately fulfilled his mandate by being just that. But Andrew Craig is no ordinary musician. He sang with as fine a voice as the best of them, accompanied himself on the melodica, played bass guitar and sax, and held all the music together with his keyboard/piano chord work.

According to Sandra Whiting, Vice President of Culchahworks, “Andrew Craig is a genius pure and simple. He is simply one of the most talented artists/composer/director/arrangers I have met, and he has a vison for telling stories of our community – of the African/Canadian/Caribbean community to all Canadians… his voice adds to the Canadian cultural landscape and is definitely an important one.”

The evergreen diva, Jackie Richardson, primus inter pares, kept her usual high standards, as did the equally grand voices that emerged from the great civil rights’ playlist. One of the many highlights was Sacha Williams’s roof-raising rendition of Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam.

That piece was part of a whole, neatly put together to tell a great story. So Curtis Mayfields’ “People get ready” opened, followed by Simone’s “Mississippi”; Bob Dylan’s “Times they are a-changing” and “Blowing in the wind”; Sam Cooke’s “A change is gonna come”; A freedom gospel trilogy sung by Jackie Richardson; and a wonderful rendition of Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” by Denise Williams.

Taken together, no one doubted King would have had those tunes on his mind because they told his story of hope and triumph. His list left the audience in a good frame of mind, which was the plan.