Promoting awareness and understanding of the history of Black communities in Vancouver is what inspires Brandon Thornhill. Ebony Roots (part two), with Thornhill as the show’s producer and vocalist, is a curated musical display of Black history in Vancouver. The concert, to be performed at the Yaletown Roundhouse Performance Centre on Feb. 9, takes attendees on a profound auditory journey through different eras of Black music.
“We want to give some information to the community that might not have any idea about the Black history here in Vancouver,” says Thornhill.
This second entry in the series links itself more strongly to Black History Month.
The challenge of summarising a century
The show’s music was carefully considered to determine what would most effectively represent different eras of Black history. Focus was given to the early 1900s leading all the way up to the modern day with stops being made in almost every decade along the way.
“It was a welcome challenge,” says Thornhill, “it was very important that we make sure that we represent as many genres as we possibly can to tell the full story.”
The technically challenging show – making intimidating leaps between multiple musical genres while maintaining an authentic sound – encompasses everything from prison work songs, to opera, to modern-day R&B.
“These songs are rooted in a very deep history of struggle, despair, hope, freedom and of course liberty. So that’s what we’re really trying to make sure we convey by performing these songs,” explains Thornhill.
The need for music spanning multiple decades of history and culture means that Thornhill and the rest of the band (which includes Carlos Joe Costa, Leo D.E. Johnson, Olaf de Shield, Russell Jackson and Wayne Stewart) have been faced with a daunting task: perfect several vastly different musical styles to ensure the show, which is designed to accurately display and celebrate these works of art, lives up to its premise.
According to Thornhill, the solution to conquering these genre gaps was to rely on the different musical backgrounds of the band members. Thornhill is a trained opera singer and Leo D.E. Johnson, another singer and guitarist, sports a blues and gospel background.
This diversity in skills and experiences means the group has been able to adapt their sound to accurately reflect the qualities of different types of music like musical theatre and blues, to name a few.
“It was just so important for us to be able to touch on each of these genres,” he says.
Spreading roots around Vancouver and beyond
Ebony Roots (part two) will essentially be an expansion of its predecessor. Along with a few rearrangements and some entirely new material, the original show’s songs will be performed. This will include tributes to iconic Black Vancouver-based musicians such as the Crump Twins, Jason Hoover and even the legendary Jimi Hendrix (whose Vancouver connection comes from his grandmother, Nora Hendrix, a community leader in Vancouver).
“I think it’ll be different for audiences from what they typically experience here in Vancouver,” says Thornhill. “It’s going to be quite the experience to be able to listen to this music, but it also has some of this information about the history of the African descent people of Vancouver as well, which we think is important.”
The “part two” in the concert’s title is in reference to the fact this is the second show in what Thornhill hopes will be a long-running series that will tour around BC and beyond. The concert is a kind of historical record which has relevance to people all over Canada.
“I think we need to be performing this music and exposing audiences to this type of music anywhere and anytime we can,” says Thornhill.
The first show was held back in December at Strathcona Church. Thornhill says it was created to help reclaim Strathcona and the surrounding area by telling the Black community’s story through historic music.
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