Founder of the Montreal International Reggae Festival dreams of sharing the music with people from far and wide
You can call Eric Blagrove a backseat driver or the hidden force, but since he founded the Montreal International Reggae Festival 12 years ago, he has been steadfast in keeping a low profile while building the three-day event into a cultural force in Montreal, bringing to town the biggest names and drawing tens of thousands of spectators every year.
Today, the festival has become a signature event for lovers of not just reggae but also all music, and fans flock to Montreal from across North America, Europe and the Caribbean to groove at the Quays of the Old Port of Montreal.
It’s all Blagrove ever wanted, when he founded the festival in 2004.
“My love for reggae music is eternal, and my dream was to share that love with as many people as possible,” he told the CONTACT in a recent telephone chat. “I looked forward to the day when people can come with their families, with lawn chairs or whatever and just enjoy the music.”
His dream slowly began to take form with the initial success of the early editions of the festival which, much to the appreciation of reggae fans, brought in a line-up of high caliber stars such as Luciano, Freddy McGregor, Yellow Man, Eric Donaldson, Gregory Issacs, Chaka Demus & Pliers, John Holt, Maxi Priest, Barrington Levy, Mutabaruka and Junior Kelly.
From Day One the festival, fuelled by the energy and dedication of various teams of organizers working under the guidance and supervision of Blagrove, has been on an upward course. But it has not been without its challenges.
Over the years, the festival has remained strong in the face of various challenges from money worries to cancellations by headliners to issues with venue and sponsors. With much of its success rooted in Blagrove’s tireless dedication to keep it afloat, which in itself hinges on his unwavering spirituality.
“I believe in this festival. So, if it’s possible to do, I give it more than a hundred per cent of my time and energy,” says the 50-something-year-old, who came to Montreal from Jamaica in 1992. “But above everything else I leave it all in the hands of The Most High, and ultimately it’s He who decides whether we succeed or fail.”
Blagrove is also empowered by festival’s ability to grow with the constant changes that have become a reality of the music industry over the years.
“Reggae music is changing quickly, especially with today’s technology, but at the same time a lot of it remains the same. It’s now a generational thing, so it’s up to us as organizers to try to reach out to the generations and bring different types of not only reggae but all kinds of music.”
Over the years, Gospel, Calypso and Soca music have been part of the MIRF line-up with big name acts such as Byron Lee’s Dragonnires, Kes The Band, Alison Hinds and Becket making featured appearances.
Last year, a featured performance by legendary soulman Percy Sledge had to be cancelled due to his illness, but Blagrove says the commitment to add other genres of music to the festival remains with the coming of another iconic soul group, the Manhattans.
According to Blagrove, getting the stars to come has become so much easier because of the festival’s profile nationally and internationally.
“The truth is, we have been approached by artists who are willing to pay their air fare to be part of the Montreal Reggae Fest,” he says.
Since founding the festival, Blagrove says one of his biggest areas of concern has been the inclusion and promotion of local and Canada-based artistes. They continue to be big part of the three-day festival, but many have to be turned away.
“My commitment to local artistes has been there from Day One, but I can’t (accommodate) everyone because we still have to stay true to the festival and to the paying audience and choose the best.
But I always encourage local artistes to continue to make music and continue to submit your packages to the festival and bide your time.”
Twelve years into it, Blagrove, who ran a successful restaurant and a lounge in NDG for many years, remains excited about the way he has established the Montreal International Reggae Festival.
“It’s about music, it’s about family, it’s about seeing people you haven’t seen in years,” he says. My commitment is a long-term one. As far as I’m concerned the Montreal International Reggae Festivalis here to stay.”
Today, almost nine years after he released his seminal hit, She’s Royal, Tarrus Riley continues to hear from people about what the song means to them and how much it has impacted their lives. It reinforces his conviction about musicians and their role in society.
“It doesn’t matter what we sing or what form of music it is, we touch people’s lives and help them live for the moment. People need musicians to put meaning and to direct the culture,” he says. “It’s a responsibility we have to take seriously.”
That responsibility is almost second nature to him.
“There’s always a conscious element in my music. No matter what type of song it is I want it to mean something.”
He says all of it hinges on the knowledge that he is just following in the footsteps of the forefathers of music and the elders who have made it easier for him to step into his role today and carry on.
“I take it seriously because I know where it’s coming from. I know it didn’t start with me,” he says.
“Our music, just as many other types of music, originated in struggle, so I always remember the foundation built by artistes like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and others who made it so much easier for us today. I know I have to do the same for those who will be following in my footsteps.”
He says part of his responsibility also is to maintain a dose of consciousness in the music he creates because now more than ever our youth need as much guidance as they can get.
His 2011 hit Shaka Zulu Pickney, which is laced with themes of Black history and empowerment has become an anthem in various quarters, and Tarrus holds it up as one of his most cherished creations. And as a child of musical history, he is also high on his latest album, Love Situation (released in 2014), and done in collaboration with producer and acclaimed saxophonist Dean Fraser.
He was quoted as describing it as “a true tribute to the rocksteady era.”
He told The CONTACT the album was done as an independent recording project he undertook to learn more about the industry and explore his “burning desire to write love songs.”
He describes the songs on the album, including one done by his dad, the famed Jimmy Riley, as “personal.”
Last February, Love Situations gave Tarrus his first number one placing on the Billboard Reggae Albums chart.
Tarrus spoke to The CONTACT while he was in Los Angeles where he was preparing for his second show in two days. He flew there from Hawaii, where he also did a couple shows. From L.A. it’s back to Jamaica then to Miami and on to Montreal where he will be one of the headliners at the Montreal International Reggae Festival.
It’s a hectic schedule that keeps him on the move year-round but he’s cool with it because he loves performing and sharing his music with others.
On Sunday, August 16, he will be at the Old Port of Montreal. He shares the stage with soul music icons The Manhattans, and reggae stalwarts Oriel, Iba Mahr, Canadian reggae music star four-time Juno winner Exco Levi and the legendary Cocoa Tea.
Contact the Montreal International Reggae Festival: firstname.lastname@example.org or (514) 482-7921.
The 12th edition of The Montreal International Reggae Festival (MIRF) to be held on August 14, 15 and 16 at Montreal’s Old Port comes with a power-pack lineup of old school veterans, contemporary big names and up-and-coming stars.
This year, organizers went out of their way to make sure that reggae fans enjoy a memorable musical experience by having a star-studded cast in place for each of the three nights of the festival, when the various forms of reggae music will showcased.
On opening night, those who love the love songs of reggae will revel in the presence of a true king of the art form as Beres Hammond holds court. With hits like I Feel Good and Rockaway, he has molded several generations of reggae lovers into adoring fans.
He will be joined on stage by two of Montreal’s most illustrious reggae performers, the veteran Jah Cutta who for over 25 years kept the scene alive in Quebec and beyond; and Kaisha Lee, who is currently making waves with her new album #IHeartReggae.
On Saturday, August 14, Dancehall takes over the Old Port with the coming of two of the biggest names on the circuit, Shabba Ranks and Lady Saw.
Since he burst on the scene in the mid-1980s, Shabba cultivated a place for himself with a ragamuffin sound and attitude that catapulted him to international fame. By the early 1990s he was selling millions of albums and winning fans worldwide.
He grabbed two Grammies in 1991 and 1992 with songs from his albums As Raw As Ever and X-Tra Naked.
Today, Shabba is still standing tall as the self-proclaimed ‘Emperor of Dancehall’ and remains a “heavy-ranka” on the performance circuit.
More royalty on Saturday night when Lady Saw, the acclaimed Queen of Dancehall and The First Lady of Dancehall, will take the stage.
A true pioneer of the art form, she has many groundbreaking achievements under his belt, including being the first female deejay to win a Grammy (in 2003 with No Doubt), also to earn a Triple Platinum with Said Single and a Gold Record with Vitamin C.
Lady Saw remains one of the most engaging performers to come out of Jamaica.
Dancehall fans will also get to enjoy two of the top young talents in the industry today, Kranium and Dexta Daps.
The New York-based Kranium moved to the U.S. in 2005 where he searched for an opening to take his stage career to the next level. In 2013, the breakthrough came with “Nobody Has To Know,” which continues to bring him wide-ranging exposure.
Dexta Daps is riding a few big hits, including Seven Eleven, Morning Love or Jealous Ova with Tifa, to early stardom this year.
As it has been for the past few years, Saturday will feature a line-up of top Soca acts. This year, Leadpipe and Saddis of Barbados and Fireman Hooper, of St. Vincent will be delivering the soca.
The Bajan duo was a massive hit at the T&T carnival with their monster hit Feel Ah Feelin and Fireman Hooper has won more than his share of titles in SVG. His big hit Rum Meeting continues to excite partygoers.
Local firebrand performer Daddy Ghost will also light a fire under the soca fans. He reigns as Montreal’s perennial Soca Monarch and over the years, has released a number of hit singles, including Bend Wood, Party Ram, Quink It, More Than That, all of which have been burning up the airwaves in his native St. Vincent and across the Caribbean.
Recently, Daddy Ghost has taken his game to the next level when he signed up with acclaimed producer Kevin Charles, the man behind several hits with Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin and Fay Ann Lyons.
Then on Sunday Night conscious reggae abounds with three of the biggest names on the scene today. Cocoa Tea, Tarrus Riley and Exco Levi on stage. They will be joined that evening by the legendary Manhattans and supporting acts Oriel, Bitty McLean and Iba MaHr.
Headliner Cocoa Tea has a way of sending Montreal fans into a tizzy with his repertoire of endless hits, including Rikers Island and One Away Woman.
Exco Levi is Canada’s most illustrious reggae performer with four Juno awards from 2012 to 2015 and mega hits such as Bleaching Shop, Storms of Life, Welcome the King and Strive.
The Manhattans come to Montreal with an extended repertoire that has made them one of the best known groups in the world, as music lovers wait with bated anticipation to sing along to hits such as Shining Star and Kiss and Say Goodbye.
Oriel, Bitty McLean and Iba MaHr, the three newcomers to the festival this year, come with impressive credentials.
Mclean with several hits on the British charts was in Montreal at the 2014 Jazz Fest and has won a lot of fans here. And he’s sure to do so on the big reggae stage.
Iba’s Diamond Sox earned him the Song of the Year title at the 2015 Jamaica Reggae Industry Association Awards (JARIA).
And Dominican-born Pittsburgh-based Oriel won the 2014 Forbes Music Inc. Best Single Award with Confidence, a fusion of Reggae and Jazz.
Contact the Montreal International Reggae Festival: email@example.com or (514) 482-7921 or montrealreggaefest.com.