A Conversation with... CaneFire's Jeremy Ledbetter

We are now in carnival season. July 7th marked the beginning of the 48th edition of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival which runs three weeks. Within the structured event is a pan or steel drum competition on July 31st at Lamport Stadium, a King & Queen competition on July 30, and the grand parade – August 1 at Exhibition Place and Lakeshore.

Carnival is centuries old with Brazil being the center of the universe, drawing up to 2,000,000 party goers a day. It’s all about the carefree spirit of humanity or the “farewell to the flesh.” Costume, music, floats and dance under a sun drenched sky is the signature statute.

It’s also a huge splash of colour, more than enough to decorate the soul in resplendent tones. This is camera time!

One of the finest bands whose basic core is built around the rhythms and folkloric traditions of the islands, most notably those that favour calypso and other regional music, is Toronto’s Canefire.

It’s a most difficult challenge marrying one genre to another but CaneFire succeeds in pairing it’s jazz/fusion explorations with those of traditional bearings into a most exciting and delicious concoction.

I recently cornered band leader Jeremy Ledbetter and asked a few questions.

Bill King: CaneFire has been around since 2005. You’ve spent time in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Brazil and through the Caribbean islands and you are from Kitchener. I’m trying to get a read on you.

Jeremy Ledbetter: It just kind of happened. I was living in Toronto and originally went to Trinidad on an exchange program to study music for a year and kind of never came back. I fell in love with the music of the Caribbean and Trinidad as a country and the people there. It’s an amazing place that kind of pulled me in and I ended up living there for three and a half years. It’s my second home now. Spending that amount of time there and absorbing the culture is in what I compose now. It’s a matter of taste. It’s what I like listening to and like to play.

While living in Trinidad I saw Tito Puente play one of his last shows with his band. That was the first time I’d seen Latin music live and it kind of took the top of my head off as well.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying and examining what makes this music tick enough to where I feel I’m coming from a place where I’m doing it justice when I compose with it.

B.K: You can get this all wrong and turn it into a schmaltzy heap of nothingness. It’s like the majority of players who mess with the Bossa Nova and just harm it. How do you bring something fresh to this?

J.L: It’s a matter of just getting to know it well enough before trying to experiment. It’s like trying to write in a foreign language. You wouldn’t try to write a poem in a foreign language by listening to someone speaking it on the radio. If you are not going to take a course then you have to travel to a country where it’s the native language – immerse yourself and gain a working knowledge. It’s kind of what I’ve done with all music I’ve incorporated into what I compose.

B.K: Zouk is French Caribbean, Plena – Puerto Rican, Brazilian sambas – the songo – is a Cuban rhythm. Is there a procedure for integrating this into your palate of colours?

J.L: I’ll just kind of hear it and it will be something that fascinates me. As soon as I can I will get to the place where that sound comes from and find the best musicians who play it and sit in their living room until they agree to teach me.


B.K: You’ve stated you wanted to rescue the steel pan from thousands of island caricatures. Carnivals, cruise ships and lounges?

J.L: The carnival is better than what we are used to here. The pan conjures up images of cruise ships, a beach and Bob Marley songs by the pool and a drink with an umbrella in it.

B.K: My appreciation really spiked listening to pan player Andy Narell.

J.L: He’s one of the most well known around the world who has kind of shown people what the steel pan can so, or least some of it. It’s an amazing instrument capable of doing just about anything. It’s important to show people it doesn’t need to live in that tiny box we put it in.

B.K: Did you get into the making of it?

J.L: Yes I have. It’s a very complicated process and I’ve seen them made.

B.K: You hammer squares into an oil drum?

J.: Yes – they take an oil drum and cut the bottom off and heat up to the point they call ‘sinking it’ – turn it into a kind of bowl shape and hammer the notes up so they are like raised bumps.

B.K: How many notes are there?

J.L: The tenor pan or higher pitch pan is about two and a half octaves. There’s a soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The bass will have three large notes and they will surround themselves with several and when they play it looks like they are dancing.

B.K: Can you play it?

J.L: Yes — that’s the original reason I went to Trinidad. I have one at home. I’ve played a little bit on both my albums but Mark Mosca is the main guy.

B.K: Mark’s background?

J.L: His family is Trinidadian but he was born here. The family runs a steel band in Scarborough called Silhouettes that play every year for Caribbean Carnival and around.

It’s the only instrument I’ve ever seen that looks like when you are tuning – you are breaking it. They tune with a hammer and are not gentle.

B.K: You grew up in Kitchener – classically trained?

J.K: Classical. I studied a little bit at York University – jazz studies for a year and a half – and film. Left and went to Trinidad.

B.K: Why Trinidad? Cold weather...

J.L: That’s my joke.

B.K: Were you just pulled in? Every young person sees a place beyond.

J.L: That’s happened several times. There was nothing specific about Trinidad other than I do remember when I was about nine years old my family went on an all inclusive vacation to Barbados and I’d been playing piano for about two years just getting into but obsessed with music and I saw a small steel band playing by the pool – probably playing, “Yellow Bird.” It was the first time I’d seen this and my reaction was “Oh my God, what is this – why hadn’t anyone told me about that thing – what is it?” That stuck in my mind and when the time came for me to leave Canada – it wasn’t so much about cold weather but more about wanting to travel and Trinidad was possible and it had an exchange program with York University.... I did a year studying steel pan at the University of the West Indies.


CaneFire Line-Up:

Jeremy Ledbetter – Piano: Originally trained as a classical pianist in his hometown of Kitchener, Ontario, Jeremy Ledbetter studied jazz in Toronto until a violent allergy to cold weather led him to relocate to the sunnier climes of Trinidad and Tobago in 1999. Ledbetter spent several years in Trinidad studying and performing Caribbean music, eventually landing a job as musical director for calypso legend David Rudder. Ledbetter’s meandering route back to Canada included extended stays in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Brazil, and provided the inspiration for CaneFire, the band he formed in 2005 to play his original compositions.

Mark Mosca – Steelpan: A graduate of both the Royal Conservatory and the Humber College jazz program, Mark Mosca has established himself as one of the world’s leading exponents of his instrument, the steelpan. He has won the respect of peers such as Robert Greenidge and Andy Narell for his combination of virtuoso technique and improvisational mastery.

Alexis Baró – Trumpet: Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Alexis Baró plays the trumpet with all the force of a Category 5 hurricane. Alexis’ jaw-dropping work in Canada with groups such as Kollage, the A-Team, and the Hilario Duran Big Band has earned him several National Jazz Award nominations for “Trumpeter of the Year”. He has also released three albums under his own name.

Braxton-Hicks – Saxophones: Recently returned to his hometown Toronto from an extended stay overseas, Braxton Hicks is an exciting and flamboyant woodwind player and bandleader who is proficient in a wide range of styles and genres. Besides his main axe, the tenor, Hicks also plays alto and baritone saxophones and flute on Pandemonium.

Yoser Rodríguez – Bass: Yoser Rodríguez has been Toronto’s premier salsa bassist since moving here from his native Cuba in 2003. Originally trained as a classical guitarist, Yoser is a versatile, communicative performer who is proficient on electric, upright, and baby basses. He has also worked with crossover artists such as Andy Narell, Alex Cuba, and Odessa-Havana.

Rosendo “Chendy” León – Drums: Working with Jesse Cook, Amanda Martinez, Sultans of String, CaneFire, and others makes for a very busy schedule. Add a teaching position at Humber College to that and you can see what makes Cuban drummer/percussionist Chendy León one of the most in-demand Latin musicians in Canada. His work with CaneFire showcases his innovative approach to Caribbean rhythms.

Alberto Suarez – Percussion: Rounding out the Cuban contingent is flamethrowing conguero Alberto Suárez. Hailing from Matanzas, Cuba, Alberto honed his chops with a variety of salsa and Latin jazz groups in Cuba and Canada and has now expanded his expertise to include Trinidadian and Brazilian percussion. Alberto specializes on the congas, but the djembe, atabaque, and batá also form part of his arsenal.


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