WILLI WILLIAMS and NEW CHANCE with HOLY HUM at the Music Gallery at 918 Bathurst, Saturday (October 19), doors 7:30 pm. $15-$25. musicgallery.org.
Some pairings just work.
Jamaican reggae legend Willi Williams and local electronic artist New Chance (aka Victoria Cheong) might seem like an unlikely duo. But Music Gallery artistic director David Dacks saw something in them that would work together, so he linked them up for this year’s X Avant festival.
“Toronto is one of the most important cities in the world for reggae at this point,” says Dacks, who’s curating his final festival before he steps down at the Music Gallery. “It was important to find two artists with an experimental mindset who also relate to each other as people.”
Since moving to Toronto in the mid-1970s, Williams has earned international acclaim for his socially conscious dub-reggae songs. Armagideon Time is his calling card, famously covered by the Clash and released as the B-side of their London Calling single. Cheong is a familiar face in the local music community, singing with Jennifer Castle, Lido Pimienta and Chandra, while making music with her mesmerizing solo project, New Chance.
“I find that doing collaborations really enhances each other’s work and takes you to a space you’ve never been before,” says Williams, sitting with Cheong at the Music Gallery, in the same room where their performance will take place.
He’s collaborated with legends like Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Marcia Griffiths and Herb Alpert as well as fellow Jamaican expat Jackie Mittoo and later Toronto’s Big Sugar. But Williams was initially hesitant about teaming with New Chance. He was on a three-year hiatus while recovering from an injury, but he eventually found the unlimited potential in stretching outside of sonic comfort zones and uniting his power with a genre-defying young artist.
“There were lots of gigs out there that I turned down during my recuperation, but I wanted to do this one to see what could come out of it,” he says. “This project not only mixes two artists together but two communities. It’s what we need because we’re all family.”
Cheong jumped at the opportunity to play with a legend like Williams. It wasn’t just a musical kinship, but a political one.
“I was recently at the climate march and started thinking about who I knew that made protest songs,” says Cheong. “It’s rare and hasn’t been in fashion in our popular music for many years. The idea that music can be empowering and have deeper messages has always been important for me.”
She’s not a total reggae novice. Thanks to Jamaican friends from her teenage years, Cheong fell in love with the sounds of dancehall, dub and reggae. She’s integrated the spacier touches of those genres into her own music. She’s also released a series of mixes called Reggae Covers, first as a cassette on her label Healing Power Records and more recently as a broadcast for the UK’s NTS Radio. It’s not only the aesthetics of reggae that appeal to her, but also its ethos.
“When I reflect on reggae’s influence, I think about its power to change minds or inspire people to action,” she says. “Aside from just vibes, Willi and I have those values in common.”
Williams says his goal has always been to make music to speak for the common person. Armagideon Time came about when there was famine in Ethiopia and many upheavals happening all over the world.
“It was a protest against the conditions we lived in, but also documentation,” he says. “Over the years I’ve continued because I truly believe you can make the world a better place.”
Several accompanists including singer Isla Craig will join the duo at their X Avant debut. Williams will sing, play guitar and percussion, while Cheong transports his classic songs into unexplored electronic territories. “I’m from the island,” laughs Williams, “so I like to sprinkle extra spice on everything to make it even better.”
They are also excited to unveil never-before-heard material, while looking ahead to a partnership that they plan to extend beyond X Avant. Dacks put them together for the festival, but the fact that the collaboration will continue means he’s accomplished his bigger goal.
“Beyond any musical expectations I might have, it’s gratifying to see people come together, especially when you think of it as an intergenerational sound system,” he says. “That’s important because there’s a history of reggae and electronic music in Toronto that disappears over time. Here’s an opportunity to not forget it but instead create something new.”