© Gerry Dumigan
Political and musical powerhouse Billy Bryans passed away surrounded by members of his passionate community who spent nine weeks at his side as he faced the end. In death as in life, he was dogged, rallying repeatedly in the face of adversity, until he took his last breath with a smile on his face.
Montreal-bred Bryans moved to Toronto in 1970 with his band Theodore's Smokeshop, but soon developed a reputation as a producer and engineer, working on records by the Time Twins and the Downchild Blues Band, whose Bootleg album (1971) is considered to be Canada's first artist-produced, independently distributed album.
As a drummer and songwriter, he became famous for his collaboration with Lorraine Segato in the multi-Juno-winning Parachute Club, whose ecstatic blend of dance music and revolutionary lyrics - especially the song Rise Up! - became a nationwide sensation. But he was a chronic collaborator. At one point, he was in so many bands, the soca-drenched V among them, that on any given night he could be seen carting his drums down Queen West from gig to gig, from the Bamboo to the Horseshoe to the Cameron.
Later he developed a reputation as a dazzling DJ whose unique mix of world music, salsa and soul kept the party jumping. In the last years of his life he devoted his time to playing and promoting Cuban music.
"He was my musical soulmate. It's hard to imagine my artistic life without him," said a saddened Segato, informing me of his passing. "He touched so many people. He would always take what he learned and pay it forward, mentoring people to make sure they didn't make the same mistakes he did.
"We were aligned so completely, not just around the music and the beats, but around our ways of looking at music, gender equality and what music can do to make change."
As for me, I remember when he played drums for Mama Quilla II, the (almost) all-women band Segato fronted in the early 80s. The band was set to play a dyke dance on New Year's but faced firm opposition from some activists who complained that Bryans was invading women's space."
"Are you kidding?" I argued loudly. "That guy's an honorary lesbian if I ever saw one."
A memorial procession down Queen West, in Bryans's honour, will travel the route between the venues he played so often. Information about its time and place will be available at nowtoronto.com.
For NOW's cover story on V is archived here.