AFUA COOPER with Lillian Allen, Rudyard Fearon, Juhzme, Michael St. George and J. Nichole Noel at Planet Africa Restaurant (2111 Jane), tonight (Thursday, August 29). $12. 416-745-4442; 416-516-8504.
Afua Cooper makes history come alive. Strike a match to her debut Worlds Of Fire [In Motion] disc and poetic voices from the past call out in joy, sorrow, frustration and liberation, winding their stunning narratives around reggae riddims, bass and beats. The esteemed dub poet's been perfecting her craft over the past two decades, sharing stages with folks like Margaret Atwood, Lillian Allen and Amiri Baraka.
Sitting in the front window of a Queen West café, Cooper brings her own history into the present. Her eyes light up as she takes a trip down memory lane.
"I started doing dub poetry right here on Queen Street, in this very scene," she smiles. "The Cameron, the Rivoli, all the spots along here, in community centres, a lot of rallies, marches, leftist things, feminist events, International Women's Day. At that time the whole anti-apartheid movement was heating up, so a lot of our work was geared around that.
"When we started out doing what we called dub poetry, it was me and Lillian Allen and only a few others. Now so many people describe themselves as dub poets! We paved the way for a lot of black poets in this city. I'm even surprised. I keep thinking, "Twenty years! My goodness!'"
Cooper chuckles bashfully. Bringing the past to life ain't no biggie for this dubwise phenom. Besides having published numerous volumes of her own poetry, Cooper's a professor of history and Caribbean studies at York and Ryerson Universities.
She says her academic and artistic personas are intertwined, feeding off each other. The cool thing is that Cooper's scholarly work deals with excavation, digging deep into Canadian history to unearth the vast and forgotten contributions of black people in this country.
Similarly, poems like Negro Cemeteries (inspired by the discovery of hidden black burial plots) and The Child Is Alive (based on a plantation birth scene in the film Sankofa) offer a type of archeology, allowing the silenced voices of slaves and refugees to speak through songs.
Her historical research may lay the foundations for much of her work, but Cooper's own family stories also figure prominently in her poems.
"I'm inspired by my children, by daily life, going to school, being poor. On my mother's side, my grandfather had 12 kids. He migrated across Jamaica with his wife and children to find work, but his wife died of breast cancer. I grew up on those stories, and saw my grandfather as a great hero.
"My other grandmother's husband died when they were a young couple. They'd only been married for three years, and she had three children aged three and under. She's talked about what it meant to put a husband in the ground, what it meant to go out and seek work as a young woman."
Memories Have Tongue, the third track on Worlds of Fire [In Motion] sets her grandmother's struggles to a lilting island melody with bright steel drums and swaying dubby bass lines. The disc marries Cooper's words to soaring reggae music, fleshed out by Juno-winning producer Lazo and his Radikals band.
Cooper admits she'd like to experiment with a wider variety of musical genres. She started out rhyming over West African drums when she played percussion with the Gayap Riddim Drummers, and Afro-Cuban beats really turn her crank.
Still, there's something vital about the spirit of reggae that keeps her comin' back.
"Reggae music is all over the place," she proclaims. "Everywhere -- Australia, New Zealand, Arizona, Africa -- you'll see red, green and gold flags.
"Within the Maori community, reggae music is their anthem. It's the same thing in Brazil with people who are fighting the government and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
"It's rebel music, a music of resistance. And the poetry, for the most part -- even though some people say we're trying to water it down -- is a poetics of resistance. There's no getting around that." firstname.lastname@example.org