MUSIC: The Tradewinds in the Making – By Dave Martins

  Stabroek News – July 4, 2021 – By Dave Martins

Looking back on the story of the emergence of my Tradewinds band in Caribbean music, it is interesting that I did not have any burning desire to be a professional musician when I migrated from Guyana to Toronto, Canada, in the early 1950s. There was no powerful impulse for the move, as I remember it. I was living in Vreed-en-Hoop, working at Atkinson Field (now Timehri) and my elder sister Cecelia had moved to Canada and was really excited up there and it kind of evolved that the other Martins should do the same thing, so I was the second one in the family to go.

Play Music Video at end of article

I was still wet behind the ears, didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do in life, but Toronto sounded good, with all the opportunities, so I went, simple as that, with very little accoutrements other than the hand-made acoustic guitar I had bought in Timehri via a Brazilian passing through.         

It’s late 1955. I step off the plane at Toronto’s Malton airport, a new immigrant. There are prop planes; no jetways. You descend the stairs and walk to the terminal; 100 yards or so. I’m wearing only a light suit (family is meeting me with a winter coat) and almost right away there is this strange sensation, taking in my entire body, like a wave. What’s happening to me? It takes a few seconds to register – Jesus, I’m cold. It was December; 32 degrees F. I had lived all my life in the tropics; who knew? Intense cold like this was something my body had never experienced. I take off running. The other passengers stare; they’re in winter garb. I run faster. Inside the terminal I stand in a corner, arms wrapped tight. It’s a couple minutes before I stop shaking.

Bermuda Tavern on Yonge St. Toronto

Born and raised in a small village in Demerara, Guyana, I was on the edge of that wave of immigration to Canada that began rolling in the 1950s, and five years after I discovered cold weather at Malton I was playing Caribbean music (a lot of it calypso) in a small downtown bar on Yonge Street called the Bermuda Tavern; the only one in town with that kind of music. You didn’t ever hear the word “multiculturalism” back then, but that’s what was going on. The Bermuda Tavern was owned by a Jewish family, while several of the waiters were Macedonian, the two bartenders were born Canadians, the band was a Guyanese and two Trinidadians, and the clientele was a smorgasbord of Caribbean people, some European immigrants, and a sprinkling of intrigued Canadians who would say the most disarming things: “I love the band, but what language are you singing? Spanish?”

To me, coming from a tropical village of 200 people, Toronto seemed like a Hollywood movie starring Cary Grant, but I soon learned it had a reputation as a somewhat staid place. Canadians would joke that “the best thing about Toronto is the road to Montreal”, and the strict liquor regulations in the bars verged on the comical. It was against the law to order another beer if your glass was more than half full –waiters were fired for ignoring the rule – and, during the week, bars closed at midnight. After that, live music had to be played in a restaurant setting, and patrons had to order food in order to be served alcohol; most places got around that by selling crackers and cheese that usually lay on the tables untouched while the glasses clinked. Weeknights in the Bermuda we moved upstairs to the restaurant at midnight (grumbling at having to move the equipment) and played the final hour there. On Saturday, bars closed at 11:30pm, sharp; not one minute over. Caribbean people couldn’t believe you weren’t joking.

But mankind finds a way. The demand from these new Canadians for late night diversions led to “after hours” clubs that sprang up downtown, with live bands, and no liquor licence but if you were known to the owners, you could get a drink served out of sight. The police, who know everything, obviously knew about this dodge, but, to their credit, once the operation stuck to moderation, they would look the other way.

Back then, the handful of Caribbean immigrants to the city would have these weekend huddles in their apartments (this week, my place; next week, yours), vibrant parties that would often rile neighbours and sometimes draw a “turn it down, fellas”from the stern Metro police. You would go weeks without seeing one black face, or even a brown one, on the street. I remember the first time I encountered a fellow Guyanese on the Yonge Street subway. Both tall, we were shouting at each other over the heads of the other passengers; we got some stern looks and, I suspect, a few “what’s-this-country-coming-to” musings. To look back is to notice that multiculturalism had started; the streams of influence had begun.

Take the Bermuda Tavern. The law said you couldn’t dance in bars, but Caribbean people dance if you just knock two sticks together, so our followers would get up and dance. The Jewish owner would go berserk; he was afraid of being charged by the police. He would rush to one group, get them to sit, move to quell some other dancers, and the first bunch would get up again. We would have to stop playing, and appeal for decorum. “We’re in Canada, fellas; it’s not carnival.” The owner would spread his arms, give me this big grin and ask me to sing the Jewish folk song Havah Nageelah. “You sing it like a cantor,” he would say. We actually did play Havah Nageelah in a medley with a Caribbean back beat; more fusion. North Americans wait to recognize the tune before they get up to dance; Caribbean people don’t care much what the melody is – if the beat grabs them, they’re off.

Back then, Caribbean migrants could only enjoy their native cuisine (green plantains; cassava; callaloo; garam masala; etc) when family flew in on a visit carrying such goodies, but in the late ’60s, as more immigrants kept coming, a Guyanese named Joe Gonsalves opened a West Indian store in mid-town Toronto, and Caribbean people would come from miles away to patronize it.

The band I had started in the tiny Bermuda Tavern was the Tradewinds, and by 1970, with one of my calypsoes, “Honeymooning Couple”, a huge hit in the West Indies, I acquired our own club on Victoria Street downtown. In the Caribbean dialects, the pronoun “we” is used to mean “our” as in “we car” or “we politicians”, so I named the club “We Place” and it became a mecca for people from “the region”, as we refer to the Caribbean geographically.

We Place – on Victoria Street, could accommodate about 200 people, and with immigration to Canada cranked up in the Pierre Trudeau years, patronage was good. It was open six nights a week, and on weekends, if you didn’t get there by 9pm you didn’t get in. Tradewinds would play there, and when we were on tour, somewhere in the West Indies or North America, other Toronto-based West Indian bands would fill in. It was the only place in the city with Caribbean music six nights a week. On many occasions, West Indians arriving in Toronto, as visitors or new immigrants, would come straight from the airport at night to join the bacchanal in We Place.

It was an invigorating time with the cultural behaviours sometimes causing friction, occasionally delight, and always alterations. New ways of being were being exposed, and, although we didn’t always recognize it, the influencers were also being influenced, on both sides. I developed as a writer and producer of songs, and the Tradewinds, formed and based in Canada, operating out of We Place, became a fixture on Caribbean music charts through the ’70s and ’80s, and my songs became a part of the Caribbean music fabric from Antigua to Guyana.

I eventually returned to Guyana to live, but I travelled back to Canada often and saw the differences triggered by people like myself who had been accepted into the country in this generous inflow. The liquor laws have long since been liberalized, and there are now West Indian specialty stores scattered all over the city, offering products from the Caribbean. More significantly, even the mainstream Canadian supermarket shelves now offer such things as plantains and curry powder; the staff in such places no longer give you a puzzled “what’s that?” if you ask for pigeon peas or ochroe. On the wider scale, Caribbean people are now prominent in business and political life in Canada, with many of them heading large corporations, lecturing in universities, and even representing Canada in sport. On the first Monday of August, each year, Toronto is known as the place for Caribana, now the largest festival on the Canadian calendar offering every aspect of Caribbean culture – music, food, dance, costume, colour – in a Canadian setting for a multicultural Canada.

Multiculturalism can be different things to different people, but if it means that exchange where each group influences the other and each learns something from each, even if it’s what not to do, then I’m all for it. Canada was a wonderful widening experience for me. I matured as a person and a creator, acquired some of the discipline Caribbean people can be often lacking, married a Scottish immigrant lady there, and gained two wonderful children – solid planks in my life. I took the techniques I learned in North America to improve my work as a musician and started a recording career that has made me a household name in the Caribbean. I spent two years at the University of Toronto studying journalism, and I entered the CBC Cross Canada Song Competition in 1970 and won first place over 1,800 entries – what a leap for a country boy from a small tropical village, and a recent immigrant to boot. I was able to experience the enormous expanse of Canada and the differences – the cosmopolitan big Anglophone city Toronto; the verve and Francophone flavor of Montreal and Quebec City; the very casual and welcoming nature of the Western places (Edmonton, Winnipeg); and the completely distinct ambience of Vancouver with its gentle rain and its striking next door California influences.

The experience and acceptance of that immigration surge has made alterations in Canadian culture that appear in many guises. I returned to Canada to play occasionally (we had a following there), including one billed as Caribbean North at the Richmond Hill Center for the Performing Arts, a few miles outside Toronto. When Richmond Hill, Ontario can calmly present something called Caribbean North, and nobody blinks, you know multiculturalism is happily at work.

The Tradewinds – Greatest Hits Vol. 2 [FULL ALBUM] (1984)

1. England Cold 0:00 2. Not A Blade Of Grass 4:43 3. West Indian Alphabet 7:33 4. Old Time Calypso 10:25 5. Women in Love 15:46 6. In Guyana 20:51 7. Motor Car 24:16 8. Wong Ping 27:46 9. Where Are Your Heroes 29:15 10. Jennifer 45:57
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  • Ashley Daniel  On 07/07/2021 at 12:40 pm

    Shout out to Dave Martins and the boys from Edmonton. As operator of my DJ system named Chocolate City, I played with Tradewinds on their many visits to Alberta. These events were staged by Milton Zaiffadeen at the Villa Vesuvius Hall. Always a full house and lots of fun. Thanks for mentioning the city of Edmonton in your article.

  • Kman  On 07/10/2021 at 1:47 pm

    You and your guys are legends. Saw you several times, twice at Carleton University.
    Still enjoy your songs today.

    Thanks a million.

  • wally n  On 07/10/2021 at 3:00 pm

    Really Dave….not even a lil mention…West Indian Showcase…we remember you kindly ….

  • Lennox Borel  On 07/18/2021 at 9:46 am

    Nice article, Dave. Fond memories of WE Place.
    I do not know if you are aware, but many of the guys who were here when you were in Toronto have passed away.

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