Hawksley Workman rarely gets a day off. And when he does, he’s often in a van, talking to press. The Toronto-born singer-songwriter doesn’t mind, though. “I’m adjacent to the St. Lawrence River, barrelling down to Quebec,” he says on his cell phone. “It’s a stunning evening.”


Workman has been living up to his last name ever since he launched his career with 1999’s For Him and the Girls. In his 11-year career he’s released about 140 songs over 13 records and a DVD, has penned tunes for Idol franchises in Canada, Sweden and Finland, written theme-show songs, produced numerous albums and hammered out countless tunes that wound up on the cutting-room floor.


When I caught up with him, he was in the midst of a two-month cross-Canada tour, which came after a jaunt around Europe. It’s anyone’s guess how Workman finds time to sleep. “I’ve always taken a blue-collar approach to what I’m doing,” he says as an explanation of why he’s constantly on the go. “I’ve never kidded myself into believing that if I sit with my feet up, inspiration will come knocking at the door.”


He’s also well aware of the struggles artists have these days, and if he doesn’t keep playing and recording, he could wind up without a job. “As the record business spirals into its final moments of life, I have to believe that I have to continue to work if I’m going to pay the bills and remain vital to myself,” he says. That drive has forced Workman not only to write music whenever he can but also to try new things on every album. He’s gone from quirky indie sounds on his debut to more mainstream rock on 2008’s Los Manlicious to electro-pop on 2010’s Milk, an Internet-only release and the companion record to the more rock-oriented Meat.


Workman chalks up the different musical styles to his “drummer’s brain” — he played the skins before the guitar. “I have a broad rhythmic palette I draw from because my formative years were focused on becoming a great drummer,” says the singer. It also helps that he’s not afraid to collaborate. On Meat, Workman wrote the songs and hashed them out with a standard four-piece band. With Milk, he spent time working with a producer in Sweden. He had been trying to write music for Kylie Minogue and another European Idol artist but ended up making an infectious synth-pop album of his own.


In fact, he’ll tackle any genre. Workman points out that prior to his Sweden trip, he was in New York writing with Esthero producer Doc McKinney, and playing with Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest. “That had an urban or hip-hop feel,” he says. But despite all the sounds the artist has delved into, there is one unifying theme in his songs: it’s all pop music. “These are just catchy songs,” he says. “They rarely exceed four minutes, it’s almost always chorus, verse, chorus, they almost never break any rules. The melodies may be on the brave side occasionally, but they tend towards being more catchy.”


Workman says he doesn’t have just one approach to writing. One day he’ll grab a guitar, the next he’ll sit in front of a piano, and when he’s working with rappers, as he did in New York, he’ll create a song as if he were a hip-hop musician, letting a producer build a track while he throws on the melody and lyrics. If he’s in the studio by himself, he’ll record a drum track and bass line and write over top of that. “Each approach produces different results,” he says. One thing he hasn’t done lately is sit at a kitchen table and write with his acoustic guitar. “That will be my next record.”


What really keeps Workman going, though, is what he describes as his relationship with songwriting. “It’s like a marriage,” he says. “In most marriages there comes a time when you have to renegotiate your passion for each other.” When he was 23 and writing For You and the Girls, he was just beginning to discover what it meant to make music. When he looks back on that record, he hears a “lusty kid discovering what would one day become his conventions and habits.” While those habits have been fine-tuned over the years, making him a more thoughtful songwriter with each album, his relationship with his craft has always stayed strong. “I’m as obsessed with songwriting today as I was when I started,” he says. “And obsessions don’t go away.”

Nadine McNulty remembers well the day that K’naan appeared at Toronto’s Afrofest. The year was 2000 and McNulty, as artistic director, had booked the then-unknown Somali-Canadian rapper to appear in the afternoon on the main stage at the popular outdoor festival. Rain showers failed to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm for K’naan, who performed with just one backup vocalist and a tape playback. Recalls McNulty: “It was drizzling and here was this young guy just kicking it in front of this sea of umbrellas. It’s amazing to see how he’s now taken the world by storm.”

K’naan, this year’s Juno Award winner for Songwriter and Artist of the Year, is a major Canadian star and international crossover act, from his globetrotting tours to the choice of his song “Wavin’ Flag” as the official anthem of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Trophy tour. While K’naan’s breakthrough is the highest profile ever achieved by a Canadian-based African musician, his success sheds light on the steady growth of African music in Canada. What began as a niche market, with a handful of homemade cassettes, has blossomed into a bona fide industry, with dozens of professionally recorded CDs and a healthy circuit of summer festivals (see sidebar).

The earliest African musicians in Canada were based primarily in Toronto and Montreal, including Pat Thomas and the band Native Spirit, who rose from Toronto’s Ghanaian community, and Lorraine Klaasen, who moved to Montreal from South Africa. This first wave of talent was quickly followed by such emerging artists as Toronto’s Show-do-Man and Tarig Abubakar & the Afronubians, Montreal’s Lilison Di Kinara and Vancouver’s Alpha Yaya Diallo, who won Juno Awards for Best Global/World Music Album in 1999, 2002 and again in 2005 as a member of the African Guitar Summit. The Guinean-born Diallo has just released his sixth album, Immé.

African Guitar Summit was a kind of supergroup that also included Ottawa’s Mighty Popo and such Toronto-based guitarists as Pa Joe, Adam Solomon, Donné Robert and Madagascar Slim, who had won two previous Junos for his album Omnisource and as a member, with Bill Bourne and Lester Quitzau, of the fusion group Tricontinental. Slim plays a mix of blues and the music of his native Madagascar, something enhanced after a grant enabled him to travel back home to study the valiha, the Malagasy bamboo zither. Says Slim: “I started out playing the blues, but Canadian audiences were open to hearing the music from my homeland so I’ve moved in that direction.”

According to Slim’s manager Derek Andrews, who was music programmer at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre from 1986 to 2003, where he booked a wealth of world music, African musicians in Canada have benefited greatly from their acceptance at music festivals of all kinds. “Canadian jazz and folk festivals have long had an open door to African culture and that’s really boosted the recognition of the music,” says Andrews. He adds that the Junos, which have included a world-music category since 1992, also help. “There’s a legitimacy that a Juno nomination or win provides — just like any other kind of industry recognition.”

The newest wave of African musicians in Canada, boosted by increased immigration, is the most enterprising and experimental yet. Montreal’s H’Sao, a family of three brothers and a sister from Chad that has performed at the city’s jazz festival and released two CDs, has active MySpace and Facebook pages and a Twitter account and has produced several slick videos. The group’s Caleb Rimtobaye also has a side project called Afrotronix, which stages events called Mystic Night, featuring dancers, musicians and acrobats from Cirque du Soleil.

Toronto’s Ruth Mathiang, an entrancing singer from Sudan, and Katenen ‘Cheka’ Dioubate, a mesmerizing griot performer from Guinea, are two of the fastest rising stars. Mathiang’s CD Butterfly combines a mixture of everything from hip-hop and gospel to reggae and Afrobeat, while Dioubate, who has called herself a “snow griot” since moving to Canada, will be releasing her much anticipated debut CD this summer. Other fresh new talents include Angolan-born Valu David, Eritrean Daniel Nebiat and South Africa’s Kgomotso ‘KG’ Tsatsi, all of whom are based in Toronto.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of African-inspired acts in Canada — or Canadian connections with African musicians. Montreal’s Taafé Sanga, Ottawa’s Souljazz Orchestra and Toronto’s Mr. Something Something are all blending musical styles to create fresh new sounds. Then there’s banjo player Jayme Stone’s Africa to Appalachia project with Montreal-based Malian kora player Mansa Sissoko, which won the 2009 Juno for World Music Album. Says Derek Andrews: “Fusion is a reality in the evolution of world music, and cross-cultural collaborations are a big part of the Canadian scene.” From grassroots artists to superstars like K’naan, African music is adding a vibrant new beat to the Canadian sound.

Amir Epstein, the one guy in Toronto’s Crash Karma who didn’t come from a multi-platinum-selling Canadian rock band, wasn’t intimidated about playing his songs to ex-I Mother Earth singer Edwin, ex-Tea Party drummer Jeff Burrows and ex-Our Lady Peace guitarist Mike Turner, even if, “truth be told,” he says, “I Mother Earth influenced me heavily as a musician.”

The bassist, who earned his credentials as principal songwriter in the jam band Zygote, says he had full confidence in what he originally played for the guys at Turner’s recording studio, The Pocket. “I sat down with an acoustic guitar and played 24 songs,” Epstein recounts. “They didn’t have names, they weren’t finished and they didn’t have lyrics.”

No one rushed into starting a band. Turner had his studio and played in Fair Ground, Edwin was three albums into a solo career and Burrows was an on-air host at CKUE The Rock in Windsor, Ont., and a frequent session player. Epstein was actually finishing law school — in Australia. “[The project] would go into hibernation during those periods because we were all doing other things,” says Turner, who ended up producing the self-titled album. “It was definitely something we approached gradually. It was like, ‘We’ve got a weekend, let’s work on this.’”

Epstein, now back in Toronto for good, and Edwin would congregate at The Pocket; Burrows would take a morning train from Windsor and get back in time for his radio shift. “We’d grab a guitar and go, ‘Well, that’s cool, how about let’s arrange it like this?’ It was done on the fly. We started to do drums when we were still finalizing arrangements,” says Turner.

As they continued to work on songs, such as the psychedelic “Awake,” a recent Top 10 radio hit, and “Fight,” the empowering second single, they realized they had something, an amalgamation of all their personalities, pedigrees and signature styles. Of course, that might have had something to do with Epstein writing songs with the others in mind. “Even when I was singing, I’d imitate Ed to see how that would sound,” he says.

As Crash Karma emerged as a band, the four started behaving like one, including undertaking a tour in March/April. “We’ve all known each other a long time and respect each other enough to listen,” says Turner. “And Amir was so open. He more or less said, ‘Hey guys, I love what you do. Do what you do with this.’”

While Epstein never had “new-guy syndrome,” he does admit it’s kinda cool to be in a band with one of his favourite singers. “What a voice,” he says of Edwin. “Hearing him sing a melody I’d written, it sounded a bit like I Mother Earth but it was my song. It was really trippy.”