Thom Swift laughs when he thinks back to winning the 2008 Maple Blues Award for New Artist of the Year. “I’m sure a lot of people were looking for this young, beaming face,” he says, poking gentle fun at himself, “and instead this old guy crawled out of the crowd.”


That’s because, although his solo career may be a relatively new venture, Swift is hardly a musical newcomer. His solid reputation was established playing finger-style guitar with the blues-jazz group Hot Toddy Trio for more than 12 years. Together they released nine records and toured extensively.


But when the group decided take a break, Swift says he was “forced through another door. I wanted to continue what I was doing,” he says of the transition to solo work, “so it was a no-brainer.” Still, Swift, who has been based in Halifax for the last five years, admits the change was challenging. “I think on the one hand, it was a little frightening not to go through the door with the guys I’d been hanging out with for so long — but on the other hand, it was great. It was liberating. I was the master of my own destiny.”


It was a gamble that paid off. Swift’s first solo album, Into the Dirt (2007), which was produced by Charles Austin (who has also produced albums by Joel Plaskett, Buck 65 and Matt Mays), won him an impressive array of hardware, everything from an East Coast Music Award for Blues Recording of the Year to the Galaxie Rising Star prize and two Music Nova Scotia Awards.


Though Swift’s rich, textured songs straddle genres (“I’ve always been in a bunch,” he says with a laugh, “I’ve never really dealt with borders”), when it comes to songwriting Swift says he is always compelled by truth. “That’s where it all starts from,” he says, “it has got to be real — that’s a rule I have in my life. I don’t have anything to do with anything that isn’t real.” Swift, who recently became a father, says his inspiration generally comes from the day-to-day. “I write about the things I’ve seen and heard, same as everyone.”


His second album, blue sky day, was released in February and has already been embraced by the rock, folk and blues worlds. Though he admits Into the Dirt was “a little darker,” blue sky day reflects Swift’s current state of mind. “The stuff I have going on in my life right now is very positive on all fronts,” he says, a smile creeping into his voice. “It’s a good time in life right now.” Then he pauses before stating what feels wonderfully obvious:  “It seems like there is a lot of blue sky for this album.”

For Winnipeg’s The Details, hard work pays off. Since their inception in 2006, they have been tirelessly recording and touring. Their first full length, Draw a Distance. Draw a Border, released in 2007, broke the Top 100 on the CMJ charts and established them on the Canadian scene. In the last two years, they have made smash appearances around North American festivals, rocking SXSW, NXNE, Pop Montreal, CMW and even stages as diverse as Sled Island Festival 2007 and 2008 and the 2008 Jazz Winnipeg Festival. Despite all their touring, they still call the Manitoba capital their home. “We feel a special connection to Winnipeg,” says singer/guitarist Sean Vidal. The Details are also making waves south of the border, with one of their songs featured in NBC’s Lipstick Jungle. Sharing stages with Stars, The Constantines, You Say Party! We Say Die!, it won’t be long before The Details join the ranks of Canadian household names. Watch for their new record and upcoming cross-Canada tour. Visit

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.