Q&A with Canadian Maple Blues Award-winning band of Blackburn Brothers, descendants of freedom seekers

"I believe that soul music blues is the roots of popular music. As I get older, I realize the connection is very strong, undeniable everything changes with time we are all influence from the past. It’s the way of the world. as well, the blues connects with the soul, and we all have souls, so that always be an audience for the blues..."

Blackburn Brothers: SoulFunkn'BLUES

An obvious uniqueness that identifies and sets apart the band is that Blackburn Brothers is a band of brothers - literally. Duane (lead vocals, organ, piano), Brooke (guitar, vocals), Cory (drums, harmony vocals), Robert (guitar, harmony vocals), and Nathan (bass guitar) all share the Blackburn name. This name has become truly connected to Toronto's music history. Musically, the Blackburn name has been forever imprinted in Canadian Music by the patriarch of the family, Bobby Dean Blackburn, a veteran R&B artist who gained legendary status on the Toronto music scene, performing the city circuit for over 50 years. On September 1st, 2023, Blackburn Brothers release their long-awaited third recording, aptly titled SoulFunkn'BLUES, keywords one can use when describing Blackburn Brothers. SoulFunkn'BLUES also features long-time bandmates Neil Brathwaite and Ted Peters on horns. In the brilliantly worded liner notes written by family friend and soul superstar in her own right, Shakura S'Aida, the history of Blackburn Brothers and their imprint on the Canadian soul/blues scene is evident.

(Blackburn Brothers is a band of brothers - literally. Duane, Brooke, and Cory / Photo © by Laura Carbone)

The Blues that the Juno-award nominated Blackburn Brothers create is part of their inheritance, a legacy that began with Elias Earls, an enslaved man born in Kentucky in 1792 who escaped slave owners and found freedom in Canada. The Blackburn Brothers music is authentic and always about a message of history, freedom, legacy, family, black unity, and love. Listen to SoulFunkn'BLUES and you will move to the heavy riff-filled soul blues, funky danceable blues, and deep groove-based blues. Listen to the lyrics and you will hear the stories of Black Canadians.

Interview by Michael Limnios                   Special Thanks: Sarah French Publicity

How has the Blues and Soul music influenced your views of the world? What moment changed your music life the most?

Duane: Blues / soul music influenced me in the way that gospel music influenced me. I think they're cut from the same cloth telling the truth, exposing your most inner emotions and I feel that the Blues community is a welcoming community... a great influence.

Brooke: Blues and Soul Music tells the story of the life of the North American Black Experience. The feeling of the sound and groove is in our DNA. Our Father played it in the 50’s to the present and introduced it to us from birth.

Cory: Blues and Soul music has influenced my views of the world through growing up listening to the lyrics of the greats such as Nina Simone, James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone just to name a few. These artists often addressed social injustice issues I could easily identify with being a musician of African descent.

How do you describe band’s sound and songbook? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

Duane: Blackburn sound has an original mix of soul blues, a little bit of Funk little bit of reggae roots. This is our heritage family coming from the United States to the underground and as well, the Caribbean the island of Montserrat when do you listen to Blackburn you definitely can feel that influence. I describe the band sound is a combination of roots, blues, jazz fusion, soul, we all have our own way of writing music myself I am orientated into the groove funk bluesy feel, so when the brothers get together, you never know what kind music is going to be created when you have four brothers, there’s a lot of different inspirations in the making of a cd..

Brooke: I describe in thought of a story still being written of the sound of Toronto past and present. Soul directs your technique and hones the beauty of style. You work towards playing with soul and technique that you strive to sound more soulful. Soul is an encompassing word that describes the essence of Black Music.

Cory: Firstly, I would describe the band's sound as funk drivin, along with an authentic soulful blues foundation and lastly some infectious song writing. I believe our technique has been nurtured & developed through live performance, the more we play as a unit the more our technique seems to unveil. Soul is a force behind our sound, when we perform it is a spiritual experience and I often feel connected to a greater source.

"Blackburn has always live music improvisation on the Spot when that happens, that’s true magic and sometimes somehow, we capture that when we play live, I believe in that truly is a gift from God and I feel blessed to be able to do this for a living with my brothers, my families and my friends." (Duane Blackburn / Photo © by Laura Carbone)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Duane: I’ve been given lots of advice from different musicians, growing up through my father playing with many musicians from the age of 15, do what you love, and make music is a big part of life, but don’t let it consume you... don’t take it too serious. Have fun with it.

Brooke: Meeting people that were my father’s peers and performing with them mentoring the youth to become better musicians and to learn to create on their own. Best advice was to play every show as your last.

Cory: Very early in my career I had a discussion with an incredibly talented saxophone player who I admired deeply. He was on a gig with us and during our break he pulled me aside and asked me if playing drums was a full time Job for me? I replied no, I also have a part time job. He said to me...man you sound great and you have something really special to offer and there is no reason why music shouldn't be all day, every day for you.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Duane: Music memory stories, being a young teenager touring with Eugean Smith right out of high school and backing up artist, playing in many different bands, blues, reggae funk, rock, etc... being in many situations where you’re sometimes you didn’t get paid, for example, I remember playing a gig, and we’re and they wouldn’t pay us so we started packing down the house PA system, or playing clubs were major fights would break out sometimes you had to get involved, so definitely had to know how to handle yourself…

Brooke: Some memories are when we received a standing ovation opening up for the incredible Sharon Jones. Both her and Mavis Staples are two beautiful artist that were very kind and forthcoming to my brothers.

Cory: A memory that comes to mind is opening for Mavis Staples and also Dr. John. Both were beautiful people to be around and to share the same stage with them was pretty incredible.

"Blues and Soul Music tells the story of the life of the North American Black Experience. The feeling of the sound and groove is in our DNA. Our Father played it in tge 50’s to the present and introduced it to us from birth." (Brooke Blackburn / Photo © by Laura Carbone)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Duane: Well, the way Musiq is going now it’s technology driven. I fear that the basics are not being taught enough but life is about change. I think the biggest fear I have is artificial intelligence AI in a few years I think it will control, popular music, modern music, electronic music, but as the saying goes, you can’t fake the funk!!! and that applies to the course, the blues soul, that’s why I believe the life aspect of music is going to be a very valuable commodity in the future… and I’d like to be a part of that..

Brooke: If anything, I miss playing with friends who have continued on to other dimensions of existence. I am very fortunate to play with my family and create and perform grooves that keeps the love of music and the scene of band alive. Hopes are to continue on and perform good original music that people can feel and relate to.

Cory: I miss seeing large member bands that resembled us, for example Sly & The Family Stone. You will find support for solo artists that look a bit like us these days but unfortunately not bands.

What is the impact of Blues/Soul music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Duane: Blackburn has always live music improvisation on the Spot when that happens, that’s true magic and sometimes somehow, we capture that when we play live, I believe in that truly is a gift from God and I feel blessed to be able to do this for a living with my brothers, my families and my friends...

Brooke: Our music is related to our experience of being Canadian of being Black African Canadian. Blues and Soul music is a narrative of the North American Black experience from Slavery to Freedom seekers to Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights movement to modern day human rights that are taken away by unjust authorities. We’re there’s struggle there will be Blues and Soul where there is love there will be Blues and Soul. All encompassing.

Cory: In my opinion Blues/Soul music is spiritual and I feel it brings a connection to your spirituality. I would hope this music brings joy and peace of mind to the listener.

"Blues and Soul music has influenced my views of the world through growing up listening to the lyrics of the greats such as Nina Simone, James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone just to name a few. These artists often addressed social injustice issues I could easily identify with being a musician of African descent." (Cory Blackburn / Photo © by Laura Carbone)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Duane: Lessons learned on my musical path is to be humble listen and appreciate every moment, take nothing for granted nothing last forever. Enjoy every moment, so get in.

Brooke: I am still learning and will always be a student of music. I think the most important lesson I have learned in music was to listen. Learn to listen to your musicians around you to your creative side, to others who influence you to become an individual and still part of a cohesive family collective.

Cory: The lessons I've learned are pretty simple...music is an artform that needs constant attention and focus, even when you're tired you have to find a way to dig deep and nurture it.   

Do you think there is an audience for Soul/Blues music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

Duane: I believe that soul music blues is the roots of popular music. As I get older, I realize the connection is very strong, undeniable everything changes with time we are all influence from the past. It’s the way of the world. as well, the blues connects with the soul, and we all have souls, so that always be an audience for the blues...

Brooke: Yes, there will always be an audience for Blues and Soul music because it’s real and it’s folk music, our folk music. True sounds generated by musical ideas will always be accepted like the sound of the birds singing will always be beauty to the fibres in your eardrums. Making someone’s day, affecting someone’s hardened spirit to say my day feels much better now after being part of this musical sharing is to me one of the heartfelt rewards of playing music. Making good music with family is a blessing.

Cory: I would hope there is an audience for Soul/Blues music. Blues in my eyes is the foundation to all popular North American music we hear. Today's popular music may not sound like the Southern traditional Blues we know from the past, but it is there if you listen closely. I think we as producers/composers & performers of Soul/Blues also have a responsibility to keep the youth tuned in to the version we deliver. We will do our best now and the years to come to grab their attention and hopefully inspire the youngsters to not only be an audience but to be music makers of Soul/Blues themselves.

Blackburn Brothers Music - Home

Blackburn Brothers: Duane; Brooke; and Cory / Photo © by Laura Carbone

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