Shane Kenney, one of the owners of Trea-Jah-Isle Records, Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto, September 3, 2020.
Leroy Sibbles, Toronto, 1983. Courtesy of Beth Lesser.
Everett Cooper and Garth Roots outside King Culture Record Co., Eglinton Avenue West, 1983. Courtesy of Beth Lesser.
Top Star's Music Recording Studio, Eglinton Ave. W, November 21, 2022.
Music of the Isles
Ska and Reggae
Reggae music is a staple of Jamaican culture and the history of reggae in Toronto can be traced to Little Jamaica. Reggae evolved from ska, a genre of music influenced by blues, jazz and calypso which dates to 1950s Jamaica. Ska became eclectic dance music for the Jamaican people, and its mixed roots made it popular among Caribbeans living in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.
The world-famous Bob Marley and the Wailers band was originally a ska group, but as the genre inspired reggae and rocksteady, Marley’s music would evolve primarily into reggae. The beat of ska was a bouncy rhythm composed to encourage movement, while reggae had a more soulful tone that lent it to messages of hope, faith and redemption. Jackie Mittoo was a prominent ska artist, part of the Skatalites band who came to Toronto to play their music in clubs downtown and record in studios on Eglinton West.
Listen to Jay Douglas trace the roots of ska and its evolution into reggae in Jamaica and North America.
Jay Douglas was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica on September 10th, 1945. His mother, Naureen, left Jamaica in 1955 to do domestic work in Toronto. Douglas joined her in 1964, as a young man. His uncles had also moved to the city and, living with them, his first Toronto address was on Christie Street, south of Eglinton West and the Little Jamaica neighbourhood.
Jay Douglas missed Jamaica immediately but found comfort with the community of Jamaicans and other West Indians who were building lives in Toronto. He attended Central Technical School and sang in talent shows as he had found a love for music particularly reggae, funk, and blues.
Listen to Jay Douglas talk about his first experiences in the Little Jamaica neighbourhood.
When the West Indian Federation/Friendship Club opened in the 1960s, Jay Douglas spent time there and began a musical career that would span decades, taking him all over North America. He was a front man for the Cougars, a funk band with bluesy influences that frequented Yonge Street Clubs. They also recorded and rehearsed in record stores in Little Jamaica.
In 2021, Douglas released the song “I Love Toronto”, commemorating his lifetime in the city and particularly his fondness for the heritage and vibrancy of Little Jamaica. His first band was featured in the album “Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk & Reggae 1967-1974”, alongside other major musicians like Jo Jo Bennett and Wayne McGhie.
Little Jamaica became dense with record stores in the 1970s as Caribbean musicians like Jay Douglas and Pinball Clemons rehearsed and recorded their reggae hits. The also supported new artists by recording background vocals on their songs. Enthusiasts for reggae, ska and eventually dancehall music frequented Eglinton West to buy the latest records because local radio stations were not often playing those genres.
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Music of the Isles
In the 1980s, the Concert Hall (Yonge Street) and other downtown venues hosted live reggae jam fest and concerts. Ticket ads would direct people to Little Jamaica’s Record Factory (1489 Eglinton West Ave.) or Monica’s Cosmetic Supplies Ltd., where records were pressed and sold.
Nana McLean, often known as the Queen of Reggae in Toronto, opened Trea-Jah-Isle Records first as a record shop and studio. The business has changed hands and is run mainly by co-owner Shane Kenney. Kenney grew up in Rexdale in the Toronto area with his Jamaican mother, often visiting the Little Jamaica area with her.
Kenney is a Rastafarian, a spiritual practice common in Jamaica and prominent among reggae musicians. It promotes a lifestyle of healthy consumption, peace and enlightenment. Over the past 25 years, the store has brought the sounds of the latest in reggae music to the streets of Eglinton Avenue West, connecting Caribbean immigrants settling on Eglinton Avenue West to the sounds of ‘back home’.
Listen to Shane Kenney tell the story of Trea-Jah-Isle’s history in Little Jamaica.