- The Souljazz Orchestra


By: Jordan Reisman

Americans have a strange relationship with Canada. In a lot of ways, America is like the older brother to Canada, still bragging about its glory days on the football team in high school. Canada is the younger, more progressive brother who is slowly doing things better. We feel threatened so we crack jokes about them being weak and we make them talk weird on South Park.

We know Canada has Justin Bieber and Nickelback, but for the longest time Americans were under the impression that Canadians could never produce any music that was…cool. The Souljazz Orchestra is changing all of that with their own brand of afro-jazz. They are Canada’s answer to America’s Budos Band, Antibalas, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and every other band that keeps us the self-proclaimed keepers of “the cool.” What makes them so cool is that they’re not trying to beat us at our own game.

Souljazz hails from Ottawa, Ontario, the same city that claims Alanis Morissette and Tom Green. There’s nothing ‘ironic’ about them, they’re as straightforward and hard working as a band can really get. It even says so on their Facebook!

Souljazz formed back in 2002, and in 2012 celebrated their tenth year as a band by releasing their biggest record to date, the politically charged Solidarity, on UK imprint Strut Records. They recently returned from a three-month long tour in promotion of the record.

Keyboardist and vocalist Pierre Chrétien spoke to BTR about the new record, “We called our latest album Solidarity in part for political reasons, inspired by the spirit of the times we live in, and the various uprisings occurring across the world against the status quo. It was also for personal reasons, representing the unity of this seemingly disparate group of musicians, from different musical and cultural backgrounds, coming together to make music. Solidarity seemed to sum up the spirit of the album well.”

Multicultural is probably the best way to describe Souljazz. This descriptor  reflects Canada as a whole too; Pierre says that it has one of the highest immigration rates in the world. The band alone represents Senegal, Brazil and Jamaica, along with French-Canada. Too often in the States, a band will form that only incorporates people from their own cultural and socioeconomic background. Sure, a band will say that they’re “changing it up” on their next record but that often operates in a very tightly knit framework. Souljazz puts their international money where their mouth is.

One way that they reach different audiences is by simply being multilingual. Their Facebook and website bios are both in English and French. This obviously has its perks.

“Being a multilingual band has definitely come in handy over the years, dealing with non-English speaking fans, promoters, media, etc.  Different languages open up new worlds for you, and it definitely helps you connect with people,” says Chrétien.

Multicultural as they may be, Chrétien does not like their jams being classified as ‘world’ music. He gives quite an anthropological explanation for this distaste, “To me, it’s a meaningless, catch-all term for all non-Western music.  Being branded as ‘world’ music can scare off listeners that would otherwise dig the music, because they might be scared that the music is too ‘exotic’ and foreign.”

The Souljazz Orchestra is dubbed by numerous publications to be ‘afro-jazz.’ This is appropriate because their music is obviously reminiscent of the afrobeat movement started by Fela Kuti, but with strong elements of neo-soul and the avant-garde element of jazz. Their grooves are the kind that makes you want to walk the streets in your coolest strut to the beat of their music.

Jazz is a type of music that can be polarizing though. To some, it is a timeless art form that is the vanguard of all that is taste. To others, it is a tired vestige of the past that is only appreciated by old boring hipsters.

Pierre recognizes this divisive element of the genre.

“Yeah, I feel this especially true in the US, where there have been a lot of efforts to make jazz into “America’s classical music.”  The downside to this is that the music is in danger of becoming a kind of museum music, a music that is to be revered and respected, but in the end becomes a bit inaccessible, elitist and really not a lot of fun.  Elsewhere in the world, I don’t think the word ‘jazz’ has quite the same association.”

Souljazz Orchestra has mastered a part of jazz and afrobeat that is lost in much of rock or indie- the ability to let the music speak. Some genres don’t rely on lyrics and instead, let the pulse of the music set the tone. While Souljazz does have lyrics that evoke a certain message, they do that just as much with their horns and percussion. They even give a nod to Fela with his patented grunts and his ever powerful “HUH!”

“The great thing about instrumental songs is that different listeners can take away different things from the song, without words dictating what this should be, and I think that’s fine, that’s art. I don’t always like telling listeners exactly what a song should mean to them.”

If this whole article wasn’t a subtle list of reasons to move to Canada, Pierre explains the differences between being a musician in the States and Canada.

“Well, having played enough in both countries, personally I find it easier to make music in Canada.  We do have good funding available from government and non-profit organizations that make it easier for groups like us to survive, playing creative non-mainstream music.  I also find that, in general, there’s a good openness to different musical cultures in Canada.  That being said, we love playing the US, and there are definitely great things about the music scene in the States as well.”

Bands get government funding to create music in Canada. Where do I sign up for citizenship?

You can purchase Solidarity and other Souljazz recordings here.