For the last 20 years, PhemPhat Entertainment Group’s Ebonnie Rowe has channeled her time, energy and (when necessary) money into Honey Jam, an annual, multicultural, genre-straddling music showcase designed to nurture and promote female talent. But Rowe, who calls herself Honey Jam’s “queen bee,” admits that when she held her first event in 1995, she thought it would be a one-off.

“It really started by accident,” she says, thinking back to the origins of an event that has kick-started the careers of hundreds of women, including Nelly Furtado, Jully Black, Divine Brown and Kellylee Evans. At the time, Rowe was running a mentoring program for at-risk youth in Toronto. She was troubled by some of the language and misogynistic attitudes her young charges were picking up in the mainstream rap and hip-hop music at the time. “There were no ‘clean’ versions of the songs – so these kids were hearing this stuff and repeating it,” she recalls.

“People really seemed to like it. They kept saying ‘When is the next one?’”

Frustrated, Rowe took her concerns to a local DJ, who in turn invited her to produce a radio special exploring the portrayal of women in hip-hop music. A magazine editor who heard the special, then invited Rowe to edit an all-female edition of a now defunct hip-hop magazine called Mic Check. The party held to celebrate the magazine’s release was called ‘Honey Jam.’ It featured female DJs and MCs, among other performers.

Though Rowe was content to return to her day job after the event’s success, it was clear she’d struck a chord. “I had just opened my mouth because I had seen something I didn’t like,” she says, “but people really seemed to like it. They kept saying ‘when is the next one?’  Though she had no training or experience in the music industry, Rowe decided it was an opportunity worth pursuing.

At least 100 women performing everything from jazz to gospel to rock to pop now audition to be part of the annual Honey Jam showcase each year, with 15 or 20 ultimately selected. Rowe stresses that once the young women (generally ranging in age from 17-24) have made the cut, the competition aspect is over. They then take part in a series of industry workshops and other development initiatives as they work towards a summer concert. “The girls all bond together,” she says. “It warms my heart.”

With Honey Jam’s 20th anniversary on the horizon, Rowe admits that finances are still the biggest challenge as she works to keep the event afloat – no matter how much the showcase has become a destination for talent seekers looking for the next big thing. But looking back, Rowe says that it has been the successes of her alumni that have made it all the work worthwhile. “I’ve burned the candle at both ends for a long time, but I do feel a huge sense of accomplishment and fulfillment,” she says. “It’s really the reason I keep going.”

Is it an over-simplification to associate Marième with the sun? The zingy songs on her new solo album, Petit Tonnerre, reveal her affinity with nature, and echo the sounds of summer. “I even made a vow to bring out an album every summer,” she says. The singer-songwriter also has a knack of attracting artists to her. She’s held onto these loyal partners, and to her desire to be part of a band from her time with the hip-hop combo CEA. Bob Bouchard and Lou Bélanger, both founding members of CEA, did the musical production on Petit Tonnerre, and the musical arrangement was done by Claude Bégin, who also worked on her previous, self-titled album. Karim Ouellet, formerly from the Quebec City group Accrophone, and with whom Marième has performed, also played guitar on a few tracks. “We’ve been working together and performing on stage for years… It really means something to me to make music with all these people. It doesn’t make sense otherwise. And I’ve built this reggae-pop world with them.”

“I first held a microphone at a fairly young age. And because of the colour of my skin, it was much more significant than I wanted it to be.”

Marième sees this second album as a fresh start. She switched to a new record label, from Tandem to Coyote Records. Musically, she goes for pop with a hint of reggae, the music her father listened to while she was growing up. And this time around she’s concentrating more on her songwriting. “There were a lot of cover versions on my first album: “Laisse- tomber les filles” by France Gall and “Une africaine à Québec,” inspired by both Tiken Jah Fakoly and Sting. For this second album, I was pregnant and I wanted to make it more personal. Anyway, there’s a stripping-away process involved with writing. Also questioning. I wanted to be relevant and understood. Personal and universal. A huge challenge…”

The topics resonate with her true self. Marième brings up love, family, and revolution with a healthy dose of the positive. On Petit Tonnerre, she addresses issues about identity, her own questions. An interesting choice for a woman brought up in Quebec in the working-class Limoilou district, and daughter of a French-Canadian mother and Senegalese father. At one poiont, she sings: I never wanted to represent my people, never wished for that/singing loudly what others quietly muttered/ Telling their story while telling mine/ Never forgetting the blood that runs through my veins. Marième expands on her lyric: “I first held a microphone at a fairly young age,” she says. “And because of my skin colour it was much more significant than I really wanted it to be. My rapper brother Webster and I genuinely represented something. We were the only two black people in Quebec City. It can be hard to be black in Quebec, or white in Senegal. I soon found myself championing a community, as a role model who had to get in touch with her history and roots. Now I feel more ready to take on that role.”

Marième’s roots and her desire to be loyal are so strong, and run so deep, that she made a conscious decision to go and live in Stoneham, the mountain located near Quebec City. She belongs there. She knows the scene and she understands its ways. The different hip-hop clans of Quebec’s north and south shores built bridges over time and are now collaborating onstage. This current solidarity, enjoyed by everyone in Québec City, goes unnoticed in Montreal. “I lived in Montreal for a year,” she says. “I often go back there for my job as a host. And I tell myself it’s important to have some local heroes, people who decided to stay in Quebec City, people who are making a difference.  We can’t all leave.”

Marième is now all about creativity. “I love writing so much that I’m already working on some new songs,” she says. And although she’s the mother of twins, her life revolves around music. In Stoneham, she lives opposite the recording studio she goes to every day, pushing her double stroller there. It’s a convenient schedule that gives her time to create. “Women are often worried that children will slow them down,” she says. “It’s the opposite with me. It makes me want to take on more and makes me better organized. I can’t put everything else on hold for three months to make an album. I just can’t do that anymore.” After securing several high-profile shows opening for Snoop Dogg and Sean Paul last summer, Marième is getting ready to hit the road again in Quebec this spring, to spread some more of her good musical vibrations. And to announce the return of her favourite season.

Tourner la page
“Something inside me shifted when I performed with Jean-Pierre Ferland in 2011. I sang ‘Le soleil emmène au soleil’ reggae-style on my first record. I was standing there with Ferland in front of 80,000 people with their Quebec Summer Festival badges twinkling on the Plains of Abraham. By myself on the stage with Ferland and his band, my inner doubts melted away. I felt able to continue on this musical solo path, I felt I had the strength to take responsibility for my choice, alone.”

Alexandre Bernhari’s day job is as a pianist for a modern dance troupe. The rehearsal just ended and the pianist is once again free to become a drummer and a singer, to transform back into Bernhari, although that’s not quite his real identity. A journalist published his real name and he feels unmasked – and a little irritated. “Even when I was in my previous bands, L’Étranger and L’Ours, I used a pseudonym,” he says. “I’ve always loved keeping things a little mysterious, I don’t like things to be set in stone.”

“Let me be somebody else,” he sings in his song “Au nord de Maria.” “Certain lyrics on the album are about identity,” he explains. “Not only do I say it, but I become it when I sing. Right from the get-go, when I started working on this project, Emmanuel Éthier, the producer, and I agreed that my voice would serve the music.”

“All these people shouting slogans at night… it definitely had an impact on me and my songs.”

Speaking of his voice… The first time one hears it, it’s rather stunning. It’s pitched very high and sculpted by tons of reverb  – not unlike that of Claude Léveillée, Christophe or even Malajube’s Julien Mineau –  but with a sophistication that’s more akin to the European rock tradition of Indochine or The Cure. “A nervous breakdown voice,” as music critic Sylvain Cormier wrote, and “the result of a lengthy trial and error process,” as the key player puts it. “Ultimately, I’m satisfied with the result, because it’s not a flat album. It’s all over the place and my voice is but one of the elements. There’s also a story, a narrative with a beginning and an end.”

There is indeed the story of an encounter that happens right in the middle of a street action during the 2012 Montreal student protests. The keyword here is “engagement,” whether emotional or social, because Bernhari’s first album was born and shaped by those protests and their unique energy. “True, it’s the swing of things,” he says. “I was there, I marched, I was part of the movement. All these people shouting slogans at night, and the strange echo of their voices on the surrounding buildings, it definitely had an impact on me and my songs. But obviously, it goes deeper than that.”

There’s something epic, frenetic and even chivalrous in Bernhari, whether from his German and Russian war-inspired allusions, or the images he uses, such as Bartabas galloping backwards. The protagonist is a deserter, and his muse is a queen named Kryuchkova. “Yeah, I’m that type of person,” he admits. “That intensity feeds me, especially on stage. ‘’m seeking verticality, I try to elevate myself, only to come back down on piano and voice songs like ‘Je n’oublierai jamais’ or ‘Matapédia.’ More often than not, that’s my favourite part of a concert, when a connection with the audience is made and we all come back down together.”

Many discovered Bernhari during last summer’s Francofolies when he opened for Fontarabie at Théâtre Maisonneuve. Onstage, the musician sits at his drum kit installed right up to the edge of the stage and it’s quite a sight to behold when he plays his drums with one hand, keyboard with the other and sings all at once, transfixed by “Kryuchkova,” the album’s magnificent climax. The song is driven by its rhythms, as a march, a protest, a budding love story. The drums are the song’s undeniable dynamo. “When you have complete control of the rhythm, it allows for something symbiotic to occur with the voice and something gets anchored down,” says Bernhari

After honing his skills in his previous two bands, L’Étranger and L’Ours, Bernhari is now regaling us with his ethereal rock, and lyrics that so aptly serve the music. And there, once again, is his voice, close and distant all at once, just like those dancers packing up their stuff and chit-chatting while they take their legwarmers off next to the pianist with multiple personalities.

Turning the Page
Before flying solo, Alexandre Bernhari was the cornerstone of two bands. “I started L’Étranger as a solo project, but as time went by, nearly a dozen musician gravitated to the project. It was a live experience, I remember I would go on stage with my face covered in gold… What fond memories! Some of the members of L’Étranger left and what remained became L’Ours… Until everyone went their own way.” That’s when Alexandre turned the page, and Bernhari was born. “There was a click. It was more fragile before. But I got my act together and I felt that some things were falling into place. That feeling became very real when [record label] Audiogram expressed their interest.”