“I was living an illusion,” shares Franklin Fernando, the lead singer and songwriter of Winnipeg-based reggae outfit RasTamils, describing what you could call his pre-enlightenment period – an enlightenment that would find him arming himself with a guitar and sharing stories of a century-old struggle through song.
Born in Winnipeg, Fernando and his family relocated to Sri Lanka just a few years later amidst the nation’s longstanding civil war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil people. The son of a Sinhalese tradesman who provided sanctuary for his Tamil wife and her family during the country’s civil war, a young Fernando found himself struggling to find his identity during his formative teen years.
Returning to Winnipeg in 2007 in light of rising tensions in his family’s homeland, it was after graduating high school and taking a job at a worker-owned co-op café that Fernando’s perspective was monumentally impacted. His enlightenment came in the form of an article written by Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge about the ongoing conflict between his country’s two primary ethnic groups – the very groups that comprise Fernando’s heritage. “It simply changed my life,” he says emphatically.
His family having felt the persecution and prejudice of the majority group first-hand, Fernando empathized with his fellow Tamils and was impelled to take action. His weapon would be a Fender Stratocaster; his ammunition, a catalogue of songs that promoted peace, empowerment, and prosperity; and his army? RasTamils and their ever-expanding legion of followers.
It was amidst a late-night drum jam on Canada Day 2010 that Fernando first met Rasta percussionist Martin Valach – his musical muse and co-founder of RasTamils. A longtime veteran of Winnipeg’s reggae circle, Valech shared Fernando’s passion for the music – and the message behind it. “Martin really shaped me and the music I wanted to make,” he says. “He showed me so much about the power of reggae.”
Rounding out RasTamils are Christian DeVoin (bass), J.R. Hill (lead guitar), Andy Castello (keyboards) and Daniel Thau-Eliff (harmonica). Together, they create a beautifully layered and tasteful take on the classic reggae rhythms of Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller, and of course, Bob Marley, while also weaving in the communal sounds of Santana and Michael Franti and the hooky pop components of simple ‘60s rock. Fernando’s vocals, on the other hand, are reminiscent of heralded South Asian singers like Nusrat Fateh ali Khan, Master Saleem, and Rahat Fateh ali Khan.
The culmination of their sonic concoction can be heard on the band’s self-titled 2011 EP – a collection of 7 dance-inducing anthems laced with RasTamils’ ever-potent, politically-charged lyrics. The album has received very positive attention from the likes of the CBC, whose program Manitoba Scene chose the track “Friends” as one of the top 5 of 2012, as well as Winnipeg weekly The Uniter and, perhaps most importantly, a growing number of music fans from across their home province.
From the stage, RasTamils are as inspiring as they are informative. “It’s really just friends coming together to play,” Fernando says simply – and that contributes to the sense of community that extends from the stage and into the audience, whether it’s a crowd of dozens at a local club or thousands from an outdoor stage.
“We’re just trying to open people’s eyes to what’s happening in the world,” Fernando says of what RasTamils look to relay through their rhythms. With a new arsenal of songs at the ready, the band is poised to drop a new LP later in the year and push their message even harder on the masses in Manitoba and well beyond.
It’s known as the gateway to the soul, though for RasTamils and their impactful reggae rhythms, music is also the gateway to the heart and, most importantly, the mind.