Edmonton singer-songwriter Al Brant remembers the first time he stepped inside the George Ryga Centre around a decade ago.
He had arrived at the former home of the acclaimed novelist and playwright, located under the shadow of the Giant’s Head Mountain in Summerland, to take a weekend workshop intensive with legendary musicians Bill Henderson and Roy Forbes.
The home, which now serves as an artistic retreat, is where many over the years have secluded themselves among the surrounding fruit orchards with a pen and paper, their thoughts and a musical instrument to create and be creative –– just like Ryga did before he died in 1987.
Brant is about to give back to the legacy that Ryga left behind to not only musicians, but writers whose pen has been pointed towards social justice issues and those maligned by society.
Long noted as one of Edmonton’s prime vocalists, Brant is hitting the road with bassist Michael Lent and guitarist Barrie Nighswander in support of his new CD Wide Open, and to support the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in B.C. Literature.
“I am honoured to be able to play in honour of Ryga and the award in his name,” he said. “This will be a live concert with my acoustic trio. We will play songs off our new CD and my last recording in 2007, plus some covers.”
Besides Brant’s connection to the Ryga centre, bassist Lent also has one to the area.
He is the brother to Vernon writer/musician John Lent, one of the founders of the Ryga award, and also the regional dean of Okanagan College’s Kalamalka campus.
“I remember playing at a jam on (Edmonton’s) Whyte Avenue and the Lent Brothers were the back-up band. They are legendary in Edmonton,” said Brant.
A first-call bassist who has worked with the likes of kd lang, Jann Arden and the late Long John Baldry, Michael Lent is also the owner of a recording studio in the Alberta capital, and produced Wide Open.
“I’ve known him for years, but we were more acquaintances, but when I approached him to produce my new CD, he was all over it. He brought in all these great players to perform on it,” said Brant, who attributes his 2007 CD, a live off-the-floor acoustic recording, in getting the ball rolling.
“I was able to connect with Mike, and get some funding and then the players. We’ve had great feedback and response about it so far.”
This is coming from a man who almost quit music all together.
A single father to a 16 year old daughter, Brant says he almost gave up on the music business due to concerns about finances.
“I’d been in music forever at that point and I had it in my head that I had to get this whole big income in order to raise my daughter,” he said.
What changed his mind was his life-affirming work as an itinerant musician with the University of Alberta Hospital’s Artists-on-the-Wards program.
The unique program is designed to bring music, writing and visual arts to the besides of patients, many of whom are hospitalized long term due to serious illnesses.
“My work at the hospital has been a rich experience,” said Brant. “I think it has helped the patients in that we come in without the medical staff, and get to know the person. We come in to provide a diversion and distraction.”
Brant has also been the front man for reggae-rock band Tacoy Ryde, who have been performing around Edmonton for the past 43 years, and is bringing along the band’s co-founder, guitarist Nighswander, to perform with him at the Ryga award fundraiser in Vernon.
The event will be a bittersweet celebration, as it will also be the last time the award is administered by John Lent, who is retiring from Okanagan College after 32 years of service, both as a creative writing professor and more recently as regional dean.
Lent, along with George Ryga Centre manager Ken Smedley and B.C. Bookworld’s Alan Twigg, founded the awards in 2003, and is handing over the administrative reins to Dr. Matt Kavanagh, chair of the department of English at Okanagan College in conjunction with Smedley, artist Reg Kienast and The George Ryga Centre Society.
“The reason we are staging this fundraiser is that we are trying to set up an annual budget for this award that will help us to market it better,” said Lent, adding, “The award has received more entries already than any of the previous years (the deadline for entries is at the end of this month), so we’re delighted about that.”
The ninth annual Ryga award will once again be presented in Summerland at a gala ceremony in early October (details to be announced).
The fundraiser concert with Brant takes place Wednesday, April 20 at 7:30 p.m. in the lecture theatre at Okanagan College Kalamalka campus. Tickets are $20, available at the Bean Scene, Okanagan College Kal campus’ administrative office (250-545-7291) or at the door.