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TALES FROM MUSICFEST: Global roots has a home in the Comox Valley

Roots music is at the heart of Vancouver Island MusicFest.
Les Aunties (upper left), Leon Kimbo (right), BCUC (bottom left) and the Sacred Steel Summit Revue are just a few of the world music acts coming to Vancouver Island MusicFest, July 12-14 at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds. Photos supplied.


Special to the Record 

“Authenticity” is one of the biggest buzzwords going, and is often applied to roots music, particularly if there is something unique and traditional involved. 

That is certainly the case with the Sacred Steel Summit Revue featuring the Lee Boys and Calvin Cooke, beloved practitioners of that electrifying, blues-based style of gospel music where the organ has been replaced with a steel guitar played with a slide. Originating in certain Baptist churches in the 1930s, these joyously incendiary sounds eventually strayed from Sunday church to festivals and the concert stage, stunning secular audiences with the power and dazzle of this faith-inspired virtuosity. 

“The Lee Boys played here many years ago and they captured the hearts of everyone,” said Vancouver Island MusicFest producer Doug Cox. “We’ve been wanting to bring them back forever.” 

For this tour, they are performing with the venerable Calvin Cooke, one of the pioneers of sacred steel and the man called “the B.B. King of gospel steel guitar.” Don’t miss these guys! 

African percussionists 

Hailing from Chad in north-central Africa, Les Aunties is a nine-woman group of singer-dancer-percussionists whose primal, highly rhythmic folk music combines centuries-old African traditions with the very modern hope that their lives as women will become much freer. Chad, like many countries, denies fundamental rights to its women, almost all of them uneducated and many of whom are victims of domestic violence. Enter Les Aunties, whose charged and colourful performance becomes a danced declaration of resilience, bravery, and personal power. With a blend of rhythms and chants from the Sahel region, sung in Sara and Arabic, these women are making a call for emancipation. 

“These are not professional musicians but I was struck with the purity and beauty of the folk music they were presenting,” said Cox. “They come from a life of trauma and yet the humanity shines through alongside their strength and joy. People will be crying when they see them perform.” 

American star quality 

Get ready for the rootsy tenderness of Leon Timbo, an extremely talented singer-songwriter-guitarist whose style is a seductive blend of vintage soul, gospel, folk, country, and R&B. Sometimes described as “Bill Withers meets Michael Franti,” Timbo had a nurturing Florida upbringing that was a classic mix of church and music. A serious musician by age 20, this versatile, mellow-voiced performer has worked with everyone from Quincy Jones to Babyface to Grammy-winning jazz bassist Marcus Miller and is clearly on a winning trajectory. Early this year, Cox was in Nashville scouting for talent at a musicians' expo when he chanced to hear a set by Timbo. 

“He was the only person I went up to and booked immediately,” said Cox. “His soul-country vocals have an appealing warmth and two people in the band are family, which likely adds more depth to his sound. Leon is going to be one of the surprise stars of MusicFest.” 

South African septet 

Variously described as “Afro-futurism,” an “exhilarating mix of hip-hop influences and punk-rock energy,” and “Afro-psychedelic future pop,” the Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (a.k.a. BCUC) is an electrifying septet from Soweto in South Africa. For more than 20 years they have been modernizing African township music with hip-hop and other influences, while retaining the endless funk and hypnotically huge grooves of traditional Soweto beats. 

Their performances are celebratory love-ins, but the songs are often very political: underneath all that trance-dance joy the band is demanding political and spiritual liberation. With a powerful blend of percussion, bass, and vocals, BCUC unleashes a firestorm of righteous dance music that is a unique mix of hedonism and healing. 

“Without a doubt, the best live act I saw,” declared BBC Radio host Gilles Peterson, commenting on BCUC’s riveting performance at the 2023 WOMEX world music festival. 


Vancouver Island MusicFest runs from July 12-14 at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds. Visit for a full lineup and ticket information 

–Robert Moyes is an arts journalist with a particular interest in music