While most Canadian twenty-somethings agonize over the minutia of poor job prospects and their grade point averages, Franklin Fernando is debating whether to return to his native Sri Lanka to fight for the rights of his people, the oft-demonized Tamils.
And while most Canadians rant in verbose perpetuity about their “first world problems,” the 21-year-old chooses to express himself differently, through the simple riddims of reggae.
For anyone who’s caught RasTamils live since they formed in 2010 - from wedding dancehalls to street festivals to the sidewalks of Wolseley - it’s no secret the 21-year-old vocalist and songwriter is outspoken about the struggles Tamils face in Sri Lanka.
Ahead of the band’s show Friday, Jan. 18 at the Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club, Fernando is confirming some quick facts on the country’s decades-long conflict between the Sinhalese, who comprise 75 per cent of the population, and the minority Tamils.
Stemming back to the 1950s, shortly after Sri Lanka gained back its independence from Britain, rising tensions between the two groups led to a 25-year civil war that claimed around 100,000 lives before ending in 2009.
Over Facebook at the 11th hour before deadline, Fernando wants to switch to a more secure connection with less of a text trail in order to confirm the details.
“Do you have Skype?” he asks. “It would be better to talk there.”
Born in Winnipeg, Fernando spent most of his childhood growing up in south Sri Lanka under the safeguard of his father, a Sinhalese government member who sheltered his Tamil wife and her family during the civil war.
Fernando returned to Winnipeg in winter 2007, and by the end of this year, plans to return home; this time, to north Sri Lanka, to connect with his Tamil roots and help his people rebuild what the war took away.
“Most Tamils don’t have a quality of life,” he says. “There’s no clean water. You have to travel for miles. Food is scarce.”
At the foot of his bed, he’s taped a scribbled reminder of how he’s to get back home:
Use your time wisely. Stop partying around if you wanna fucking achieve your dream! Time is gold.
RasTamils traces itself back to Canada Day 2010, when Fernando met Martin Valach at a late night drum jam at the bottom of an Osborne Village stairwell.
“From there we were already having a sound and vibe that were making people stop,” Valach recalls.
Valach, 39, is a familiar face in Winnipeg’s reggae circle for his involvement in Jah Vibes and Rebel Force. He’s also much like Fernando: a blend of two cultures, half-Jamaican, half-Czechoslovakian, known for banging on ice cream buckets since he was six as much as he is for the length of his dreadlocks, which he’s been growing since he turned to rastafari when he was 19.
The duo is bolstered by the eclectic ensemble of Wendell Parke (keyboards), Dan Moroz (saxophone), Christian Dedoin (bass), Ryan McElhoes (lead guitar), Daniel Thau-Eleff (harmonica), Matthew Walden (trumpet), Jon Amadatsu (trombone), and producer J. Riley Hill.
The band recorded its debut EP, It’s A Dream, in a basement and released it independently last April. From the beats that bounce beneath Fernando’s unmistakable wailing, the seven tracks boast a youthful exuberance that calls for political peace and spiritual enlightenment.
“I look at reggae and it’s coming from people who are suffering and singing about the pain of everyday life and how to carry on,” Fernando says.
“Let’s not try to kill ourselves and kill each other,” Valach adds.
“Let’s help each other continue on. Let’s live internally, if we can, eh. We’re energy, so we’re supposed to live forever.”
Published in Volume 67, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 16, 2013)