By NICHOLAS JENNINGS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, July 20, 2018
He was the gentle, dreadlocked musician who gave the popular Canadian blues-reggae rock group Big Sugar its distinctive bass sound. But Garry Lowe, who died of cancer on July 7 at the age of 64, played a far greater role, bridging the reggae and Rastafarian culture of his native Jamaica with diverse audiences wherever he went, both with Big Sugar and as a prominent member of numerous other bands. And whenever a Jamaican star visited Toronto, Mr. Lowe was almost always there onstage, laying down his deep groove.
"For a while, it seemed that Garry was the only reggae bass player in the world," recalls Big Sugar front man Gordie Johnson, commenting on Mr. Lowe's ubiquitous presence on the Toronto scene. "I'm sure when Garry joined Big Sugar, other bassists breathed a sigh of relief as more playing opportunities for them finally opened up." Added Mr.
Johnson: "Garry's bass was the most natural sound I'd ever heard. When he played, it was a cultural expression, like the kind of accent someone speaks with. His sound gave our music a really firm foundation."
Mr. Lowe joined Big Sugar in 1994 and played on eight albums, including the platinum-selling Hemi-Vision and Heated, featuring the hit songs If I Had My Way and Turn the Lights On. He toured widely with the band, playing as many as 300 dates a year across North America and Europe, notably opening for the Black Crowes and the Rolling Stones.
Mr. Lowe was admired as much for his quiet nature and beatific smile as his soulful sound and magisterial presence.
Recalls Jamaican star Leroy Sibbles, who settled in Toronto and recruited Mr. Lowe to play in his band for the decade before he joined Big Sugar: "Garry was a low key guy who got along with everyone. He was always cool - never caused waves. He just liked to do his thing and play bass." When reached in Jamaica, where he returned in 1994, Mr. Sibbles said, "Garry was a great friend and great bass man who will be missed by all."
Known as "Bassie," Mr. Lowe was a self-taught musician of humble roots. Garry Thyrone Lowe was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on Dec. 28, 1953, to a single mother who worked as a bartender. The family lived in an apartment above the bar and young Garry learned reggae rhythms, according to his sister, Toronto poet and playwright Ahdri Zhina Mandiela, by hearing the ska and rocksteady sounds emanating from the jukebox down below. "That's how Garry was schooled," Ms. Mandiela says. "He absorbed all those bass lines that came up through our floorboards."
As with thousands of Jamaicans during the 1970s, Mr. Lowe's mother, Audrey Walters, immigrated to Canada as an economic refugee. After settling in Toronto, she sent for her two daughters and son, who, according to Ms. Mandiela, had begun identifying as a Rastafarian and clashing with other young men, fighting for what she called truth and rights. "Our mother was afraid for him," Ms. Mandiela says, "and wanted to get him to safety as quickly as possible."
The Toronto that greeted Mr. Lowe in 1974 was already brimming with Jamaican musicians, including Mr. Sibbles, Stranger Cole, Willi Williams and Johnny Osbourne, with whom Mr. Lowe had attended primary school. Although he was drawn to the burgeoning reggae music scene, he initially worked as a telephone technician while studying electrical engineering at Humber and George Brown colleges. One of his workmates was Lloyd Benn, a Trinidadian-born musician later known as Mojah. "We clicked immediately, always talking about reggae music," Mojah says. "Garry was just starting to learn to play guitar. When Northern Telecom laid us both off, he joined me in the first version of the Truths and Rights band." (They also performed together in a reunited Truths and Rights, during a Big Sugar hiatus in 2003.)
One of the biggest Jamaican stars to settle in Toronto was Jackie Mittoo, the legendary keyboardist of the Skatalites and so many Studio One recordings. According to Mr. Johnson, it was Mr. Mittoo who steered Mr. Lowe to his signature instrument. "Jackie one day simply told him, 'Play de bass, mon, that is what you must do,' " Mr. Johnson says.
"So, ready or not, Garry started playing bass. It was like Jackie Mittoo had cast a spell on him."
Finding his true calling, Mr. Lowe became the bassist for Toronto's Tropical Energy Experience. Soon Mr. Sibbles and Mr. Mittoo himself hired Mr. Lowe to play alongside them.
Toronto reggae came of age during the 1980s, with major record deals for Mr. Sibbles and the band Messenjah and plenty of work for players such as Mr. Lowe. By 1986, there were more than 15 Toronto nightclubs devoted to reggae music and Mr. Lowe was performing in all of them. And, together with keyboard player Bernie Pitters and drummer Raffa Dean, he formed backing bands for visiting stars, such as Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott and Buju Banton. The rhythm section of Mr. Lowe and Mr. Dean became known as "Toronto's Sly and Robbie."
Mr. Pitters, who played on Bruce Cockburn's Humans album and toured with Toots & the Maytals, formed Culture Shock with Mr. Lowe and DJ-singers Whitey Don and Friendly Man. Performing a mix of dancehall, lovers rock and roots reggae, the group became fixtures at Queen Street's popular Bamboo club, which comedian Catherine O'Hara memorably called Toronto's "UN of groove, an oasis, a loveboat, a desert isle, a Caribana float."
It was at the Bamboo that Mr. Johnson regularly heard Mr. Lowe. "When I first formed Big Sugar, we'd be playing at the Cameron or the Rivoli and I was always running down to the Bamboo on our break to hear Garry in Culture Shock," he says. "His bass sound became how I envisioned Big Sugar's sound - a blend of blues and rock anchored by his reggae groove."
With Mr. Lowe in the band, Big Sugar introduced Jamaican-style dub sounds and reggae rhythms to audiences in communities far from Toronto's multicultural centre. "In the early days," Mr. Johnson recalls, "we'd pull our tour bus into a truck stop and Garry's dreadlocks would turn a lot of heads. And we played to a lot of small remote towns in the north or on the Prairies or down east where kids had never had a first-hand encounter with a Rastaman. All they'd ever seen was maybe a poster of Bob Marley. So, without even trying, Garry opened people's minds by presenting himself to these audiences with his lion's head of dreadlocks and kind of saying, 'Hey, I'm just a guy like you.' He was a bridge builder who brought people together, but he was never aware of it. He was always shocked when people recognized him."
Quiet and modest, Mr. Lowe was often a generous counsellor to those around him. His Rastafarian beliefs led him to offer philosophical pearls of wisdom. Recalls Whitey Don: "Garry always used to say, 'The earth is a garden and we are all its flowers.' He was very loving - that's why my wife and I made him our son's godfather."
Mr. Lowe's Rasta views were rooted in social justice. One of his last songs, which Mr. Johnson says will appear on Big Sugar's next album, is called The Wicked Think It's Over. It's a freedom song that includes the lines: "Love will always conquer / Hatred can never win the day."
Jamaican music purists sometimes criticized Mr. Lowe for working with Big Sugar. "But Garry felt he was doing the work he was always meant to do," Ms. Mandiela said, "spreading the one love that he believed in."
Mr. Lowe was a committed family man, protective of his mother, who died in December, 2016, and his sisters. His daughter Alana, who lived with and cared for him during the final stages of his battle with cancer, says he was a devoted father. "His love for his children," she said, "was always as fierce as his love of music."
Mr. Lowe leaves his sister Ms. Mandiela; brother, Nathaniel (Consie) Jackson; and eight children from four partnerships: Natasha, Hodari, Tafara, Alana, Kamali, Julia, Shani and Benjamin. His sister Doreen Brown predeceased him.
Garry Lowe was persuaded to pick up the bass by reggae star Jackie Mittoo, the legendary keyboardist of the Skatalites.