Bon Dieu! Multicultural Toronto is the perfect dancehall for Bonjay
Photography Erika Wall
Originally published: The Stool Pigeon
Sitting on a park bench in Highbury Fields, London, Bonjay vocalist Alanna Stuart waves her hands in an excited, preacher-like fashion. “Bonjay! Bonjay!” she cries in a smooth Caribbean lilt. At the same time, a schoolgirl runs by pushing her father supportively on his bicycle as he snakes down the path at a cautious speed. They both pause for a brief second and giggle at each other’s actions before carrying on as normal.
“Bonjay is Grenadian slang for ‘bon dieu!’, which means ‘good god!’ in French,” she explains of the dancehall duo’s moniker. “It’s something my family would say when they were excited. It just seemed to fit.”
For all the hand-flapping and hyperbole, Toronto’s Bonjay are something to get excited about. With multi-instrumentalist Ian ‘Pho’ Swain at the production helm, the pair’s UK debut, double A-side single ‘Stumble/Creepin’, takes their dancehall roots and firmly plants them in today’s bass-laden electronic scene.
They met in their hometown of Ottawa in 2005 at an open concept night Pho helped put together called ‘Disorganised’. Held in the loft of an Italian restaurant in the capital’s China Town, its eclectic mix of music and tempos brought an equally all-embracing crowd eager to be part of it. “It was the perfect breeding ground for the Bonjay sound,” acknowledges Pho.
“It wasn’t the warmest of receptions, though,” Alanna explains of their introduction.
“Well you did break the cardinal rule of DJing,” continues Pho, “and that’s not to interrupt the DJ while mixing.”
At the time, Alanna was making a fast exit from the commercial R’n’B world where she was tipped to be the new darling of the US urban airwaves. “I guess I wasn’t quite urban enough and my name wasn’t quite quote-unquote ‘black’ enough,” she explains.
“I was driving home from school and heard the song on the radio. Then the announcer said: ‘That was ‘Ring, Ring Call Again’ by Donna Boogie.’ I was fucking mortified, because who the fuck is Donna Boogie? The management and producers had changed everything about who I was.”
Having left her label, the pair became intent on making more forward thinking, collaborative music, and the ‘Disorganised’ parties acted as perfect playground for their formative steps. Their party pieces including covers of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Maps’ and TV on the Radio’s ‘Staring at the Sun’, where Pho’s bionic dancehall riddems held the dancefloor while Alanna’s St. Vincent-esque vocals captured hearts.
Their move to Toronto in the fall of 2006 brought an end to the ‘Disorganised’ parties, but “Bonjay started to take on more of a life of its own,” explains Pho. Between work, studies, and their time at their campus community radio stations, they went on to produce two EPs (2008’s Gimmee Gimmee and 2010’s Broughtupsy).
“Toronto was a pretty dull place until the immigration explosion in the sixties,” explains Pho. “People risking it all to move there and start their lives again. And I guess we took inspiration from that.”
Alanna continues: “Because it is so new, there is room for you to create something for yourself and call it your own. It’s the perfect place for Bonjay, and as a place it wants to support that.” Sounds like the kind of place where you would want to learn to ride a bike.