By Whitney Light
Elliott Walsh has carried a notebook every day since 2004, but today he isn’t. The Winnipeg wordsmith’s new album as Nestor Wynrush, Trinnipeg !78, is done, released and so he’s taking a break from saving notes for lyrics. “The writing feels agonizing,” Walsh says. “What feels agonizing is getting out that feeling exactly. It’s not just in your brain. It’s weighing on your heart.”
Trinnipeg !78 is a blues album, no doubt about it. Hip-hop beats carry the vibes of soul, funk, calypso and even a little gospel blues while Walsh lays his soul-tinctured voice into gritty, honest and sometimes funereal confessions and stories. It’s pissy and it’s murky, he says. And it’s the kind of album that hits hard, grabs you, because it seems to say exactly what it means to.
On the cover, a BWIA West Indies airplane and passengers walking across the tarmac seem to blur from the Caribbean heat or perhaps the fade of time. Leaving, arriving, home, place: these are the themes of Trinnipeg !78. Walsh has written on them before. Guy I’m From Here (2003) also told personal and collective stories of immigrant experience and Canadian identity. The Winnipeg-born and Mississauga-raised Trinidadian-Canadian was known as Satchel Paige then. When some legal issues arose over that name, Walsh took the opportunity to change it. And perhaps Nestor Wynrush is a better fit. Wynrush plays on Windrush, the SS Empire Windrush that brought the first generation of Caribbean immigrants to England and the name of a Lord Kitchener calypso tune. If these things reflect on the surface, Walsh’s rhymes seek out the bottom of the pool of memory. And it gets dark down there sometimes.
“Trinnipeg,” Walsh explains, “It’s like this play on this hyphenated-Canadian business. I’m one of those people who embraces it.” Not an unfamiliar idea, to be sure, but Walsh has expended himself on bringing out the lived things, grappling with the good times and the bad through slice-of-life imagery and bred-in-the-bone Jamaican and Trinidadian slang. “It feels like a blues album,” he says. “The singing—I’m not trying to sing on pitch for the most part. I’m trying to sing my soul out.”
While you’ll hear references to Garbage Hill in the winter and struggling in Fort Garry, Winnipeg’s south end (Walsh spent his early years in Winnipeg and returned to attend the University of Manitoba), as many or more go back to images from his youth spent in Toronto and Mississauga, an ethnically diverse place even then but where he also saw that multiculturalism wasn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. On “Accent (Peanut Punch),” for instance, Walsh sings about the ignorance and arrogance of strangers who criticize immigrants’ pronunciation of English. “It broke my heart to watch that and I wrote that song from the perspective of [being] a 15-year-old going around with my mom and seeing her experience and my uncle’s experience,” says Walsh.
Heartbreak, as Walsh also points out, turns up again and again. Though elusive, death walks through the album, as does violence and poverty. It could almost be too much for listeners, but Walsh walks a fine line between talking pain and just telling a story. There’s also a playful song or two. “Liks” is a highlight, a sweet and summery tune about tough love from his momma (“do bad, she will teach you right”) that rolls with the rhythm of that Trinidad slang: “teacher says she gonna call me house/I tell she, she better shut she mouth.” It’s all pretty personal stuff, coming back to recollections of family, friends, strangers and community.
As we chat, Walsh recalls his impressions of racial tensions in Toronto, parents working to bring family members to Canada and the threat of deportation. But he also talks about the hope in seeing political diversity in the suburbs, the multicultural flavour of his neighbourhood, hearing college-radio hip-hop shows and, perhaps most critical to the start of his writing career, learning about the how and why of telling the West Indian immigrant experience from his elders and books, lots of books. “It got me really conscious and proud of who I am and where I came from and understanding the circumstances from which my family left and why they did,” says Walsh.
Then there’s the question of what Walsh is doing musically. He talks about growing up listening to hip hoppers like Michie Mee, Maestro Fresh Wes and Dream Warriors—people who made a point of putting the mark of their heritage on their work, even when it was sometimes slammed back hard at the border. “Being unique and trying to be Canadian became very important to a lot of these guys. They wanted to represent their city. I liked that,” says Walsh. “Some people wanted to sound like New York and that still is traditionally what Toronto stuff sounds like, but there is also that West Indian influence.”
So a trace of that marks Walsh’s work, but as he points out, he works now with quite a few people outside the culture of his youth. (“Shows a lot of growth on my part, actually,” he adds.) Winnipeg people, that is. Trinnipeg !78 credits include DJ Brace, mcenroe, DJ Kutdown and many more. It’s a decidedly prairie rap album. And as he’s become a fixture on the local hip-hop scene, what does Winnipeg mean to Nestor Wynrush anyways?
“I’m going to contradict a lot of things I said before,” says Walsh. “This place feels like home to me too.”