Winnipeg musicians honour the legacy of Gerry Atwell at GerryFest

By | August 14, 2020

The late musician and community activist Gerry Atwell may have died months ago, but for many Winnipeg artists, he remains a beacon of inspiration.

“I still feel, you know, his presence and energy,” said Phoebe Man, a Taiko drummer and singer who first met Atwell in the early 1980s. “It’s just the way he is. He just has that kind of magic.”

On Friday, that presence will be felt at a special event conceived by Atwell’s friends and family shortly after his death last November. GerryFest will start at 3 p.m. at the St. Norbert Arts Centre, with events planned throughout the weekend.

CBC News will live-stream the main stage performances Friday evening from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on our website and the CBC Gem app.

The event will feature performances from many of the local artists Atwell mentored, including Man. 

“He was always helping people — encouraging, supporting, inspiring,” she said.

Last May, Atwell helped Man produce a solo production, Skin of the Moon, based on stories from her life, beginning from her childhood in Hong Kong through to her adulthood. 

Over several months, Man would tell her stories to Atwell, who would then write them down in a narrative form. Atwell also encouraged Man to write her own songs, with lyrics — something she had never done before.

“I said, ‘Gerry, I can’t. I’m a drummer. I can write rhythm, but not words,'” she said. “He looked at me, and then he goes, ‘Oh yes, you can.’ Just like that … It was just that belief, and the trust that he had in me that just gave me that confidence.”

Friends and family of the late musician Gerry Atwell planned a festival to honour his legacy of music and community activism. (Courtesy of Eagle and Hawk/Facebook)

‘Played with swagger’

Atwell was born in Winnipeg on Aug. 14, 1959. Growing up in St. Norbert, he became known as a gifted keyboardist and vocalist and would go on to play in numerous local bands.

He won a Juno Award in 2002 as part of the band Eagle and Hawk, and would later co-found the band Indian City with guitarist and composer Vince Fontaine.

Like Man, Fontaine’s relationship with Atwell goes back to the 1980s when they were both playing the Winnipeg club scene.

“He was a really accomplished keyboard player and he stood tall and he played like he was performing. He played with swagger,” Fontaine said.

Gerry Atwell helped Phoebe Man, left, produce a solo performance piece based on stories from her life, and also encouraged her to write her own original songs and lyrics. (Submitted by Phoebe Man)

Atwell had a vast repertoire and had mastered a wide array of musical styles, from classical to country. 

Beyond music, Fontaine says Atwell cared deeply about issues affecting his community and the wider world, particularly issues of racial equality.

“He carried himself as a citizen of the world,” he said, adding he wasn’t afraid to weigh in on important issues.

‘What would Gerry say?’

One of the major themes of Friday’s event will be trying to answer the question, “What would Gerry say?” about current issues, such as demands for police reform following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minn. 

Nina Condo, the executive director of the Elmood Community Resource Centre, will facilitate an art project where people can imagine what racial equality looks like, for them. 

“Gerry used to love … speaking against racism, especially systemic racism. And that was a cause that he advocated for through his music,” said Condo. 

Due to precautions against COVID-19, GerryFest will be by invitation only. Masks will be mandatory, and handed out to visitors at the centre. 

After each performance, the stage will be sanitized. 

Fontaine hopes the event becomes a regular fixture of the summer festival circuit in Winnipeg.

“He laid the foundations in many ways, so that we can do this in the community every year, and this is going to continue to make the world a better place through music and some of the things Gerry did.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Gerry Atwell, left, and Vince Fontaine at the Lyric Theatre in the summer of 2019. (Submitted by Vince Fontaine)

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