Arguably Canada’s most prolific reggae group, Messenjah was formed in 1980 when Kitchener, Ontario natives Errol Blackwood and Rupert “Ojiji” Harvey, both Jamaican born, grew weary of their gigs and wanted to do something different. Blackwood had bounced around different rock groups for several years, and Harvey at the time was in the R&B group Crack of Dawn, and had also done some production work.
They decided to form a new reggae group, and with both of them handling vocals, Harvey took on the guitarist role while Blackwood was on bass. Other early members were Eric Walsh on guitars, Hal Duggan on keyboards, and drummer Raymond Ruddock. While practising at X-it Studios above a bakery on Ossington Street, they became mainstays on the Toronto circuit while working their own material into their sets. But it wasn’t long before they’d outgrown that limited market, and had started doing dates Stateside, particularly in California, where reggae was enjoying its biggest following.
With Harvey serving as producer, they recorded some demos in Los Angeles but were unsuccessful shopping them around, so they released the album ROCK YOU HIGH independently in the summer of ’81. Less than a year later, they were noticed by representatives at WEA’s Canada branch. Their signing was the first time a Canadian reggae group had achieved a major record deal. They immediately reissued ROCK YOU HIGH worldwide. The title track was released as their first single, and the new deal got them higher profile gigs, and they found themselves backing up The Clash on their world tour.
WEA released the four-track EP ROOT UP in the fall of ’82, which was simply a condensed version of the debut album. They added Tony King as a percussionist for 1984’s release, SESSION, recorded the previous fall in San Diego. Their snowball kept rolling, and soon they were winning awards from various radio stations based on their promise and originality. “Jam Session” was a moderate hit on alternative and college radio across the country and into the US, and was used for many years as the intro for KCMU Radio’s long running reggae show “Positive Vibrations.”
By ’85 the band was now based out of Toronto, but with a shakeup in WEA’s head office came bad news. The group was dropped from the label, and Blackwood, who wanted to branch out on his own, left the group to begin a moderately successful solo career. With Harvey now heading up the group, Crash Morgan, Rory Garrick, and Haile Yates were added as additional percussionists, as well as Charlie Sinclair on bass.
The pre-album single “Night Rider” was released and earned them their first Juno nomination in ’86 for Best Reggae/Calypso Recording. While becoming permanent fixtures on the world’s reggae festival circuit, including The Reggae Sun Splash and The World Youth festival in Jamaica, The World Music Gallery Tour, The Bob Marley Memorial in Long Beach, California, Lahaina Civic Music Festival in Hawaii, and The Vermont Reggae Music Festival, they released COOL OPERATOR on the indie label Version Records in ’87.
“Crazy,” complete with an underlying bed of ’60s soul, became the album’s second single while the band was in the middle of a world tour, and earned them another Juno nomination in the same category. After the title track was released as the third single, they found themselves on the “Cocktail” movie soundtrack in 1988, as well as making a cameo in the film.
In 1989, they were also featured on the soundtrack to the Canadian indie movie “Milk and Honey,” and signed a new deal with upstart Kick Up Records. For their next album, they travelled to Prince’s Paisley Studio, and released ROCK AND SWAY in 1990, featuring Donovan Black on drums replacing Morgan. The title track earned them a third Juno nomination in ’91.
Next up was COOL BUT DEADLY, their first album on new label Trend Records. Released in 1990, it was basically a greatest hits compilation, although nothing from the first two albums, as WEA still owned the rights to them. However, three new tracks were included – “Queen Of Sheba,” “True Love,” and the single “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love.” An old Spinners’ tune, it became a crossover hit and broke them onto the pop charts.
They took a couple of years off while Harvey ventured off to other projects. The hiatus turned into nearly seven years, as their next recording wasn’t until 1997, with CATCH DE VIBE on Page/Trend Records. The band was welcomed back with open arms, and the title track earned the band its first ever Juno Award for Best Reggae Recording in the spring of ’98. The music was becoming laden with mroe of a political and social undertone, with tracks like “Mr Gunman” and “For The Children.” “What’s Goin’ On” featured a cameo from Raffi. Later that year, they appeared on stage with Nelson Mandela at the Toronto SkyDome.
They again dropped off the scene for awhile, and returned in 2003 with IMAGINE A WORLD. Featuring an almost entirely new lineup, including Lazah Current, the album contained their signature porgressive, upbeat reggae beats, flavoured with funk, rap, and pop in songs like the lead-off “Cry For the Youth,” “Motherland Caravan,” and the title track. Following a series of shows across the globe at various venues and music festivals, the band again slipped out of the limelight. Current branched out on his own the following year.