Bringing recording studios to young artists
For Ruben 'Beny' Esguerra, musician, arts educator, community worker, Ph.D. (ABD) candidate in Musicology/Ethnomusicology and a finalist for the 2021 Toronto Arts Foundation Community Arts Award, art and community are always connected. Growing up in Colombia in a neighbourhood with a rich history of resistance, resilience and subsequently, creativity, Beny very early on was exposed to social injustice and the power of art to carry a message and hold meaning.
Beny arrived in Canada with his parents as political refugees when he was a child. “The first places where I had an opportunity to perform my original music in Toronto was at International Solidarity events organized by the communities who arrived here for similar reasons. That’s the audience who has always supported my work and as a result I create music that resonates with them,” he says.
His most recent album entitled Northside KUISi, A New Tradition Vol 3, received a 2022 JUNO nomination for Global Music Album of the Year. It features songs that explore issues such as environmental degradation, systemic racism and oppression while also celebrating tradition and emphasizing the need for community collaboration and healing. The very act of collaborating, of uniting artists from different walks of life to work together, is, for Beny, a path to healing.
Collaborating and healing also underline the purpose for his Wheel it Studios program, which has been funded by Toronto Arts Council through the Creative Communities Projects program for five consecutive years, since 2018.
“[Wheel it Studios] is an initiative that continues to build a culture of peace as itslessons on cross-cultural/cross-neighbourhood understanding and collaboration will have long term empowering impacts on our community.”
- Ruben 'Beny' Esguerra
Operating under New Tradition Music, Wheel it Studios offers 16 weeks of hands-on studio recording training for participants in two Jane-Finch neighbourhoods. Primarily working out of the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club and the Driftwood Boys and Girls Club, Beny and his collaborator Paul 'Savilion' DeFrancesco bring the recording equipment to these spaces, making it a “mobile” service. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of many programs, Wheel it Studios quickly pivoted to deliver equipment to participants at their place of residence and continued personalized training over Zoom.
Offering training and guidance with beatmaking, music theory, audio engineering and songwriting, the program works with budding youth artists of all abilities and experience levels to hone their skills and expose them to all aspects of professional music recording. Esme, a singer and songwriter who participates in the program notes that “it really helps artists like me that maybe don’t play an instrument or don’t know music theory; it’s really important to learn that language.” Chocolate Coco Baby, another participant notes that “Basically, they taught me everything that you could know about music; they taught me how to create a beat, they taught me how to write a song, how to record it, how to do ad libs - that’s a whole thing in itself.”
Leading music programs in the Jane Finch / Black Creek community for over 15 years, Beny created Wheel it Studios as a response to several barriers facing the community. The program fills a need for community arts programming and provides a way for artists from different neighbourhoods to collaborate. “Instead of the youth going to a specific location we take portable equipment to places where they feel safe from the street related tensions that exist and as a result all artists in the Jane-Finch arts community can have access and collaborate with each other,” says Beny.
The outcome after the 16 weeks is a fully produced album, featuring original songs created by the participants. The participants also come together to create a music video for the album single and perform the music for a live audience. Artists like Zakisha Brown and Nathan Baya have experienced great success in their music careers after participating in the program, and doors have opened for many others due to the skills they’ve gained. This is something that Beny personally nurtures, having featured past Wheel it Studios participants Larry Blue, Mystro, Tracey Kayy and Nathan Baya in the track Thin Line from his JUNO nominated album.
“[Wheel it Studios] is an initiative that continues to build a culture of peace as its lessons on cross-cultural/cross-neighbourhood understanding and collaboration will have long term empowering impacts on our community,” says Beny.