Barbara Diab came from the small Southwestern Ontario town of Leamington and decided a life of tomatoes wasn’t for her.
She moved to Montreal, dedicated her life to jazz and is enjoying a steady rise in her career. This year she performed at Festival International De Jazz De Montreal with legendary BB King drummer Tony Coleman and will be returning to Leamington for an appearance at Rib Fest on July 19, and also Caesars Windsor for a show on July 20.
She was excited to share her story with 519.
Growing up in the 519, I bet Motown and the Detroit music scene played a big part of it?
Absolutely. We listened to the WRIF. W-R-I-F 101.3, it was FM rock radio and of course we had all the great Detroit bands. I was a DJ myself at the University of Windsor CJAM radio station. So of course I was in heaven because I had access to all the albums and we played all sorts of music from Detroit and from Windsor. So I was involved in the music scene very early on and my memories, especially Leamington and Windsor, it’s just nothing but pure joy. I mean I was so lucky as a child to grow up there. Very safe.
Does that Motown, Detroit sound still resonate with you today?
Absolutely, and when I got into the blues later on, I didn’t realize that’s what it was. It was just going back to my Detroit roots, like Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. I mean that was more rhythm and blues, but it’s all that same root, it’s followed me. It followed me all the way to Montreal. I just didn’t realize that’s what I was singing as a child, was all blues roots and jazz based music, and I had heard it before. It’s just, I didn’t know, I didn’t have a name for it when I was a child, but that’s what I was drawn to. I used to watch Soul Train on American TV because in Windsor and Leamington that’s all we got were American stations, at the time. So I was watching American Bandstand and of course, especially Soul Train. And I remember seeing BB King on there, a young BB King and that really fascinated me. They were such good dancers and good music, a lot of soul and funk, Oh man, those are good memories.
When did you really discover the blues then?
I would say I was in probably my late twenties. I had always been singing. My teachers pointed out to me in grade three, I was about eight years old and they would, always in the choir. They would get me to say Barbara sing and then the teacher later would tell me, “ you have a voice and you have a very good voice, you should keep singing.” So it was really at school that landed on me, and then they would put me in school plays and things like that where there would be singing parts. And funny enough, the teacher who I’d say discovered me, she is still alive now and she lives in Leamington and she’s 75 years old. Mrs. McCormick, I just love her. Claire McCormick and she’s going to come out and see me when I’m at the Ribfest. So I haven’t seen her in over 40 years. So I just can’t wait.
You’re going to be in Leamington and also at the Cosmo’s at Caesar’s Windsor. So when was the last time you were here and do you get to come back often?
I was there at Easter. I come back about once or twice a year. I used to come back more often, but since my mom passed away, I don’t get down there as much as I’d like. But when the Ribfest called me and Caesar’s Windsor, it was just the perfect timing and it’s always great to come back in the summer too. There’s so much to do. And now I follow everything going on in Leamington and Windsor on Facebook. So it’s easy to stay in touch.
Not only are you coming home, but you also have a new album out. Can you tell me about Mojo Woman?
It was launched on June 18th at the House of Jazz in Montreal where I launched my first album. But this one is called Mojo Woman. It’s a collaboration with some of the Quebec’s finest musicians who are also my regular band. And it’s seven covers, six original. I wrote the lyrics and my guitarists composed all the original music. I called it Mojo Woman because there was a man, a harmonica player in Montreal who kept coming to my shows. And I just started giving out Mojos. Because after I had been to Mississippi and Memphis and Louisiana, I learned what a Mojo hand was. So I started giving them out during my shows. And so one man termed me as the Mojo woman. So it stuck. And for the last four years, people called me the Mojo woman. And as I gave these things away, people would come back to me and they’d say, “You know your thing really works. What’s in it? What did you do?” So I don’t know what it was, but people would like the positive vibe that they got from me I guess, or from this Mojo, which is like a little lucky charm, you know? And it’s just taken off. I said, “Well, it’s a fitting name for the album, the Mojo Woman.” Because Mojo means magic at its root. Everything that surrounds you that’s magical. And I thought, oh, I could name the album that because women are magical creatures, we really are. We do so much. We accomplished so much. We have such intuition. It’s just, we’re magical and I’m really starting to see it now as I get older and have more maturity. There are a lot of magical women around me who have helped me along the way. So I wanted to do a tribute to the women in blues. Women, they aren’t as present in the blues perhaps today, but they were the ones who kicked it all off in back in the 20s. The women were the first ones to be recorded on vinyl. I think it was Mamie Smith, Crazy Blues was the first blues song recorded. So women have gone way back and I just wanted to bring them up to the foreground again.
I hear you have a connection with Tony Coleman from BB King’s band.
We’ve known each other for seven years. He played on my first album. He sent me some drum tracks after he met me in Montreal. And I had released my first single and he had asked me, to gave him my single and I told him who I was and he said, “Well, would you have another one and can you just make it to BB?” I said, “What?” He gave my single to BB King. He said, “BB likes to know what’s going on in the blues scene and who is new, who is around.” So that was seven years ago. We’ve just kept a wonderful friendship since then.
Working with legends like Tony, it’s always very exciting. So did you learn anything from being around Tony?
I learned that it’s a privilege to be on stage, that you should never complain about music, ever. Because it’s a privilege to be invited to play. It’s a privilege to get to play. It’s a privilege to have audience members come out to see you. So that’s what I learned from Tony. He is so positive and he likes the music to be about the joy that you bring people. He always says, “You know, Barbara, we’ve play the blues to forget our blues. We don’t want to play the blues to have the blues.”So God love him. He’s just so full of wisdom. And I’m so fortunate. He likes people, he likes to be able to teach people something or at least give you pearls of wisdom.
When you’re on that stage, you better give 100% and more.