Komagata Maru tragedy inspires musicians for this year’s Vancouver jazz fest

Published: June 16, 2014

Undated handout photo of titled “The Komagata Maru” 1914 by John Thomas Woodruff from 100 Photos That Changes Canada, Wednesday, November, 4, 2009. HANDOUT/PNG Merlin Archive


The 1914 Komagata Maru tragedy in which 376 passengers arrived in Vancouver on a ship from Punjab, India, but were forced to return inspired two projects at this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

Composers Michael Blake (michaelblack.net) and Neelamjit Dhillon (neelamjit.com) both present new works this year.

The players come from unique points of inspiration. One has direct relationship to the incident and the other a broader scope.

“One of my relatives was H.H. Stevens, the minister of customs and excise, who was actively involved in the incident and was a horrible white supremacist,” says saxophonist Blake. “It was so at odds with the family history that I thought with the centenary this year I should do something with the great Canadian band I have about it.”

With Barking Sphinx Performance Society’s support, Blake composed the Komagata Maru Blues to make a statement about tolerance and inclusion.


Saxophonist Michael Blake. Submitted photo.

Saxophonist and tabla player Dhillon composed his Komagata Maru as a 60-minute performance of original music, contextualized projected archival photos and more to be released as a recording in time for the festival. The two musicians didn’t know each other. They do now.

Dhillon was invited to play tabla on one song in Blake’s performance piece.

“Unlike Michael, I don’t have a direct connection to the Komagata Maru, but its history has always been a part of growing up in the South Asian community in B.C.,” says Dhillon. “I felt part of a marginalized community because of it and there are other marginalized communities in Canada still coming by boat; still encountering resistance. I wanted to take this reality via the Komagata Maru and examine people’s histories on the boat using specific Indian raga forms.”

Both compositions are meant to inspire strong emotions and with the intent to strengthen the ties to a pluralistic and caring multicultural society.


Neelamjit Dhillon Komagata Maru, Performance Works, Saturday, 1:30 p.m., free

Michael Blake’s Komagata Maru Blues, Ironworks, Sunday, 9 p.m., $25


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