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Catch a Star: Filmmaker announces a documentary on Salome Bey

12 October 2011 One Comment

Salome Bey circa 1970

By Saada Branker

Suspended in cyber space is rare footage of a young Salome Bey, Canada’s legendary songbird, actress and composer.  One clip in particular sparkles.  It was filmed at La Chat Qui Peche, a jazz nightclub in Paris, France circa 1964, and runs in a documentary about the late trumpeter Chet Baker.  Wearing a string of pearls, Salome Bey stands next to sister, Geraldine and brother, Andy, who is on the piano—together making up the textured trio called simply, Andy and the Bey Sisters.  For the crowd and camera they belt out “Smooth Sailing,” an Arnett Cobb composition that swings.  Their harmony dazzles. Kenny “Klook” Carter is with them—so smooth he is on drums, a cigarette dangles obediently from his lips throughout the performance.

Such obscure findings of Salome Bey – radiant in song – are treasures. And over the next few months Nicole Brooks will receive and handle these gems thoughtfully.  The Toronto producer, filmmaker and singer is directing the first feature-length documentary ever to be made on Bey, a woman whose voice captivated fans for more than four decades before fading into the folds of dementia.

“Salome, or Shalom, means peace,” says Brooks. The film, currently in pre-production, will relay a, “spiritual, investigative, documentary element” she explains.   This component will be steeped in the contributions of Bey’s youngest daughter, Saidah Baba Talibah, herself a power-house singer who just released her first album,  (S)Cream.  It was in 2009 when Talibah and her husband saw Brooks’ film, A Linc in Time. It profiled Lincoln Alexander, Ontario’s former Lieutenant Governor and honoured figure in Canadian history.  Impressed, they approached Brooks with an idea about Bey.

A Life Reflected

The documentary “Finding Salome, Finding Peace,” will piece together fragments of Bey’s life, sifted from other people’s memories.  She toured jazz corridors on two continents, fell in love, moved to Toronto from Newark, New Jersey in 1964, sang in stage productions, recorded albums, performed in concerts, composed for theatre, raised three children, loved people, and won awards including the Honorary Order of Canada in 2005.

Surprisingly though, information on Salome Bey is a hard find.

“In looking online, not much is there,” confirms Talibah. “I know how much my mom has done for Canada as a performer, a writer and activist. And then I also don’t know how much she’s done,” she says.  “I can only remember so much, and sometimes I revel in other people’s memories of her.”

Talibah explains that she was eight or nine when her mother started having seizures. Years later, she found out Bey had dementia, a condition characterized as a gradual loss of brain function which eventually impairs social skills. Doctors explained the symptoms to Talibah. She says she “started playing back” her own memories and realized it was possible that Bey was in her early sixties when signs of dementia appeared.

Howard Matthews, Talibah’s father and Bey’s true love, was a club owner and avid music lover who later co-managed Toronto’s popular soul-food restaurant, Underground Railroad. He also managed Bey’s solo career.  In the late ‘60’s and through the ‘70s they were Toronto’s power couple raising black consciousness through music and community activism. Now, an ailing Matthews lives in the same nursing home as Bey.

A Sentimental Journey

Talibah and her siblings Jacintha Tuku and Marcus have lost the luxury of hearing first-hand about Bey’s colourful life in music.  Details have dwindled, such as tales of their mother recording all 12 songs for the rock musical Dude in 1972. (Bey was praised for her interpretation of Galt MacDermot’s music— even though Gerome Ragni’s stage production was panned.) As Brooks describes it, the search for anything connected to Bey has launched Talibah on an intensely emotional journey.  “She’s trying to find her mother,” says Brooks.

The filmmaker says it’s hard not to be moved by Bey. Brooks visited the songstress in her nursing home and walked away in tears one time, and another time, inspired.  “What kind of mega superstar exists and no one knows about her?” she asks.

But Brooks knows what “Finding Salome, Finding Peace” will require to restore Bey’s shine. She’s a filmmaker who made her mark as a television producer and is preparing to launch a stage production in February.  Recently she landed a spot with 14 other filmmakers chosen for the Caribbean Tales Market Incubator, a program to help producers raise finances and network with buyers in creating a “market-ready” product.  “I’ve never done this before. I’ve always been blessed with grants. It’s good for me and it’s expanding me as a filmmaker,” says Brooks. Her excitement is apparent.  She knows she’s about to catch a real star.

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One Comment »

  • Denise Wilson said:

    “Indigo” was one of the most lively, beautiful and moving musical productions I have ever seen.

    A filmed version of this stage show played on US television in 1984, almost 30 years ago. I had it on tape for many years until it virtually disintegrated.

    The beauty of that production still haunts me many years later and I would very much like to see it again along with your documentary on the great Salome Bey!

    Salome Bey was a rare talent and I am sad to find out she is all but forgotten today.

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