For RasTamils' vocalist/guitarist Franklin Fernando, reggae has been more than just music. It's been a lifeline.
Five years ago, Fernando, then a 17-year-old newcomer from Sri Lanka who dabbled in folk music and not much else, met Rasta percussionist Martin Valach at a late-night outdoor drum jam. "He had these crazy long dreadlocks and I just went up to him and started chatting," Fernando recalls.
It was Canada Day 2009, and Fernando's life changed. Valach took him under his wing and turned him on to reggae, educating him on the history of the genre and the nuances within it.
For a kid struggling to find an identity in a new country, the sense of community reggae offered was invaluable.
"People know as far as Bob Marley and Shaggy, but there's so much more out there that people don't know and miss out on," says Fernando, now 23. "I'm grateful Martin showed me that."
Right around the same time Fernando was getting into reggae, he was getting increasingly involved in social and political activism. "The best way I can put it is this: I went from working at Walmart to Mondragon," he says.
Fernando was moved to learn more about Sri Lankan civil war, the conflict that displaced him. The ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils that erupted into a war that raged from 1983 to 2009 didn't just divide a country; it divided households.
"My mom is Tamil and my dad is Sinhalese," he says. "In school, I was ashamed to be a Tamil. I was told not to talk about Tamil issues in school."
Indeed, Tamil people were heavily persecuted; kidnapping was commonplace and, because he had family members involved in Tamil activism, Fernando's mother feared for his safety and sent him to Canada. In 2010, Amnesty International reported that more than 80,000 Tamil civilians remained detained in military-run internment camps.
Canada provided a safe space in which Fernando could get to know a part of himself that was so repressed. "Here is this strong culture -- my mother's culture -- that I never learned about."
He recalls watching the documentary Sri Lanka's Killing Fields with "anger and tears in my eyes," he says. But it was an op-ed article penned by Lasantha Wickrematunge -- a prominent anti-government Sinhalese journalist who was assassinated in 2009 -- that shook him to his core.
"In this article, he expressed himself so truly. He was standing up for the Tamil people. I thought, he's not even a Tamil and he can stand up? I have to stand up."
Shortly after his arrival to Canada, Fernando and Valach formed the reggae/soul outfit RasTamils, its name a hybrid of the two cultures Fernando connected with after coming to Canada. The band offered an outlet to not only play the music he loved but also to publicly stand in solidarity with the Tamil people.
On Friday night at the West End Cultural Centre, RasTamils -- which now counts bass player Christian DeVoin among its ranks -- will record its debut album live in front of an audience. In addition to yielding an LP, Fernando hopes the event will unite Winnipeg's Tamil community and raise awareness about the human-rights abuses Tamils have suffered as a result of a decade-spanning war.
"For me to be here, and not bring awareness, it wouldn't be right," Fernando says. "There are so many Tamil people here in Winnipeg. This will be a chance for us to get together and build a community."
Fernando plans to return to Sri Lanka for a visit in 2015. His parents were finally able to join him in Canada last year. "I'm so glad they're here."
If Fernando hadn't discovered reggae, he might not have found a part of himself.
"It's so important to know your roots," he says. "It helped me understand myself."