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Our friend Smokey Burke, the activist

Smokey Burke (centre), and team PCW, (left to right) Shelly Durant-Forde, Sophia Greaves-Broome, Rodney Grant and Curtis Gittens.

Activism doesn’t only happen on the frontlines, and not all activists preach change. Smokey Burke is an old and dear friend of the Pinelands Creative Workshop, and he is also an activist.

Smokey is the kind of activist that leads by example. As a writer and an artist, he’s been showing us where we came from, where we are now, and where we seem to be going. His journey is far too long and nuanced to tell in this space. Maybe someday he will sit down and document his life’s story so that we all get a glimpse into how arduous and rewarding his life has been.

Smokey became a friend of the Pinelands Creative Workshop back in the early eighties while he was living in Canada. He had heard about PCW through the diaspora, and when the group performed at the Harbour Front years later, he became a fan.

At the time, PCW was performing at a multicultural show. The other performers had come from all over the world, with groups from as far away as China. The other acts were all established performers, and many people thought that the fledgeling PCW was woefully outclassed. As the last performance on stage that evening, the pressure was on.

To put it simply, the PCW dancers and drummers left the stage to a standing ovation. Backstage the same thing happened. Smokey was impressed.

Connecting with Smokey through art was easy for PCW, but the connection on social justice was deeper. As any performer will tell you, the life of an artist is hard. Smokey poured some of that hardship into his work. And while many people were attracted to Smokey through his melodies, they grew to like him for his lyrics.

During a recent visit from the executive team of PCW, he recounted part of the creative process behind one of his favourite songs, Bussa. He explained that while he had been working on the song for some time, he still hadn’t tied it all together. Smokey has a poetic rhythm to how he weaves an anecdote, so it was easy to see him driving home late one evening heading across the ABC highway. Suddenly, he had to slam on the breaks to navigate the Bussa round-a-bout. As he tells it, looking up at the statue of Bussa, everything about the song clicked.

The reason behind this visit was to present Smokey with a monetary tribute. Every year at the end of the summer vacation, PCW puts on a concert that salutes local entertainers. The Camp Fusion campers are part of every aspect of the production, song, dance, drama and stage work. This year Smokey Burke and Natalie Burke were the honourees. As far as the concert was concerned, the patrons were very pleased with the performances. However, some had asked about their favourite songs from Smokey. Rodney Grant explained; “You got too many songs Smokey man”, everybody laughed in agreement.

For the rest of the visit, Smokey and the team reviewed the performances. He explained that just like when he first saw PCW perform in the eighties, he was in for another first. He had never seen so many renditions of his music on one stage. And definitely never with a cast as diverse as this. He spoke glowingly of the talent. He was also surprised at how quickly the production came together. He even suggested a career in entertainment for some of the cast.

Time seemed to zip along, and the pace of the conversation quickened. The topics included Smokey’s days in Canada and some of the characters that passed through his life. He recounted some of his adventures and misadventures. Some of them were colourful, and some were very colourful.

Along the way, he also spoke candidly about his health.

Smokey is a fighter. He beat back stage-four cancer, got the better of a sudden hospitalisation with sepsis and is increasingly regaining his life after a debilitating stroke. Anybody lucky enough to know him will recognise the same old Smokey after talking to him for even a minute.

As the visit came to an end, the team left him with their token of support and a promise to relive the tribute concert when the video comes back. He left them the comfort of his friendship for many years to come.

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