Music – A Family Tradition, 1997

Telling the story of my own culture

Former Montrealer Anthony Sherwood talks about growing up in the city and the inspiration for his celebrated documentary.

February 17, 2022

The McCord Museum, director Anthony Sherwood, and Black History Month are organizing in 2022 a special event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Mr. Sherwood’s documentary Music – A Family Tradition.

Eager to hear from Mr. Sherwood, we contacted him to learn more about his life and career, his connection with Montreal, and his commitment to spotlighting the history of African Canadian communities through his documentary work. The interview was conducted by Michael P. Farkas, president of the Black History Month round table.

Anthony Sherwood, photo Ian Brown

Born in Halifax, you grew up in Montreal, more precisely in Little Burgundy, in a family surrounded by music. Can you tell us about your childhood in that neighbourhood?

There was always music growing up in my house in Montreal, because my family had a long tradition of music. My mom was an amateur singer, while my grandmother was a music teacher and musician who played all kinds of musical instruments. And my siblings were always singing in the house, practising their harmony.

I grew up in a neighbourhood where a lot of black people lived. There were many black-owned businesses, the church my family went to was a black church, we went to the Negro Community Centre of Montreal, we had social events, and we learned about great black heroes and heroines. So growing up in Little Burgundy had a huge impact on my life and made me the person that I am today.

Anthony Sherwood and sisters in Little Burgundy, 1959

I can imagine you would hear about black heroes anywhere else, wouldn’t you?

No, the first time I went to the Negro Community Centre of Montreal, I walked in and saw these huge murals on the walls of these black heroes I had never heard of. That was an introduction for me to my own culture and history.

Your work as an author, actor, and film director has led you to travel a lot around the world. What relation do you still have with Montreal today?

I am truly blessed that my career took me around the world, but you never forget the place where you grew up: where you went to school, where you discovered your passions in life, where you fell in love for the first time. Every time I fly back to Montreal, when I look out the airplane window and see the cross on top of the mountain, all lit up against the black sky, something happens to me inside. All these childhood memories rush back into my heart, and even though I don’t live in Montreal anymore, for me there is no other city in the world like Montreal.

What helped you develop an interest in documentary films and a desire to tell stories about the black communities of Canada? What made it click for you?

I have had an interest in the history of my black culture ever since I was introduced to it in my community. My interest in documentaries started when I was narrating a documentary series on the Discovery Channel. One day the producers came to me and said, “Would you like to write and direct some of the episodes?” I said, “Sure!” Later, I started producing my own documentary films with my production company. I wanted to tell a story from my own culture.

Did these projects satisfy something inside you?

I want to do something that not only I am proud of, but that the community is proud of. That is very important for me, to touch people in a certain way.

Let’s talk about Music – A Family Tradition, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2022. What was your motivation with this film? What is the main plot?

Music – A Family Tradition is about four black Canadian families that have had music as part of their family tradition. Two families from Montreal are featured in the film, and mine, the Sherwood family, is one of them. I have known these families personally for many, many years and I wanted to showcase the talents of these great black musicians.

Trailer from the documentary Music – A Family Tradition. Courtesy of Anthony Sherwood Productions

You also have a personal interest in your other documentary, Honour Before Glory.

Honour Before Glory is the story of Canada’s only all-black military battalion formed during the First World War. My great-uncle William Andrew White was the chaplain for this battalion and, several years ago, I discovered he left a war diary. Being a Baptist minister, he had a wonderful command of the English language. When I read the diary, it blew me away and I had to tell this story.

William Andrew White's war diary

What are your reflections on the place that Blacks hold in the history of Canada?

African Canadians have a long and rich history in Canada. You have to remember that people of African descent have been in Canada just as long as the British and French. When the British and French first came to this country, they brought their African slaves with them. Some of these black slaves or their descendants became politicians, social activists, inventors, and eventually made significant contributions to the development of Canada.

Now many schools, institutions, and cultural organizations recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of African Canadians during Black History Month or other events. So we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

Is there anything else the greater public should know about the tradition of these families, about this film?

The Montreal audience will discover that these Montreal-based musical artists made major contributions to the culture and social life in Montreal. They are all accomplished individuals, highly professional, and extremely talented. One family member, Jackie Richardson, was recently awarded the Order of Canada. People will discover that these families still share the same passion, the same dedication, the same love for music.

We will be inviting all Montrealers to the film presentation of Music – A Family Tradition in May. Is there anything you would like to add?

I have not seen some of these family members in 25 years. It is going to be an emotional event for me and for many of the family members. If the Montreal audience wants to hear good music, great black music, including jazz, gospel and R&B, performed by some extraordinary artists, you have to come and see this film. I am not going to say too much more because there will be a lot of surprises. Music is a language that we all understand and we all love!