Tenor Remigio Pereira makes return to Ottawa with concert at Shenkman centre

Remigio Pereira

Remigio Pereira is about to sing in concert in Ottawa for the first time since he was at the centre of controversy.

The former member of The Tenors lost much when his successful musical career was sidelined after he decided  publicly to change the words of the Canadian anthem sung before a baseball game in San Diego, California, in July 2016.

The Ottawa-Gatineau native, without telling his partners in the quartet of handsome and talented male singers from Canada, wielded a sign saying, on one side, All Lives Matter and sang the words, “We’re all brothers and sisters, all lives matter to the Great” instead of “Car ton bras sait porter L’epie il sait porter la croix.”

By using words associated with the U.S. alt-right’s push back against the Black Lives Matter movement in a public performance, Pereira sparked a social media storm. He was first suspended and then kicked out of the group and was sent to the sidelines where he has basically been for almost 18 months.

Now he is beginning the long road back. He is performing at the Shenkman Arts Centre on Dec. 18 in one of the very few shows he’s done since “the incident.” And he’s putting the finishing touches on a new solo album of his own songs. It’s expected out in February.

“My fans have been asking,” he said in a phone interview from his home in the Niagara area. “This will be my first time back in Ottawa since the band split.”

“It’s crazy. I am finishing up a solo record and writing a lot. I write my own music. I produce it, I engineer it. I do everything. When I lived in Ottawa you had to be your own everything. Before I got into the Tenors, I had been an artist manager. I know what that entails.”

Pereira’s life story, as he tells it, is a string of life-changing coincidences.

His parents are Portuguese immigrants to Canada from the Azores islands. They came to North America in the early 1960s. Early on there was a tragedy. The family with four very young children settled in Pointe Fortune Quebec. The water service into the home they were renting, Pereira says, was contaminated by the sewage line. But the family did not know. Two of the children became so ill that they died in hospital within minutes of each other.

It was a devastating tragedy that happened before Pereira was born but it changed his family forever. To cheer the family up, his father purchased some tango records and every week the extended family would gather for a party accompanied by the music.

When Remigio was born these parties were still going on and music filled the family home. He loved that, he says. But ironically, when the young boy started to sing along, his older sisters would mock his voice, calling him tone deaf.  The teasing, he says, effectively silenced him for many years.

So he turned to hockey, he says, and was pretty good even making at one point, he added, the roster of the Ottawa West Golden Knights. But he was badly injured trying to make a bantam team and started to bleed internally. The bleeding turned out to be a symptom of a clotting disorder that is similar to hemophilia. That effectively ended his hockey career at age 15. That’s when music beckoned again.

He started to play guitar and became, he says, a devoted aficionado of Eddie Van Halen and other guitar gods. That turned into a love of classical guitar and pretty soon he was practicing non-stop. His talents would eventually get him into the University of Ottawa where in another twist of fate, he “discovered” his voice.

He was friendly with some singers in the voice program and they were intrigued by his voice. They convinced him to overcome his concern about being tone deaf. But, he says, the only way he would sing was inside a bathroom stall in the Perez building on campus so they couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see them.

He didn’t know any opera so he made of a song out of the names of pasta dishes including, he says, fettucine alfredo and spaghetti bolognese to name a few.

Lo and behold he made a musical meal. The sopranos dragged him to meet Ingemar Korjus, who was a professor at uOttawa and Pereira sang his pasta song once more.

“He said, ‘you have potential. (But) if you want to study, this is what it will take’.” Pereira couldn’t afford the university tuition but he did start taking private lessons with people such as Laurence Ewashko and Maria Pellegrini. That got him into the Opera Lyra chorus and a singing career was emerging.

Pereira joined The Tenors in the early 2000s. His girlfriend at the time noted an ad for a new group needing tenors. He threw in his resumé and promptly forgot all about it. A few months later he was tracked him down and invited to an audition in Victoria, B.C.

Jill Ann Siemens, who was a piano teacher at the Victoria conservatory and a promoter, had formed The Canadian Tenors, and was looking for talent. Pereira got the gig. The Canadian Tenors would soon become The Tenors because, he says, the Canadian bit was a hard sell, something, he says, he didn’t agree with.

The four singers quickly took their careers in hand, bought out Siemens and for 10 years they toured the world, paying off their debt and building an international following for their brand of well-trained, moving, middle of the road music. The debt was finally paid off at the start of 2016 and things looked rosy.

And then came July 12, 2016 at Major League Baseball’s all-star game in San Diego.

Pereira knows what he said was controversial but he stands by the real message he was trying to deliver that day.

By way of helping explain his mindset then, he says, just before the day in question, he had sung at the funeral of a favourite uncle.

“And then I flew in to San Diego to sing the anthem. I was full of emotion.

“I have never changed. My heart has never changed on that. My message was not to a minority. My message was to the system that puts the minority in those positions. That to me is the saddest thing; nobody did any research on me.”

The culture war in the U.S. was turning very nasty then. A black man named Alton Stirling had been killed by police while he was selling CDs. A disgruntled black man had shot and killed police officers in Dallas, Texas.

It all affected Pereira deeply.

“I was just like: Hey man, we’re brothers and sisters here, all of us and every single life is important to the one that created it. Whether you believe in God or not, you aren’t supposed to kill anybody.

“Anything that has to do with killing I’m not going to be in accordance with. Not only that I’m a vegan so I’m not even going to kill an  animal.”

He still feels betrayed by his former colleagues.

“They cut me off completely. They basically flatlined me.” A request for comment from the remaining trio was not answered.

He says he has basically lived off savings ever since.

“But nobody is going to stop me from creating and making music. That is part of my fibre, no matter what. I had death threats. It was crazy. I didn’t leave my house for three months.

“I was told not to speak to anybody after the event. They had it all under control. After they released a statement I asked them to tell the world that I’m not a racist. I have a bi-racial daughter. They didn’t care. I believe in equality for all.

“I didn’t want the guys to know I was going to do it. I didn’t want them blamed for anything. I had made a conscious decision to speak up for the little people. … Who was thinking about Alton Sterling or the Dallas Police in that stadium.”

And out it came.

“It changed my life, but I wouldn’t change a thing man.”

His show on Monday is part of the buildup to the album release, he says.

The new record called Vox Inaudito features one song that is about the anthem incident.

“I have a song about this called I Did It For Peace. It is my musical statement. I just sat down at my piano and started to play. After four minutes, 12 seconds I pressed stop on my phone. I listened to the voice memo off my phone a few days later and there was a complete song from beginning to end. I didn’t want to change a note so that’s what you hear.” There is a video on YouTube.

He says his song asks listeners to think about why he did what he did.

“It certainly wasn’t to be labelled as a racist. Listen to the words to what I am saying.”

These days he is bankrolling his music.

“I’m doing it all myself now. Nobody wants to hire a ‘racist’. I have to create my own rodeo but I can’t afford to go touring big time. I have to start small and start rebuilding from the ground up because my reputation is completely shot.”

He would have started earlier, he says, except his blood condition flared up in the fall and only calmed down in the middle of October. But now he is ready to roll.

Remigio in Concert
Shenkman Arts Centre,
When: Dec. 18 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: shenkmanarts.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.