Monday, August 13, 2012

Diblo Dibala brings his hallmark sound to Toronto

Diblo Dibala brings his hallmark sound to Toronto

30 July 2012 No Comments
Diblo Dibala and Matchatch
Performed at Lula Lounge
Toronto, July 22, 2012
Presented by Batuki Music and Afrique Nouvelle Musique as part of the Bana y’Afrique Festival
By Anya Wassenberg
“Ça se danse tout seul,” assured Diblo Dibala as he began his show at Lula Lounge. “You don’t have to know the moves.” In English, the dance happens all by itself — and it articulates the irresistible dance-appeal of Soukous, the musical genre that he’s become famous for. Sure enough, the crowd was on its feet from the very first song without any further prodding.

The word Soukous itself comes from the French verb secouer or ‘to shake’ and its combination of syncopated polyrhythms overlaid with melodic voice and guitar lines create the multi-layered web of music that originated in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1930s and 1940s. Congolese musicians were adapting the popular Cuban rumba and son to their own musical traditions, adding the melodic electric guitar that has become Soukous’ hallmark sound.

Diblo’s nickname is “Machine Gun” for his rapid fire playing, but it’s really a liquid and golden flow of notes that fly from his fingers rather than a staccato burst. The crowd at Lula is sprinkled liberally with local guitarists who’ve come to hear and see his virtuoso playing, and his vocal lines are as nimble as his guitar licks. The tunes are always danceable but the melodies range from upbeat to plaintive and hauntingly beautiful.

He’s been at the game a long time. At age 15, Diblo won a talent competition that led to his playing guitar for Franco in his TPOK Band. Franco was a major figure in and considered one of the musicians who defined the sound of Soukous and modern Congolese music. After a stint playing and touring with TPOK other bands locally, Diblo ended up in Belgium where he worked as a dishwasher and played a rented guitar when he could.

From there he made his way to Paris 1981, which was then home to an exciting and burgeoning Soukous scene. He reunited with Kanda Bongo Man, who he’d played with at home in Africa in a band called Bella Bella, and the two released a well-received album later that year. The Soukous scene in Paris in the 1980s was legendary and Diblo was one of the major artists who helped make it so. He enjoyed a busy career playing in his own bands and projects as well as working as a session musician for many of the genre’s other luminaries.

His career mirrors the progress of the music itself. From its roots in the Congo, Soukous quickly spread throughout West Africa and then conquered most of the continent, including Kenya and other eastern African nations before making its way to London and Paris in the late 20th century along with immigration. Kwassa Kwassa  is the dance that developed alongside modern Soukous, a  dance style where the hips and hands swing together – although it’s only the hips that are sometimes controversial. In Africa, the dance has often come under fire from critics on grounds of public immorality, and videos have even been censored on occasion.

Back in Toronto, two generous sets of music proved the truth of Diblo’s opening statement, although you wouldn’t say it came without breaking a sweat. Diblo’s band Matchatcha are clearly made up of seasoned vets who know the music inside out and feel it in their bones – the rhythms were tight and the playing loose, bolstered by the indefatigable gyrating hips of two dancers who showed the enthusiastic audience how it’s done.

UK Calypso Monarch to reign at Toronto’s Harbourfront (video)

UK Calypso Monarch to reign at Toronto’s Harbourfront (video)

25 July 2012 One Comment

By Anya Wassenberg
Alexander D Great
Special Guest of the Calypso Stars
July 31, 2012 at Harbourfront Centre
“I’m in a time when Calypso is seen as a dying art form,” notes Alexander D Great.
If it’s a dying form, his own career shows no signs of it. As reigning Monarch of London’s vibrant Calypso scene, Alexander D Great is just about to embark on a North American tour that will see him playing Toronto’s Harbourfront as a special guest of the Calypso Stars event on July 31. He’ll be performing at events that celebrate the 50th anniversary of Independence in Trinidad and Tobago well into the UK’s Black History Month in October — and there are also the London Calypso Monarch competitions in late August.

He first won the title two years ago, a feat he repeated in 2011 when he won with Debra ‘Pan Diva’ Romain. “Since 2000 until I won in 2010, all the competitions were won by the girls,” he says. “We have six brilliant Calypso divas.” Last year, he also penned the song for runner up Helena B. “We came in first and second last year. It was a great year for us.”

Performing isn’t the only aspect to his musical career. Alexander combines the singing experience with a BA from Dartington College and PGCE (postgraduate certificate in education) from Roehampton. He’s taught music at the secondary and post-secondary levels and presented lectures on Calypso at various universities in the UK. He adds to that a role as a broadcaster on BBC Radio.

Alexander D Great performs in front of 10 Downing Street in London

“I’ve done 12 years –I’m still Calypsonian-in-Residence,” he says. For the first seven of those years, he recorded a two-minute spot every week. True to the roots of Calypso, it was a commentary on the news. “I’ve made my whole career being controversial as a Calypsonian, but I do my research,” Alexander says. “These people, they believed two minutes was the limit — and I had to cover three topics.” It left him exactly 40 seconds to cover each topic in musical form. His Calypso news weekly was broadcast by local BBC stations with an Afro-Caribbean audience.

Calypso began as a musical form of communication that evolved among enslaved Africans in Trinidad and Tobago. Forbidden from speaking to each other, they sang to each other instead and developed a distinct form of often biting commentary full of double-entendres and inventive use of language. Alexander points to the traditional role of the musician in folk culture — the West African griot was the keeper of history and storyteller. “He needs to write an ode about something that affects the village,” he explains. “The Calypsonian is, to the Caribbean community — or used to be — the same role. It was the people’s newspaper. They covered all the world news.”

In the Caribbean, the lyrics of songs would be the topic of public debate. “As it’s become easier to become more outspoken, it’s now easier to write anything and get it aired.” It’s clear that it’s a development he relishes. “I’ve got a song called Haiti. It was written about six months after the earthquake,” he says. The song’s lyrics talk about how slowly aid has come to Haiti — and he’s sure he knows why. “They had the unmitigated cheek to have a rebellion.” He points to other examples where foreign aid and clean-up have come much more quickly. “Haiti’s two-and-a-half years on and nothing’s been done,” he says. “They’re going to let them sink.”

“I’ve been a Calypsonian now for over 20 years.” He can still sing the lyrics of the first Calypso song he learned — Boycott Carnival by Mighty Sparrow — by heart. The song talks about the fact that the parade’s winners got $25 while the Queen got $5,000 and a car. “She only pretty is all..,” he sings. Born in Trinidad, he’d immigrated to the UK at age four. “I’m thinking he’s talking about Queen Elizabeth!” he laughs.

His musical journey actually began with the music of the times. “As a teenager, I bought Bob Dylan,” he recalls. “I played in two or three original bands.” He performed with musicians from Roxy Music, Thin Lizzy and others; it was Brit rock and blues, and for him it eventually wasn’t quite enough. “Nothing satisfied my desire to shoot my mouth off,” he laughs.

At nearly age 40, he was brought back to Calypso. “My Calypso is fused with a lot of influences from my other musical life. In Britain, my stuff is completely different from anyone else’s. I actually call my stuff the soca blues. The word ‘blues’ adds gravitas to the word soca.” His didn’t care for the “smoothed over” sound on his first Calypso recording. “I don’t use computer generated anything. That’s why I only produce an album every 5 years or so.”

His tour coincides with the release of his latest album. “There’s a new song called Fifty Years of Independence,” he says. “Canada will hear it before they hear it in England.” At that, it may be a fitting place for its debut. “David Rudder is Calypso’s last hope — and you’ve got him right in Toronto.”

Mississauga art exhibit in spans 50 years of Jamaican creativity

Mississauga art exhibit in spans 50 years of Jamaican creativity

23 July 2012 No Comments

Celebrating Jamaica 50
Contemporary Jamaican Art, CIRCA 1962 | CIRCA 2012
Continues to September 8, 2012
By Anya Wassenberg
From nationalist expression to the more individualistic preoccupations of contemporary artists anywhere, like identity, gender and class, the Art Gallery of Mississauga’s summer show traces the evolution of Jamaican art in the 50 years since its independence as a nation.

Guest curated by Dr. Veerle Poupeye, Executive Director at the National Gallery of Jamaica, the work represented includes that of artists from the Jamaican Diaspora as well as those who continue to make Jamaica their home. It features a nice sampling of work by the artists now considered hugely influential in the period around Independence in 1962, juxtaposed with the work of the next generation of up and coming artists from the 21st century.

The show is lively and entertaining and includes sculpture, video and multimedia works along with paintings and photography.  It begins in the hallway with artists from the Nationalist Movement and those who were working just at the time of Independence — David Pottinger, Albert Huie, Barrington Watson, and others. Their works from the years 1959 to 1966 are largely figurative and realistic, and depict scenes of ordinary life. They helped define what it meant to be Jamaican in vibrant colours and in the simplified artistic vocabulary of modernism. Barrington Watson’s Washer Women (1966) uses bold, saturated colours and big shapes in a vibrant composition.

Eugene Hyde is an artist who straddled both the realistic and abstract worlds, and the show includes 1959’s captivating Banana Man along with his abstracted and expressionistic Standing Figure of 1964. Others, like Carl Abrahams’ Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah use a non-Western visual vocabulary in adaptations of the icons and forms of the African continent. The show also includes two Edna Manley sculptures, her figurative Bogle Maquette of 1965 and a regal terracotta Tyger (1963).
Left: Barrington Watson, Washer Women (1966), NGJ Collection. Right: Leasho Johnson, Territorial Fad, panel I (2010), from the collection of Storm Saulter

There are some interesting connections among the contemporary works represented. Both Ebony J. Patterson and Toronto-based Dionne Simpson work with fibres in intricate and compelling ways. In Dionne Simpson’s Under Construction, four self-portraits begin with string irregularly woven on a frame which is then then lacquered, then painted, then embedded with tiny images, words or commercial icons. The resulting images shimmer with layers of texture and meaning.

Likewise, the photo tapestries of Ebony J. Patterson, (in the show, Wi Oh So Clean from the Fambily Series revisited — 2012,) feature layers of materials. They begin with staged photography that is then woven into fabric. The result is embellished with jewels, pearls, glitter and paint, among other things. The images come from a preoccupation with the construction of male identity in dancehall culture and they’re quite stunning in their complexity. For both artists, a detailed process produces dazzling results.

Photography is an important element of Jamaican contemporary art and it’s used in diverse ways to explore both identity and physicality. In an image by artist Marlon James, Ebony J. Patterson is almost unrecognizable in hip hop guise. Toronto-based Michael Chambers’ image comes from his iconic The Box series, using the human body in the frame of a confined space that emphasizes its beauty. History is revisited in Marvin Bartley’s photographic composition The Great Rape (2011), depicting women draped like heroic fallen warriors over the arms of soldiers in 19th century neo-romantic style.

Other highlights include Petrona Morrison’s 5 channel video installation revolving around the violent riots of 2010 in Kingston which surrounded the extradition of Chris Coke to the United States on drug charges. Petrona, (whose first art education came at Hamilton’s McMaster University,) includes found images, news footage and text in a compelling display. A painting by Leasho Johnson – Territorial Fad (2010) – produces one of the show’s most vibrant images — that of two dogs at each other’s throats on a kinetic field of bright orange and green zigzags. It’s a study in dramatic composition and immediately draws the eye.

Posted QR codes feature access to interviews and lectures by the show’s artists, curator and others. The gallery is featuring a series of events designed to enhance the experience of the show that continues all summer long.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars bring their music with a cause to Toronto Jazz Fest (video)

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars bring their music with a cause to Toronto Jazz Fest (video)

28 June 2012 No Comments

Photo: Zach Smith
By Anya Wassenberg
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
July 1, 2012 at Nathan Phillips Square
Opening for Tower of Power at TD Toronto Jazz Festival
Big Fat Dog, the latest video single from their recent release, Radio Salone, is a single with a purpose for Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. In partnership The World Food Program USA and Cumbancha, their record company, proceeds will be used to raise awareness of global hunger.

Specifically, funds raised will go to help the nine million people in eight countries of the Sahel region of West Africa who are currently at risk. The food crisis is the result of drought and conflict in the region, which includes Mali where 300,000 people have fled their homes due to internal conflicts. Food prices have risen, exacerbating the situation. The song is about the disparity between rich and poor and the video was recorded in Freetown, Sierra Leone with a trippy and upbeat Caribbean/Afrobeat sound that’s typical of the group.

The name of the band is a truism; these are people who know something about being hungry. Sierra Leone was wracked by a bloody civil war between 1991 and 2002. Millions of people became refugees in neighbouring Guinea.

In 1997, it was in a refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone that Ruben and Grace Koroma met up with fellow musicians who’d also fled their homes in Freetown. The Koromas, along with guitarist Francis John Langba and bassist Idrissa Bangura, began to play for their fellow refugees with guitars and other equipment donated by a Canadian relief agency.

They continued to play together as the group shuffled from refugee camp to refugee camp and the war dragged on. They returned to Freetown after the war finally ended, and the group’s membership became a fluctuating roster of musicians who were then returning to the city’s ghettos.

In 2006, the band released their first album, Living Like A Refugee, consisting of tracks actually recorded during the years spent in refugee camps, along with other songs recorded after their return to Freetown.
An American-made documentary helped put them into the international spotlight, contrasting the stark and difficult circumstances of their lives with the irresistibly positive vibes of the music. Even when their lyrics speak frankly of the difficulties still facing their region of the world, the music is bouncy and optimistic.

Radio Salone, their third release, is a tribute to the huge role that radio plays in Africa in both exposing and spreading musical styles and, on a personal level, providing an escape from and a lifeline to the outside world during the refugee years.

Salone means “Sierra Leone” in their native language of Krio, one of the five languages featured on the release (including English). The album was recorded on vintage analog equipment in a Brooklyn studio and the music follows the theme with a nod to the old school sounds of classic reggae and soul, melodic Soukous guitar lines, tribal chants and exuberant West African funk. A thick horn section and churchy organ add to the musical layers. It’s an accomplished album showing a musical maturity that’s taken them far beyond their origins.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are currently on a world tour to promote the new album and will hit Toronto on July 1 to open the closing concert of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

Robert Glasper brings his music mix to the Toronto Jazz Fest (video)

Robert Glasper brings his music mix to the Toronto Jazz Fest (video)

21 June 2012 No Comments

The Robert Glasper Experiment
June 25, Fleck Theatre
TD Toronto Jazz Festival
Photo: Mike Schreiber
By Anya Wassenberg

Jazz pianist, composer, musical director or record producer, Robert Glasper’s sound recognizes no boundaries between genres. His music blends elements of jazz and hip hop — among others — and comes directly as a sum total of his musical influences.

Music was a big part of childhood in Glasper’s native Houston, Texas, where his mother sang with jazz and R&B groups, and in a church choir. Rather than get babysitters, she’d bring him along to her gigs and he absorbed a range of musical styles.  “Jazz, blues, R&B, gospel — all kinds of stuff,” he says. “I started playing when I was about 12, stuff off the radio.” What stuff was he listening to? “I was learning Phil Collins and Billy Joel,” he laughs.

At 14, Glasper enrolled in the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston and he credits his education there for giving him good grounding in the theory and techniques of playing jazz. “It was competitive,” he says. From there he went on to the New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music in New York City, and has been there ever since.

The New School is where he met many of the people he still collaborates with today. In NYC’s cauldron of musical creativity, he continued to absorb new sounds. “New York is New York — all of the musicians, rappers, and spoken word artists [hang out]. The Roots used to host jam sessions. I used to go all the time and hang out. That was probably 2002,” he recalls.

A solid group of collaborators was formed across musical styles — he lists Common and Meshell Ndegeocello among them. “I would go to Q-Tip’s house; I became Mos Def’s musical director and when he toured, it was with my band. We did Carnegie Hall. We toured a lot,” he says.

While Glasper’s aware of the buzz surrounding him and the constant comparison of jazz and hip hop in his music, he pays no attention to the labels. “Now, this is what jazz sounds like to me. It’s always transforming. Jazz is this sound, with hip hop. I don’t necessarily hear the regular swing style anymore. That doesn’t define jazz for me. It didn’t even start like that,” he says.

Glasper says he’s letting all his influences, influence him. At the same time, he respects legends like Wayne Shorter and the more traditional approach to jazz. “They didn’t have hip hop, rock to use,” he explains.

He released the album Mood on the Fresh Sound New Talent label in 2003 and went on to wider recognition — and a bigger label.  He signed with Blue Note in 2005.  Four recordings followed, including Canvas (2005), In My Element (2007), Double-Booked (2009) and this year’s Black Radio. In Black Radio, his version of modern jazz comes into its own. “It’s where all this stuff meets up,” he says. “Hip hop meets jazz meets soul meets rock. There are like 12 guest artists,” he laughs. “It’s really my crossover record. The R&B and hip hop worlds have really embraced it.”

Glasper’s music features the complexity of jazz rhythmically and melodically with hip hop vocals and electronic flourishes, all brought together in a way that’s seamless and organic. His music not only blends musical genres, but also acoustic with electronic sounds, spoken word — and even voicemail recordings. Glasper’s current ensemble includes an acoustic trio and The Experiment, a more eclectic group that he’s bringing to his Toronto show

Black history uncovered in Luminato art installation: The untold stories

Black history uncovered in Luminato art installation: The untold stories

12 June 2012 No Comments

Josiah Henson and second wife Nancy
By Anya Wassenberg
Black History: The War of 1812 at The Encampment
An art installation by Thom Sokoloski and
Jenny-Anne McCowan
Fort York grounds, Toronto, June 8 to 24
The Encampment is an art installation project covering the grounds of Fort York with 200 white tents. Inside each one, a collection of objects and text elements depict a life as it existed in and around the War of 1812. The stories of the black Upper Canadians in the installation illustrate the varied roles and positions they held in their society and illuminate facets of Canadian history that are more often unexplored. The following lives are featured in the installation:

Sophie Pooley (nee Burthen) left a written first person account of her life that was recorded by Benjamin Drew (1812-1903) and published in 1856. It was one of 117 stories documented in A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: Or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada.

Pooley came to Canada at the age of 7 when her New York based slave masters sold her to Mohawk chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea). The following quotes are her words:

“I guess I was the first coloured girl brought into Canada. The white men sold us at Niagara to old Indian Brant, the king.”

“Brant had two coloured men for slaves… There was but one other Indian that I knew, who owned a slave. I had no care to get my freedom.”

Later she was sold again. “I was sold by Brant to an Englishman in Ancaster, for one hundred dollars — his name was Samuel Hatt.”

Freedom, in fact, when it finally came with emancipation in 1834, brought with it poverty. She was left with nothing to fend for herself in a harsh world. “I am now unable to work, and am entirely dependent on others for subsistence.  But I find plenty of people in the bush to help me a good deal.” Despite everything, she had the strength of body and spirit to live beyond the age of 90.

Josiah Henson was a fugitive slave from Maryland who became a Methodist preacher, author and founder of a settlement in western Ontario. Like many kidnapped Africans, he served for many masters before the age of 18 and suffered for it, including bones broken by white overseers. He became a preacher and toured to raise money to purchase his freedom; however he was double-crossed by his master and decided to escape to Upper Canada with his wife and four children, where he arrived in 1830. His memoirs served as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Almany Malwise was a tribal princess from Ghana who was sent to England by her family to avoid being kidnapped and sold into slavery. She became a servant to a British officer, eventually working for General Sir Isaac Brock. She came to Upper Canada when he was stationed here for the war. According to oral histories gathered and recorded, Almany was considered a great beauty and had a romantic affair with 43-year old Sir Isaac, the storied general whose life ended on the battlefield at Queenston Heights. She bore him a daughter after his death, and there are families in the Windsor region today who claim her ancestry.

Richard Pierpoint was kidnapped in Senegal and sold to a British officer. During the American Revolution, slaves were offered their freedom in exchange for enlisting in the British Army and he took advantage of the offer, later settling in Upper Canada. During the War of 1812 – at over 65 years of age – he joined and helped organize the Coloured Corps of Upper Canada which saw action at many of the significant events of the conflict, including the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Battle of Stoney Creek.

John “Daddy” Hall arrived in Upper Canada with his wife as a runaway slave and became the first black settler in Sydenham. A black settlement of about ten families grew around him on squatted land and he became the town crier, announcing events and news twice a day. A colourful character, he fathered more than 20 children with three wives and died in Sydenham at the ripe old age of 117.

Lit up at dusk each evening the 200 tents will make a dramatic and very atmospheric visual statement and a fascinating way to explore history. The Encampment is open (and free of charge) from June 8 to 24 and from 7:30 pm – 11:00 PM. During Luminato (June 8 – 17) between 5:00 pm and  7:30 pm there are daily events listed here — The Encampment

Black history uncovered in Luminato art installation

Black history uncovered in Luminato art installation 

6 June 2012 No Comments

By Anya Wassenberg
Black History: The War of 1812 at The Encampment
An art installation by Thom Sokoloski and Jenny-Anne McCowan
Conceived by Thom Sokoloski
Produced by Sherrie Johnson Productions
Fort York grounds June 8 to 24
This year marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, considered a key turning point in the development of this country. The black voices that make up that story don’t always make it to history textbooks. Many Canadians are still ignorant of the fact that Africans and their descendants have been present in this country since the 1600’s — and that slavery was a fairly widespread practice here.

I’m one of more than 100 “Creative Collaborators” in an art installation project known as The Encampment. Two hundred tents will cover the grounds of Fort York during the Luminato Festival and as part of the City of Toronto’s official commemoration of the War, each one using objects and text to illuminate the story of a life that was lived during the period. The histories of African Canadians of the time come not simply as an addition to those of the iconic figures from all the textbooks — Sir Isaac Brock, Joseph Brant et al — but as rich and integral threads in the fabric of the nation that would become Canada.

One of my installations features Chloe Cooley, a young woman whose story actually takes place 15 years before the war in 1793. She lived as a slave on a farm in the Niagara region and was taken by force by her owner to the U.S. side of the river to be sold. The young girl struggled and fought valiantly; it took three men to subdue her, tie her in rope and throw her in the boat. The commotion was seen by Peter Martin, a freed black man who brought William Grisley, a white man from Queenston to be another witness. The latter took the disturbing story to Lord Simcoe, who was then the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe was himself an abolitionist, but had found little support for the position locally. He used the tragic story of Chloe — whose treatment was perfectly legal under the laws of the time — to push for new legislation.

Lord Simcoe’s vision of an act abolishing slavery, however, had to be tempered; nine members of the Legislative Council themselves owned slaves. He brokered a compromise that allowed existing owners to keep their slaves and the title of the law is self-explanatory. An Act to prevent the further Introduction of SLAVES and to limit the Term of Contracts for SERVITUDE within this province, dated the 9th of July 1793, begins:

Whereas it is unjust that a people who enjoy Freedom by Law should encourage the introduction of Slaves, and whereas it is highly expedient to abolish Slavery in this Province, so far as the same may gradually be done without violating private property; …

Even in its watered down form, the Act did set up the legal framework for the Underground Railroad, in that fugitives could no longer be enslaved once they arrived on Canadian soil.

What saddens me most is the fact that, although her name will forever be linked with the very first piece of anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire, after her sale Chloe Cooley herself vanished into the dark and secretive history of slavery in the United States. In trying to depict her story in visual form I chose a tree branch to represent her struggle, tied in ropes and white ribbon that tangle around everything; just as she was physically bound with rope, Lord Simcoe was bound by the vested interests of a racist society.

Lit up at dusk each evening the 200 tents will make a dramatic and very atmospheric visual statement and a fascinating way to explore history. The Encampment is open (and free of charge) from June 8 to 24 and from 7:30 pm – 11:00 PM. During Luminato (June 8 – 17) between 5:00 pm and  7:30 pm there are daily events listed here — The Encampment

Stewart Goodyear brings Beethoven marathon to Luminato (video)

Stewart Goodyear brings Beethoven marathon to Luminato (video)

4 June 2012 No Comments

By Anya Wassenberg
Stewart Goodyear and the Beethoven Marathon
June 9, 2012 at Koerner Hall
Part of the Luminato Festival
Thirty-two sonatas, 103 movements and more than 10 hours of playing — “marathon” is an appropriate word for the feat taken on by Toronto-born pianist Stewart Goodyear for this year’s Luminato Festival. In a single day, he’ll play all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in the order that they were written.  “This set is a retrospective of Beethoven’s art from the early 1790s to 1821,” he explains.

It’s an undertaking few have attempted before in history, but to hear him talk about it, it’s the natural result of a passion for Beethoven that took hold very early in life.  His father passed away a month before he was born, leaving behind a legacy of music in the form of a collection of LP records, including modern classics like Jimi Hendrix and two boxes of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky that Goodyear would listen to over and over. While his repertoire as a professional has been varied, that early love of Beethoven runs deep. “I always thought of the sonatas as a set,” he explains. “I’m fulfilling a childhood ambition.”

Growing up in Toronto in the 1980s, Goodyear’s focus on classical music came as something of an oddity. “In my neighbourhood, people were listening to Culture Club, Sting,” he remembers. “I thought I was the only one listening to this music, or who even knew about it. That changed deliciously when I went to my first classical concert.” As he watched famed pianist André Watts, he knew that he wanted to be up there on stage performing — a revelation that came to him at the age of four. He credits his family for encouraging those childhood passions. “They knew I loved it and supported me every step of the way.”

More than a typical performance, a marathon concert requires extraordinary preparation. “Besides preparing pianistically, I’m preparing stamina wise,” he says. Diet and exercise are crucial to his physical conditioning. When it comes to the playing, his regimen also goes beyond the usual exercises and repetition. “I’m zoning out so that my fingers know exactly what they’re doing, so that the playing is organic,” he says. The music has to take over. “It really does possess me. I feel like I turn into a different beast.”

Goodyear is looking forward to the challenge and eager for the audience’s energy.  “The excitement of the audience will dictate my response,” he says. It’s also an experience he’s hoping to repeat. “I hope to do this marathon everywhere.”

Stewart Goodyear has recorded some of the Beethoven Sonatas on the Marquis Classics label (and those CDs will be available for sale at the event).

Malian singer Khaira Arby wows Toronto fans with her jazzy Saharan sound

Malian singer Khaira Arby wows Toronto fans with her jazzy Saharan sound

11 May 2012 No Comments

By Anya Wassenberg
With a regal presence on stage that belies her diminutive stature, Malian singer Khaira Arby wowed the crowd at Lula Lounge in Torontop  on May 8 with a long set of her own brand of jazzy Saharan music. Because of the troubles that have engulfed her native country since the coup earlier this year, there was some doubt that her North American spring tour would even get off the ground, but as presenter Alan Davis noted in his introduction, if there was ever a time for her to spread her positive message to the rest of the world, that would be now.

Her brand of music is mesmerizing, with its hypnotic layering of rhythms and melodies over a heavy bass line. It often sounded like there were more melodies and rhythms going than what was being created by the five musicians on stage, which included two stellar guitarists who traded off  lead guitar.

Arby’s music is both traditional and modern — imagine rock guitar riffs and bluesy melodies over churning, time-honoured West African polyrhythms, and throw in  a dash of funk for good measure. Her young band is super tight with a flair for showmanship that makes their virtuosic playing look easy. Her voice is as strong and compelling as her stage persona.

Underneath all that great music are the lyrics that have often had a great impact socially in Mali. Women’s issues are often at the forefront of Arby’s music, including a song where she speaks out against female circumcision. In the song Waidio, she dares to assert a women’s right to pursue her own happiness — a radical view in her very traditional society.

Arby has become an inspiration and a role model for Malian women. In a country where women don’t enjoy the kind of autonomy that they do here in North America, she divorced her first husband when his controlling nature interfered with her musical career. This is something virtually unheard of with women of her generation. She paved the way for others to follow, and modernized the role of the female praise singer as much as she’s modernized the music itself.

Hailing from a village not far from fabled Timbuktu, Khaira sings in the languages of the Malian desert, including Songhai, Tamashek and Arabic. While she’s been a star in her native country for decades, her first international release (Timbuktu Tarab) came out in 2010. Her current tour continues in the U.S. through May.

Oil and Water: Shipwrecked in Newfoundland

Oil and Water: Shipwrecked in Newfoundland

26 April 2012 One Comment

Oil and Water
Written by Robert Chafe
Factory Theatre, Toronto
Continues to May 6, 2012
Tickets: Factory Theatre
Reviewed by Anya Wassenberg

Oil and Water is an ingenious play that intertwines three storylines to bring focus to the unique – and true to life – history of Lanier Phillips, an American who was the only black sailor to survive a naval disaster off the coast of Newfoundland in 1942. Its success rests solidly on the compelling acting of an ensemble cast and inventive staging, along with the inventive music of Toronto composer Andrew Craig.

There are several layers to the innovative play that unfolds in various ways; at times the play’s three storylines drift into each other, at others they happen simultaneously.

One of the threads brings to life the disillusionment of black men who thought the navy was their ticket to equal opportunity based on merit. Instead they found a narrow world even more encumbered by prejudice than the segregated South of the WWII era. Phillips is embittered, stuck shining shoes and working in the mess hall with no hope of advancement. He and the only other African American sailor sleep below decks and aren’t so much as allowed to eat with their white fellow sailors. He’s accompanied by the spirit of his great grandmother, an African slave who counsels and tries to protect him.

Then the worst happens. The USS Truxton runs aground in a violent storm off the coast of Newfoundland. The two black sailors are stuck on the sinking boat after the lifeboats leave and seemingly against all reason, Phillips jumps into the freezing waters. He’s one of only 56 survivors of the original crew of 146 who washes up on the rocky shore near St. Lawrence, Newfoundland.

What awaits him is the selfless compassion of the people of the town who go in search of the survivors and lovingly wash off the oil slick from the disabled ship that covers them. To his surprise, Lanier is accepted as an equal by the good-hearted Newfoundlanders — who’d never seen a black man before — and is welcomed as a friend.

Another storyline looks at the Newfoundlanders stuck between the sea and the mines as a way of eking out a hard living. The people of St. Lawrence stand out for their wry sense of humour and simple compassion for others in tough circumstances, which leads them to naturally go out of their way to help the shipwrecked sailors.

The third storyline is equally true to history. It looks at an older Lanier Phillips and his daughter set against the violent school riots that erupted when the city of Boston first desegregated their schools in 1974. There is a real sense of authenticity not only in the script, but in the portrayals of these characters and the lives that, under normal circumstances, would never have intersected.

The script is infused with bright spots of humour and poetry. “This is the curliest hair I’ve ever seen!” exclaims Violet, one of the women who tends to Phillips. “Like a little lamb.”

Andrew Craig’s music provides a dimensional accompaniment to the action on the stage, and combines the sweet harmonies of Newfoundland’s traditional music with that of African American spirituals.

The actors remain on stage throughout the entire performance — when their character is not in the scene, they stand off to the side or back and provide the musical accompaniment. Their humming or singing, sometimes solo and sometimes in gorgeous harmony, underpins virtually all the action in the play. Another unique musical element can be heard in the characters’ varying Newfoundlander and Georgia accents.

Lanier Phillips left St. Lawrence with a smile on his face — even though the Navy put him on a separate bus by himself to get him back to base. In real life, as in the play, it was a brief, two-day experience that changed his life forever. He realized that racism is something that is taught and therefore can be changed, and he became a civil rights activist who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. He continued to speak about the incident until his death recently in March 2012.

Bombino’s desert blues reflects the struggles of the Tuareg people

Bombino’s desert blues reflects the struggles of the Tuareg people

10 April 2012 No Comments
By Anya Wassenberg
April 12 at Lula Lounge

“Sun is burning in the desert. There is no rain in the desert
To live in the desert, we need to have a strong morale
We live in the most beautiful space and the hardest space for life” (from the song Tenere)
Sometimes, music plays a much bigger role than making your commute more pleasant or giving you the beats to let loose on the dance floor on a Friday night. For Omara “Bombino” Moctar and the Tuareg people of the Sahara, it’s the soundtrack to a way of life. “It’s a way to fight and to reclaim things,” he says.

The Tuareg are a nomadic people who inhabit various areas of the Sahara desert in Northern Africa, related ethnically to the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria. Traveling the desert for 4,000 years on camels — more recently in 4 x 4s — they are known as herders and fierce warriors, who historically fought against both colonialism and the strict application of Islamic rule.

Bombino’s life story runs parallel to the Tuareg’s conflicts and the development of the hypnotic and compelling blues we think of now as Tuareg music or desert blues. He was born into a nomadic tribe in 1980 in Tidene, near Agadez in the country of Niger. The latter city was a key stop along the traditional trade routes in the Sahara that connected the Mediterranean area with West Africa.

One of 17 brothers and sisters, he was enrolled in school as a child but refused to go at first. He went to live with this grandmother, a common custom in their matriarchal culture. Young Tuareg boys are called “arawan n tchimgharen” or “grandmother’s children” — it is considered an honourable term.

Drought in Mali and Niger, where many of the Tuareg live, came in 1984, decimating the region’s livestock and forcing many Tuaregs to leave the region, often settling in Algeria or Libya. Lack of government aid in both Mali and Niger led to the beginnings of the rebellion, and music – along with the guitar they’d recently discovered – played an integral role in spreading the word about the armed revolt and its goals among the Tuareg people. Their style was called ishoumar after the French word “chomeurs” meaning the unemployed but the term soon became synonymous with the rebels and their movement.

The first Tuareg rebellion began in 1990 in both Mali and Niger as they launched attacks against government and military targets. The government fought back and drove many people into exile, including Bombino, who fled with his father and grandmother to Algeria. It was there that he got his personal introduction to the guitar.  “Everything began in 1991,” he remembers. “I was living with my family in Algeria during the rebellion. Cousins would come by with guitars.”

When his cousins left their guitars behind, he taught himself how to play in imitation of what he’d heard. “Every time I watched TV, I’d see American or European groups playing.” He lists Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits as early influences. Bombino worked for a time as a herder in Libya and practiced as he watched his flocks.

When Niger became a democracy in 1992, he moved back. “I started to play in front of other people in Niger,” he says. Bombino joined the Tuareg political party and began to develop his craft at the same time, taking guitar lessons and joining a band. That’s where he got his nickname (a variation on the Italian word for baby) — as the youngest and smallest in the group.

Bombino began to work as a professional musician and recorded his first album, gaining some recognition from a Spanish documentary. In 2006, he went to California and ended up recording a single with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones (It appears on the 2008 album by Tim Riese “Stone’s World: The Rolling Stones Project Volume 2″).

SIA brings the tragedies of war to life

SIA brings the tragedies of war to life

30 March 2012 No Comments

By Anya Wassenberg

Starring Jajube Mandiela, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Thomas Olajide
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
Continues to April 15 at Factory Theatre

The lost, discarded air of the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp in Ghana is captured in a spare set littered with discarded bottles, a partial wall of plastic bottles, one single chair and a few tires stacked on each other. The lost and conflicted lives of its inhabitants are fleshed out in a clever script and strong performances from the three actors in this interesting and revealing play.

Brendan McMurty-Howlett is Nicholas Summers, a young and reckless Canadian on the last day of his trip to save Africa. After a final drunken celebration, he’s at first puzzled, then horrified as it dawns on him that his friend Saa Abraham (Thomas Olajide) is securing him to a chair and won’t let him leave.

He knew of Abraham’s past as a child soldier under a former rebel known as “The Butcher” (a monster reminiscent of the currently infamous LRA leader Joseph Kony), who’s on trial at The Hague. It’s that trial Abraham is looking to derail by kidnapping a white man – for reasons that only become clear over the course of the play. Sure enough, the kidnapping of a North American brings the press and military intervention, although things don’t seem to be going according to plan.

The complexities of the situation are revealed bit by bit in a script that’s well paced and blends humour in the first half then gradually ramps up  tensions. Two story lines unfold with Abraham in the middle of both, one with Nicholas and another with his younger sister Sia. They intersect only at the end, when the meaning of Abraham’s actions become crystal clear.

It’s a talky play, with the action limited to a single location, but the words carry a weight and intensity that do justice to the stories they tell about Abraham and his sister and the terrible fate that befell their family when the fighting came to their Liberian town, leaving their father dead, Sia raped and left for dead and Abraham forced to join the soldiers. Stripped of his own humanity, he becomes just another one of the perpetrators in the end.

The acting is what lights up this dark story. McMurtry-Howlett does a nice job of portraying the naïve Canadian boy, raised on the do-gooders creed by his parents. He veers between disbelief, delirium and desperation, neatly portraying the combination of essential goodwill tainted by a damningly superficial understanding of the situations or what he was actually there to do. “I don’t know if I helped anybody,” he admits. Olajide’s Saa Abraham is a complex character, at once tortured by his past and yet still capable of casual cruelty. “I fought for the devil that tore my country apart,” he laments. Jajube Mandiela gives us a convincing portrait of the brash 11-year old Sia; all the more heartbreaking for her youthful courage.

SIA is a play about the tragedies of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. It integrates a little history lesson on Liberia and the consequences of its bloody and decades long civil war. What I found most telling — though there was a little shuffling about during the lighter first half of the play, the audience grew completely silent and still during the latter part as it reached its climax.

SIA is presented by Cahoots Theatre

Dance: Jasmyn Fyffe’s Interlock

Dance: Jasmyn Fyffe’s Interlock

15 March 2012 No Comments
By Anya Wassenberg
Jasmyn Fyffe Dance presents Interlock
A DanceWorks Co-Works Series Event
Performances continue to March 17, 2012
Winchester Theatre, Toronto
Jasmyn Fyffe is emerging as one of Toronto’s most interesting dancer/choreographers and Interlock, a DanceWorks Series Event, is more proof of her talents.

The evening features six works, among them the premiere of uncover a solo dance created for Fyffe by Toronto choreographer Karen Kaeja. It is dramatically lit and begin rather ingeniously on an air mattress as it’s inflating; the noise the only accompaniment to Fyffe’s movements. The timbre of the sound changes oddly with her movements; it’s strange – but effective. Fyffe has a powerful and expressive presence on stage, always watchable. At the end of the solo piece, she sinks back into the mattress as it begins to deflate.

Fyffe choreographed or co-choreographed all the pieces with the exception of that solo, and her work hits the right notes both artistically and in terms of sheer entertainment value. The pieces have moments of athleticism and high energy. However, Fyffe is also not afraid of more contemplative elements and moments of stillness, using the shapes of postures and bodies along with movement.

Crumpled Juxtaposition is an intriguing duo piece by dancer/co-choreographers Fyffe and Kyra Jean Green. They make a striking pair in a dance that was inspired by commonalities they discovered in their choreographic language, including a fluid quality and crumpling motions.

The  performance ends with the crowd pleasing Pulse, a riff on the romantic music from 50s and 60s, including The Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes For You and other songs by the Shirelles, Percy Sledge and Nina Simone. The dance begins with a bespeckled, sweater-vested crooner and develops into a lip-synching dance party with members of the audience on stage.

As both a dancer and choreographer, Jasmyn Fyffe’s work is strong and compelling. She’s a young artist whose body of work is developing in a style all her own.

Concert Review: Angélique Kidjo at Koerner Hall

Concert Review: Angélique Kidjo at Koerner Hall

14 March 2012 One Comment
By Anya Wassenberg
Angélique Kidjo cut a diminutive yet striking figure on stage at Saturday’s crowd pleasing show at Koerner Hall in Toronto. By the end, she had the house on its feet dancing to a lively performance lit up by her irrepressible energy and rich voice.
The crowd gave her a very warm reception from the opening, as she sang a traditional song while the band slowly filtered on stage. From her traditional vocal techniques of her native Benin, she flowed effortlessly into a smooth Afrojazz number; it was this versatile range that characterized her show. Kidjo’s voice is warm and powerful, and supple with a husky edge at just the right moments.

The show featured her varied repertoire, from sophisticated polyrhythmic jazz to swingy and melodic pop-flavoured tunes. Her back up band, consisting of bass, drum kit, percussionist and guitar, are polished and tight, contributing multi-part harmonies to her strong vocals. “If you feel like singing, do it. If you feel like dancing, do it too,” she said. With that invitation dancing bodies started to stand up from the second song.

Kidjo has a personable stage presence. Between songs she shared stories about her upbringing, like when she was shoved on stage at age 6 and caught the bug for performing. “I’m going to sing till I die,” she said to applause. When she’s not performing or recording, she devotes much of her time to various charities, and many of her songs are infused with the social messages that are near and dear to her. They include access to education for all the world’s children and supporting the ambitions of African girls.

These messages were wrapped in buoyant and melodic jazz with flashes of a singing West African guitar. In one, she became a simmering French chanteuse, and she described another song as based on a traditional rhythm she translated loosely as “the wind that breaks glasses”.

The crowd loved her and she loved us back by singing and dancing through the aisles. After that, she invited the audience on stage and it was soon packed with dancing bodies. She wouldn’t take no for an answer and had the rest of us on our feet too. Kidjo ended the night with a classic West African style jam and  came back for two encores. It was Ms Kidjo’s debut at the three-year old Koerner Hall and not likely to be her last.

Art Exhibit: 28 Days Explores Black History

Art Exhibit: 28 Days Explores Black History

27 February 2012 No Comments

A Toronto art exhibit brings together a mix of multi-dimensional Canadian and International artists to creatively explore the meaning of Black History Month.
By Anya Wassenberg

Striking in its diversity of medium and mode, the art exhibit 28 Days: Reimagining Black History Month, offers a broad spectrum of contemporary visual art from Canadian and international artists.

Radcliffe Bailey’s Black Ark, a shimmering black model boat, plays with dual notions of the iconography of black history. The ship serves as both a symbol of the forced Atlantic crossing of slaves and the Ark as a means of surviving the storm. This piece, located near the entrance of the Georgia Scherman Projects gallery in Toronto, sets the tone for the show’s multi-dimensional, multi-media approach.

Many of the works in the show use historical and traditional imagery. Jamestown Masquerade, a 2006 video by London-based Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor, features masked revellers in Victorian garb. Canadian artist Stephen Fakiyesi’s Kings and Queens is a partial house of cards that leans perilously against the gallery wall. The cards feature African royalty and African-inspired geometric designs on the back. Sometimes, the reference to history is more oblique, as in Dance of Belem, a video triptych by artist Sonia Boyce. In the video dancer Vania Gala dances in public places in Belem, Portugal to draw attention to that country’s often ignored history in the slave trade.

The 1996 animated video Go West Young Man by British artist Keith Piper, a member of the BLK Art Group, is considered a classic. In it a father and son talk about the stereotypes they face as black men in spoken word narration over chanting and drums and a flow of imagery. The title itself (I first heard that joke 400 years ago – I died laughing) is part of the message.

Curated by Pamela Edmonds and Sally Frater, and presented by Third Space Art Projects, the 28 Days exhibit at the Georgia Scherman Projects gallery also features works by Sandra Brewster, Delio Delgado, Rob Pruitt, Dionne Simpson, Mickalene Thomas and Nari Ward and runs until February 29.

Ethiopian talent takes centre stage at Glenn Gould Studio

Ethiopian talent takes centre stage at Glenn Gould Studio

13 February 2012 2 Comments
By Anya Wassenberg
Ethiopia: a musical perspective
Presented by Batuki Music
February 11, 2012 at the Glenn Gould Studio

From traditional songs through the Golden Age of Ethiopian funk and beyond to today’s innovative Ethiojazz and pop, a driving bass line and irresistible rhythms were common threads in Ethiopia: a musical perspective, a unique showcase presented by Batuki Music Society for Black History Month. The elegant Glenn Gould Studio was full for the show, whose line-up drew on the city’s rich depth of Ethiopian talent and included five vocalists and both traditional and modern instrumentalists. Several of the musicians were graduates of the renowned Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa and popular performers in their native country as well as among the city’s thriving Ethiopian community.

Toronto is home to tens of thousands of people of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent and the song selections showcased the music of several generations and the evolution of their uniquely funky sonic heritage.  The music is based on four versions of the pentatonic scale in various modes, sometimes bright and sometimes minor and moody. Each of the singers brought a different flavour to the mix, from the often haunting traditional styling of Fantahun Shewankochew Mekonnen and his krar (a six-stringed lyre) to Martha Ashagari’s classic Ethio funk songs that featured her nimble vocals over an irresistibly hypnotic rhythm section.

Husband and wife duo Abebe Fikade and Eyerusalem Dubale are Azmaris, an ancient tradition of improvisation, storytelling and social commentary they brought to life in playful songs that hit home with the Ethiopians in the audience. What translated into any language was their warm stage chemistry and the expressive power of Eyerusalem’s voice as she sang to Abebe’s masenko, a single stringed bow lute.

The ensemble also played strictly instrumental selections where the tenor sax duo of Girma Woldemichael and John Maclean held down the melodies over the churning rhythms. Girma is a composer and musician whose career began with a stint in the Ethio Stars Band and includes recording and playing with some of the industry’s best, like Mahmoud Ahmed and Aster Aweke. The more contemporary songs featured classic jazz structures and in young singer Henok Abebe, a bouncy pop sensibility. Underneath it all was the bedrock of Daniel Barnes on drums and Yared Zeleke on bass, with keyboardists Dawit Tesfamariam and Bereket Gebredemn (aka BK) adding to the harmony. Dancer Saba Alemayehu lit up the stage with both traditional and contemporary Ethiopian dance styles, conveying not just the moves but the joy of the music.

Ethiopia has a proud history as the only African nation to successfully resist European colonization efforts and has a rich culture which includes a written language, the Ge’ez script whose earliest examples date back to the 5th century BC.

With Fantahun Shewankochew Mekonnen (acoustic krar, vocals, composer), Henok Abebe (vocals, composer), Martha Ashagari (vocals, composer), Girma Woldemichael (saxophone, composer, arranger), Daniel Barnes (drummer, composer, arranger), Dawit Tesfamariam (keyboards), Bereket Gebremedn (keyboards), Yared Zelenka (bass), John Maclean (saxophone), Abebe Fikade (masenko, vocals, composer) and Eyerusalem Dubale (vocals) and dancer Saba Alemayehu

The show will be broadcast on CBC Radio:
Big City Small World with host Garvia Bailey on Feb 25th on CBC Radio 1
Canada Live with host Andrew Craig on February 28th on CBC Radio 2

Music Africa presents Fojeba at the Gladstone

Music Africa presents Fojeba at the Gladstone

6 February 2012 No Comments
Presented by Music Africa for Gladstone’s African Liberation Month
February 3 – the Melody Bar at the Gladstone Hotel
Featuring David Woodhead on bass, Walter Maclean on drums, David Maclean on guitar and Wayne Brewer on sax.
By Anya Wassenberg

The stylish new décor of the Melody Bar was about filled to capacity by the middle of Fojeba’s first set on Friday night, with people taking to their feet on the dance floor during the sound check – never mind the first song. Passers-by were lured in from the sidewalk by the shimmering guitars and compelling polyrhythms, joining the laid back crowd.

A native of Cameroon, Jean-Baptiste Foaleng, aka Fojeba, takes the hip shaking roots music of central Africa and adds a jazzy sophistication for dance inducing results. You can hear the outlines of various types of Cameroonian and central African music in Fojeba’s original songs, including makossa, a rhythmic musical style akin to soukous with the addition of the sax, and zouk, a bouncy dance style that originated in the Caribbean and again melds with singing soukous guitars in its African version.

The crisp, sure drum work of Walter Maclean underpins the complex interplay of melody and rhythm. Each instrument plays its own different melodic line, all of them woven into a tightly knit pattern. Bass solos were as melodic and compelling as those of the talented young guitarist, David Maclean or sax player Wayne Brewer, with Fojeba providing lead guitar and smooth vocals.  Whether you understand their roots or not, his songs have a spontaneous and undeniable kind of appeal.

He sings in French, Bamiléké (a language of Cameroon), Lingala (a language of Congo) and sometimes Pidjin English and writes all his own material, including Au Canada, a song to his adopted land. Some of his lyrics are topical, including songs dedicated to peace and U.S. President Barack Obama, while others are inspired by personal events and memories of Cameroon. He’s been playing in the Toronto area for about the last eight years and began hitting local clubs with a solo act.  Word got around quickly about the talented guitarist and songwriter. “Other musicians came to me and said, ‘We like your music, we’d like to play with you,’” he recalls.  Today he plays with some of the city’s most talented musicians, including David Woodhead, who’s long been a fixture on the roots music circuit. Fojeba’s low key and affable nature no doubt helped secure his place in the local scene.

Fojeba began his second set playing solo, captivating the audience with guitar and voice alone before bringing the rest of the band up to fill the dance floor again. He is currently working on a new CD that he’s hoping to release before the end of the year.

You can also catch him Saturday February 18th at The Music Gallery, where he’ll be performing with dancers and a number of guest musicians.

Free concerts continue for Black History Month Fridays at the Gladstone Hotel (all 9-11pm):
February 10 – Sonia
February 17 – Kush Ensemble Feat. Daniel Nebiat
February 24 – Youth Night with Concept Books, Yusra Khogali, Run’s T, Quabena Maphia & more

Review: Caroline, or Change

Review: Caroline, or Change

30 January 2012 No Comments
Caroline, or Change
Book & Lyrics by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Produced by Acting Up Stage Company in association with Obsidian Theatre Company
Continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre to February 12, 2012

Neema Bickersteth, Alana Hibbert, Arlene Duncan, Sterling Jarvis, Jewelle Blackmanv (Photographer: Joanna Akyol)

By Anya Wassenberg

Put your faith – and clothes – in me

Caroline the maid is down in the basement doing laundry and the washing machine is a singer in a satin gown and sparkly jewellery. As she turns on the radio, it becomes a trio of ladies in hot fuchsia pink singing in Supremes-style harmony. When the clothes are done washing, the dryer is a sexy male crooner. In the middle of it all, unsmiling, Caroline tends to the family’s clothes. You know you’re in a Tony Kushner musical when…

The play between the mundane and the whimsical is one of many contrasts that animate the story in this Tony-nominated musical. The solitary life of Noah Gellman (Michael Levinson), the child in the Jewish family who lives upstairs, contrasts with the warmer familiarity of Caroline’s brood of three, the comfortable middle-class household vs. the struggles of a single mother – among others.

Change come fast, change come slow. Even the “change” of the title takes on several dimensions in this story that takes place on the weekend in 1963 that JFK was shot. It centres on Noah, struggling with a distant father and new stepmother along with Caroline as a 39-year-old divorcee with four children and a $30 a week wage. When Noah starts to leave his change in his pockets and well-meaning step mom Rose (Deborah Hay) suggests that Caroline keep it to teach him a lesson, it sets off a downward spiral in the life of the glum and humourless woman who’s sacrificed so much just to survive.

Kushner’s book and lyrics add politics and social commentary to the mix. Our almost friend is gone away sings Dotty, Caroline’s friend and a fellow maid, as JFK’s legacy is seen through various eyes. Caroline’s oldest daughter Emmie (Sabryn Rock) adds to her grief with a revolutionary spirit and talk of rights she never had the opportunity to claim.

Image: Arlene Duncan, Michael Levinson (Photographer: Joanna Akyol)

Flashes of clever humour illuminate what is essentially a story about loss, and not entirely an upbeat one at that. The real highlights are the engaging and melodic score and an overall sparkling performance from a very talented cast. Various musical styles converge in this piece, including gospel, RnB and soul. The set design ingeniously recreates the three levels of the house, furnished with period furniture and household items. Meticulously detailed costumes add a sophisticated visual appeal to the production.

Arlene Duncan is a stand out as Caroline, making her sympathetic even as her character is sullen and disappointed with her lot in life. She gets by on a kind of grim autopilot, and we get why in her multi-dimensional portrayal. She adds a powerful and expressive voice to her acting ability. There were no weak links musically from vocals to musical direction and the live band.

Tony Kushner has said in interviews that this is his most autobiographical piece; he grew up in the South with an African American maid for whom Caroline is dedicated. This production is a Canadian premiere.

Direction: Robert McQueen
Music Direction: Reza Jacobs
Choreography: Tim French

Featuring: Arlene Duncan, Neema Bickersteth, Jewelle Blackman, Deborah Hay, Alana Hibbert, Sterling Jarvis, Kaya Joubert Johnson, Londa Larmond, Michael Levinson, Cameron MacDuffee, Mary Pitt, Nicholas Rice, Derrick Roberts, Sabryn Rock & Shawn Wright
Orchestra: Karen Graves (violin), Brendan Cassidy (clarinet/sax), Reza Jacobs (keyboards), David MacDougall (percussion) & Erik Patterson (guitar/bass)
Find out more online:
Over the phone: 416-368-3110.

When Sisters Speak hits home with the ladies

When Sisters Speak hits home with the ladies

23 January 2012 One Comment
12th Annual When Sisters Speak
St. Lawrence Centre – Toronto
Featuring: Keisha Monique, Dr. Naila Keleta-Mae, Dasha Kelly, Devon The Split Jones, Truth Is… & Queen Sheba. With DJ Mel Boogie
By Anya Wassenberg

Brothers, don’t fear our strength for it is us who made you strong. (Devon The Split Jones)

Black men, white society, fathers, sex and other weighty matters were the targets of a sextet of talented spoken word performers who took the stage Saturday night at the 12th Annual When Sisters Speak event.

“Are you guys here to take in some female empowerment?” asked event organizer Dwayne Morgan to a roar of approval from the crowd. “This is not like one of those poetry shows where you feel like you’re in church.” And then some.

The amphitheatre setting of St. Lawrence Centre and its perfect size allowed for a big crowd that still retained its sense of intimacy. This was very much an audience participation show, with the near capacity crowd noisy and responsive when the lines really hit home. A hefty percentage were returning fans of the annual event, which made for a laid back vibe. Each of the poets offered a different flavour, a different take on what it means to be a black woman today.

Opening act Devon The Split Jones’ best work was lit up by her intense delivery and some pointed truths. Next up was Dasha Kelly, from Milwaukee, an accomplished performer whose theatrical performance really connected with the audience. This is for all the little girls who were told, “you talk too much!” definitely hit a chord. Her work is thoughtful, clever, funny and entertaining all at once, finding the magic inside small, everyday moments, like the piece about finding herself thinking about the object of a crush while she’s outside with the dog in the middle of the night and, while a quarter moon looks down on my goosebumps. Her take on sex was both erotic and literate. Having an orgasm is like catching a fly… you hear it before you see it. And later in the same work, This hunger is stronger than etiquette.

Toronto native Keisha Monique combines singing with spoken word that’s both keenly observant and passionate in its approach. It points out subtle truths like ..the bruises on the knees of overqualified women, and tells her father, Words are cheap when bellies are empty and the rent is due. A bright sense of humour also colours her poems, and she brought the house down with: My momma is so gangster that she stole superman’s cape and turned it into a head wrap!

Truth Is… started the second half with her ardently sincere observations and a deceptively low key style. She began in a gentle voice, but her delivery went from low key to rapid fire and urgent, and her poetry is inspired by personal events like her recent marriage to her partner. She offered observations on love and relationships with a genuine sense of emotion – and an often intriguing point of view. To die alone can be done with ease – living together takes work.

Dr. Naila Keleta-Mae, who recently received her doctorate degree, began and ended with a song that the audience joined in on. In between, she wove autobiography and personal anecdotes with poetry that touched on a range of subjects from encounters with rude bookstore clerks to the role of women in the world. You go, girl – to the grave. What we need are women. She linked disparate ideas with a fluid and imaginative sense of language; a poem that began with a take on women boxers transformed into a meditation on the nature of sacrifice. Strong work combined with a theatrical sense of movement and it made for a dynamic performance.

The show ended with a bang and Queen Sheba, a favourite at last year’s When Sisters Speak. She’s a lady who doesn’t mince her words or her approach, hitting an instant chord with her first piece – about periods. When I am getting to heaven, I’m kicking Eve’s ass. God said don’t touch the mother f**king apple! she roared. Her dynamic delivery matched her blunt truths in tone, all of it laced with a wicked sense of humour. Some of her work meanders into engagingly surreal journeys, dealing with break ups, life and love in general.

Whatever black women have to say, it’s clear they can say it with eloquence and grace.

André Alexis’ The Decalogue

André Alexis’ The Decalogue

17 January 2012 No Comments

André Alexis

By Anya Wassenberg

The Decalogue is a long-term project – to say the least. Its genesis as an idea came about some three or four years ago, according to writer André Alexis, during a period when he was doing a show on CBC Radio called Tapestry. Tapestry features philosophical and spiritual themes of various kinds, and André was asked to write a show based on the 10 Commandments of the Old Testament.

The show ended up written as a series of segments that examined each of the Commandments in turn. When it aired, it caught the attention of Richard Rose, Artistic Director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, who suggested that André adapt the piece for the stage. The idea intrigued him but posed a number of issues.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do what I had (already) done, which is to look at the 10 Commandments playfully.” What emerged was a desire to do two things at once. “Through the lens of morality, to explore theatre as ritual,” he explains. It serves a twin purpose: a meditation on morality and the classic themes of ethics, and a chance to write for and in various theatrical forms and conventions.

The subject matter held its own appeal. “I’m kind of obsessive when it comes to the visualization of the godly,” he admits. He describes himself as agnostic. “We only have our perspective as humans,” he explains. “We don’t have the tools. But – the imagination of God is fascinating. I’m happy to play with ideas of God.” He holds up the Bible as a marvel of English literature, replete with the fundamental themes of human existence and written as poetry. “You can’t really be a writer of English and not be fascinated by the King James.”

Each of the ten pieces will take a different form. The first, Name in Vain (Decalogue Two), took the stage this past October. Set in a monastery, the play features only two spoken words – the Lord’s name taken in vain when one of the monks breaks his vow of silence.

“It’s a take that’s centred on creating tension and forward movement with the body,” he says. “It’s a meditation on our relationship to the land.” The play’s choreography involves gardening movements, for example, and he talks about Trinidadian vs Canadian views of the earth and land.

The second, Leporello in Gehenna (Decalogue Six), was presented in Tarragon’s Workspace in December, examining the sixth commandment: thou shalt not commit adultery. It’s a musical production along the lines of the Three Penny Opera with both spoken and musical segments.

“It was set in hell,” he explains. “The songs were painful reminders of earth.” It’s an approach that looks at melody and rhythm as central factors to the overall effect of the performance. “It’s thinking rhythmically.”

It’s clear he has a multi-year project in mind. “I’d like to get all ten done,” he says, “to allow myself a prolonged thought, all the way to the end.”

Future pieces include a Shakespearian take on ‘honour thy father and thy mother’ in a reworking of King Lear, and he’ll use puppetry to talk about false idols. He’s stretching his creative muscles with each new Decalogue, starting from scratch over and over. “I invite criticism of both the work and the attitude,” he says. “It’s theatre as meditation.”

Olive Senior’s ‘Dancing Lessons’: Review

Olive Senior’s ‘Dancing Lessons’: Review

22 December 2011 No Comments
Review: Dancing Lessons (Cormorant Books, 2011)
a novel by Olive Senior
By Anya Wassenberg

In Dancing Lessons, Jamaican-Canadian author Olive Senior gives us the story of G, a remarkable character whose story unfolds in the form of a series of meandering notebook entries.

The story ranges from the present day, where she’s an old lady stuck in a posh retirement home, and back and forth to various periods in her life. She runs away from a cold and affectionless childhood raised by her father’s sister and mother straight into the arms of a charming womanizer and a loveless and abusive marriage. The eldest daughter leaves to be raised by a rich white couple, and the womanizing husband simply moves out one day. She’s left with three children to raise on her own in the country, children who gradually drift away from her both emotionally and physically. Her experiences have left her guarded, with a sense of unfairness over her fate.

It was as if I was always two people. The one who was visible: plain, awkward, and shy. And the other inside my head: well-dressed, fashionable, and in command.

The genius of the novel is that we see both sides of G clearly by the end of the book through the flux of present day occurrences and remembered scenes. To the outside world, she’s paralyzed by an acute shyness, her very voice squashed by the unenviable life of poverty and emotional neglect. On the inside, however, she’s just as acutely observant, an intelligent and resilient survivor who’s learned to keep her head down and do what it takes to get by. We can also sense the emotional damage, the fragile psyche that hides underneath her resolve to carry on.

G’s voice is infused with a wry and understated sense of humour that often comes out in her observations of the other residents of Ellesmere Lodge.

Ruby was an impressive if incongruous sight in the garden, the gold chains around her freckled and wattled neck glinting through the V-neck of her cream silk blouse with the billowy sleeves, her wrists and fingers flashing with jewellery, her fake fingernails long and ruby red, her stork-like legs emerging from her too-short linen skirt to totter on the heels.

As she ruminates over the past, she’s forced to realize that her own children in turn have paid the price for her often prickly and uncommunicative nature. Grinding poverty and anger over her fate spill out, along with a blind jealousy at the realization that her children have drifted away from her and back in contact with their father, who went on to make a good living and live a prosperous life. She feels the separation with Celia, her daughter, and doesn’t know what to do about it.

I couldn’t help thinking, and not for the first time, how animated she seemed when we were with other people, how lacklustre with me, as if I was always the pinprick that deflated her.

She begins hostile to the upscale home Celia is paying for, keeping herself apart from the rich clientele who she imagines look down on her, but a funny thing begins to happen as time passes and she starts to open up.  It’s not a steady road uphill but despite the bleakness of much of her past, G’s is a story about hope, about the ties that bind no matter what and a kind of redemption for which it’s never too late.

Olive Senior’s novel is beautifully written in a voice that is itself keenly observant of social strata and background politics. The book is much like G herself – shrewd, telling and likeable.

New Stan Douglas display at The Power Plant Gallery

New Stan Douglas display at The Power Plant Gallery

19 December 2011 No Comments

Stan Douglas
Entertainment: Selections from Midcentury Studio
The Power Plant Gallery
231 Queen’s Quay
on view to March 4, 2012
By Anya Wassenberg

Everything old is new again in Entertainment, an exhibition that brings the work of Vancouver based artist Stan Douglas to Toronto. The expansive white space of the Power Plant Gallery gives the show of new black and white photography a dramatic and theatrical kind of presence that adds to its impact.

The show includes pieces from a larger group of work under the Midcentury name at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City. In his re-examination of that era, Stan recreated a professional photographer’s studio circa 1946 – 51. He used authentic period equipment and present day actors in thematic groupings that present the era’s obsessions: sports, spectacle, fashion and entertainment. He captures the optimistic mood of the times, an era eager for distraction and looking to shake off the post-war blues. The prints have a nicely dimensional quality.

One wall displays a double row of the “Malabar People” portraits, ostensibly patrons and staff of a fictional 1950′s nightclub of the same name. They include various types like Single Woman I and II, a Taxi Driver, waitress, owner/bartender and a Female Impersonator who’s dressed as conservatively as the Student, albeit with an ascot tie.

Half the show includes much larger images which take up half a wall on their own. There is a circus theme with a knife juggling woman, and a vividly freakish clown who juggles oranges. Along a sports theme, a field full of genteel and white clad gentleman play cricket. The images were shot in Vancouver but could be any North American city.

My favourites were Dancers I and II. Captured in strobe lighting, the images are elegantly kinetic. I was also captivated by Hockey Fight, which looks at a scuffle in the stands from above. I liked the sense of composition; it captured the combination of staginess and spontaneous action common to photography of the period. His approach is journalistic, and inspired by photographers and influences of the time.

In re-examining the past, the artist draws parallels with the present. On the fashion side alone, I was struck by our respective era’s mutual affection for fedoras, long wavy hair, pearls and full skirts. His subjects are multi-racial, in contrast to the overwhelmingly Caucasian images actually represented in mainstream post-war advertising of that era in North America.

The results seem neither truly dated nor entirely contemporary. They have a kind of timeless quality that doesn’t accept easy categorization, despite their accessibility.  It’s an interesting show that’s worth checking out.

Stan Douglas is an internationally recognized artist whose work has been shown all over North America and in Europe. Recent solo exhibitions have included the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2005), Centre Pompidou, Paris (2007), and Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart (2007). He has been included in recent group exhibitions at such venues as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2008), International Center of Photography, New York (2008 and 2009), ZKM/Museum für Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe (2010), and Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010). His work is represented by David Zwirner, New York.

‘Memphis’ the musical hits Toronto

‘Memphis’ the musical hits Toronto

8 December 2011 No Comments

Image: Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell

Memphis – Opening Night December 7, 2011
Winner of 4 Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Musical
Playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts till December 24
Presented by Dancap Productions Inc.
By Anya Wassenberg

If the ratings don’t go to shit, and we don’t get killed, you’re hired.

Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday night!

Momma told me there are limits for a dark-skinned girl in a fair-skinned world.

You wouldn’t think a musical about race relations in the Bad Old South and forbidden love between a white man and a black woman would be an entertaining night out, but Memphis is hugely so, driven by the compelling storyline and powerhouse vocals all around. The first song and dance number begins within minutes of the curtain rising and the frenetic pace keeps up to the very end of the show.

Huey Calhoun is a brash, illiterate white boy in love with black music – and a certain pretty black singer – who has the crazy idea to play what was then called “race music” on white radio stations. In the days of segregated Tennessee in the earl 1950’s, the centre of the radio dial, (which got the most reception of course,) was reserved for white music along the lines of Broadway tunes and crooners like Perry Como and Roy Rogers. The left of the dial, which was typically distorted and got limited reception, was designated for black music.  The character of Huey is loosely based on the real life figure of Alan Freed, a disc jockey who did just that, giving a new generation its bold and infectious new music, and who is often credited with coining the term “rock ‘n’ roll”.

Huey has to deal with Mr. Simmons, his sceptical boss at the radio station, a racist Mama, Felicia’s hostile brother Delray and Felicia’s own reluctance to cross the race lines in a time when it could and did have deadly consequences. The romantic storyline intertwines with the classic “I’m gonna make you a star” dynamic, but the dark realities of the times intrude on Huey’s dreams in sometimes violent ways. The script cleverly uses humour and the energy of the song and dance numbers to balance out those grimmer moments.

The Tony-winning original score and music come from Bon Jovi founding member David Bryant, and while the sound is definitely along the lines of rock ‘n’ roll, it makes no attempt at any kind of period authenticity. It’s got the bouncy and irresistible flavour of early rock ‘n’ roll without becoming a carbon copy, in other words, and features some gorgeous churchy harmonies along with the impressive vocal acrobatics. An ingenious two-tier set seamless shifts from radio station to TV set to apartment to nightclub in a few seconds with lighting changes and a few drop panels.

The logic of the story is a little shaky in spots (it’s a musical!) but it’s held together convincingly by the strength of the two leads in Bryan Fenkart as Huey the gutsy rebel and Felicia Boswell as the black woman who has to play her cards just right to get anywhere in her starkly black and white world. Felicia is an incredible singer and the two paired well together both as romantic interests and musically in the duets. While the vocals were strong all around, a highlight was Julie Johnson as Huey’s Mama, who brought the house down with her epiphany song,” Change Don’t Come Easy”.

There was a big and appreciative crowd on opening night (with a few seats left on the balconies) and many of the show’s luminaries were in the house, including choreographer Sergio Trujillo. Pick up your seats early for what is sure to be one of the holiday season’s hottest tickets.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

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