Friday, November 20, 2009

Beautiful City, Here We Come!

I just heard about an exciting bill that's coming up for a vote at Toronto City Council very soon.

Beautifulcity.ca
aims to tax public billboards and put the money raised into municipal arts funding. If it's passed, it would lead to much more public art in the city, and more funding for artists, festivals, and for marginalized communities in Toronto. It's a brilliant idea, and I think all Torontonians should go to the website, sign the petition, and call their city councillor to urge them to support this bill.



Here's a little bit of information from their website:

What?
BeautifulCity.ca is a city building initiative that aims to beautify, democratize and diversify access to public space, and in turn -- hold companies investing in billboard advertising accountable for their impact on shared spaces through an annual license fee. At earler staff estimated, mid-range revenues of 18 million per year (now knocked down to 11 million) the following would be possible:

• A historical 53% increase to the annual municipal funding available to all artists, festivals and arts institutions,
• Close to $100 000.00 dollars for public realm improvement for each Toronto ward, every year -- for projects such as greening,
• Almost a 1/3 of a million dollars for each of the 13 priority neighbourhoods to fund accessible youth arts programming, and
• Hiring 17 dedicated officers to enforce the new billboard bylaw.


How?
Through an tax paid for by third-party billboard advertisers. Revenue would go through Cultural Grants for arts, Clean and Beautiful funding to individual wards and the Community Resource Unit for marginalized communitties. Then directed to art in the public sphere (public art) through various arms-length agencies and peer assessed processes. A priority would be put on marginalized communities and youth art.


There is lots more at: http://www.beautifulcity.ca

Actions you can take:
> write and call your city councillor
> sign the petition in support of the bill at http://www.beautifulcity.ca
> show up for the debate and vote which will be November 30-December 1st.

And, for those of you outside Toronto, wish us luck -- it could have a ripple effect far beyond Toronto.

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Story of My Top Ten List, Part II


As you will remember from my last post, I was assigned the task of listing my top ten folk/roots albums of all time by Penguin Eggs Magazine. So far, I've got six on my list, and I will carry on here by telling you about the last four to make my top ten list.

My first six albums all represented music that I had absorbed pretty early in life. So for my last four choices, I thought I would pick some albums that I have come to know and love more recently. I stayed away from anything too new-- for me an album can't become a keeper until I've had the experience of listening to it intensely for a while, putting it away, and then digging it out again because I love it so much.


Linda Morrison is one of my favourite singers of all time. She doesn't perform too much outside her hometown of Montreal. Her album "Line By Line" lived in our car for many years and got played on every car trip. And I mean EVERY car trip. Her music is jazzy, bluesy, her voice is heavenly, and her writing is beautiful.


Every once in a while you hear an artist who redefines everything. Eliza Gilkyson is one of those artists for me. When I first listened to this album, I had to stop and repeat most of the songs because I couldn't believe what she was doing in the space of a few minutes. Her songs are tiny masterpieces.


Penny is one of my musical heroes -- she can sing the blues, she can sing old Scottish songs, heck she could sing the phone book and I'd sit at her feet and lap it up. This album, produced by Roma Baran, is a gem.


I miss Oliver, but I am grateful to have basked even a little bit in the glow of his incredible spirit and creativity. It was hard to choose one of his albums, but this one, recorded during the time he was ill, certainly stands among his best.

And that friends, was the end of my list. After I finished my painstaking process, I held onto the list for a few days, and returned to it a bunch of times to see if I wanted to reconsider any choices. And surprisingly, the list held up (at least for those few days). Without meaning to, I created a list that was exactly split down the middle in terms of American and Canadian albums, which seemed poetic and right (as someone who was born in the U.S., but has lived in Canada for many years). There are some artists that will be familiar to lots of people, and a few that will be complete unknowns, and I liked that. Lots of powerful women in the list, and I liked that. There's old stuff, and (fairly) new stuff. There are many genres and traditions represented. All in all, it seemed like a nice mix. So I held my breath, and sent it off to Penguin Eggs.

And that's the story of my top ten folk/roots albums of all time.

I already wish I could do it all over again, but so be it. I hope that it inspires you to check out some of this music. Here's the list all in one go:

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sad News: Taylor Mitchell

I woke up this morning to some very sad and shocking news. Taylor Mitchell, a young singer-songwriter who had just released her first CD, and was partway through her first tour of eastern Canada, died after being attacked by coyotes while out hiking in Cape Breton.

I met Taylor a few years ago when she came to the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals conference. She was part of the Youth Mentorship program of the conference, which pairs up young folk/roots musicians with more experienced musicians for skills building and career advice. I remember being blown away by her, both musically and personally. She must have been 17, and she was already writing incredible songs, performing, and seriously pursuing a career as a musician. It was obvious she knew what she wanted to do, and was already going about doing it. I can't imagine being so sure of myself at that age.

I've watched from afar as she made connections with some fantastic musicians, worked really hard to record and release her first album, and then recently started on her first big tour. It was so vicariously satisfying to see her incredible talent coming into bloom.

So this morning's news was a huge shock. It's a major loss for the folk community here in Canada. There is no doubt in my mind that she was on the path to success - it's just heartbreaking to think how young she was and how much she had too look forward too.

My condolences to her family and close friends. RIP Taylor, your star is still shining.

Here's a link to her website and her MySpace page, as well as a link to the Globe and Mail story.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

The Story of My Top Ten List, Part I


A few weeks ago, I posted the article I wrote for Penguin Eggs Magazine about Pete Seeger. When I submitted my article, the editor also asked me to send them a list of my top ten folk/roots albums of all time for inclusion in the front of the magazine. (Each issue of Penguin Eggs includes a top ten list from someone who is featured in that issue.)

My first reaction? You've got to be kidding! How would I boil it down to ten? And are we talking about my current favourites? The albums that influenced me most? The ones that I think are the most important? The ones that everyone else will think are cool? Each of those lists would be completely different. And, as someone with pretty broad taste, the thought of trying to represent that taste in a tiny list of ten CDs seemed completely impossible.

Not only that, but you don't get to write any explanation. They just print the list -- no context, nothing! At least if I could explain why I made my choices, I might be able to live with it. But noooo, I had to just send them the list in alphabetical order.

Of course, that's what blogs are for. So without further ado, here is the story of my top ten list, split in two parts for easier digestion.

After I foolishly said yes to Penguin Eggs, I began a week of feverish list-making. I started, off the top of my head, listing artists and albums who might be included on the list. The lists went on and on-- forty, fifty artists with no end in sight. I despaired at ever being able to boil it down.

So I started strategizing. First, I realized that I could kill many birds with one stone by including the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. It's kind of cheating because it's a three-CD boxed set. But it's an amazing collection of recordings and musicians that have remained touchstones through the years: The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, Charlie Poole. So onto the list it went.


One down, nine to go.

I started thinking about albums that have stuck with me over time. Albums that I first listened to as a kid or a teenager and that I still love when I hear them now. That quickly generated a long list of albums. I looked at that list and thought about the different things they represented. Some were songwriters, some were singers and interpreters who left an indelible mark, some represented a particular style of music. So out of that list I picked five representative albums:


We listened to this album so much when I was growing up that I feel like it's in my genes. The band included a young Maria Muldaur (then Maria D'Amato), and her partner Geoff Muldaur, two musicians who are still amongst my absolute favourites.


Unfortunately I never got to hear Stan Rogers sing before he was tragically killed in 1983. Since then I've heard his songs sung by many, many other people, but for my money there's nothing like hearing him straight up, in a live situation, which is what you hear on this album.


I remember hearing Kate and Anna McGarrigle for the first time and being entranced by their mixing of musical styles, their unique harmonies, and their incredible way with words. This album still sounds completely fresh to me every time I listen to it.


My mom had several Hazel and Alice albums in our house, and it's probably because of them that I learned to love old-time music. It's not always "pretty" music. But their voices are haunting, and the music gets you right in the gut.

Sweet Honey in the Rock taught me the transcendent power of human voices raised in song. Although I believe the best way to appreciate them is in a live concert situation, the next best thing is their live concert album, "Good News."

That ended my list of albums that I've listened to since I was young. Six down, four to go.

Tune into my next post to see how the list ends...

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ukulele Fever Hits Toronto

Yes, I've been gone a long time, but I'm back! I've been meaning to post something about the Corktown Ukulele Jam for quite a while, and I've decided now is the time.


I got a ukulele for my birthday a few years ago, and since then I've been working away at it in my own undisciplined fashion. For a guitar player like me, it's not too hard to transfer some of what you know to the ukulele, because the strings on the ukulele are tuned a lot like a guitar that's missing it's lowest two strings. The only thing is, when you make a "D" shape on the ukulele, it's actually a G chord (if you are in C tuning -- if you are in D tuning, it's an A), so you have to transpose everything in your head.

The more I explore, though, the more I realize that playing the ukulele is not just like playing the guitar. It's a captivating instrument that has its own treasure house of unique possibilities. There's the high G string, which is one of the biggest challenges for a guitar player learning the instrument. There's the fact that all kinds of interesting chord shapes that you might not use on a guitar become central to moving around the ukulele fretboard. It's portable, adaptable to many styles, easy to learn (but hard to master), incredibly cute, and basically downright seductive.

And then a few months ago, I started going to the Corktown Ukulele Jam* at the Dominion Pub here in Toronto. Started by David Newland, and Steve McNie, CUKE (as it's affectionately known), has grown into a fantastic little community of ukulele enthusiasts. Most Wednesday nights there are 35 - 50 people who come to learn, jam, and perform. And that's when I realized that the ukulele is unique in another way: there's a whole ukulele world out there that is like a parallel universe -- there are people who travel all over the world to attend ukulele events, dozens of ukulele websites and bulletin boards and email lists, ukulele clubs in every corner of the world-- it goes on and on. Ukulele players are an underground community, bonded through their love of this instrument that's not really taken seriously in the wider world.

Not only that, but I think I might be succumbing to what is known as "UAS." Ukulele Aquisition Syndrome. One ukulele is never enough. The ukulele comes in four different sizes (soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone), and you can also get banjo ukes, resonator ukes, electric ukes, and more. I'm trying to resist the urge, but I don't know how long I can hold out.

In the meantime, here's a video clip of me performing at the "Best of the Corktown Ukulele Jam" a few weeks ago. I adapted my song "Cold Wind Blowing" by re-tuning my ukulele to give it a haunting modal sound. (While you're at it, you can check out all the other ukulele videos filmed that night.) Enjoy!




*Note: incredible Corktown Ukulele Jam logo by jam member David Olson

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Apples and Oranges

Well, The Grammys have come and gone, and folk music did pretty well this year. Allison Krauss and Robert Plant won all five categories their album "Raising Sand" was nominated in, including Best Album and Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. I guess they were sort of like the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" of 2009 (interesting that T-Bone Burnett produced both albums). Pete Seeger won Best Traditional Folk Album for his album "At 89." The complete list is here.

Whatever you think of the term "Americana" for describing folk music, it's refreshing to see the Grammy categories divided between "Contemporary" and "Traditional" folk music.

Here in Canada, the Juno Award categories for folk music are divided into "Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo" and "Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Group." I'm not sure who decided how to divide the categories, but it makes no sense to me. Wouldn't it be much more meaningful to have a traditional award and a contemporary award? I don't think it really matters how many people created the music, as long as apples are being compared to apples and oranges are being compared to oranges.

Right now we end up with an odd mixture of acoustic pop, singer-songwriter, out-and-out rocking music, and maybe a bona-fide traditional or traditional-sounding album. It would be nice to see more traditional music represented. And it would be nice if there was so much contemporary folk music being nominated that they had to sub-divide the contemporary category into "solo" and "group." That I could support.

Am I the only one who is bothered by this?

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

In Praise of Ken

A while ago I said I would tell you more about my friend Ken Whiteley, who was recently inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame.



For those who don't know Ken, he is one of the most talented musicians and performers you will ever come across. He's also an award-winning producer, children's music pioneer, and some-time side-man to many other wonderful musicians. He plays dozens of instruments, and he's a walking encyclopedia of blues, gospel, r&b, folk, swing, and other roots music. He basically oozes music from every pore. He's been performing professionally since he was a teenager, in many different configurations, and along the way he has been an integral part of the roots music scene in Canada and beyond.

I met Ken shortly after moving to Toronto, at the tender age of fourteen. Ken came to my high school to teach a music class. And what a class! In no time, he had about twenty of us organized into a very large and unwieldy band that played songs by musicians like the Coasters and Sam Cooke. It was a pretty unorthodox music class, but we ate it up. My friends and I became Ken Whiteley groupies, showing up everywhere and anywhere that Ken and/or his equally talented brother Chris were performing around Toronto. It was a musical education that has had a huge influence on me.

Over the years, I stayed in touch with Ken. When I was in Grade 13, I asked him if he might be able to help me with a project I was doing on African American music history. He invited me over, suggested some books to read, and lent me a treasure trove of record albums. A few years later, I called Ken because I was doing a similar project on Women's Blues for a university class, and again, he invited me over, generously suggested people to talk to and, true to form, lent me some albums that changed my musical life forever.

As I got into performing, Ken was a natural person for me to work with. He has produced a few of my albums, we've written songs together, and we have shared the stage many times since he first backed me up at the Eaglewood Folk Festival in the 1990's. Whenever we work together, I'm grateful to bask in the reflected glow of his musical talent. Even more though, I appreciate the spirit of generosity, community, and support that he brings to the table each and every time. And I know I'm not alone in that. Ken has been a friend and mentor to many of us in the roots music scene. He may be a musical monster, but I think it is this spirit of generosity that is really the hallmark of Ken's contribution to the music community over the years.

So, thank you, Ken, and congratulations on being inducted into Mariposa's Hall of Fame.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Song Circles

The other day I talked about song circles as a way to share music with other people. Some of you might be wondering, what's a song circle? My friend Gene just wrote a great post on his blog about song circles. And that reminded me that I once wrote an article for the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals' newsletter, Folkprints on the topic. Here it is:

Last night, I did something I do almost every week. I walked into the house of someone I didn’t know, I sat down in their living room for five hours, and I sang with them. Am I a member of a strange cult? Well, not exactly, but I am addicted. My addiction has brought me to houses across Toronto for the pleasure of singing in a group. What am I addicted to? Song circles!

Song circles come in many shapes and sizes, but the basic idea is a group of people getting together to sing and share music. There are song circles all across Ontario, each with their own unique character, attended by people who want to sing and make music with others. The great thing about a song circle is, anyone can start one, they don’t have to cost money, and it’s a great way of connecting with other musicians and music lovers.

The weekly song circle I attend in Toronto was started by a group of people who had attended Mariposa in the Woods (now called “The Woods Music and Dance Camp”), and it’s been going for almost twenty years [note: now it's more than 25 years]. The format is simple. We start sometime around 8:30 pm every Friday night. We sit in a circle (or as close to a circle as we can manage), and over the course of the evening, each person in the circle has an opportunity to lead a song, request a song, pass, or “defer” (meaning they can’t think of anything at that moment, but they might want their turn later). After everyone has their turn, we take a break, during which we eat all the snacks we brought. After the break, we continue, but we dispense with taking turns, and things become a little more spontaneous.

Before the break, we announce the next few locations (members volunteer their homes), and we line up more if necessary. Attendance is completely open-- anyone can come, although there is no formal advertising besides word of mouth. You can come as often or as rarely as you like. I have been to song circles with as few as three people or as many as fifty, but the average is somewhere between twenty and thirty people.

The emphasis in this song circle is on songs with good choruses or refrains that allow everyone to sing along. Over the years we’ve sung songs from many different traditions –sea shanties, lullabies, work songs, rousing gospel numbers, old-time country songs, Caribbean songs, pop songs, songs in different languages, contemporary folk songs, and lots more.

Here are some basic elements that I think can help any song circle work:
  • Agree on the format. When you first meet, have a conversation as a group about how you’d like your song circle to operate. There are lots of options! After you’ve been meeting for a while, have another conversation to see how it’s going and find out if you need to make any adjustments.
  • Adopt a format that gives each person a turn. If I had to name one aspect that’s essential to a good song circle, this would be it. It means that each person knows they will have their time and space without having to push themselves over someone else who might be louder or more confident.
  • Foster respect and appreciation for each person’s contribution. Some singers have difficulty with pitch, rhythm, or general confidence. But you will often hear “Nice song” or “Good job” or some other encouraging response when they are done. It’s amazing to see the progression over time as their confidence begins to grow. Fostering this kind of culture within the group requires a few people to “model” the behaviour in the beginning, but over time it can become a natural part of the group.
  • Listen to each other. The most important element of making music isn’t actually creating sound. It’s listening. At the Toronto song circle, things are more oriented toward voices than instruments. Although there are often plenty of instruments, we’ve learned over time to take our cue from the person leading the song – if they begin singing a capella, we don’t automatically jump in with instruments. On the other hand, sometimes a person will say, “this is in the key of G. I’d love to hear lots of guitars.”

Meet in a comfortable space. The right space will create the right environment. Private homes are wonderful that way, but if you are choosing a public space, try to find something that’s not too large for you—you don’t want to be completely lost—and look for a space that has warmth—comfortable chairs, good lighting, and so on. Wood surfaces are good for sound and atmosphere. Cement walls and tile floors usually make for a cold space that won’t feel cozy.

Those are just some of the things that I think make for a good song circle, but I started this column by mentioning that there are many different types of song circles. I’d like to hear from you about the song circles you attend.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Remembering Estelle

Last night I was part of a wonderful evening at Hugh's Room celebrating two of my musical heroes and friends-- Ken Whiteley and Estelle Klein-- as they were inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame.

Estelle was the visionary programmer of the Mariposa Festival for many years, during it's "golden era." She is widely credited with developing the idea of the folk festival workshop to it's apex, and she's had a huge influence on folk festivals across North America. Ken Whiteley has been a driving force in the Canadian folk and roots music scene since the late 1960's, as a multi-talented musician, producer, children's performer, mentor, and organizer. I will write more about Ken in a future post, but today I want to focus on Estelle.



I moved to Toronto after the heyday of Mariposa, but I was fortunate to get to know Estelle a little bit in the few years before she passed away. My friend Dave Barnard and I were the honoured people who got to interview her on stage at the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals when the Estelle Klein Award was established and she became the first recipient. We spent many hours in conversation leading up to that interview. We talked about her early life and introduction to folk music, how she thought about programming the festival, and her work after leaving Mariposa. In truth, we barely scratched the surface, but those conversations opened my mind to the many possibilities in programming an event like Mariposa.

What came through to me was about more than workshop titles or who she put on a stage together. It was about a whole way of looking at culture, not just as entertainment, but as a vital, living expression of people's lives and experiences. She was genuinely curious about the connections between music, art, crafts, language, food, dance, history, and politics. When she brought performers, crafters, and dancers to the festival, she wasn't just interested in the final product they were presenting (the song, the dance, the craftwork). She was interested in the context of their artistic expression-- where their sensibility came from, the community that they lived in or were raised in, how they learned to sing/play/write/paint/dance etc., what historical or personal events influenced their art, and how all of that might be connected to someone else's life experience or artistic expression-- and to the life experience of her audience. Her choices about workshop programming grew out of that curiousity and that impulse to connect different threads of people's music, art, and dance.

She thought about themes that could carry through the programming and connect different elements. She was as interested in craft, dance, and storytelling as she was in music, and she worked hard to integrate each of those elements into the festival in a way that was respectful and joyful. She helped develop an extensive First Nations area at the festival that was far ahead of its time. Similarly, she brought "world music" to the folk festival long before the term had even been invented. And as Ken Whiteley noted last night, her commitment to equity carried through every aspect of the festival-- from the standard amount that all performers were paid (regardless of stature) to the respectful treatment given to everyone involved with the festival, whether they were performers, crafters, or volunteers.

The result of her vision and her creativity was an absolutely incredible event that had a profound influence on all of the people who participated - artists, volunteers, and audience members. When I speak to people who attended Mariposa during those years, there's an almost universal sense that it changed their lives in some way or another. Some talk about seeing musical influences like Mississippi John Hurt or John Prine. Others talk about making lifelong friendships and becoming part of the folk community. Still others listened and learned from the ideas at Mariposa and went on to produce festivals and events of their own.

It's hard to overestimate the influence of someone like Estelle. There is much more that could and should be said. I'm just grateful I got to know her a little bit, and happy to have been part of last night's moving tribute to her lasting legacy. Thank you, Estelle Klein.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Will Happen to the Old Chestnuts?

Recently there was an animated discussion on Maplepost about the fact that many performers today only sing their own songs, which raises questions about what will happen to all the songs that we used to sing, the old songs, the songs by other writers. And what about the current crop of songs? If no one other than the songwriter sings them, will they survive?

I'm a performer who has gone from mostly singing other people's songs and traditional material to mostly singing my own songs. When I first began performing, I didn't write songs at all. I had grown up in a folkie household, exposed to lots of traditional music, and lots of singing in groups at song circles and jams. At the time, I thought I just didn't have anything to say that hadn't already been said by someone far better than I ever could.

The songs I chose to sing were songs that meant something to me. I spent a lot of time learning songs, getting inside them, and making them my own. I also spent a lot of time making music with other people, and through that I learned about listening, making space for other voices and instruments, and creating something spontaneously that is larger than the sum of its parts.

I firmly believe that if I'm any good at writing songs, it's because I spent so much time inhabiting other people's songs, and making music in groups. Without realizing it, I was absorbing the essential elements that make a song work.

When I write songs, I am absolutely writing from my personal experience - like it or not, I am the centre of my own universe, so it's impossible for me to do anything else. But my aim is to use my personal experience as a springboard to say something about that personal experience, hopefully something that will resonate with other people. There are certain things that all human beings go through: We are all born, we all grow and change, we experience joy, love, pain, loss, triumph and so on, we work and struggle, we try to improve our lives and the world around us, we mark important moments, we fall in love, we fall out of love, and then eventually, we die. In my experience most songs with any staying power somehow touch on those universal human experiences.

Recently I've been thinking about the fact that I mostly sing my own songs now. In a way, I wish it weren't so. There is a vast body of brilliant, beautiful, and compelling music out there that deserves to be sung and played. But there are many factors that discourage working musicians from playing or recording anything other than their own songs -- a few people already mentioned royalty income, but there is also the structure of many granting programs in Canada, which subtly, and not-so-subtly encourages musicians to write and record their own songs in order to get the maximum funds possible.

I love writing songs, but I also fear that by singing more and more of my own songs, I'm losing touch with my musical bedrock. And on a larger scale, I wonder if that's happening to us as a musical community. It's exciting that so many great new songs are being written, but I hope we aren't losing the old chestnuts and bits of gold from days gone by.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Belated Report from Brigadoon

In August, I told you about my upcoming visit to "Folk Brigadoon," The Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. Well, you are long overdue for a report of my time in Nova Scotia.

First of all, I love Nova Scotia. There's something about it that makes me feel good. The people, the beautiful land and seascape, the arts and culture, the pace of life. As soon as I get there, I find myself relaxing, and inevitably I start to notice things around me that in Toronto I whip by without thinking -- a beautiful building, or the angle of the light, or the smell in the air. (Disclaimer: I have never visited Nova Scotia in the winter, so my idea of the place is totally skewed by romantic summer weather.)

So, my belated Folk Brigadoon report: I had a fantastic time. This is the third time I have performed at Lunenburg, but it didn't make it any less special. The big white tent was magical, as always, and the array of performers was stellar. I taught a workshop on "The Joy of Singing" as well as a guitar workshop, and I participated in a lively discussion about the state of folk music with songwriter Murray McLaughlin and bass player Dennis Pendrith.

Dennis performed with me at my mainstage concert on Saturday night. Here we are, in the big white tent:



And here are my good friends Mike Stevens and Raymond McLain, who joined me to play on my song "Something About a Sunday:"


I also made some new friends: Qiu Xia He and Andre Thibault from the group Silk Road Music, who were being billeted with the same family as I was. Qiu Xia plays the pipa, a chinese lute. She and Andre peform traditional Chinese folk music, but they also blend Chinese music with music from around the world - Silk Road has taken the pipa into uncharted waters and created an amazing musical hybrid. I asked Qiu Xia to join me on stage to play my tune "Watermelon Sorbet" on the pipa. It was one of the highlights of the festival for me, and certainly no one has ever heard "Watermelon Sorbet" played quite like that! Here she is on stage with me:


And speaking of being billeted, one of the charms about Lunenburg is being billeted at the home of a family, and this year, I had the pleasure of meeting the Bentons, a lovely couple who divide their time between Nova Scotia and Arizona. They pampered us royally and made us feel completely welcome in their home. I hope our paths cross again.

I was very happy to cross paths and hang out with fellow musicians Cara Luft, Jeff Davis, House of Doc, The Hupman Brothers, and many more.

Since I was going to be in Nova Scotia, I managed to squeeze in a quick visit to my friends Don and Anna in the Annapolis Valley and of course a meal at the Union Street Cafe in Berwick.

In all, it was far too short, but so sweet while it lasted. Brigadoon indeed.

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Rise Up Singing in Guelph

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting with my friends Jane Lewis and Sam Turton in Guelph. Sam and Jane are musicians who, besides performing and writing songs, also spend a lot of time fostering community music in Guelph. Their organization "Rise Up Singing" offers music workshops that help people learn music in a supportive, inclusive environment. I was there to teach a guitar workshop, but over the weekend we had some lively conversations about community music. One of their missions is encouraging people to sing more, and seeing them in action affirmed once again the power of singing in a group.

I met up with Jane and Sam on Friday night at a local Guelph cafe where they facilitate a weekly public sing-along.For two hours they led an enthusiastic group of cafe patrons in singing together from a large book that they've compiled of familiar, singable songs (complete with an index!). The book includes everything from "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 to the traditional gospel favourite "I'll Fly Away." Every table had a few books strewn on it, and song requests were passed up to the front for Jane and Sam to choose from. We sang songs by The Beatles, CSNY, Sting, Johnnie Nash, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, and more, plus a bunch of traditional favourites.

It was a very fun evening, and as I sat there belting out "Our House" with a group of people I didn't know, I noticed that most of the singers didn't fit the general profile of died-in-the-wool music-loving folkies. They seemed more like "normal" people who had somehow stumbled onto this weekly event. And they were having an awfully good time. It reminded me that, unlike me, most people don't have opportunities to sing in a group.

It didn't used to be like that, of course. Singing used to be woven into the fabric of our lives, accompanying work, play, worship, love, celebration, birth, and death-- in short, everything we did could or would have been cause for singing. In North America we've largely become separated from singing as part of our community life, and we've swallowed the idea that singing is something that's best left to "experts." Early on we learn that we either have "talent," or we don't, and if we don't, we had better keep our mouth shut.

The notion that singing is something you either can or can't do is actually a pretty strange idea that runs contrary to everything we know about music and creativity. Music is a skill that can be learned. Like any other skill, some people are naturally more talented, and some people have the advantage of being exposed to more music making at an early age, but I have yet to meet anyone that absolutely can't learn to sing.

And singing in a group is a fantastic way to improve your singing. Not only does it help you learn to listen (which is one of the most important musical skills you can have), it also helps you build confidence in your own voice and allows you a space to try new things without feeling exposed.

Music gatherings like Sam and Jane's sing-along in Guelph provide a low-pressure, inclusive opportunity for people to experience the joy of singing in a group. So here's to Sam and Jane, and Rise up Singing. I'm glad to know they are out there, creating community through music.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Folk Brigadoon

Tomorrow I head off to Nova Scotia for the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. I have performed twice before at this festival, and I am excited to return. Lunenburg is a beautiful town, a UNESCO world heritage site because of it's ship-building and maritime history.

The festival takes place all over town, in churches, parks, and in the case of one stage, right down on the wharf (one year the Bluenose II was sailing in and out of the harbour as I performed on the wharf stage). But my favourite thing about the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival is the big white tent on the hill.

The big white tent is the mainstage of the festival. It holds somewhere around 800 - 1000 people, and it is a magic place. This picture taken by Garry Woodcock a few years ago gives you some sense of what it looks like, but it's hard to explain what makes it so special.


There's something about being inside this tent with a huge number of people, all there to enjoy music and sing together, that makes you feel good. And when these people sing, do they ever sing! On Sunday morning there is a gospel concert on the mainstage, and both times I was there I swear we would have achieved lift-off if the tent hadn't been pegged down. If it's sunny, there are breathtaking views of the harbour. When it rains, they roll down the sides of the tent and it gets nice and cozy inside. Sometimes the fog rolls in and envelopes the tent, which makes me feel like I'm in Brigadoon.

And maybe that's a good way to think about the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival - like a Canadian folk music Brigadoon of sorts.

Well, Brigadoon, here I come!

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Be Prepared!

A few months ago, my partner and I decided to buy tickets to see Kate and Anna McGarrigle in concert at Hugh's Room. The tickets were very expensive, but we decided to make a date out of it and not worry about the cost. We even made reservations for dinner to underscore the "date" idea.

The night of the concert, we arrive and take our seats. The club is filling up-- the McGarrigles are playing two nights in a row, but even so, we hear both shows were sold out. As we eat, I looked around at the audience. I'm surprised that I hardly recognize anyone. "Who are all these people," I wonder? "Why do I never see them at other folk music events?" Most of them seem like boomers who live in the suburbs, perhaps, and I wonder whether they come to Hugh's Room because of the dinner theatre atmosphere (a little classier than your average folk music concert series church basement) and the nostalgia factor (reliving their rebellious folk-singing young adulthood of the 1960's).

We finish our dinners, complete with dessert. I'm feeling incredibly full, a little bit sleepy, and looking forward to just relaxing and enjoying a concert by two of my musical heroes. I head towards the back of the club for a visit to the washroom, and I see the owner of the club, along with the person who books concerts, and the floor manager. So I walk over to say "hi," since I know them all.

"Hi Eve," they all chime, and then one of them says, "Do you want to open for Kate and Anna McGarrigle?"

I assume they're joking, but after a few seconds of kibbutzing, I realize they are absolutely serious. It turns out that Kate and Anna are planning to do one long set, and the Hugh's Room staff wants to have a break partway through the evening. So they need someone to perform an opening set.

At first I think of all the reasons I can't do it -- I don't have my guitar, picks, or capo. I wasn't prepared to perform -- no fancy outfit or anything. I walk back to my seat and tell E. what just happened.

"Are you crazy?" she practically shouts, "You HAVE to do this. You go back there and tell them you will open for Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Right now!"

Ever the obedient partner, I go back and let them know that if they are still looking for someone, I could do it, but I would need to borrow a guitar. We quickly arrange for me to borrow Kate's guitar and Anna's capo. I even borrow a pick from Chaim Tannenbaum, one of their longtime accompanists.

And I play a half-hour opening set. I have no CDs to sell, no mailing list, and I am wearing a t-shirt with a logo for "Mama Clucker's," a famous chicken eatery in New Orleans. "Best Legs in Town!" says the slogan across my chest. It is definitely a moment to remember.

And I'm so glad that I did it. The place was packed full of people who had never heard me before, and I got a very enthusiastic response (although of course I wasn't able to sell any CDs or get anyone on my mailing list). Thankfully, I did know about five people in the audience, and one was my friend Collette, who took this picture with her cellphone. It's not great quality, but it is proof.



The moral of the story: Be Prepared! You never know when you will be asked to sing.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The People's Music

There is a wonderful five-part series airing on CBC Radio's "Inside the Music" right now. Narrated by Gary Cristall, "The People's Music" is a look at the history of folk music in English Canada.

It's about time we had a program like this in Canada -- up until now, it seems like we've been sadly lacking in documentaries that trace the history of folk and roots music in Canada. I've only caught one episode so far, but it offered a fascinating glimpse into the developing folk scene in Canada in the 1950's. I'm looking forward to hearing more.

Now, when are we going to get a film version?

THE PEOPLE’S MUSIC

A 5-part documentary series on CBC Radio
on the history & development of Folk Music in English Canada
with Gary Cristall

Airing Sundays: July 6, 13, 20, 27 & August 3 on “Inside the Music”
Noon – CBC Radio Two
8pm – CBC Radio One (1/2 hour later in Newfoundland)
& on Sirius Radio (check schedules)

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