ECMA 2017 Saint John Day Two

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caroline savoie

I began my second day at the East Coast Music Awards at the Export Buyers “Roots” Showcase at the Trinity Royal Ballroom at the Delta Hotel, where I was first treated to Caroline Savoie’s set. She is a francophone singer-songwriter with a gorgeous clear voice and a sweet charm onstage as she tells stories in English to set up her songs in French (most helpful for this anglophone whose fifteen years of French education has largely flown away), with a slight self deprecating edge. She told us about Henri, the man who lived in her new childhood home in Dieppe before her and who still received mail there, much to the chagrin of her five year old self who was waiting for letters from her friends in her old hometown. So, she wrote a poetic ode to Henri, speculating about all those unopened, lost letters. She also told us about her worry about a boyfriend going to Sweden for two months and encountering a plethora of gorgeous women, which became the basis for her song “Y’en Aura” a very catchy love song that imagines all the beautiful things he will encounter, and continues to reaffirm her love for him. Her new album is self titled, and I strongly recommend that you check it out. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you’ll get swept away by the beauty of the melodies and her voice. You can also read translations of the lyrics on her website.

Next up in the “Roots” Showcase room was Dave Gunning. Gunning began his set with “These Hands” from his 2012 album No More Pennies. The song is a rallying cry, a reflection on how we use our hands, whether to help or to hurt, and what agency we take in our everyday lives to make the World better for others. Gunning is a passionate activist, and like many folk singers before him, he often uses his platform in music to speak to the greater concerns, both of his immediate community and the World at large. His new song “Sing it Louder” from his new record Lift continues this narrative, encouraging people to lift their voices, to come together in song and reaffirm their commitment to seeking social justice. His refrains are easily taught to his audience, which creates a rousing communal moment that nicely mirrors the lyrics in the song. Gunning also celebrates an integral part of Canadian culture with his song “A Game Goin’ On,” the winner of the CBC Music and Hockey Night in Canada’s Song Quest competition. Gunning’s music has a inspiring ability to unite people, harkening back to the days of songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

I then went over to the “Electric Showcase” at the Saint John Ballroom, also at the Delta Hotel, to catch Erin Costelo’s set. The hardest part of trying to cover the ECMAs is having to decide which room to go to and how long to stay. I want to see everyone, and it makes me sad that that is impossible. Catching Costelo’s set was a brilliant decision on my part. Her rich and jazzy voice and piano playing enraptured me as soon as she started singing “Give a Little” from her album We Can Get Over. It is one of those songs that I will buy and listen to on repeat for days, if not weeks. Even more impressive is her song “The Line,” which she wrote as a Bob Dylan song being sung by Nina Simone, and she really has captured the essence of Dylan’s more recent lyric writing, which is no small feat in itself. She performed with Clive McNutt on guitar, but has a set with a fuller band coming up on Saturday April 29th at the R&B/ Soul Stage at the Atrium Market Square. The show begins at 11pm and Costelo is up at 12:20. Her new record is Down Below the Status Quo and I can’t wait to get it.

The last set I saw yesterday before the East Coast Music Awards Show was Quake Matthews, also at the “Electric Showcase.” Matthews set up a really poignant multimedia component, playing video footage and interview clips that comment on the inspiration and give context for his music. The most heartrending being the set up to his song “We Can Do Better,” which came out of the shooting death he witnessed of his friend at Winston’s Bar in Clayton Park, Nova Scotia (particularly evocative to me as this happened less than five minutes from my house), and a string of recent (and ongoing) violence targeting specific communities in Halifax that shook Matthews and prompted him to examine how the glorification of guns, gangs and death in rap music contributes to murder and incarceration of his generation of largely young men- so much potential snuffed out in a moment- and for what? Both Matthews’ songs “Rap Music” and “Love Yourself” (a remix of the Justin Bieber song) explore his relationship with rap and how breaking away from its stereotypes can make success and radio play much more elusive. Matthews’ music is lyrically based, poetic and insightful and with important messages, which elevates it above music that you just blindly dance to in a club, you certainly can dance to it, but it makes you want to really sit down, listen and contemplate it as well. He is a Millennial Wordsmith, for sure, and his career is just getting started.

You can read the list of ECMA Winners from the Awards last night here. I’ll write something later about the Awards Show. I find I enjoy the showcases much more, as they’re so much more intimate and you get the opportunity to hear more of the artists’ works. Although, any opportunity I have to see Ria Mae perform “Ooh Love” I will take happily. I will write more later, I am anxious to go out into the very misty day and catch some more East Coast Music.

The Space Between

11221648_127633380934590_8769175095277100444_nSimeon Taole’s The Space Between, which plays at the Atlantic Fringe Festival until September 6th is a gorgeous play, exquisitely performed by Taole, that I wish was running here in Halifax for much longer (and in a larger venue), so that everyone could have the opportunity to see it.

The Space Between tells the story of Winston, who falls in love with Celeste when he is nine years old, shortly before he moves from America back home to South Africa. The children become pen pals and as Winston grows older his love for Celeste only deepens, but so too does his sense of the giant space, both geographical and experiential, between them.

Winston endures horrifying injustice at the hands of a teacher in school, and lives in a place where he faces constant, blatant, racism under Apartheid. Celeste writes about attending a Detective Themed Summer Camp. Taole does a beautiful job in rooting this play in the relationship between Winston and Celeste, and the ways in which his love for her shapes his life, even while he is so far away from her. The underlying themes of white privilege and Systemic Racism are all there for us to unpack and to contemplate long after Taole takes his bow, but as Taole writes in his Playwright’s note, “it is [a story] of unrelenting hope and the innocence of young love.”

One of the most striking aspects of this play is how Taole explores the arc of Celeste, who although unseen onstage, is full of such nuance. We see, for example, how as children Winston and Celeste are not immune to discussions of race, but more innocent to the impact skin colour has to so many facets of life. When there is a break in their correspondence it is both a moment that anyone who has lost contact with a best childhood friend can relate to, but also poignant and thought provoking to see this experience through the lens of race. Celeste mirrors the white Canadian audience’s journey as we come to learn how much there is that we don’t know, whether about invisible countries or the dawning knowledge that we can never understand what Systemic Racism feels like unless we have experienced it ourselves. Our lack of understanding and inability to relate often makes us feel awkward and this unease often makes us distance ourselves even further. These chasms between people is where Systemic Racism thrives.

Taole gives a Tour De Force performance. He is captivating, heartbreaking and easy to cheer for. This is a play that needs to be seen. Go experience it while you have the chance.   

The Space Between plays at The Rainbow Room at Menz/Mollyz Bar (2182 Gottingen Street) at the following times:

Monday Sept 5th, 4:05PM
Tuesday Sept 6th, 6:55PM

Noun

13907044_10157247330925237_2529100910520245538_nBrandon Lorimer’s beautifully polished new play Noun, which plays until September 11th at the Atlantic Fringe Festival is, aptly, an exploration of language, and a quest of one young man’s attempt to find the meaning and reconstruct the history of a lost civilization from an assortment of stuff that remains in a Post-Apocalyptical World.

It is also a beautifully told story of the relationship between two vagrants (akin, in their way to the tramps in Godot), the innocent and exuberant A (Lorimer) and the more worldly and cautious B (Jeff O’Hara) as they cobble together enough for their bodies and souls to survive, while warding off the impending Troubles that threaten everyone. O’Hara and Lorimer have created two charming, intricate, quirky characters who are easy for the audience to love and care about and their joyful sense of fun is infectious. Lorimer’s playfulness of language is both creative and smart. It seems as though A and B have learned to speak English from both reading an eclectic array of old books, written in different Eras in History, and then also developed their own, often more literal, way of describing their own experiences. A’s obsession with learning what Gil Scott Heron’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox “means” and how this grates on B’s nerves, raises questions about how we seek to learn from the past, and the limitations we face in looking back on a time that we might never understand. Do we respect our limitations and allow these artefacts to be forgotten, or do we take the risk of being “wrong” in attempt to learn something and preserve the legacy of those who have come before us?

Everything that happens onstage between A and B is beautifully constructed and very clearly presented. I liked having The Troubles as a vague, menacing, looming threat, but as the interaction between B and the Vendor became more defined at the end of the play things got a bit more unclear for me. There’s room here for Lorimer to clarify this relationship a bit. I don’t think the Vendor’s presence at the end is essential to the play, but I did enjoy her creepy and poetic performance, so I think there is likely a way to make her being there a more clearly necessary aspect of the resolution of the play.

Noun travels quickly through about a month’s worth of time and Director Annie Valentina does a beautiful job of making these transitions clear and artful. Lorimer’s sound design is also beautifully evocative of both A and B’s world and ours.

Noun is the most exciting new play I’ve seen come out of young playwright in Halifax for a long time. I hope to see another incarnation of it and soon.

Noun plays at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street) at the following times:

Mon Sept 5th, 3:10PM
Sat Sept 10th, 8:00PM & 11:10PM
Sun Sept 11th, 11:30AM

Speaking in Tongues: African Nova Scotian Storytellers

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david woods

I was so excited to see that Voices Black Theatre Ensemble have returned to the Atlantic Fringe Festival after last year’s beautiful Once: Africville Stories. The new show is called Speaking in Tongues: African Nova Scotian Storytellers and it brings some much-needed diversity of voices to the Atlantic Fringe and the Nova Scotia theatre community as a whole.

I was immediately captivated by Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond’s younger sister, who told us two stories about the strong women in her family- her mother, Gwendolin Davis, and her spirited Aunt May who, fortunately, didn’t get the memo that women at the time should be seen and not heard. Her stories are beautifully constructed and Robson is a heartfelt speaker, and does a great job of not just telling us the stories, but embodying the characters to give us a rich sense of their personalities. Vetty Thomas tells the most hilarious (and also, oddly heartbreaking) story of turkeys and bedwetting that on its own is worth the price of admission. David Woods does a gorgeous spoken word poem from the point of view of a lost, wandering woman who sees visions of Harriet Tubman. She proves both poetic and prophetic and her words are essential ones for every Nova Scotian to hear with open ears and to think on with open hearts. Nathan Simmons counters the popular, erroneous, assumption that “there are no black people in Cape Breton” by sharing the story of the Maxwell Twins, which made me want to do more reading about the History of African Nova Scotians in Cape Breton.

I was struck by how most of the stories in this show were connected immediately to the lives of the storyteller- each one a little memoir vignette. While Once was very firmly rooted in a place of the past, and the experience of Black Nova Scotians in a “Historic” time and place, Speaking in Tongues reminds us that personal history and family history are just as important an aspect of the History of a People and the History of a Place as events that time have rendered “Historic.”

Woods began the show by saying that in creating this show these storytellers had assembled enough stories to do three different shows. I hope they will mount these two and more. They are all equal parts entertaining, interesting and important. Nova Scotia is still a segregated place, and our History, and our Arts Communities are too often segregated too. It’s a fact that I know makes some people feel uncomfortable, and that many people don’t like to talk about, but I think we need to talk about it, and as white people (and I absolutely include myself in this), we need to listen. Speaking in Tongues: African Nova Scotian Storytellers is the perfect opportunity to listen. I felt lucky to be in the room. I want to know more, much more.  

Speaking in Tongues: African Nova Scotian Storytellers plays at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street) as part of the Atlantic Fringe Festival at the following times: 

Saturday Sept 3, 4:30pm
Sunday Sept 4, 12pm & 6:20pm
Monday Sept 5, 1:30
Tuesday Sept 6th, 6:20pm
Wednesday Sept 7th, 6:35pm
Saturday Sept 10, 3:00pm
Sunday Sept 11, 5:40pm

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