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