Ann Mortifee – seven decades of story and song

Ann Mortifee

Joseph Roberts: I’m excited about your next offerings on November 30 and December 1 at Christ Church Cathedral: The Magic of Seven. Tell us about it.

Ann Mortifee: It turns out it’s my 70th birthday; it’s a shocker to realize you’ve almost reached 70. As you know, I was married to Paul Horn and he used to say to me before he passed, “You’ll see. Your seventies are going to be the most powerful decade of your life.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s great. I’ll go for that.”

So I’ve taken this year to take on projects that were really meaningful to me. So The Magic of Seven is for me to celebrate, rather than resist, being 70 or hide it, but to really celebrate what that means. I’ve gone back over the last adventure of my life and there’s certain songs that really captured important phases. I’ve got some new songs in the concert but mainly I just wanted to track my life journey in some way, starting in Africa.

I was brought up on a sugar cane farm in Zululand and spent the early years of my life on the good soil of Africa. It’s had a tremendous, tremendous resonance in my life. I’ve written two musicals and lots of songs about it and really felt I owed a debt on behalf of my family and my race. In fact, the last time I was in Common Ground [March 2006] was when I did When the Rains Come.

JR: How did your family get from South Africa to Vancouver? Where in Canada did you first land?

AM: We landed in Montreal, but we came across by train. Dad had been the representative for Zululand, which was a little group of farmers in General Smuts’ cabinet during the time they were voting about the Union and Nationalist parties. When the Nationalist Party, who believe in separate and apart, and absolutely take the vote away and change everything, won, dad said, “This is the end of South Africa for me. I’ve got four girls. I’ve gotta get out.”

But my dad couldn’t get any money out. So he had a good friend who took over the farm and he basically took a few trips to look at Canada, England and New Zealand – his three choices. He felt Canada was the best choice, that it was healthy and so forth. I’m glad he did. It was never spoken of, but I think he took money out of the country whenever he could, sort of sewn into his pockets, so we’d at least have something to live on when we arrived.

JR: What sparked your interest in music?

AM: It was amazing, really, when I look back. Strange things happened along the way. One was when I was at Point Grey. My history teacher said I wouldn’t have to do this final paper if I would act in a theatre piece he wanted to do for Remembrance Day. The other thing was they had talent shows so three friends and I decided we would do the Charleston, and it won all the prizes. That was the first time I was on television, doing the Charleston if you can believe it. The next year, we went and did the hula and I loved the hula. I just loved it.

Four of us got together and started a little harmony group with popular songs of the day like Twenty-six miles across the sea. And we sang it at school dances. People heard about us and we sang at other school dances, but it never entered my mind I could do it as a living. Never. Then I was working at a summer camp on work crew and one of the gals was doing evening entertainment with kids and another gal whom I shared a room with. One of them got sick and Evia said to me, “Would you come and help me?” And I said, “Oh God.” But I did. And I was hooked. I loved it.

When she came back to Vancouver, she gave me her old guitar. It was like a world opened up. I started writing songs and then was asked to work here, there and the other. I never thought I wanted to be a singer. I just liked singing and people started asking me to come and do it.

The girls I went to school with said they’d each give me a dollar if I would go to the hootenanny. That was $42 so I said okay. I can remember stepping on the stage and having this feeling like I really belonged there. It was just a feeling of comfort and happiness. I loved singing. And Josh White Sr., a blues singer from the south, was there [at the Bunkhouse] to start the the following Monday. And he saw me and said, “I want her to open my show.” I opened a show the next week, much to my parents chagrin.

I remember going down one afternoon to pick up my guitar and Les [Stork, owner of the Bunkhouse] said, “Oh, are you going to the audition?” And I said, “What’s an audition?” And he said, “You just get up and sing and if they like you, you get a job. They’re looking for a girl singer for a show.” So I said okay. He said, “I’m going to drive you. You have to come with me. I want you to do this.”

He drove me down and I got the job, which was for George Ryga’s play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. That totally changed my life.

JR: Please give us the context.

AM: It was the story of a Native American girl being torn apart because she exists somewhere between two cultures, the white culture and the Native American culture. It was so profound. Chief Dan George was in it. It was the first Canadian play that had really addressed what had happened, and what was happening, and it took the country by storm. It was a fabulous thing. I was 17.

And this chap, Willie Dunn – I think he was ill – kept not showing up for rehearsals. George Ryga would say, “Dear, here are the lyrics, just make something up.” Well, I’d never written a song in my life so I said, “How do I do that?” “Just make up a melody to it.” That was how I became a composer. I never would’ve thought, “Oh, I think I’ll write songs.” It wouldn’t have entered my mind.

That became the baseline for everything I wanted to do. Rita Joe went to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to open it. And I was seen by the producer of a show that was coming in and he actually created another part for me to come in and play as a singer. That show, Love and Maple Syrup, was a huge success and it went on to New York. I was seen by agents there and was being auditioned for various shows and was asked to do the lead in a show called Promises, Promises that Burt Bacharach had written the music for.

I’d just come from doing Rita Joe, which was so meaningful to me, and I saw how music could alter culture. I remember very clearly working with the musical director. I hadn’t yet signed my contract and I was singing, “What do you get when you fall in love… you get enough germs to catch pneumonia, after you do he’ll never phone ya…” And I remember thinking, “What if I died singing this song?” Because I had to do eight shows a week. That was the contract.

And I thought, “I’ve just done something that was so filled with meaning and value for me.” I went to see my agent the next day and asked if there was any way I could do just six months. He said, “No, it’s a contract. They’re not going to hire somebody else and have to train them. So I said, “I just can’t do it.” I decided I wasn’t meant to be there and went back to Vancouver.

Three days later, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet called and asked me to write the music for The Ecstasy of Rita Joe as a ballet. I remember Arnold Spohr calling me, “Could you come and do this?” And I was like, “I can’t write a ballet score, I don’t know anything about it” and he asked, “Can you feel the heart of Rita Joe? Do you know how she feels?” And I said, “Yeah, I do. I love her.” And he said, “Why don’t you bring your heart to Winnipeg and we’ll see what happens.”

I ended up writing the ballet and that was an international hit and off we went to Australia and New Zealand. I feel my whole life has been a gift. My career just grew and I would go through changes and it would move me to the next phase and then I started to want to write musicals.

Now, I knew nothing about musicals. I remember going to the library and saying, “Do you have any books on writing musicals?” They said, “No, but we have a script of a musical.” I can’t remember which one it was. I thought, “Okay, you put the title there, then you explain what’s going on on the stage and you write what the character says.” Fine. And off I went. That’s when I did Reflections on Crooked Walking.

We really have to feed our souls. I’ve talked to many artists who somewhere along the line made a choice to do something to get ahead. They get known for that and they’re stuck. It was a conscious choice but it wasn’t like I said, “I want to do something meaningful.” It wasn’t like I thought about it. It was just who I was. It just didn’t sit right with me. I guess it was because I came from Africa and even as a girl I was aware. I mean, you couldn’t help it. We lived in the white house on the hill and I used to wonder why did they wear my hand-me-downs. Why didn’t I have hand-me-downs? How come we had toast and marmalade on the table while the Zulu people lined up to get a can of mealy corn every Thursday and some meat. I guess it was that questioning part of myself. It’s just social justice. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what it was. It was just feelings of discomfort that I had.

The other one that really impacted me was a feeling that I was living in a dream. I remember my earliest memory was of lying in my bed on the farm in Zululand and hearing the rooster crow and the morning sounds coming into my dream and I was thinking in what I now know was my dream, “Oh no, you’re going to fall asleep and you’re going to start dreaming and when you do you’re going to forget who you are because this has happened before.” And I’d become very agitated and I’d suddenly ‘open my eyes’ and I’d be in my bedroom on the farm and I’d go, “Oh no, oh no. I’m stuck being her again. These aren’t my hands. Who am I when I’m not dreaming that I’m Ann.” This was a recurring dream, this feeling of being someone else who was dreaming this reality.

I think that never left me either, that feeling of parallel worlds. That gave me my interest in meaning. Who are we? Where did we come from? What are we doing here? How can I know what is purposeful? If I’m here for some reason and I’m going to go back ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ was, that of course I couldn’t remember, I wanted to find out why I was here. That was always playing out as well and has been my whole life.

JR: You’re putting on an event called The Mysteries. What is that all about?

AM: I love musicals. I love that characters can sing at each other and just let all their feelings out through music. I just think it’s the best thing. And I love music as story. Nobody knew what happened in the Eleusinian Mysteries. It was on threat of death that any participant talk about what was going on there. In fact, some people think that’s why Socrates had to drink hemlock, because he divulged what was going on in the temple. I started reading everything I could about it and became totally fascinated. It led me to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the great mother and her daughter who was abducted into the underworld by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld. And it was known by her father Zeus. He and Hades were brothers and they bargained over her. And I thought, “Well, that’s still going on, isn’t it?”

Demeter the mother, in losing her daughter, is thrown into this deep deep grief and loses all her power. It’s like women whose children are abducted and can never get over it. She dropped into her grief and finally ends up going into her temple reaching a place of such rage that she says to Zeus and Hades, “Until you bring my daughter back to me, you’re not getting one drop of my life force.” She pulls her power in and the whole world starts to fall apart.

No grass grows so there’s nothing to feed the sheep and the goats. Everything starts dying. One by one the gods are [saying], “You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to do something.” Finally, they let Persephone go, but Hades tricks her into eating four pomegranate seeds so she has to return to the underworld for four months of the year. It’s one of the rules of the underworld. I looked around me and said, “Wow, this is a prophetic story.” We’re having it right now. We’re in the middle of it. We’re stuck at the point in the myth when Demeter is saying, “I’ve had enough.” And we’re starting to see these terrible storms and food shortages and floods and fires.

The world is going into a trauma. And that was foreshadowed, prophesied, created through thought – who knows? – but every year for 2000 years this myth was told. And I thought, “Wow, that’s really important.”

A myth is a story that’s meant to transform as we transform, but once you start writing them down they stop having the capacity to change. So I said, “I’ve got to change this myth. We might be able to bring the feminine heart back into the political arena, back into the world. And maybe we can avert this environmental catastrophe.”And women need to be heard. We need equality because we each bring, as you know, something so unique and special.

JR: We need to turn off the mass deception and really hear what our inner being is telling us to do, our soul. The work that you’re doing, music gives us permission to do that. It reminds us how important it is and how good it feels to be in touch with that.

AM: The minute you get into the slipstream of your own sense of values and are unafraid to stand up for them, so much of the feeling of helplessness goes away. Love is the best way. Whenever there’s love in the room everything lightens up. I don’t know how to say it loud and clear enough, because I don’t get why we choose other things.


CONCERT

Ann Mortifee: The Magic of Seven
Seven Decades of Spirit in Story and Song
With Ed Henderson, Bill Sample, Finn Manniche

November 30 & December 1
7:30pm (doors 7pm)
Christ Church Cathedral
690 Burrard Street, Vancouver

Advance tickets $40 + ticket charges available online only: www.magic-of-seven.eventbrite.ca
Door tickets $45, cash only.

VIFF evolving by involving

Still from Evolution of Organic

Photo: still from Evolution of Organic courtesy of Vancouver International Film Festival.

by Robert Alstead

How to stay relevant in the internet age? It’s a question organizers of film festivals across the media-saturated globe are asking themselves. While Vancouver’s film buffs can be depended on to cram in the 16 days of arthouse and overseas fare when the annual film jamboree starts later this month, VIFF, under executive director Jacqueline Dupuis, keeps a watchful eye on the cinema’s shifting sands.

This year’s VIFF program (September 28 to October 13, viff.org) builds on the changes introduced last year under the “Films Plus” banner with ‘creator’ talks, Virtual Reality events and nights that combine live music from local bands and the moving image. This year also sees a red carpet screening of award-winners from the Toronto-based Buffer Festival, a showcase for “elevated” YouTube storytelling.

While culturally speaking it’s not on the scale of Amazon swallowing Whole Foods, purists may recoil at the creeping influence of internet giants like Google on film festivals. Well, VIFF has a film for you. The excellent and evenhanded documentary You’re Soaking in It shows how the “math men” (and women) behind targeted advertising are working hard to know you better than you know yourself. Trading oceans of user data in a barely regulated marketplace, corporations have developed an invasive, or highly personalized, depending on your view, model of advertising whose reliance on brute computing power makes the golden age of intuitive, brand-oriented advertising look like art.

Scott Harper’s comparison of Madison Avenue versus Silicon Valley is a fascinating one, touching on many disconcerting aspects of our brave new world. It asks important questions about current practices like the risk of de-anonymized data falling into the wrong hands or using facial recognition software to interpret, in real time, our emotional response as we gaze up at the big screen.

Moving from the evolution of advertising, the upbeat Evolution of Organic charts the history of organic farming in North America from a bunch of “ragtag hippies” pioneering biodynamic growing techniques in the 1960s, to a global movement trying to scale that holistic idealism to industrial levels. The film is on firmer ground when establishing its rebellious roots as a response to pesticide reliance in the post-war years. “It smelled like the earth was meant to smell like,” remembers a grape grower after going organic. Ruddy-faced farm folk are good company, and archive material reveals it was fun, felt good and the food tasted better. As director Mark Kitchell brings the story up to the modern day, it becomes clear there’s enough material to create a whole television series, whether it be the Nigiri project using harvested rice fields as salmon nurseries, ranchers using Allan Savory’s earth-renewing, grazing systems, or the no-tillage practices that could help fix climate change. Leaves you wanting to dig deeper.

As VIFF pushes further into the digital arena, it’s also shoring up its role as a platform for homegrown talent. VIFF kicks off with Vancouver director Mina Shum’s Meditation Park, described as a bittersweet comedy starring Sandra Oh and Don McKellar. It tells of a Chinese-Canadian mother who embarks on a voyage of self-discovery in East Vancouver after discovering a woman’s thong in her husband’s pocket. The opening gala is part of a federal government initiative, Movie Nights Across Canada, marking 150 years of Confederation.

Bound to be well attended are the 12 BC films competing in the “Sea to Sky” strand (hashtag #mustseeBC), including films like On Putin’s Blacklist, a sprawling documentary that looks at how Russia’s ban on North American adoptions has hurt potential foster parents and children in Canada. Dissident Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of the State Duma to vote against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, provides fluid commentary on Putin’s modus operandi, while emotional, firsthand accounts by grown-up foster children and activists, including Pussy Riot, bring home the impact of Russia’s LGBT oppression.

A very different local film is Forest Movie by writer-director-editor Matthew Taylor Blais. The program notes are to be taken with a grain of salt; this is a concept film with little story and a very long, locked-off shot of some second-growth forest (looks like Pacific Spirit Park). Should be interesting with a live audience.

Song of Granite, an Irish/Canadian biopic, also likes to linger in its shots. Director Pat Collins uses the screen like a canvas to draw black-and-white scenes in the life of Irish sean-nós (old style) singer Joe Heaney, from his early upbringing in rural Galway to his later years in New York City before dying in 1984. The lead character is laconic and enigmatic, the dialogue spare and the solo songs given time to breathe and fill the room. A classic film festival film.

Robert Alstead made the feature documentary Running On Climate, www.runningonclimate.com

Visionary artists Alex and Allyson Grey

Alex and Allyson Grey

An interview

by Jacob Steele

Jacob Steele: What do you see as the visionary artist’s role, and what do you seek to communicate about life in relation to the polarities of dark and light?

Alex Grey: The artist is a lens for the soul. Artworks are the views seen through that lens. The artist’s subject dictates where the lens will be focused. Light is the core subject in our work. We are painters of transcendental light. Allyson’s paintings are abstract expressing a world view of essentialized consciousness through spectral light and secret writing. My art is figurative, portraying states of consciousness throughout the hero’s journey.

Allyson Grey: The responsibility of the artist is to be true to their own soul. The mission of art is to make the soul perceptible. Polarities infuse our art and life: light and dark, chaos and order, bright colour and grey monochrome, man and woman, old and young, life and death. Polarities reflect the paradox of our mortal existence in relation to our timeless spirit. Spiritually inspired art is infused with devotional love energy, transferring to the viewer a sense of the sacred that makes life worth living.

JS: The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM) is a project to which you have devoted many years. What is CoSM’s mission?

Alex Grey: The mission of CoSM is to build an enduring sanctuary of visionary art to evolve the creative spirit and uplift a global community. CoSM is a radically welcoming interfaith art church, a context for a community that honours and practices art as a spiritual path. To further the spiritual practice of art, CoSM offers workshops and cultural programs.

At CoSM, we celebrate commitments of love and passages of consecration including weddings, baby blessings and memorials. Grey House is filled with art and altars. The Wisdom Trail through the woods features natural beauty, altars, a labyrinth, a reflecting pond, murals and sculptural installations. Overnight stays can be reserved in Grey House, CoSM’s 10-bedroom guest house, 365 nights of the year. CoSM offers an inspiring destination for souls seeking to align with creative source, co-create a mighty force field of compassion and manifest sacred space together.

Allyson Grey: Now under construction, targeted to open December 2017, is Entheon, CoSM’s sanctuary of Visionary Art, where visitors will experience an exhibition of mystic art inside a sculptural building. The All-One Gallery at Entheon will feature an annually rotating exhibit of original paintings, sculpture and muti-media by the finest artists of the International Visionary Art movement and there will be a gallery featuring many of my paintings and works on paper. Designed by Alex, Entheon will display many of his best-loved works including the Sacred Mirrors.

Alex Grey: We invite the world of visionaries to become part of the Entheon project, a way to honour the mystical experience through enshrining artifacts inspired by the higher worlds. (buildentheon.com, cosm.org)

Excerpted from an interview conducted by Jacob Steele of Banyen Books & Sound, banyen.com

EVENT APR 27-30: Alex and Allyson make their debut appearance in Vancouver. Join them at the Vogue Theatre on Friday April 28 for their feature presentation. Tickets available at www.ticketfly.com and Banyen Books, www.banyen.com, 604-732-7912. More info at www.apparentproductions.com

A tale of three festivals, here and now

Natalie Maines

Vancouver Folk Fest. Natalie Maines (photo above) – Dixie Chick Maines didn’t shut up or stop singing.

by Bruce Mason

• BC is blessed with numerous fests, including film, theatre, dance, fringe, kids, wine, slow food, fast bikes, wooden boats, dragon boats, stampedes, even chainsaw and Elvis festivals. In stark contrast to the burgeoning and moneyed global festival phenomenon, BC’s local festivals not only offer entertainment, but also connection and the opportunity for community building.

Summer celebrations around the province have local flair and varied features; many are grassroots, community based not-for-profits. Some include non-ticketed events, free for the taking, such as the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration ( until June 8 ) and the very ambitious, must-experience TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. With a long list of free events and attractions, among many other things, it seeks to recapture the Olympic Spirit and take back downtown.

Vibrant street festivals include Greek Day (June 23), Steveston Salmon Festival (July 1), Khatsalano Music and Art Festival (July 13-14) and the Powell Street Festival (August 3-4.) From Surrey’s Canada Day Celebration and Fusion Festival (July 20 -21) to the eagerly anticipated Stanley Park Anniversary (August 24 – 25), there are innumerable invitations and opportunities to share in and enjoy local, regional, city and rural events. And you don’t have to break your budget.

Take your pick, but do take in one or two. Come with family and friends and meet new people who like the same stuff as you. Tune in by Googling BC Festivals. Turn on the diversity. Drop out from technology for a few hours by sharing tunes and more. There’s beautiful music in live community building.

Common Ground hopes to whet your appetite and imagination by zeroing in on three choices on this summer’s mind-boggling menu. These are non-profit organizations well into a second generation of audiences and all-important volunteers: 1) The 2013 TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival (June 21- July 1, multiple locations). 2) The Vancouver Island Music Festival (July 12 -14, Comox Valley Fairgrounds) and 3) The Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 19 – 21, Jericho Beach).

Mary Chapin Carpenter
At VIMF: Mary Chapin Carpenter – Ashes and Roses, No Going Back (latest release and Emmy film)

Each of these music festivals has strong, year-round community roots. Their websites are updated regularly – hallmarks of modern festivals – with schedules, bios, videos of performers and other essential information for planning to get the biggest bang for your tickets before arriving on-site. We talked with the people responsible for programming, individuals like Gary Cristall who was active in the first Vancouver Folk Fest 35 years ago at Lumberman’s Arch in Stanley Park. Gary is a long-time artistic director, currently working on the definitive book about Canadian folk music in the 20th century.

“I’ve written 400 pages, up to the ‘50s and a few years away from the finish,” Cristall reports. “There have been a great many changes, including the very notion of what folk music is, now more diverse and inclusive yet still evolving. Mariposa was and is the model, with multiple stages and one main point of entrance. We used to pay all artists the same amount. There were no stars; everyone was treated the same. It was less of an industry and it was easier because there were fewer festivals and less competition for talent,” Cristall notes.

He recalls advice from the late great Utah Phillips who offered two tips: first, never forget you are putting bread and butter on artists’ tables and treat them with respect. Secondly, give the audience what you think they need, not just what they want. “To program a major festival, you have to be an amateur musicologist, build a big record collection and believe you have the best taste in the world,” Cristall says. “I always looked for something that knocked me out and remember moments when a solo artist with a single acoustic instrument held tens of thousands of people spellbound, often beyond expectations. And I was constantly surprised – especially at workshops – by people who had never played together before and would never again be in the same musical configuration.”

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars – a phoenix of hope, faith and joy at VFF

Local jazz has benefitted from the creative direction and vision of artistic director Ken Pickering. He has consistently curated impressive, innovative programs celebrating the evolution of the art form in all its manifestations, developing and maintaining a globally recognized reputation for the city’s festival.

John Orysik was also there at the beginning when the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society formed as a charitable arts organization in 1986. It has become BC’s largest music presenter, not only producing one of the world’s most critically acclaimed jazz festivals – which draws more than a half million patrons annually – but also producing a profound impact on the regional culture and the community at large. “We want to continue to help develop an appreciation for artistic excellence and highly skilled improvization. It’s at the very heart of jazz. We seek out the real dream-makers to present a summit meeting of great artists to connect with audiences. They add new perspectives across the broad spectrum of influences, including traditional and contemporary jazz, Latin, blues, rock and world music,” Orysik says.

The festival features more than 300 concerts (150 free) and 1,800 musicians in 35 venues across Vancouver’s Lower Mainland and North Shore including the Downtown Jazz Opening Weekend and the David Lam Park Jazz Closing Weekend. The society also produces the annual Music Series for the Winterruption Festival on Granville Island, the Time Flies Improvised Music Festival and year-round concerts and education programs.

It also generates $35 million into the local economy over an 11-day period.

Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley has also benefitted from the artistic direction of Doug Cox who, 13-years-ago, brought a wealth of experience as a producer of volunteer-run events as well as the perspective of a professional musician who spends eight months of the year touring the world.

“We’ve always insisted on the best players and treat them very well, offering exposure to 10,000 people,” Cox says. “Proximity to an airport and the passion and pride of 1,200 volunteers – some second generation and from as far away as Campbell River and Victoria – are among the reasons why the Vancouver Island Music Fest is in the bucket-list of places to play for many major artists.”

Cox cites studies showing that every dollar spent on festival tickets spins off four more into local economies and that sales of CDs at festivals have surpassed retail outlets. VIMF camping is sold out and every hotel, motel and B&B will follow suit. This year, for the first time, a regional economic impact study is being conducted.

Indigo Girls
Indigo Girls: “our hearts out-rule our heads” at VIMF

Like all the others interviewed for this article, Cox, who is resisting requests for large screens, stresses that community building is an important festival goal. “Live music is powerful and it’s critically important to the mental health and wellbeing of a community. It’s wonderful to see the lights go on in the minds of people in the audience, to witness real growth in tolerance and new-found exposure to and acceptance of diversity,” Doug reports.

“We count highly educated, sophisticated lawyers, doctors and teachers in our festival’s prime audience of baby-boomers. Increasingly, we see more youth who have grown up with us. And it can literally bring tears to the eyes of anyone standing on the stage and looking out on the dynamic mix of hippies, bikers, bankers, fishermen and young families,” he adds.

 

Almost 1,500 folks build an instant community every year on Jericho Beach where 65 acts will perform on eight stages. Vancouver Folk Fest publicist Gwen Kallio describes the artistic director’s job, atop the complex organization: “Imagine juggling a half dozen Rubik’s cubes on a tight deadline, overseeing everything from booking, transporting and housing musicians to security and the myriad concerns and headaches required by a population of 40,000. All that is compressed into a relative snap of the fingers for three days and then just as suddenly, tens of thousands of people vanish – until next year – leaving behind the huge task of tearing-down, packing and cleaning up.”

Linda Tanaka, who has this ultimate responsibility for 2013, admits that competition for well-know headliners such as Steve Earl and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines is tight. But playing Vancouver is a feather in any artist’s cap. As well, there is a rich world of emerging excellence awaiting your discovery, sources for festival-goers’ hopes for additional, unanticipated inspiration.

“There is a renewal of spirit, a coming together of diverse acts and audiences to connect and interact,” says Tanaka. “For me, the sharing of stories is very important, something I look for. And this year, lots will be told and performed to the audience, including Sierra Leonean refugees, first timers from China, Italy, and little-known experiences across Canada and even closer to home.”

There are ample headliners to attract your attention

From the Jazz world: legendary pianist Herbie Hancock, Dr. John and the Nite Trippers, Nikki Yanofsky, and the David Murray Infinity Quintet, featuring Macy Gray.

Comox will host the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Hiatt, the Wailin’ Jennys and Indigo Girls, among others.

On Vancouver’s Jericho Beach: Earl and the Dukes, Maines, Hannah Georgas, the Waterboys, Woody’s granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and many more.

Don’t forget household names are just the tip of the unforgettable experiences and warm welcome awaiting at the amazing array of festivals around the province this summer. Expect to be surprised.

Next month, Common Ground will explore August’s unique offerings, including Shambhala in Salmo, Wanderlust in Whistler and Burnaby’s wonderful one-day Blues and Roots Fest with Blue Rodeo and others congregating around Deer Lake.

Whatever happened to the promise of leisure time?

Marx and Mechanics

Art and text by Geoff Olson

• You might see one or two at a collector’s fair or antiquarian bookshop: dog-eared copies of Popular Science magazines from decades past, with covers promising a sunny future of expanded leisure time. There might be, for example, an illustration of a beaming Caucasian family in a hovercraft, weaving past city spires on a technicolour holiday.

For years, 20th century futurists prophesized the contraction of working hours, insisting this would be a source of celebration rather than concern. There would be plenty of free time to take advantage of increased productivity and technological progress. Every other day would be Family Day. Even junior would have a jet pack.

Only the first half of that proposition, the part about jobs disappearing, has turned out to be prophetic. It’s the second half about comfortable leisure time that’s gone sideways. From the factory floor grasslands of Detroit to the defanged ‘Irish Tiger’ of Dublin, the industrialized world is swollen with millions of surplus workers who are bunking with parents or couch-surfing with friends. The digitization of film, music, print and almost every other form of cultural output – automation, in other words – is accelerating job insecurity everywhere.

There’s a saying in Chicago business circles: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” So how did the underclass end up as toast for the .01 percent? How did we get from the can-do optimism of Henry Ford’s first assembly lines to today’s Age of Austerity, with levels of unemployment in the industrialized west not seen since the Great Depression? And why do so many of us seem to be working harder than ever, holding down multiple jobs for lesser pay, if we’re lucky enough to be in the job market at all? What happened to the promise of expanding leisure time from the spiritual ancestors of today’s TED speakers?

Economists scratch their balding heads and litter their blackboards with chalk marks, but can’t seem to come up with consistent answers. Most insist that the free market, even one dominated by monopolies and cartels, is its own best solution. However, at least one scholar predicted the present disorder of high unemployment, diminished wages and globalization as a logical consequence of capitalism. His name was Karl Marx.

 

In 1997, New Yorker economics correspondent John Cassidy recalled a conversation with a college friend who ended up working on Wall Street at a big investment firm. “The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,” he told Cassidy. “There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the economist who resurrects Marx and puts it all together in a coherent model. I am absolutely convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.” After this counterintuitive encounter, Cassidy dipped into an anthology of writings of the long-dead white male and discovered he was mostly in agreement with his friend.

In this age of bailed-out banksters and proles served pink slips, Marx is enjoying something of a resurrection. In 2009, a speech by Ryerson political economist Leo Panitch – a Marxist – became a cover story for Foreign Policy magazine, the bible of the Washington political establishment. Canadian author Ronald Wright drew from Marx’s analysis of economic history in his 2004 Massey Lecture series, “A Short History of Progress.” In 2011, economist Nouriel Roubini, the man who forecast the financial crisis of ‘08 declared that the German-born thinker “was partly right.”

According to Marx, the capitalist pursuit of surplus value results in squeezing the worker for ever-greater amounts of output, most often by demanding longer hours. In his magnum opus, Das Kapital, the author rifled through reports of factory inspectors and newspaper articles to lift the veil on the horrifying working conditions in Victorian England factories, in which child labour was the raw material for the industrial revolution.

Marx knew there was only one way to avoid this trap – the workers “have to put their heads together and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier by which they can be prevented from selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital.”

But even collective action offers no final protection against automation, Marx noted. Under the right circumstances, capitalists find expenditure in labour-saving machinery to be a money-saving gambit over time, with the added benefit of reducing a problematic work force. Automation also intensifies the competition for jobs, by creating what Marx calls an “industrial reserve army” of the unemployed – a “mass of human material always ready for exploitation.”

Before the financial meltdown of ‘08, why did a Wall Street investment guru congratulate Washington for holding the unemployment rate at eight percent, when a lesser figure would presumably be more socially desirable? Likely because eight percent is too small to incite mass unrest, but big enough to warn off the working 92 percent. Marx: “The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active army of workers; during the periods of overproduction and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions. The relative surplus population is therefore the background against which the law of the demand and supply of labour does its work.”

The bearded prophet’s most hotly contested thesis is that capitalism invariably leads to the increasing ‘immiseration’ or impoverishment of the workers. Economic professors have misinterpreted this as an absolute drop in wealth, says conservative British journalist Francis Wheen in his study Marx’s Das Kapital. “Look at the working classes of today, with their cars and microwave ovens: not very immiserated, are they? The American economist Paul Samuelson has said that Marx’s entire oeuvre can safely be disregarded because the impoverishment of the workers ‘simply never took place’ and since Samuelson’s textbooks have been the staple fare for generations of undergraduates in both Britain and America, this has become the received wisdom.”

Wheen dismisses this as a “myth’ and proceeds to pop Samuelson’s balloon: “What Marx did say was that under capitalism there would be a relative, not absolute, decline in wages. This is demonstrably true: no firm enjoying a 20 percent increase in surplus value will hand over all the loot to its workforce in the form of a 20 percent pay rise.”

Marx was referring to the “lowest sediment of society” – what we know today as the underclass – who would see a widening gap between themselves and the upper tiers as capitalism evolved. There are plenty of statistics showing that, over the past 40 years, income disparities have increased not just between the nations of the world, but within many of them as well. In a global race to the bottom, First World blue-collar and white-collar jobs have been outsourced to the developing world, in places free from bothersome labour rights and minimum wages. India is often held up as a winner in the globalization game, yet the nation’s growing middle class and a spearhead of obscenely wealthy nouveau-riche have done little to improve the lives of millions of immiserated slum dwellers in Mumbai, Calcutta and elsewhere.

As productivity increases, the gains are not translated into greater leisure time for workers, but demands for even greater output from them, Marx insisted. This certainly holds true in the maquiladoras and free trade zones around the world, with their sweatshop workers cranking out track shoes, smartphones, and other export goods. (Marx said expanding productivity leads to periodic “crises of overproduction” in the industrialized west – what we now call the business cycle – where an excess number of goods and services chase a dearth of paying customers.)

There is an unwritten history of the struggles of nameless men and women in Canada, the US and other industrialized countries, who organized and petitioned in the early years of the 20th century for the eight-hour workday and other workers’ rights. Today, the concessions wrung from big business by the International Workers of the World and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, among other groups, are in danger of being weakened or withdrawn altogether. For example, unpaid internships, which are nothing more than a way to extract free labour through hollow appeals to resume inflation, are now widely accepted and unquestioned.

That, in a nutshell, is what Eurozone austerity is all about. The arsonists (banksters) are in charge of the fire department, taking their axes to the social sector – all to service debts that are mostly of their own making. (According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the people of Greece, supposedly a land of layabouts, worked on-average 2,032 hours in 2011 – a hairs-breadth less than the legendarily hard-working South Koreans, at 2,090 hours.)

Deindustrialization began in the late seventies in the US and the jobs exported to other parts of the world for lower wages are boomeranging back to the continental US (“bringing the Third World home” in the words of MIT media critic Noam Chomsky). In spite of this unhappy pattern, some US economists are optimistic that the information economy will pick up the slack from years of downsizing, outsourcing, relocating and union decertification. Yet the hopes pinned on social media may be as dubious as the portrayals of hovercrafts and jetpacks in vintage editions of Popular Science – at least in the near term. To take just one sobering factoid, you could take all the employees from four of the biggest social media organizations – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Groupon – and seat them in Madison Square Garden.

The average British employee now puts in 80,224 hours over his or her working life, compared with 69,000 hours in 1981. Similar figures hold in the US and Canada and that’s not including the labour voluntarily added beyond work hours, through email and other digital communications. Many of us are working harder for less than our parents did and growing numbers can’t find decent paying jobs of any kind. Productivity has gone up in North America for the past 30 years, while real wages have fallen or stagnated over the same period of time. Where have the profits gone? Mostly into the pockets of plutocrats, of course. That is the story of surplus value, retooled and retold for a technocratic age.

 

The mad logic of gangster capitalism, in which bubble economies transfer wealth to the top even as they pop, has brought Marx’s overheated rhetoric and insightful analysis back for a second reading. Yet many activists on the left have doubts about the man and his associations. That’s not only understandable, but necessary. Marx’s ideas have been seized on by totalitarian villains who defined Marxism in their own terms – from Joseph Stalin to Pol Pot to Mao Zedong – to underwrite some of the worst atrocities in history.

Marx himself famously said after an encounter with some of his revolutionary followers that he didn’t consider himself a Marxist. I don’t consider myself one either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see merit in his century-old ideas. I can accept the Marx’s diagnosis of political economy without swallowing his dialectical prescription: a mythical worker’s paradise following the withering of the state. (An old joke from the pre-glasnost East Bloc sums up the problem of ends and means: “What is the definition of capitalism? The exploitation of man by man. And what is the definition of communism? The reverse.”)

The elites would prefer that wageslaves distract themselves with every blade of grass, shrub, sapling and tree. At the dawn of the modern era, Karl Marx attached a box camera to a gas-powered balloon and photographed the entire forest from high above. The pictures have faded over time, but the horizon still looks much the same.

@geoffolson
www.geoffolson.com

Time to revolt

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Revolution Documentary
Revolution: direct action to save us, and the planet, from ourselves..

• Rob Stewart is the underwater filmmaker who, with Sharkwater, showed everyone it’s safe to go back in the water; what’s more, he opened our eyes to the barbaric practice of shark-finning. The film’s impact came from gorgeous, up-close footage of different species of sharks combined with hard-hitting sequences of finned sharks being tossed back into the ocean still alive and writhing. The film was an urgent message to take action. Revolution, Stewart’s latest documentary, is similar in its approach, but raises the stakes. This time, he’s out to “save the human.”

The doc is narrated as a personal journey with Stewart very much in the frame, as he learns about the critical state of many ecosystems around the world (including the tar sands) and gets involved with activists on the frontlines. He’s particularly interested in how the youth of today are campaigning for action on climate change, joining articulate youth delegates at UN climate talks in Cancun in 2010 and leading activists on 350.org campaigns.

Stewart’s prime focus is how climate change is taking its toll on the creatures that inhabit Earth’s largest carbon sink: the ocean. Ocean acidification, caused by humans pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is making it more difficult for marine creatures to form their protective shells. Coral reefs that once teemed with life are bleaching and dying off. Stewart’s mentor, professor J.E.N. “Charlie” Veron, “the godfather of coral,” tells us that such is the damage that no other human being will ever see the coral reefs as he has over his four-decade career. “The oceans have the potential to go belly up in the next 20 years,” one of Stewart’s diving buddies tells us, before diving into the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which has lost half its coral cover.

Stewart’s urgent call for a “revolution” – direct action, civil disobedience and applying pressure on politicians to act – will be a resonant one for many viewers. Time is running out. As University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver says, scientists have done their job; now it’s up to the politicians to do theirs.

The annual Reel 2 Real film festival returns this month (12-19), with around 80 films from 21 countries aimed at youth: from international dramas to films tackling issues like bullying. The festival opens with animation Moon Man, followed by a party and a 3D shadow puppet installation. The fest includes filmmaker Q&As, workshops, get-togethers and audience voting. Find out more at www.r2rfestival.org

Emperor (29th) is a creaky retelling of how the Americans “won” the peace in Japan after going nuclear, through understanding the psychology of the Japanese people and their emperor worship. The plodding storyline is hampered by constant melodramatic romantic flashbacks involving Matthew Fox as lead negotiator General Bonner Fellers. While intermittent scenes sparkle, usually involving Tommy Lee Jones playing to type as the gruff, no-nonsense General Douglas MacArthur, they quickly fizzle out.

Robert Alstead is making the documentary Running on Climate (www.runningonclimate.com).