Instruments Beyond Borders

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Vancouver’s Instruments Beyond Borders delivers donated musical instruments to disadvantaged kids across the globe, including those at the Saint James Music Academy in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Vancouver’s Instruments Beyond Borders delivers donated musical instruments to disadvantaged kids across the globe, including those at the Saint James Music Academy in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Warning! This story may be addictive and you’ll be hooked into wanting much more. Symptoms include clapping, shouting, dancing and jumping for joy. Frantically searching for unused musical instruments in dark corners. Craving and purchasing a ticket to one of the most satisfying evenings of your life. Feeling as turned on as when you hear your all-time favourite song. Twice.

There are people changing the world, big-time, one child and one instrument at a time, right here, right now. And they’re getting together for a show-stopping fundraiser on May 13 at SFU’s Wong Theatre downtown. But hold the drum roll; here’s an intro and background – some music for your ears.

Instruments Beyond Borders is a registered, non-profit, Vancouver-based society that provides musical instruments to youth orchestras in disadvantaged communities at home and abroad. Since its inception in 2013, IBB has been transforming lives, delivering $40,000 worth of donated musical instruments into the keen hands of some of the most grateful, down-and-out kids on the planet, in Paraguay and here in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

IBB founder Janos Maté explains, “We aim to help harness the power of music to improve the lives of children and there are thousands of dormant musical instruments unused in closets, basements attics and other places, just waiting to come alive in the hands of aspiring young musicians.”

The young musicians of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay – aka Landfill Harmonic – play instruments made from the recycled garbage upon which their hometown is built. Favio Chávez, founder and director of the Recycled Orchestra, says, “We are so thankful for all your efforts to contribute to our orchestra and its members. It is so good to hear about the gala in May and hope it will be a success.”

On Cordova Street, hundreds of joyful children take part in after-school music lessons from professional teachers at the Saint James Music Academy. In addition to having the time of their lives, these kids also receive a nutritious meal.

Prussin Music (3607 W. Broadway, 604 736-3036) is a key player in the ongoing IBB project. The store launched “Instruments for Change” in February of 2013 and received offers of flutes, violins, trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, a cello, orchestral xylophone, guitar, auto-harp and a baritone horn, from as far away as Seattle.

Because they can’t ship pianos and large harps, Prussin has some of the donated instruments for sale to raise funds and offers deep discount rates for others. And there is a wish list. For example, violins range from $50 to $100, trumpets and trombones, $200. In the words of one of the recipients, “Without music, I would have nothing.”

Don’t miss seeing the fascinating, hand-made, recycled violin from Landfill Harmonic, given in appreciation and proudly displayed in a glass case. It’s one of few ever given to anyone. Other recipients include Queen Sofia of Spain, Jimmy Carter, Princess Beatrix (former Queen of the Netherlands), Archbishop Claudio Mario Celli, Robert Pattinson and the Museums of Musical Instruments in both Phoenix and Berlin.

Chávez shared news that a documentary entitled Landfill Harmonic, which tells the remarkable story of the orchestra, is making the film festival rounds, including New York and Toronto. It’s already earned the “Audience Award” in Austin, Texas, and was among the favourite stories in the distinguished career of the late Bob Simon, who brought worldwide fame and attention in his report for 60 Minutes.

Performers at the IBB fundraiser include Vancouver Kingsway MP Don Davies, an avid violinist who has also donated instruments. He took lessons at age six and believes every child should have access to music, which has profoundly enriched his life.

Highlights include the Saint James Music Academy choir and fiddlers and the renowned Borealis String Quartet. The evening will be hosted by popular Vancouver actor Dan Payne and Global TV’s Lynn Colliar. Among the long list of performers are Cam Wilson, Finn Manniche and Brent Gubbels of Van Django, Ryan Guldemond, Jasmin Parkin, Colleen Rennison, Chin Injeti, Tonye Aganaba and more.

Watch for an upcoming Common Ground feature on the Saint James Music Academy. For more information and links (including the doc trailer), please visit www.commonground.ca

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

May 13: Instruments Beyond Borders fundraiser, 7pm, Fei & Milton Wong Theatre, SFU downtown, 149 E. Hastings St. Tickets $30; $35/door. Order online at picatic.com/InstrumentsBeyondBorders

 

For tickets and more information on Saint James Music Academy, visit sjma.ca

Re the Landfill Harmonic movie check out landfillharmonicmovie.com

For more info on Prussin Music: prussinmusic.com

Winter festivals beat the blues

friendly giants at Ocean Concrete on Granville Island

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Photo: These friendly giants at Ocean Concrete on Granville Island are silos transformed by Brazilian artists OSGEMEOS. Photo courtesy Granville Island.

Winter festivals, like winter gardens, can flourish here on the west coast and, to put it mildly, they’re quite unlike other winter celebrations throughout the rest of Canada. Two of the best-known and much-loved local varieties – Winterruption and Festival du Bois – have grown steadily over the years and having reached maturity are now ripe for the picking. With something to appeal to every taste, age and interest, they’re also easy on the budget and best enjoyed in groups. Both take place this month.

Winterruption

For a decade now, folks have been gathering on Granville Island to beat the blues in an aptly dubbed communal feast for the senses. The 10th annual version of Vancouver’s favourite winter festival, Winterruption (February 19- 22), is bigger, better and most certainly more colourful than ever. Music, art, dance, theatre, film, food and family fun are served up west coast style with delights and surprises around every corner – most of them free of charge.

It all takes place at the feet of the recently arrived technicolour ‘Giants,’ Ocean Concrete’s six massive silos, now transformed into the largest outdoor mural ever created by Brazilian artists OSGEMEOS. See for yourself and take a giant selfie. Learn more about these remarkable Sao Paulo artists in the documentary film, Grey City, at Emily Carr University Theatre (matinees and eventing screenings offered) or attend a Mini Giants workshop and create your own work of art to take home.

That vibe carries on with the infectious vocals, irresistible rhythm and inspired lunacy of Brazilian-born, BC based, guitarist-singer-percussionist, Celso Machado. Bossa Nova anyone? Coastal Jazz will present live music all weekend, including the hip-shaking, party-starting, Motown-inspired northern soul of the Ballantynes and mountain country special guests Miss Quincy and the Showdown. There’s everything from the Czech-based melodies of Aram Bajakian and Julia Úlehla’s Dálava to Waxwing and Willa with DJ Blondtron.

See the full schedule of music, events, exhibit and activities at www.winterrupton.com, including Kid’s Stuff and the Meet Your Makers Tour: Spirits, Sake and Hand Crafted Beer.

Festival du Bois

Everyone needs to share in some old-fashioned joie de vivre at this time of year and folks will find it in abundance at Festival du Bois. This annual festival is hosted in Maillardville, BC, a community rooted in our French-Canadian heritage and history. From February 26 to March 1, festivalgoers will gather under the big roofs of the festival’s heated tents, including the massive Grand Chapiteau (main tent), Tente des Enfants (children’s tent) and the popular Tente des Ateliers (workshop tent).

Lennie Gallant
Lennie Gallant is one of the attractions at Festival du Bois

BC’s largest and most popular celebration of francophone music, dance, craft, food and culture is presented in a program rich in visual arts, kids’ activities and a world-class performance roster. Kick up your heels to Québécois, francophone, folk, world and roots music artists, including Les Chercheurs d’Or, Bardefou, Le Bal a l’huile, Nova Scotia-based songwriting legend Lennie Gallant, Celtic fiddle phenom Jocelyn Pettit, veteran children’s singer-songwriter-storyteller Charlotte Diamond and award-winning Aboriginal singer Wesley Hardisty. This music showcase is one of the most impressive, enjoyable and infectious you’ll find anywhere.

Attractions include Michel Campeau, a Longueuil region wood carver who will complete an eight-foot wood sculpture during the festival – destined to become a permanent feature in Mackin Park at 1046 Brunette Avenue (across the Lougheed Highway from IKEA).

Festival du Bois (February 28-March 1) is high calibre, community based, entertaining, affordable and family-friendly. Wander the expansive park site, learn about Maillardville and sample tourtière, maple taffy on snow, homemade poutine and other francophone fare. Festival schedules and full information available at www.festivaldubois.ca General info: 604-515-7070, info@maillardville.com

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

Native North America, Vol. 1

Sugluk

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Photo: Sugluk: Regional treasures such as Arctic rockers Sugluk have been preserved in Native North America Vol. 1, including lyrics in Inuktitut.

• It’s a privilege to recommend music that ticks all the boxes and adds more. Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 does just that.

It’s a transcendent, stunning, eye-opening compilation of unheard, undocumented, unavailable Canadiana. From original inhabitants across the upper reaches of the continent, it spans languages and cultures – near extinct – which thankfully have now earned their rightful dignity and a more prominent place in our collective soul and history. It’s also a revolutionary mix of political testifying, pain, native-language incantations, cross-cultural fusion and reservation-life storytelling.

It’s curated by Vancouver DJ Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, who previously produced the much-loved 2006 collection of reggae, Jamaica to Toronto. Howes also worked with Seattle-based, Light in the Attic, the folks who brought us the wonderful Oscar-winning Searching for Sugarman.

Fifteen years in the making, Vol. 1 comprises 34 tracks on three LPs – with 120 pages of brilliant, meticulous, comprehensive and illuminating liner notes, artist interviews, compelling archival photos and lyrics – or two CDs in a 60-page package. It’s a vital, almost-lost legacy and inspiring foundation – beautiful, tragic, impassioned, bold, honest and unflinching.

It’s been reviewed simultaneously in various Vancouver media, music mags, blogs, the Guardian, CBC and Rolling Stone, which raves, “… rings with brilliant garage-rock fuzz, pedal steel-laced heartache, singer-songwriter Earth love, radical politics, wah-wah heroism and the occasional lyrics in Inuktitut.”

Like an adept archaeologist, the insatiably curious and fiercely dedicated Howes unearthed fascinating clues to aboriginal culture in obscure, homegrown, regional vinyl. “I started digging through flea markets, record and thrift stores, driving back and forth between Vancouver and Toronto, to remote places, wanting to learn more,” he recalls.

“It was like immersing myself in a degree in aboriginal studies, looking for forgotten small releases, then literature, in archives and libraries. There’s almost nothing on the Internet so I went right to the source, to the artists themselves, producers, family, sometimes making requests through community radio stations in native languages.”

The stories he heard and shares include the likes of Willie Thrasher, robbed of family and heritage by the residential school system, resiliently rediscovered and celebrated in We Got to Take You Higher, members of Sikumiut living on the streets of Montreal and Willy Mitchell, shot in the head by a trigger-happy cop – for which he received a meagre $3,000 settlement – after friends had taken lights from a Christmas tree.

It’s a remarkable cross-section of diversity. From The Chieftones – “Canada’s All Indian Band” – which opened for The Beach Boys a week before Pet Sounds was released, to Sugluk, an Inuit band from just outside the Arctic Circle. It includes Arctic garage rock from northern Quebec, melancholy Yup’ik folk from Alaska and hushed country blues from the Wagmatcook First Nation reserve in Nova Scotia. There are echoes of Velvet Underground, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, spread by radio, word of mouth and vinyl to far corners, including First Nations, injected with Native consciousness, storytelling, poetry, history, ceremony and pride.

Re-mastered in Vancouver by Greg Mindorff – 13 tracks were buried in CBC vaults, threatened by Stephen Harper – Howes says the essential compilation scratches the surface. “The music has as much meaning and relevance today, if not more so with land claims, rights and environment issues. It’s timely and just the beginning. We’re sending it out to libraries and cultural centres and now there’s something on Google and YouTube.”

Ask for Native North America (Vol. 1) at independent record stores or order it from http://lightintheattic.net/shop. A companion set featuring the US and Mexico is currently in production.


The Ballad of Crowfoot

CrowfootWillie Dunn – where to start? He passed on before it was completed, but the spirit of Willie Dunn soars through Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 from the stage-setting I Pity the Country to the dedication, in memoriam.

If the terms “Renaissance Man” and “national treasure” still mean something, they certainly apply to this Mi’kmaq and Scottish/Irish descendent. A singer/songwriter, filmmaker, poet, playwright and one-time NDP political candidate (1993), Dunn created Canada’s first music video – and one of our best – The Ballad of Crowfoot.

He was awarded a UN medal for service in the Congo during a three-year Army stint, set Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot to native drumming and chants and recorded the full-length albums, Willie Dunn, The Pacific, Metallic and Son of the Sun. And he’s reported to have whispered into the Queen’s ear during her 1971 visit to BC, “We are not your children any more.”

His film credits include These Are my People, The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company, The Eagle Project, The Voice of the Land and Self-Government. His music includes the soundtracks for Incident at Restigouche, about a 1981 police raid and Okanada, documenting the 1990 Oka, Quebec, standoff.

The Ballad of Crowfoot belongs in the pantheon of protest ballads, in the company of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier or Neil Young’s Ohio. Dunn was reclaiming a voice for native people, he said, because optimism and hope hadn’t brought change.

Set against his impassioned performance, the NFB film juxtaposes archival photos and footage with newspaper clippings, exposing brutally inhumane, unjust treatment. It earned seven international awards, including a Gold Hugo (best short film, 1969 Chicago International Film Festival). The Ballad of Crowfoot was screened in schools across Canada and Kevin Howes, who credits the experience as an ongoing inspiration, is among those who will never forget it.

Wonder why Canada’s First Nations are Idle No More? Everyone in this country deserves to spend the 10 minutes at https://www.nfb.ca/film/ballad_of_crowfoot

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

A seasonal sampler

Vancouver Cantata Singers

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Photo: Vancouver Cantata Singers: A Christmas Reprise

• Shakespeare advised, “If music be the food of love, play on” and you’re in the right place and time to feast on local, seasonal sonic celebrations and larger concerts at community venues – featuring trad faves and new variations for fans of all ages. Listing all the options would fill this issue of Common Ground, but let’s get inspired and start with a glance at the menu.

Shop craft fairs and Christmas markets, but also plan and Google events and attractions. There’s lots to choose from, including live theatre, special performances by orchestras and choirs and choruses, including the Bach Choir (VancovuerBachChior.com), Vancouver Men’s Chorus, Chamber Choir and Symphony (Vancouver-Symphony.ca).

There are also activities galore and lights for cameras. Choirs, floats and 65 marching bands gather for the 2015 Santa Claus Parade, Sunday December 7, in front of the Art Gallery, 10:30AM. The parade takes off from Georgia and Brougham at 1PM, travelling east to Howe and Davie before sending Santa off for some free skating at the Robson Square Ice Rink where 12 Days of Christmas features music of all sorts (see RobsonSquare.com/events) from December 13 to 24; skate rentals are $4. Ride the Stanley Park Train (TicketLeader.ca) and take your skates and camera up the lift to the North Pole on Grouse Mountain (604-980-9311) – also on until Christmas Eve.

Stroll East Vancouver’s Trinity Street between the 2400 and 2900 blocks and other highly charged neighbourhoods. And don’t miss VanDusen Botanical Garden’s Festival of Lights, December 10 to 18, 4:30-9PM, and from December 26 to January 4 (TicketForce.com).

Some examples of Christmas events:

  • Dec. 13: The 5K Ugly Christmas Sweater Dash starts 11AM at Olympic Village. Proceeds to the Children’s Wish Foundation (nowthatsugly.com/vancouver-dash/).
  • Dec. 16: Chanukah Celebrations include Light up the Night at Canada’s tallest menorah in front of the Art Gallery, 6PM.
  • Dec. 21: The festival at Mount Pleasant Community Centre.
  • The Singing Christmas Tree (VancouverSingingChristmasTree.com/) celebrations (see TicketsTonight.ca) of the 100th anniversary of the Truce of 1914 when German and allied soldiers sang in No Man’s Land.
  • Dec. 20-21: A Women’s Winter Faire, Heritage Hall, 3102 Main Street, 11-5PM (www.soundsandfuries.com/faire.html).
Winter Harp
Winter Harp

Finally, three different musical events, guaranteed to please everyone: Vancouver Cantata Singers: A Christmas Reprise X11, Winter Harp and Van Django Bells. The VCS annual Christmas concert is Saturday, December 20 in Holy Rosary Cathedral, 646 Richards Street, 2PM. Tickets $20 at www.vancouvercantatasingers.com or 604-730-8856. This treasured yuletide tradition is a matinee performance – for a break in shopping – of the pure and simple joys of an unaccompanied choir in glorious acoustics. Very accessible, affordable and certain to sell out.

One of the country’s most joyous and magical annual traditions, Winter Harp, is back for a 21st season, returning to the coast to close out its 11-city Western Canada Christmas concert. See www.winterharp.com for more information.

A must-see on the holiday calendar for more than two decades, Winter Harp is a gloriously evocative concert experience garnering sold-out houses and standing ovations. Clad in medieval attire, the ensemble performs carols, Celtic, medieval, world and Spanish tunes on harps, drums, tambourines, temple bells, flutes, the ethereal-sounding bass psaltery – the only one like it in the world – the organistrum (an early form of the hurdy-gurdy) and the Swedish nyckelharpa.

Vancouver’s hottest swing string quartet, Van Django Bells, is touring a Christmas Variety Show:

  • Dec. 14: Charlie White Theatre, Sidney.
  • Dec. 16: Presentation House, North Vancouver.
  • Dec. 18: Michael J. Fox Theatre, Burnaby.
  • Dec. 19: St. James Hall, 3214 W. 10th Ave.
  • Dec. 20: Mount Seymour United Church, North Vancouver.

For more information, see www.vandjango.com

Van Django’s music is punchy, driving and rhythmically inventive, combining a wealth of musical influences in the gypsy jazz style of Django Reinhardt and the 1930s Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Joining violinist Cameron Wilson, guitarist Budge Schachte, guitarist/cellist Finn Manniche and bassist Brent Gubbels are harmonica virtuoso Keith Bennett, and vocalist Leslie Monteney.

Wilson says, “Everyone had a great time at last year’s premiere concert. Folks loved the mix of music and the feel-good vibes so we expanded it to include everything from the evocative I’ll Be Home for Christmas to Let It Snow, Santa Baby and Silver Bells to Ave Maria, a bit of Beethoven, and much more, something every ear, heart, and tapping foot will enjoy.”

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

Leo “Bud” Welch

Leo Welch on guitar

One rockin’ octogenarian

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

 

For 82-year-old guitarist/singer Leo “Bud” Welch, it’s been the biggest year of his life. The first real-deal, old-school Mississippi bluesman to be discovered and recorded in a long time made his first album in January, got his first passport and took his first flight from as far back in the woods as one can get in 21st century North America.

“All those people out there; that’s as many in one place at one time as I’ve seen all out together in my whole life,” he told me backstage at the Vancouver Island MusicFest in July. “What took me so long? I had nobody depending on going out there and getting me started. Couldn’t get nobody… get a helping hand.

“Just me and my guitar and the good Lord keeping me going, letting me stay around for something while he made a way. I needed something to come along easier for me.

“Thank God, I got it going,” he grins, lopsidedly. “I still get around good, don’t walk with no stick or nothin, get up and dance when it moves me,” he added, adjusting his ball cap and running his hands over one of the suits and ties he wears when performing. His hot pink electric guitar – a symbol of the fight against breast cancer, which has taken too many from his small circle – is emblazoned with his name in stick-on postal box, black and gold letters and strapped over a shoulder stooped from 35 years of cutting timber on riverbanks.

His hearing is slightly impaired from the chainsaws he’s carried as close and as often as a guitar. But hearing his introduction loud and clear, Leo spins as if released, waving with tenacious energy at the large crowd, proudly marching front and centre, as if on fire, shouting back, “I’m glad to be here on this day, but this is only the beginning.”

The audience reacted the same way as they did a few weeks earlier in France, Italy and Switzerland and a few days later at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival – joyfully soaking up something primal, someone’s sheer fun and singular charisma, witnessing what everyone assumed was extinct, knowing that what they were experiencing will never pass this way again.

Over the course of half a dozen interviews – in a summer jam-packed with music and chats with folks who make it – helped out by the manager who is a big part of the story, translating the drawl and incomprehensible snippets, I pieced together some of the life of of Leo “Bud” Welch.

Born in Sabougla (pronounced shah-boog-lah), Mississippi in 1932. Raised with four brothers and seven sisters in unincorporated Calhoun County, home for his entire life. “Nothing but a two-store spot, wasn’t even a post office, no law in town, all just country people and my home in the middle of a field somewhere,” he recalled.

“My cousin R.C. saved up seven dollars for a mail-order guitar when I was 12 years-old and I walked to get it at the nearest post office. I was told not to mess with it, but R.C. took to courtin,’ we called it. I started wailin’ and bangin’ on it and listening to all kind of music on the radio. By the time he caught me, he said, ‘OK, you got better than me.’

“When I got big enough, we’d play house parties and three-day picnics with ball games out in the woods. I’d have to walk, sling my guitar over my back and down the road I’d go. People would drop nickels, dimes and quarters in my pockets and even in the hole in my guitar. I’d get home and have to shake all the money out.”

He settled in Bruce – named for E.L. Bruce, the hardwood magnate – which boasts “Where Money Grows in Trees and Hopes and Dreams Never Die.” The Mississippi town of 2,000 has seven mills and runs on their shift whistles. The nearest interstate (I-55) is 20 miles away, the closest city – Elvis’ hometown of Tupelo – lies 30 miles northeast. Most maps can’t find it.

Of raising his family of four, Leo says, “I run the chains, cut timber. Told my wife if I had a dollar for every tree I trimmed off, I’d be a millionaire today. Called myself a one-man band, the one-man saw, cut timber for 35 year, goin’ down there Monday to Friday. We couldn’t see when we’d go and we couldn’t see when we’d come back, worked from dark to dark. In between, I cut cotton and corn for 50 cents or a dollar a day.”

He couldn’t afford bus fare for an audition in Memphis with B.B. King and couldn’t stray far or play late-night bars. And too tired from work, he took to playing in churches. Saturday night music on Sunday. “When the preacher visited another place, me, my sister and my sister-in-law – I called them the Sabougla Voices – would go along,” he remembered.

Enter Vencie Varnado who had known Leo all his life. He retired back home from a career in the military and began pestering Welch to make a record. But an untrusting Leo had heard it all before. So Vencie hired him to play at this 50th birthday party and secretly taped a few minutes on his cell phone. Varnado emailed it to Fat Possum Records, which had specialized in undiscovered, authentic blues artists, until six years ago when they couldn’t find any more. Within a month, 10 tracks of real-as-real-gets foot-stomping hill country gospel, “Leo Welch: Sabougla Voices” was released on the subsidiary, Big Legal Mess, featuring all-star local musicians.

It caught the ear of National Public Radio and other media, blues promoters in Europe and filmmakers who hired him to work with Ryan Gosling on a shoot in New Orleans.“Long as Leo’s happy, that’s what counts,” says fiercely dedicated Vencie, whom Welch has nicknamed “Big Money.” He’s the last traditional bluesman, the last tree in a stand of cut timber. Helpin’ is my way of giving back.”

“Don’t nothing get old but clothes and you wash, starch and iron them and they new again,” says Leo. “I just play like I play. I’m not trying to be anybody else. I give all the credit to Big Money. He’s my backbone. Now I’m hoping to get a place bigger than one room and enough closet for my clothes.

“I’m goin’ to make a blues record when I get back home from playing in Berlin, Germany. Blues has a feeling just like gospel, but they don’t have a book like the Bible. It’s just different words. Blues is just explaining about life. Life on this Earth,” he adds.

“Hey Bruce, you got the same name as my home. You tell everyone to believe something good and bigger than themelves,” concluded Leo “Bud” Welch. “Never ‘give up. I’m enjoying the best I ever enjoyed in my life.”

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

Goosebumps & memories

The Soweto Gospel Choir

MUSIC RISING Bruce Mason

• When the Soweto Gospel Choir received its first Grammy in 2007, it took the coveted award home to South Africa and its biggest fan: Nelson Mandela. The highly acclaimed 52-member group performed at many of his family’s functions, including his granddaughter’s wedding and his memorial service late last year in the soccer stadium in Soweto.

“He loved our music. Anytime he could, he would come see the choir. So we wanted to present him with that award,” said choirmaster and choreographer Shimmy Jiyane. “Watching and listening to him, you got goosebumps. You don’t forget those kind of moments.”

Goosebumps and unforgettable memories are also part of the choir’s performances. A global phenomenon, they’re currently on a North American tour performing tribute concerts to Mandela and celebrating the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid. (The choir performs in Vancouver on April 13 at the QE.)

The day Mandela died, the choir dressed as employees of a mall in Pretoria and surprised shoppers with a flash mob that went viral on YouTube. The stirring rendition of Asimbonanga, written by Johnny Clegg (See “Nelson Mandela and the Power of Music, Common Ground, January, 2014), is now featured in the tour.

“Madiba was our father, motivator and leader,” added Jiyane, a tenor and founding member of the group in 2002. “He changed South Africa and the world. He continues to be our beacon of hope for what the future can bring if the past is forgiven.”

Filling stages with colour and high-energy movement, the choir performs dances of different South African tribal groups, including the high-kicking Zulu, shoulder and footwork of the Tshwana and swing-like Kofifi. Meanwhile, the singers weave nuanced harmonies into an evocative sound with melodies of African spirituals, American gospel and pop tunes. From Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House, the choir has shared stages with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Bono, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.

“Every song we perform is chosen because it has a powerful message and it makes us feel something, whether joyous or sad,” Jiyane continued. “Music truly is the international language. It has the ability to break down barriers and bring joy into the listener’s heart. And we want our audiences to be moved, to connect with our passion and to leave feeling inspired and uplifted.”

Choral music is a wonderful gift to receive, even better to give, with benefits beyond other human activities. It expresses emotion better than language and has a spiritual dimension that reverberates through time, in and out of churches. Group singing communicates other cultures and eras more effectively than history books and courses. Madrigals take us to Renaissance England, spirituals to the experience of Black Americans and Africans.

However, recent research is uncovering unimagined health benefits in the worldwide rise of choirs. Chorus America estimates that 32.5 million adults sing in choirs south of the border, up 10 million over the past six years. Watch for an upcoming feature on community choirs in Common Ground.

Don’t deny yourself the personal joy experienced by the Soweto Gospel Choir. The BC Choral Federation is the umbrella group for more than 300 choirs here. The website http://www.bcchoralfed.com/ has everything you need to know choir-wise. Chorfest, the federation’s flagship event, is in Vancouver May 2-4.

April 8: For those who want to learn more about another African example of healing, the School of Community & Social Justice is staging a one-day course in New Westminster: “Trauma, Reconciliation and Peacemaking After Mass-Violence: Learning From Rwanda. It includes storytelling and music. Visit www.jibc.ca. Search for the School of Community & Social Justice and then click on Special Events.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

photo © Simonemillward


Nelson Mandela and the power of music

Nelson Mandela looks out former prison cell

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

 

• Of all the towering figures in history, none is celebrated in music as is Nelson Mandela. His spirit, perseverance and dignity fuelled the cause of liberty and equality, but also drove protest music to great global heights. The subject of timeless songs during his 27 years in prison, stirring anthems after his release and his triumphant ascent to the presidency, through Truth and Reconciliation, the Noble Peace Prize and his campaign against HIV/AIDS, he inspired artists of all genres who took him, his struggles and vision to heart and the world stage. His Google play-list tops 100 tracks. That’s just those that exist in digital formats. And upon his death, scores of symphonies, operas and other works are being composed.

Central to South African life, particularly Mandela’s, “Music,” he said, “is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate us and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice. Such is the value of music.”

Working as a lawyer from 1956 to 1961, he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities. Although initially committed to non-violent protest, he led a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government and was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment. Confined in a damp concrete cell, eight feet (2.4 m) by seven feet (2.1 m), he slept on a straw mat and was harassed by white wardens. He worked at breaking rocks in a lime quarry and was forbidden to wear sunglasses, which permanently damaged his eyesight. Locked in solitary for possessing smuggled news clippings, he was permitted only one visit and one heavily censored letter every six months. Indeed, music was a great blessing, but singing to his fellow prisoners from his cell each evening, he was still unaware of its true power.

 

Release Nelson MandelaAfter the brutal, bloody Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the Musicians’ Union in the UK had declared a boycott and the Beatles and Rolling Stones would be among those who refused to perform in South Africa. Exiled for decades, singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela toured tirelessly to fight apartheid in their homeland and to raise awareness, aided by Harry Belafonte. In 1963, Vanessa Redgrave wrote and performed Hanging on a Tree during a rally, well aware that Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for life, also faced the death penalty.

Nonetheless, American civil rights, Vietnam, students’ rights, various assassinations and political shenanigans were the stuff of protest. Apartheid only getting a nod in songs such as Gil Scott-Heron’s 1976 Johannesburg: “They may not get the news, but they need to know we’re on their side.”

And it was Steve Biko, not Mandela who became the first anti-apartheid icon. The young founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement – who died in 1977 after being severely beaten in police custody – was immortalized in 1980 in Peter Gabriel’s Biko: “You can blow out a candle but you can’t blow out a fire / Once the flames begin to catch / the wind will blow it higher.”

That same year, the UN finally approved a cultural boycott of South Africa, naming Mandela in a resolution around the world. Petitions were signed, tributes paid, but awareness waned. Two years later – on the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s arrest – ANC leader-in-exile Oliver Tambo relaunched the campaign focused on Mandela, making this incarcerated, invisible celebrity an international cause célèbre.

 

“I am told that when ‘Free Mandela’ posters went up in London, most young people thought my Christian name was ‘Free,’” he recalled in his autobiography.

Jerry Dammers, a member of The Specials, a British multiracial ska band, had never heard of the famous prisoner when he attended a tribute concert in 1983. With an armful of leaflets and a melody in his head, he wrote Free Nelson Mandela. The simple message, chanted over and over, became an international rallying cry. Released under the band name The Special A.K.A, the following year it tapped into South African rhythms, celebratory spirit and joyous solidarity, the polar opposite of Gabriel’s dirge. Produced by Elvis Costello, the optimistic chorus was so catchy that anyone could sing, remember and move to it, the most danceable protest song of all time.

With Mandela’s face on the front of the record sleeve, filled with information gleaned from anti-apartheid campaigners, Tambo couldn’t have asked for more. The song was embraced by the UN, ANC and black South Africans who sang it at demonstrations and played it over loudspeakers even though the record was banned by the forces of apartheid.

At the same time, Steven Van Zandt – Little Steven of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and the future Silvio on The Sopranos – became enraged at artists who performed at the white, big-ticket luxury resort in the middle of the dirt-poor, black Bantustan (homeland) of Bophuthatswana near Johannesburg. He brought 49 artists together to form Artists United Against Apartheid and to record Sun City. Produced by early electronic dance music innovator Arthur Baker, it bridged the worlds of rock and rap, featuring the famous line “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” and lyrics sung by the likes of Springsteen and Grandmaster Flash, Bob Dylan and Afrika Bambaataa, Miles Davis and Run-D.M.C.

A chart-maker in Canada and Australia, it would be played by only half of the radio stations in the US and never achieved the success of We Are the World, also released in 1985.

But the video earned heavy rotation on a then-soaring MTV, delivering shocking images of South African police violence as well as footage of Mandela and other activists. It ignited campus demonstrations, urging universities to divest their holdings in companies doing business with the South African regime, a critical turning point in global awareness and the implementation of sanctions. While Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan still labelled him a terrorist and a communist, the floodgates were opened and the floodlights turned on. A survey found that three-quarters of 16-24 year-olds in the Western world knew who Mandela was and wanted him released.

In 1988, Dammers conceived of a 70th birthday concert at Wembley Arena for the still-imprisoned Mandela. African musicians and dedicated campaigners shared the stage with sympathetic superstars on a night witnessed by 600 million people in 67 countries, peaking with the iconic trio of songs Biko, Sun City and Free Nelson Mandela.

Two years later, the freed, gentle man, who had purged himself of bitterness and hatred, would walk on the same stage and receive a 10-minute standing ovation. “Thank you that you chose to care,” Mandela told the ecstatic crowd. Backstage, before leaving for the airport and the next remarkable stage of his life, he was introduced to Dammers. “Ah, yes, very good, but the line about my captors forcing me to wear painfully ill-fitting shoes was inaccurate,” said Mandela, a testament to his integrity and search for truth and reconciliation, requiring no embellishment to inspire the planet.

Mandela acknowledged a debt to musicians, who rallied again in 2003 to launch charity concerts under the banner of 46664 (four, double six, six four), taken from his prison number in jail on hellish Robben Island. It was the strategy of the apartheid regime to reduce people fighting for freedom to nameless numbers. Simply and poignantly through personal example, he demonstrated and communicated to the world once again that we are human beings, all equal, including those infected with HIV/AIDS.

Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker Jason Bourque is working on an upcoming documentary entitled Music for Mandela. It should be quite a show. Perhaps it will be more telling, poignant and insightful than December’s funeral celebrations, cheapened by “selfie” photos, schizophrenic signers and so-called leaders whose bloated, gaudy and hypocritical rhetoric loudly blared in the blurred faces of those still imprisoned by a growing inequality.

Somewhere, a beloved figure dances to the heartbeat of humanity, the work and the music, still unfinished.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

Get uke-in’

The ukulele’s back

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Langley Ukulele Ensemble
Meet the current Langley Ukulele Ensemble, the nation’s premier uke group that established the City of Langley, BC, as the “Ukulele Capital of Canada.” Comprising 20 musicians, aged 13-21, the group performs 50 to 80 concerts a year – in their community, regionally and globally. In addition to travelling across Canada, they visit the continental US, Japan and Hawaii. Search for their YouTube videos to silence anyone who doubts that jaw-dropping and heart-warming virtuoso music can be played on the ukulele.

• I first encountered it as a tricky word in a childhood spelling bee and was recently embarrassed when told I wasn’t saying it properly. It’s “u-k-u-l-e-l-e,” pronounced “oo-koo-le-lee,” but just plain “uke” may be music to your ears. No matter how you say it or spell it, this happy, humble, under-appreciated, much-maligned runt of the guitar family litter is the come-back kid of musical instruments. A tiny little orchestra with a big following, the ukulele is ubiquitous once again, taking star turns as a global fad, or phase. Most likely, though, it’s a full-fledged phenomena with legs and staying power. On one hand, a flight from high-tech; on the other, a virtual love child of YouTube.

Now that you can spell it and say it, know this too: You too can play it! Yes you can. You. It’s the easiest instrument to learn, according to the Guinness World Records book, thankfully replacing the plastic recorders of music education nightmares. Your child and inner child can sing along with this one to virtually every song ever made. Why, you could be strumming a carol or two before the season is out and Auld Lang Syne by New Year’s Eve.

Almost as important, you can buy a good one for the price of a smart phone. And you can take it anywhere – by backpack, bicycle, plane or on foot – even to a protest march. No need for charging batteries or untwisting headphones. Lay it on your lap or chest when you lie down to gaze skyward. Pass it on to future generations; it’s the best friend you will find in 2014.

ukelele

Where to start? See Common Ground’s October issue (www.commonground.ca) and re-read Lynn McGown’s wonderfully inspiring article“ Yes, you can sing.” Substitute “play ukulele” for “sing.” Lynn approves. Personalize her poetic phrases like “self-soothing friend,” “a way to give form to my myriad emotions” and “has brought me gifts of courage, depth and presence.”

Stay online and browse u-k-u-l-e-l-e. Add your city or province. Eureka! A world beckons on-screen with music stores that stock a mind-boggling array of models and supplies, lifetimes of free video lessons and even a new online magazine, Ukulele. And new friends await in the ever-growing online clubs, groups, jams and circles, packed with fellow travellers on a musical journey.

Spend a little time on the site of the uke group nearest you. In the highly unlikely event there isn’t one, start one yourself. The Vancouver Ukulele Circle (www.vcn.bc.ca/vanukes/) is led by the local “King of the Ukulele,” Ralph Shaw. It’s the oldest ukulele club on the continent, with 600 names on its email list.

The Circle posts the following invite on its website: “Come and experience the folk music of the new millennium. Ukulele is where it’s at! You say you can’t sing and can barely play? No problem! Quality is not an issue. We do this for fun. Sing as loud and free as you like because everyone else (over 100 people) is doing the same.”

Also bookmark Ruby’s Ukes, Vancouver’s ukulele school with classes, workshops and Vancouver’s Ukulele festival (www.rubysukes.ca). As noted on the website, it’s “a haven… for all things ukulele” and was featured in the national radio doc Four Little Strings.

The ultimate must-see (and hear) website is the Langley Ukulele Ensemble at www.langleyukes.com Their motto is “enriching lives through music,” which is what they’ve been doing since a force-of-nature named Peter Luongo arrived centre-stage in 1980. He created a phenomenal legacy that includes the release of 13 recordings (demonstrating remarkable versatility), before passing the director’s uke on to his son.

LUE was featured in the charming documentary Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog. “An absolute delight,” opined famed movie critic Leonard Maltin while watching the BC ensemble tear up Flight of the Bumblebee and William Tell Overture. Alumni include virtuoso James Hill, internationally recognized as one of the finest uke players and composers on the planet and dubbed by CBC’s Stuart McLean, the “Wayne Gretzky of ukulele.”

A little history

In 1879, Portuguese immigrants arrived in Honolulu with a small-bodied, four-stringed braguinha. Islanders were enchanted and the landing made front-page news. Edward Purvis, Assistant Chamberlain to the king (Kalakaua, not Elvis) became especially adept. He was a small, energetic man, nicknamed “ukulele,” Hawaiian for “jumping flea.” Among the most enthusiastic aficionados were members of the royal family and it ascended to the Islands’ instrument of choice.

In 1915, at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the relatively new US territory got a chance to strut and strum its stuff, featuring hula dancing and strumming ukuleles, igniting a really crazy craze. Companies churned ukes out; even department stores sold them. Tin Pan Alley songwriters cranked out endless uke-centred novelties, including my favourite: Oh! How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo (That’s Love in Honolulu). The romantic, carefree, highly portable and acoustic ukulele took the Hit Parade, the silver screen and the planet by storm, replete with boater hats and Hawaiian shirts.

It has surfed through whitecaps of popularity and troughs of musty comic propdom. In the 50s, folks tuned their new TVs to Arthur Godfrey and his Ukulele four nights a week with on-air lessons. Millions of plastic models – called TV Pals – were sold. These wretched toys and Tiny Tim’s novelty tune Tiptoe Through the Tulips helped put ukes down, but never TKO’d them.

Fast forward to the 90s and a much different tune. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was all over the place with his 1993 medley of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World especially in TV commercials soundtracks. When YouTube was created, one of the first videos to go viral was Jake Shimabukuro’s rendition of a George Harrison (a uke devotee, himself) masterpiece While My Guitar Gently Weeps. At 12 million hits, Jake’s career was launched. Thousands of videos have followed as the low-tech uke went high-tech. Hopefully, it’s here to stay.

A few tips

Ukuleles come in four registers: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The first is, by far, the most popular. Walk into any music store and pick up and plink the least intimidating of all instruments. For $50, you can walk out with a ukulele, picked from all sorts of sizes, colours and shapes, with a gig bag, felt pick and pitch pipe thrown in. Add a few dollars and you have a much less fickle friend for life, barring a yuckee mishap. It will be easier to tune, stay in tune longer, fret better (and we all need a friend that frets well) and outlast you and your kids. Second-hand ukes used to be for sale everywhere for a song and they still show up at yard sales now and then. Look for solid wood; a new Martin Style 5K will set you back five grand. If you’ve got one in the attic, basement or garage, dust it off and take it to a repair person to be set up and re-strung. Get uke-in’. Do you a world of good. Or put one under a tree and say “Merry Ukulele” all year, every year.

Vancouver ukulele nights

The Vancouver Ukulele Circle hosts a ukulele night on the third Tuesday of each month at St. James Hall, 3214 W. 10th Ave. @ Trutch. $8 with or without an instrument. Doors open 6:30PM. Snacks, desserts, coffee, beer and wine are sold or bring your own food. Starts 7:30PM with everyone utilizing a must-have songbook with more than 200 tunes ($15). Something similar and just as spirited and revolutionary is happening – or should be – in your community.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

ukulele player photo © Morganka

Songs to die for, or not

Canadian War Grave

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

• “The only good thing that has ever come out of a war was a song,” Johnny Cash once said.

Through much of history, music has marched in intimate lock-step with war, first on the battlefield, then back at home. But Vietnam – the rock and roll war – was a different tune. The delivery of music, as well as munitions, fundamentally changed and the protest song became a powerful force, sounding alarms through the fog.

Music has played myriad roles in conflict. Ancient Greek and Roman armies used percussion and brass as signals, relaying messages about enemy locations and orders from leaders. In the Bible, Joshua blew a ram’s horn for seven days and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. It may have actually been a coincidental earthquake, but it struck the fear of God in the Canaanites and fired up the Israelites.

As far back as the Dark Ages, Celts went into battle, dressed as barbaric warriors playing horns, drums, and most importantly, blood curdling bagpipes, boosting their own morale while intimidating their enemies. During America’s Civil War (1861-65), Confederate hero Robert E. Lee remarked, “Without music there would have been no army.” To soothe a nation literally coming apart, as well as to uplift troops, that war produced its share of popular compositions still played today, such as The Battle Hymn of the Republic, When This Cruel War is Over, Aura Lee, Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More and Taps.

WW1, “the war to end all wars” – 1914-1918 – was a bloody and horrific struggle that forever changed the way war was fought: horses were replaced by tanks, rifles transformed into machine guns, not to mention gas. To cope, songs of this war were sung in pubs, music halls and social gatherings, as well as in tents, dugouts and trenches – as a way to never forget.

Vera Lynn
“The Forces Sweetheart” Vera Lynn (Smithsonian collection)

Sheet music was ubiquitous and publisher Leo Feist opined in the widely read Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere, “Music will help win the war. A Nation that sings can never be beaten. America’s war songs are spreading throughout the world and are being hailed as an omen of victory. Songs are to a nation’s spirit what ammunition is to a nation’s army. There isn’t anything in the world that will raise a soldier’s spirits like a good, catchy marching tune.”

Composers became soldier-like, scrambling to create songs in the fervour of the war effort on the home front, churning out, Keep the Home-Fires Burning (‘Till the Boys Come Home), Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag (and Smile, Smile, Smile) and Over There. When Johnny Comes Marching Home was re-purposed from the US Civil War and popular British marching song It’s a Long Way to Tipperary portrayed the longing for home that came home and stayed.

World War II was the first conflict in the age of centralized, electronically mass-distributed music. Sound had come to the movies, including newsreels. Most Americans now had radios and in Nazi Germany households with radios increased four-fold. The number of listeners to a single performance of a recording or broadcast skyrocketed and with it the power to determine and control who listened to what.

Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller postage stamp (Smithsonian collection)

“Entertainment is always a national asset. Invaluable in time of peace, it is indispensable in wartime,”said US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The US didn’t need a Propaganda Minister. Music automatically reflected the government’s primary interest; the desires of most people were in line with leaders.

Lili Marlene, written by Norbert Schultze, was one of the most popular songs, sung by both the Axis and the Allies and also used by each side as propaganda. Music was also censored; the American hit Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer, for example, was edited at the BBC because of its almost blasphemous mix of religious words and foxtrot melody.

England’s Vera Lynn became “The Forces Sweetheart,” singing emblematic and timeless songs such as (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover and We’ll Meet Again. The lyrics live on and the latter song shows up in an apocalyptic scene in the movie Dr. Strangelove – “Don’t know where, don’t know when / But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

But the most popular music was Swing, played in large dance halls and clubs, frequented by soldiers home on leave or leaving home for the theatre of war. It was music tailor-made for the troops, USO tours and the selling of war bonds. The music was orchestral, hopeful and highly danceable, such as, When the Lights Go on Again (All Over the World), Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.

Perhaps the most popular swing band was Glenn Miller’s, with big hits such as In the Mood, Pennsylvania 6-500 and Chattanooga Choo Choo. While he was travelling to entertain US troops in France, his aircraft disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel. He is listed as “Missing in Action,” but his music lives on from an age when jazz was born. Hitler hated jazz and banned it throughout Germany and occupied Europe. The world, however – including low flying German pilots on bombing missions – tuned in the uniquely American, mostly Black music, which represented a defiant hope for real liberation and freedom and in many ways the soundtrack for the war.

Aldous Huxley observed, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” The lives and the messages portrayed through music had, and still have, more impact on people than history books and newspapers.

For a musical journey well worth remembering, Google CBC Radio’s Remembrance Day playlist for WW1 and WW11.

Common Ground will celebrate the colourful and inspiring history of the anti-war song in the New Year with a list of those that had an impact and continue to live on. Got a favourite? Please email the title and a few words explaining why to: brucemason@shaw.ca

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

Emmy and LouRodney

Connection and chemistry at the heart of Old Yellow Moon

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason

Emmy and LouRodney

• There’s a resounding buzz across Europe and North America around the Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon tour. Folks who have experienced the two-and-a-half-hour show are using words like “epic” to describe online what they shared live in Paris, New York, London and LA, from Berlin to Belfast, Toronto, Quebec and Ottawa.

The long-awaited recorded collaboration earlier this year was four decades in the making. Subsequent performances – including six cities in Western Canada in early November – are something else, a showcase of deep connections and a sum much greater than its considerable parts.

Even the opening act is special, featuring Richard Thompson, whose seminal work with Fairport Convention in the early 70s led to inspired songwriting and performance standards and a nod from Rolling Stone as one of the “20 Greatest Guitarists.”

EmmyLou and Rodney 70'sBut it’s vocal harmony and unique chemistry that are the heart and essence of international encores, what Emmylou calls a “celebration of a 40-year friendship.” She has recorded more than 25 albums and earned 12 Grammy Awards. The most prominent harmony vocalist of our time and go-to-girl, her voice has blended elegantly with everyone from Bob Dylan, to Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in Trio, Elvis Costello, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Roy Orbison and Mark Knopfler, among others.

“From the first time Rodney and I sat down on a floor and across a kitchen table, messing around with two guitars and our two lead voices, it was obvious and inevitable that we’d be friends, cohorts and collaborators,” Emmylou recalls.

“Two unique voices in a duet can create a third voice, like nothing that has ever existed before. Obviously, the songs have to be good, but like instruments that add emotion and shading, voices raised together create some kind of joy. And being joyful at 20, or being joyful at 60, it’s still joy, ” she adds.

Crowell, a songwriter’s writer and singer is also a multi-Grammy Award winner. His work has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Seger, Norah Jones, Etta James and the Grateful Dead. In 1988, his Diamonds & Dirt album generated five #1 singles. The 2010 publication of his memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, earned global acclaim and a recent recording, KIN, with fellow author Mary Karr, debuted at #1 on Americana and Country charts.

“If the songs are good, you get to lay it on the line and deliver a worthy performance,” he reports. “You don’t think about, it but lose yourself in the moment. Get in there unconsciously and the chances of achieving something somewhat timeless go up exponentially.

“Come up to snuff enough times and you’ve got a record. Everything else is precious and I guess it’s a commitment to the art of the song that we can offer to an audience.” Crowell describes Harris as having “the soul of a poet and the voice of an angel and a cowgirl with a broken heart.”

Back in 1967, as an aspiring folksinger, she had arrived in New York expecting to meet Dylan, Baez, et al. But the scene had moved on, a marriage also faded quickly and as a single mother she also had to work as a waitress.

“Music was a way to make a living, the only thing I knew how to do well,” she recalls. “I didn’t have focus, direction, passion or a point of departure until I started making music with Gram Parsons. That’s when everything started to come together.”

However, her mentor and soul mate would overdose on heroin, leaving behind a legacy and a still lingering influence on everything from alt.country to the Rollin’ Stones.

“All of a sudden, the lights were turned out and I had to figure out how to make my own way in the dark. Through Gram and osmosis, I had developed an ability to hear the beauty and the poetry, the restraint that is in music and gives it its power,” Emmylou says.

In 1974, shortly after Parson’s tragic demise, while struggling with her debut solo album, Pieces of the Sky, Harris first heard the then unknown songwriter Rodney Crowell on a demo tape. “In the first few bars of Blueberry Wine, something went boom, something in his voice, in the music and the energy that was there,” Harris recalls what became the opening track, later prompting an invitation and air plane ticket to join what would become her legendary Hot Band.

Crowell says, “I went out and stayed seven years. We started touring with Elvis Presley’s band when he wasn’t working, hippie kids working with really high-price musicians like James Burton, Glen Hardin and Emory Gordy.

“We were young and foolish and that was lovely and the world was all out in front of us. We found our voice so many years ago, a certain tone we can get. Now that we finally got together again, it’s as if no time had passed. We’re blood in that way, a blend more about chemistry than precision.”

Harris and Crowell bonded over sibling harmonies such as the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers, internalizing them, creating another dimension as compelling as their solo voices – a classic pairing as unique and shimmering as the similarly influenced Simon and Garfunkel or Lennon and McCartney.

Blueberry Wine was revisited and revised on Old Yellow Moon. “I wrote it when I was 20 and knew I could do better. The writer’s best friend is revision and now it’s a little more in keeping with my current sensibilities. In some ways, we were sillier when we were younger, and we took things like this for granted. This process, this day’s work, is a bigger blessing than we understood it to be back then,” Rodney says.

The passage of time – time well spent, time misspent – is a recurring motif on Old Yellow Moon, including Matraca Berg’s heartbreaking lament for lost youth Back When We Were Beautiful and Crowell’s own preternaturally wise Here We Are.

Travelling back and forth across their careers and shared and separate history, listeners are offered rare balance and authenticity as well as an acknowledgement of the artist’s maturity and fallen comrades, such as Parsons and Harris’ touching farewell to Kate McGarrigle.

Sometimes mournful or timelessly yearning, anything but nostalgic, sometimes rollicking, Old Yellow Moon, the album and upcoming concerts, showcase the deep connections between ever evolving musical powerhouses, right now.


Concert dates for Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, with Richard Thompson:

Nov 6: Vancouver: Orpheum Theatre. Nov 8: Nanaimo: Port Theatre. Nov 9: Victoria: Alix Goolden Hall. Nov 11: Edmonton: Jubilee Theatre. Nov 12: Calgary: EPCOR Centre. Nov 14: Winnipeg: Burton Cummings Theatre. Tickets through www.ticketmaster.ca

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. brucemason@shaw.ca