Thursday, January 31, 2013

Recording: Bombino

Artist: Bombino

Song: unknown*

Recorded at Lula Lounge, July 12, 2011.

Bombino - unknown

My notes for this set can be found here.

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Recording: Kwesi Immanuel

Artist: Kwesi Immanuel

Song: These Things

Recorded at Lula Lounge, July 12, 2011.

Kwesi Immanuel - These Things

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Bombino

Bombino (Kwesi Immanuel)

Lula Lounge. Tuesday, July 12, 2011.

It felt a little strange that I was at Lula — a likable joint that I don't get to all that often — two nights in a row. The previous night had been for a post-Afrofest club show from Zimbabwean legend Thomas Mapfumo. This night would be for a rising star from the other side of the continent — it was a little eye-raising to me that he hadn't also been in town the previous weekend for Afrofest.

Or maybe that would be because folks round here just hadn't caught up to him yet. As showtime rolled around, there were still tables to be had and a quiet vibe prevailing. That at least gave a conducive atmosphere for a quick opening set from Kwesi Immanuel. Local singer-songwriter Immanuel has come to performance later in life, after (by his own admission) "getting sick of letting fear override my desire to play live".

A bit of shy tentativeness was evident in his demeanour. Not a big chatterer, his stage presence was almost as downcast as his music, but this quick five-song set, drawing from his Love You More album, was rather good stuff. Accompanied only by his guitar, Immanuel played some stripped-down material with a bit of a mournful air, showing off a nimble voice that could effortlessly slip into a higher register. This could slip in nicely beside the mopey indie-rock troubadour of your choice, given its minor-key sort of sadness — and with the quaver in his voice he could knock a Daniel Johnston song out of the park.1

Listen to a track from this set here.

There was a quick turnover after that, and still not much more of a crowd for the headliner. Bombino is the stage name of Omara Moctar, born near Agadez in northern Niger. So though he comes from a different country than most of the "desert" guitar players, he comes from the same Tamasheq cultural background as his more renowned brethren in Mali such as Tinariwen or Terakaft, as well as, I'm sure, hundreds of groups that we don't know about on this side of the world.

Moctar was getting some attention for his Agadez album, although the sound of that is somewhat more restrained than his live sound. Well, to some extent — to open the show, the youthful-looking Moctar took the stage and played his acoustic guitar sitting down, accompanied only by a hand-drummer to start. So there was a quieter vibe, but right from the get-go there was that delicious guitar sound — the mode here is "hypnotic". That confident guitar playing was accompanied by his low vocals, which would be punctuated occasionally by whoops, slightly reminiscent of the ones in Springsteen's "State Trooper".

The quiet part of the set lasted until fourth song "Tabsekh Dalet", when the rest of the band (bass and second guitarist) filed on stage to segue into the a full group number, the percussionist taking his place behind the drum kit. And immediately this was something else entirely: a few people got up to dance as the band settled into a long, steady groove, which is this music's most distinguishing feature.

It's should be stressed how different the music is from our conventional pop. To hook people in 'round these parts, this music is compared to everything from Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page. And while it also gets tagged as "African blues", that really only makes sense in a few points of overlap (such as shades of John Lee Hooker's infinite boogie-woogie). Taking more of a modal approach, the songs aren't based on melodies following from chord changes. Indeed, I watched the rhythm player, just to see how long he could sit on one chord — and the answer is seemingly forever. That gives the music its drone-y undertone, but Moctar's nimble playing is also picking out a lot of variations within that chord — all while the beat propels things along.

Once Moctar switched over to his electric guitar — just a basic black strat — and stood up to play, this was immediately much more "rock hero". And even more fantastic. Now, that same steady structure gives lots of room for basically continuous nimble soloing. It was humbling to see how much he could pull from that unadorned guitar1 and as drone-y as it is, there's still room for lots of tunefulness, as seen in catchy melodies like "Imuhar", which was the first indisputably awesome peak of the night.

After a couple more extended groovers (these songs are not usually quick) the main set ended with one that stretched past the fifteen-minute mark, the drummer sitting in a superb pocket and creating a gloriously self-contained time-stopping groove. Returning for an encore, the band played the superb "Tar Hani", which might be the closest Moctar has yet come to rock dynamics, leaning into the song's surging riff.

All told, a fantastic show. The only negative was the fact that the room was less than half full. Moctar would pack in a bigger crowd in a cozier room his next time through town. And now, his steady work on the festival and club circuit in North America looks to have paid off with a new album forthcoming on a larger label with a celebrity producer attached. I suspect the next time he's in town there'll be a new wave of folks out to see him.

I had originally posted a track from this set here, and now you can check out another here.

1 Kwesi Immanuel will be opening for Cody ChesnuTT on February 10, 2013 at Wrongbar.

2 All Moctar had attached to his guitar was a tuner; the rhythm player, plugged straight into his amp, didn't even have that much.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Recording: Minotaurs

Artist: Minotaurs

Song: New Believers

Recorded at The Tranzac (Main Hall), January 26, 2013.

Minotaurs - New Believers

Full review to follow. Celebrating the release of Minotaurs' sophomore New Believers album, Nate Lawr's backing band was a dozen deep for this show. (This might be a new record — at some point I'll have to make a chart.) There were a few different faces in the band, but the key addition here was Dee Archer, adding a new dimension to the band's sound by serving as co-vocalist and foil to Lawr.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Recording: Julie Doiron

Artist: Julie Doiron

Songs: Can't Make It No More + The Longest Winter

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, January 25, 2013.

Julie Doiron - Can't Make It No More

Julie Doiron - The Longest Winter

Full review to follow. Celebrating the release of her So Many Days album, Doiron performed with a new band that included the members of openers Construction and Destruction as well as C.L. McLaughlin. As always, there were amusing asides and diversions, but this was a strong set that even nodded to the Julie Doiron and the Wooden Stars album, which has just received a vinyl re-issue.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Recording: Aidan Closs + Mary Margaret O'Hara

Artist: Aidan Closs + Mary Margaret O'Hara

Song: Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying [Bob Wiseman cover]

Recorded at The Tranzac (Main Hall), January 24, 2013.

Aidan Closs + Mary Margaret O'Hara - Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying

Full review to follow. After Bob Wiseman played the songs from his new album, the night's second set included interpretations — including this take on the title song — from a selection of friends and collaborators.

Recording: Bob Wiseman

Artist: Bob Wiseman

Song: The Reform Party at Burning Man

Recorded at The Tranzac (Main Hall), January 24, 2013.

Bob Wiseman - The Reform Party at Burning Man

Full review to follow. Release dates are a slippery thing in this day and age, so I guess it didn't seem strange to wait 'til January to celebrate the album he put out last March, especially accounting for parental leaves and all. Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying has the hallmarks of his best work — sonic adventurousness, political commentary, carefully observed character sketches — and was presented first by Wiseman and his backing duo, and then again, with the songs interpreted by a rotating cast of friends.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Recording: Thomas Mapfumo

Artist: Thomas Mapfumo

Song: two unknown songs*

Recorded at Lula Lounge, July 11, 2011.

Thomas Mapfumo - unknown

Thomas Mapfumo - unknown

My notes for this show can be found here.

* Does anyone know the titles to these? Please leave a comment!

Gig: Thomas Mapfumo

Thomas Mapfumo

Lula Lounge. Monday, July 11, 2011.

This is the Lion in winter. Thomas Mapfumo — musical innovator, revolutionary hero — has a backstory so incredible that it seems closer to legend than fact. Taking traditional Shona music (especially the delicately-picked thumb piano rhythms of the mbira) and adapting it to the tools of rock'n'roll, he became a cultural hero, his chimurenga ("struggle") music a soundtrack to the anti-colonial struggle that transformed Rhodesia to an independent nation, winning him renown as "The Lion of Zimbabwe". An inveterate truth-teller, he then bore witness to the corruption that curdled the Mugabe regime into a cruel kleptocracy. For his trouble, he ended up in exile, now living in Eugene, Oregon. That wouldn't be enough to change his focus, however: "most of the songs we're playing tonight are about freedom and justice."

The burden of his own struggle — the exile, the itinerant life of the touring musician — looked to hang heavy on Mapfumo's shoulders. A little withdrawn and occasionally stooped over, he looked like a cagey ex-fighter. Added to that was the fact that a couple key members of his band were held back at the border, which might explain why Mapfumo took to the stage with an air of reluctance.

Billed as an "after-fest" party the night after he closed out Afrofest's main stage at Queen's Park, I wasn't sure if this was going to go ahead at all. Working with some local musicians drafted as last-minute fill-ins, the mainstage performance had a few shaky moments — enough that Mapfumo offered apologies to the crowd several times throughout the set. Playing together for a second night in a row meant, at least, that everyone was a little more comfortable with each other.

The first set started with a mellow groove, everyone seated except bassist Tich Maredza. (One of the locals augmenting the band, Zimbabwean-reared Maredza doesn't normally play the instrument, but obviously had a deep familiarity with the music.) Once that languorous, circular groove hit me, I has glad that I pushed aside my doubts to come out to the show.

That said, it was not as winning to Mapfumo's ear, as he offered an apology to the audience straight away as it finished, explaining again about the missing bandmembers, saying, "we'll do out best". But as the band launched into "Nhamo", it sounded much more solid than the night before, and soon Mapfumo was visibly more relaxed. It probably helped that the Zimbabweans in the crowd were soon right up front, dancing and clapping along in elaborate patterns as the disco ball suddenly lit up. Mapfumo glared into the crowd like it was a bright light before finally offering a full smile.

Even had his guitarist been present (Maredza's bandmate Larry Lewis was filling in), Mapfumo's latter-day sound relies less on interlocking rapidly-picked guitar lines than his classic material from the early '80's. Instead, the rhythm is carried by keybs and mbira, of which there was a pair on hand, including local phenom Evelyn Mukwedeya who was sitting in with the band. That makes for a less fiery sound, but it's still a potent combo when it hits its stride, and as the set proceeded, there were some powerful moments.

After a break, the second set started with another slow, meditative invocation, but once the pace picked up, the dancefloor was even more crowded, giving the room more of a party vibe. Many of the songs were rough at the outset, but the upside of the band figuring out the arrangements on the fly is that with the repeating interlocking parts once they've "got" it, it can just roll along as long as the spirit requires.

As the set went along, the gaps between songs grew shorter just as the songs grew longer, most extending past the ten-minute mark. And though all starting from the same musical elements, there were some intriguing variations, including one song with the plinks of the kalimba mildly distorted and sounding something like a synthesizer in a blooping rhythm loop, slowing moving out of sync with the song in a most intriguing manner, giving the music the feeling of being simultaneously slow and fast.

The last song of the main set ended with a big dancing circle in front of the stage, and while the crowd called for an encore, one woman in the audience sang a song before the band returned to play "Shumba" — one of Mapfumo's most immortal hits, and a theme song of sorts, about the lion hiding in the bushes re-emerging to claim its space in the free land of Zimbabwe.

All told, it was a helluva thing and a memorable night — two and a half hours of music. You can sort of objectively realize that the lion has lost a step, but there's still so much gravitas and craft there that the artist's very presence melds everything into something greater than the sum of its parts through sheer determined willpower.

It's not normally the sort of thing I'd do at all, but this was the one time that I bought a CD and waited in line to get it signed. It's a good thing to get a chance to witness a legend — and then say thanks afterwards.

Listen to a couple tracks from this set here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Recording: Christina Petrowska Quilico

Artist: Christina Petrowska Quilico

Song: Soul Ascending [Constantine Caravassilis, composer]

Recorded at Glenn Gould Studio, January 22, 2013.

Christina Petrowska Quilico - Soul Ascending

Full review to follow. A lovely night at the Glenn Gould, with Petrowska Quilico launching her new double album (available from Centrediscs) of compositions by Constantine Caravassilis. Divided into "Rhapsodies" and "Fantasias", the works are melodically accessible without being constrained by rigid formal structures. Which is to say the music is vivid enough to appreciate without requiring a curatorial statement.

The title alone is enough to create a resonant image for this piece, with the left-hand C# drone feeling like a tether to the quotidian repetitions of this earthly world as something ephemeral is slowly, irresistibly tugging upwards at it, pulling it away.

Caravassilis' pieces are so evocative that Petrowska Quilico was inspired to create a series of paintings illustrating the vivid imagery she felt in the music. (Soul Ascending is reproduced below.) It would have been intriguing to have the paintings projected alongside her playing at the show, but you can see a selection in the CD booklet — or, on Friday (January 25, 2013) in person at Chalmers House, where the Canadian Music Centre will be hosting a special exhibition of some of the pieces. More info here.

Petrowska Quilico maintails a vibrant social media presence, so hopefully this field recording will be supplemented with some material from this concert on her youtube channel.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Recording: Your 33 Black Angels

Artist: Your 33 Black Angels

Song: Dead Like Me

Recorded at Lee's Palace, January 19, 2013.

Your 33 Black Angels - Dead Like Me

Full review to follow. It's always nice to see NYC friends Y33BA come to town, whether it's in a loft or a dive or on the big stage at Lee's Palace. Calvin from B-17 filled in on bass for this one, and the set ended with an extended double crescendo raveup run through "I Want Something I Can Hold In My Hand".

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Recording: Love Kills

Artist: Love Kills

Songs: Adeline + Ready To Go

Recorded at Rancho Relaxo, January 18, 2013.

Love Kills - Adeline

Love Kills - Ready To Go

Full review to follow. Like a lot of bands, Love Kills put out some EP's, played some shows, and then sort of just faded away. But memories persist. I caught onto the band near the end of their existence and missed them when they disappeared, so it was nice to see them back in action (for the first time since '08) at this one-night-only reunion show. Their Jesus and Mary Chain buzzsaw cotton candy still tasted pretty sweet.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Recording: Dizu Plaatjies and Ibuyambo

Artist: Dizu Plaatjies and Ibuyambo

Song: Eqonce*

Recorded at Afrofest (Queen's Park), July 10, 2011.

Dizu Plaatjies and Ibuyambo - Eqonce

My notes for this set can be found here.

N.B. This recording is a capture of CIUT's live broadcast.

* Thanks to Templit for passing along the title to this one.

Recording: JP Buse

Artist: JP Buse

Songs: unknown*

Recorded at Afrofest (Queen's Park), July 10, 2011.

JP Buse - unknown

My notes for this set can be found here.

N.B. This recording is a capture of CIUT's live broadcast.

* I'm pretty sure these are two songs that segue together — does anyone know their titles? If so, please leave a comment!

Recording: Ijo Vudu

Artist: Ijo Vudu

Song: unknown*

Recorded at Afrofest (Queen's Park), July 10, 2011.

Ijo Vudu - unknown

My notes for this set can be found here.

N.B. This recording is a capture of CIUT's live broadcast.

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Festival: Afrofest 2011 (Sunday)

Afrofest 2011 (feat. Tich Maredza Band / Ijo Vudu / Ruth Mathiang and Waleed Kush / JP Buse / Dizu Plaatjies / Thomas Mapfumo)

Queen's Park. Sunday, July 10, 2011.

On the festival's second and final day, there were looming clouds overhead, the threat of rain turning the park into a humid sweatbox with just enough of a pleasing breeze to take the edge off. That wouldn't keep the crowds away, of course, but as usual, for the earlier acts you had to look beyond the open area in front of the stage to see just how many people were taking part.

I arrived just in time to see the Tich Maredza Band taking the stage. This unit evolved from Maredza's former band Masaisai, shifting from their mbira-based traditionalism to a more streamlined sound focusing on his own compositions. In fact, he started off on a gentle singer-songwriter note — recalling his idol Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi — in order to "give you some time to breathe" before ramping things up with more of a dance vibe.

Maredza would lead by example there, teaching the crowd how to say "dance" in Shona, and then busting out some moves, including his racehorse dance, which got the crowd's approval as the band showed off some co-ordinated backing steps. That four-piece backing unit would be described by Maredza as being like "honey without the bees" and featured Larry Lewis (guitar), Tich Gombiro (bass), Gordon Mapeka (drums) and Ruben Esguerra (percussion). Ever the showman, Maredza danced right off the stage to end the set.

For a little while it looked like the clouds were about to burst, but there would only be a few scattered drops of rain before the sun started breaking through as Ijo Vudu took the stage. This percussion and dance group was founded by Sani-Abu, who grew up in a family of traditional dancers in Nigeria before making his home in Toronto. The troupe featured five drummers behind the highly-kinetic dancers, but the ensemble started with some sing/chanting before getting down to the movement.

Once they got to it, the stage was a blur of beautiful costumes. Given that I was sweating through my sunscreen as fast as I could apply it, I could only imagine how hot it much be for the dancers moving like that up on stage. This was one of the points in the weekend where the visual element was predominant, but the pounding drums certainly held their own appeal.

Listen to a track from this set here.

This was a special weekend for Ruth Mathiang, who came to Toronto from South Sudan, which was celebrating its birth as an independent nation. And in a sign that musical alliances can matter more than lines on a map, she was joined by Waleed "Kush" Abdulhamid, born to the north in Sudan.

I'd previously seen the pair play as a more stripped-down duo, and here things started off based around their two voices, with a sort of invocation from each, delivered with a spiritual seriousness before the celebration (and the beat) kicked in and the crowd, waving their South Sudanese flags, started dancing in front of the stage.

With the full band treatment (drums/percussion/keyb/bass on stage) there were some more expansive arrangements to the songs. The band's celebratory uplift grooves were just right for Mathiang giving praise to "Mama Africa" before then moving on to a Miriam Makeba song.

The two voices made for a nice contrast — a dry desert wind and a lush green field — with Abdulhamid's rasp contrasting with Mathiang's pure, sweet tones. Abdulhamid was in more of a support role — though he did sing one of the songs I recalled from his Afrofest set the previous year, this was mostly Mathiang's set, and a memorable celebration for South Sudan.

Listen to a track from this set here.

A mid-afternoon set from JP Buse1 was quite likely something of a make-up date for his set at the previous Afrofest which was moved to the smaller Baobab stage and cut short after a falling tree shut down the main stage area. This time out, he had a younger group with a bit more of a casual vibe.

Buse gained renown in the Congo as a member of the renowned soukous group Zaiko Langa Langa — the same long-running band from which Papa Wemba had earlier emerged. Nowadays in Toronto, he works more in the gospel scene, but for this set he definitely brought the soukous rhythms — though there would be a few sanctified messages slipping their way in.

The set led off with a lengthy groove from the band, a half-dozen strong, before Buse took to the stage. His function here was to act as bandleader and elder statesman as much as a performer — a lot of vocals were delegated to a second-in-command/hype man — and to show off his work in mentoring the next generation of local Conolese musicians. If his eleven-year-old bassist — who played with dexterous aplomb — was anything to go by, he's definitely a good talent-spotter and musical influence. Sometimes, he'd pick out parts of the crowd to cajole into singing along, and then point out who in the band he wanted to play to accompany them.

Although the worst of the day's heat was starting to fade, it was still rather sultry out, and this was exactly the sort of music you could dance to in the thick, heavy heat — not so fast that you exhaust yourself right away, but groovy enough enough to get some momentum in your hips.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Between sets, the DJ threw down some Ethio-groove and soon there was a big circle of dancers in front of the stage that was quickly attracting its own onlookers. That gave a spark to the quickly-growing crowd, who were ready to be entertained, even if many on hand didn't know much about Dizu Plaatjies and Ibuyambo. Coming from South Africa, Plaatjies is a teacher as much as an entertainer, dedicated to preserving traditional sounds.

Plaatjies started the set alone on stage, making a musical offering to the ancestors with a mouth-bow and whistling, which together created an eerie effect. He was then joined by four more musicians, all playing animal horns — "they all look like rabbis," a guy behind me joked.

Every song would bring a different instrument or style to the fore — the set most certainly wasn't lacking for variety. "African Refugee", with its triple marimba action and 12-string guitar, was a rather gorgeous folk song in the mode of "Mbube"/"Wimoweh".

This project brought an interesting tension that I could feel a bit around me. A contemporary African is more likely to be standing in a city talking on a cellphone than dancing in a loincloth and facepaint, and I think to some folks this sort of folkloric display felt a bit out of the past — the sort of pageant that would be put on for tourists or for support-your-traditions edification. Or worse: the sense that this is your parents' music — there was a group of younger guys standing beside me, and I could sort of sense that they were a little put off by this at the start — eye-rolling awkwardness at a bit of enforced cultural appreciation apparently being a cross-cultural feeling in the young.

The flipside is that the crosswinds of modern cultural exchange made some of this sound downright contemporary — one song with pan pipes and backward-sounding yelps would probably be right at home on Tune-Yards' next album. At any rate, the joy of the performers and the power of the music were kinda undeniable — one song with non-stop rapidfire sing-speaking, sounding like the product of a Xhosa Spoonie Gee, got the young folks around me more on side. And then the percussion — not just drums, but also lot of homemade shakers and other implements — took over, and pretty much the whole crowd was fully into it.

Plaatjies also brought a lot of musicological knowledge to the stage, but presented it with a soft-sell smile. And though at first the crowd had a bit of a wait-and-see attitude toward the band, this was a big favourite by the time they finished. By the time Plaatjies introduced the players at the end, everyone got big cheers. Definitely a highlight of the weekend.

I had previously shared a track from this set here — and now you can check out a different style here.

New-found friends are one thing, but the crowd was pronouncedly eager to hear the night's headliner, and there was a huge cheer even for Thomas Mapfumo's first guitar riff as he soundchecked. Legends get an extra-warm welcome. Making his 3rd Afrofest appearance, though the first since '99, Mapfumo is a true innovator who transposed the plucked lines of Zimbabwe's mbira (thumb piano) to the electric guitar — his rocking recordings from the 70's and 80's are truly essential.

Border Trouble, that frequent pox on bands visiting Toronto, reared its head and the band's lead guitarist and bassist were not on hand. After some behind-the-scenes considerations, some local fill-ins were brought in to round out the band. They included Larry Lewis on guitar and Tich Maredza, who was playing bass. That's not his primary instrument, but as a guy who surely grew up with this music in Zimbabwe, he had a strong feel for it.2 And perhaps to act as reinforcement, there was also Evelyn Mukwedeya, a young but very talented local player, on mbira.

Mapfumo was apologetic for not presenting his full band, and seemed a little pained, at times — as if this was more a gig to be gotten through than cherished. That might be one reason why Mapfumo, dressed in black, and often singing while half doubled-over, gave off an air more of sorrow than joy. But still, it brought a shiver to hear that keening yelp in his voice.

I'd seen Mapfumo a few years before — he was last in town in 2006 as part of the International AIDS Conference — and even then, his rhythms relied more toward on mbira than guitar. At this show, there were two guitars on stage, but Mapfumo didn't always feel the need to play his own (sometimes he'd just comp on a single chord while the band was playing) and Lewis was, I'm sure, being careful to pick his spots. There were also drums, a keyboard player/percussionist and a pair of horns, and marshalling his resources, Mapfumo shifted the lineup a bit from song to song. One had no guitar at all, just stripped-down mbira lines intertwining behind his voice.

At first the set felt more like a triumph of perseverance than musically majestic. A couple songs felt like trucks bouncing around on a pothole-filled road, just barely making it to the destination. But as the set went on, it felt like everyone was getting a little more comfortable on stage. And when things were working, the band smartly rode out the grooves for a little longer, creating some tasty passages. Though Mapfumo never seemed quite settled or entirely happy with the sound until toward the end of the set, when he did relax a bit, it was ultimately a worthy effort — though telling that there would be no encore to close out the festival.

Listen to a track from this set here.

But on the whole, another fine year. Although there were a lot of calls from the stage of "next year we'll be back here or nowhere at all", the tradition of Afrofest is too strong to be derailed, and a year later, even without its traditional venue, the show would go on at Woodbine Park, leaving Al Purdy — who had spent the entirety of both days hanging around in the backstage area — to drink by himself.

1 It should be noted that his name has the French pronunciation gee-pay, not the English-style initials jay-pea.

2 The story, as I later heard it, was that after finishing their own set earlier in the afternoon, Maredza and Lewis rushed over to Mapfumo's hotel to cram in as much rehearsal as possible.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Contest: "Tatsumi" @ TIFF

Contest: Tatsumi @ TIFF

Eric Khoo's Tatsumi, which had its local premiere at last year's Reel Asian festival, is returning for a short run at the TIFF Lightbox, January 25-29, 2013. It's specifically recommended to anyone with an interest in manga, documentary, post-war Japanese culture or, well, grimness — but taking the wider view, anyone who wants to be introduced to a master storyteller would do well to check this out. In my original review (read the whole thing here), I said:

This animated biopic recounts the life and times of Japan's Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who was at the forefront of transforming manga from simple kid-centric comics to an artform with both a cinematic visual sweep and a psychological depth to appeal to adult readers. Tatsumi has recalled the story of what he prefers to be labelled "gekiga" in his sprawling autobiography A Drifting Life, which gets bogged down in places with minutiae surrounding Japan's comic-book publishing industry in the 50's and 60's. Although a little unfocused at first (the film launches with Tatsumi's homage to his mentor, manga legend Osamu Tezuka without providing any context), this does an admirable job of winnowing out the extraneous material to get to the heart of the story.

Ultimately, the film's aim to is weave together three mutually-supportive strands: some contextual history about life in postwar Japan, Tatsumi's biography and a selection of his stories. It's that final element that really elevates the film, bringing Tatsumi's clean lines to life in a way that respects his visual style while reflecting and amplifying the historical and biographical themes — and expressing the melancholic despair that underlies them all. Thus "Hell" gives a sense of some of the broader post-Hiroshima political feelings while "Occupied" tells the tale of a struggling manga artist. And toward the end, "Good Bye"'s tale of a superannuated office worker nearing retirement reflects on Tatsumi's own feelings of mortality.

Thinking back on it a few months after the fact, I can definitely say that the animated versions of Tatsumi's stories stuck with me. We're lucky to live in a city where movies like this re-appear after festival screenings, and hopefully word will get out to those diverse groups listed above to see this.


Thanks to the good folks at TIFF, I have two pairs of tickets to give away, good for the screening of your choice.

To enter, shoot me an email (to with "Tatsumi" in the title and your name in the body. I'll draw two winners on Wednesday, January 23rd.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Recording: Femi Abosede & Culture Force

Artist: Femi Abosede & Culture Force

Song: No Compromise

Recorded at Afrofest (Queen's Park), July 9, 2011.

Femi Abosede & Culture Force - No Compromise

My notes for this set can be found here.

N.B. This recording is a capture of CIUT's live broadcast.

Recording: Afrafranto

Artist: Afrafranto

Song: unknown

Recorded at Afrofest (Queen's Park), July 9, 2011.

Afrafranto - unknown

My notes for this set can be found here.

N.B. This recording is a capture of CIUT's live broadcast.

Festival: Afrofest 2011 (Saturday)

Afrofest 2011 (feat. Anastasio & Zalang / Zekuhl / Afrafranto / Femi Abosede & Culture Force / Cheick Hamala Diabate)

Queen's Park. Saturday, July 9, 2011.

Afrofest at Queen's Park is an essential part of summer — and possibly a victim of its own success. With the city having some concerns about the sheer size that the event had grown to, and trying to give a respite to the trees and turf in the park, it wanted the festival to find another venue. It was only after mobilizing the community and putting some pressure on the City that everything came together. But this would be the last — at least for now — Afrofest at Queen's Park.

And though I dearly love the venue, for both its easy transit access and the comforting, shady vibe, one could see the reason for the city's discomfort at having so many people using the space. The trees were under a lot of stress from all the foot traffic compacting the dirt above their roots, and there had been a near-crisis the previous year when a large falling branch caused some injuries. And the ground in front of the stage was definitely looking very beaten up. The miniature dustbowl was bigger than ever, and what grass was left was brown and scrubby.

That didn't subtract from the enjoyment of the day, however. It was hot out, but rather perfect weather. I came into the park in time to catch the end of Afro-Cuban band Rumba Iyambo, a dancer jumping down from the stage to lead a conga line. The early crowd in front of the stage wasn't that thick, but there were people lounging in shade under the trees as far back as the eye could see, and well as plenty of folks wandering around through the food booths and the vendors.

The first full set I caught was from Anastasio & Zalang, a six-piece band behind Anastasio Bickie, with saxophone and percussion driving the weaving guitar lines of Bickie and Simon Akirov.

Hailing from Equatorial Guinea, Bickie has mixed a lot of diverse influences with the fang rhythms he grew up with. He formed a band in Spain before he came to Canada in '85 where he became one of the pioneers in Toronto's African music scene. His catchy rhythms included a dollop of reggae in "Would You Come By". Definitely a seasoned pro, he delivered with veteran savvy, showing some flashes of a spryer, younger self with a couple little jumps in the air during closer "Mamaye".

Listen to a track from this set here.

Shifting from A to Z, Zekuhl labels his music "Bolbo-Jazz". The stage name of Montréal-based Atna Njock, originally from Cameroon, this band had strong jazzy/funky undertones. Backed by drums/bass/sax, Njock played a nimble guitar, and he'd also add some percussion on what I took to be a big log on the stage, but was, in fact, a nkuu ("a wooden, cylinder-shaped drum with hollowed-out slits").

The afternoon sun was bright in front of the stage, and again, there were a lot of people back relaxing in the shade. Although, as you'd often see happen during Afrofest, one older guy who'd been dancing out front suddenly appeared on stage to stick some bills to Njock's pate. In acknowledgement, the singer switched back to the nkuu and the guy danced on stage for a bit before heading off. The set, including some of the songs from his then-new album1, occasionally brushed up against rumba and zouk rhythms, and the music was unrushed throughout, stretching out into sunny afternoon sky.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The crowd built up through the afternoon, with lots of people on hand celebrating the birth of South Sudan. Things had been running a little late, but a quick turnaround got things back on schedule as Afrafranto took the stage. Hailing from Ghana ("by way of Brampton and the Republic of Etobicoke," as the band joked) it was nice to see the band back at full force, and especially to see guitar hero Pa Joe on the stage, after a bit of a jury-rigged line the last time I had seen 'em. Here, they were nine deep all together, including sax and dual keyboards that were a bit more prominent in the mix than usual.

This is a band that knows how to play a big stage, stretching out their grooves as required. Vocalist Theo Yaw Boakye acted as the ringleader, singing low and almost toasting during "Agoro" but then picking it up to inveigh the crowd to get dancing. Otherwise, the band did their usual excellent job of playing off each other, stretching some sections of the songs and compressing others. After an extended percussion breakdown, you could hear the keyboardists making little darting stabs, as if sticking a toe in the water to see if it's time to jump back in. And always, when it seemed like the musicians might start drifting apart, Ebenezer Agyekum's bass kept things tethered.

In the first part of the set, the pacing was a bit stilted, with the band actually winding down between songs instead of the turn-on-a-dime segues that often happen. But once they really found their groove, the songs started to flow seamlessly. As it headed to the conclusion, Boakye sent out a birthday greeting to South Sudan and the band paid tribute to Miriam Makeba with an extended version of "Pata Pata" — a true Saturday night dance anthem — to close out the set.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The stage was filled up as Femi Abosede's set started with an extended instrumental groove from his backing unit Culture Force — a five-piece band (including a trio of players from Afrafranto), a six-piece horn section and three backing singers. They let that build for a few minutes before Abosede emerged to address the crowd briefly before taking his place up front with his saxophone and sinking back into the funky groove.

There's no doubt as to where Abosede's inspirations lie. With all the hallmarks of classic Afrobeat — that big horn section, pulsing keybs, and guitars keeping the scratchy rhythm — he hardly needed to tell the crowd that the song "No Compromise" was dedicated to Fela Kuti. And if there were any grounds for criticism, it would be for the fact that Abosede's sound is rigourously classicist to a fault. There's no envelopes being pushed here, and the set did lean a bit too much on covers of Fela's songs in the second half.

But when the hot summer sun has gone down and it's wonderfully pleasant out and you're dancing under the trees, a band playing full-force Afrobeat isn't something to argue with. And at any rate, there's no doubting Abosede's love of the music, or the fact that he came by his knowledge of it honestly — he spent a lot of time in his teenage years at The Shrine in Lagos, and when he sings that "Fela still lives" it's a promise he's committed to.

The band was a little bit more active a few years ago — his No Compromise album came out in '06 — but it looks like Abosede is still nurturing local music at Femi's Place, his restaurant up in Weston.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The festival's first night was headlined by Cheick Hamala Diabate, a griot from Mali who now makes his home in Washington D.C. With a full seven-piece band behind him, the music was very good right off the hop — extended grooves with solos all around. No slavish traditionalists, there were some adventurous sonics at play here — on the first song the guitarist had a pleasingly fuzzy tone, and the trumpet player was using some cool effects as well.

The second song had hints of afrobeat funkiness to it and was even better than the first — it was easy to see why this guy was the headliner — this was immersive stuff, and more than a half-hour zipped by in a flash. As with any griot worth their salt, Diabate was a natural and affable entertainer.

"Mali De Nou" switched it up again, a delicious slowburner with plenty of that effect-laden trumpet. A master of the ngoni (playing lefty to boot!), Diabate's playing was precise but never fussy. One song even incorporated a good dose of "Frère Jacques" and was played with an effect on the ngoni that almost made it sound like a steel drum. A really exciting discovery and a good close to the festival's first day, leaving a joyful feeling as the crowds shuffled out of the park, which was now in nestled in darkness, with everything feeling larger yet gathered in, cloaked and mysterious.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 You can grab this on his bandcamp.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Recording: Absolutely Free

Artist: Absolutely Free

Songs: "The Army Chases Klaatu" [excerpt from a live, improvised score to The Day The Earth Stood Still] + unknown*

Recorded at The Electric Theatre/Double Double Land, January 12, 2013.

Absolutely Free with Carl Didur - "The Army Chases Klaatu"

Absolutely Free - unknown

Full review to follow. Celebrating the release of their UFO/Glass Tassle 12", the band put together a full night of entertainment. The triple-header started at the intriguing Electric Theatre — in the former Kensington location of Bread and Circus, now reconfigured into a proper live theatre venue, complete with movie-style seats. The band were joined by Carl Didur to improvise a live score to the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. I thought this might just have meant an opportunity to jam out while the movie played behind them, but it was tackled with attentive sympathy, meant to highlight the film and not just riff on it.

Then the night moved down the street, where the band played their "regular" set at Double Double Land, crammed onto the tiny stage. After that, the action returned to the Theatre to screen the band's video for "UFO", followed by a kitschy-fun party, the crowd climbing up on the stage to dance to some classic videos of yesteryear.

* I think I know which song this is, but my notes are a little unclear, and I don't want to pass the wrong title along. Please leave a comment if you can confirm the title.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Recording: Vag Halen

Artist: Vag Halen

Song: 20th Century Boy [T. Rex cover]

Recorded at The Great Hall ("Long Winter, Vol. 3"), January 11, 2013.

Vag Halen - 20th Century Boy

Full review to follow. Although Fucked Up are an international touring machine, they still maintain strong links to their hometown — roots that are replenished through events like this monthly series of pay-what-you-can curated shows, which bring together music from diverse scenes alongside food, art and installations to engage the senses. There was a really positive vibe and everything was meticulously organized. The lineup for the final instalment (February 8, 2013) is insanely stacked, so don't miss out on it.

Heading out of The Beaver and into the streets, Vag Halen is putting a sexy feminist spin on some cock-rock favourites. Whether you want to excitedly chatter about how they're queering the aesthetic or just feel the sleazy lowdown grind of the guitars in your belly, this appeals equally to the cultural studies crowd and the types throwing up the devil horns.

Recording: Light Fires

Artist: Light Fires

Song: The Better

Recorded at The Great Hall ("Long Winter, Vol. 3"), January 11, 2013.

Light Fires - The Better

Full review to follow. Although Fucked Up are an international touring machine, they still maintain strong links to their hometown — roots that are replenished through events like this monthly series of pay-what-you-can curated shows, which bring together music from diverse scenes alongside food, art and installations to engage the senses. There was a really positive vibe and everything was meticulously organized. The lineup for the final instalment (February 8, 2013) is insanely stacked, so don't miss out on it.

Regina the Gentlelady has been expanding on the Light Fires concept for a little while now, but with a full-length on the way, it was a joy to quickly see her win over a room of strangers. Pushing the limits, she quite literally climbed the walls, fearlessly leapt up on suspiciously-shaky looking tables and air-drummed with abandon — a high-kicking total entertainment package.

Recording: S.H.I.T.

Artist: S.H.I.T.

Songs: Eraser + Feeding Time

Recorded at The Great Hall ("Long Winter, Vol. 3"), January 11, 2013.

S.H.I.T. - Eraser + Feeding Time

Full review to follow. Although Fucked Up are an international touring machine, they still maintain strong links to their hometown — roots that are replenished through events like this monthly series of pay-what-you-can curated shows, which bring together music from diverse scenes alongside food, art and installations to engage the senses. There was a really positive vibe and everything was meticulously organized. The lineup for the final instalment (February 8, 2013) is insanely stacked, so don't miss out on it.

Given that Fucked Up sat out this instalment, it was up to S.H.I.T. to bring the punk for the night with a lightning round of no-bullshit hardcore. A pit quickly formed, a microphone stand met an untimely end and it was over pretty fast, but it left an impression.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Recording: Mas Aya

Artist: Mas Aya (feat. Lido Pimienta and Alexandra Mackenzie)

Song: unknown*

Recorded at The Tranzac (Southern Cross Lounge), January 10, 2013.

Mas Aya - unknown

Full review to follow. So, to recap: the solo songs that Brandon Valdivia had begun over a year ago has mostly been shifted over to his duo Pachamama, while this new solo incarnation is focused a bit less on "songs" and more on sonic constructions. Celebrating the release of a new tape, Valdivia actually played even newer compositions, mostly involving percussion (from a drumpad as well as looped from the kit) alongside flute and melodica.

This selection, where he was joined by Lido Pimienta and Alexandra Mackenzie, is actually a bit unrepresentative of that direction, but it does capture the fourth world spirit in the music, collapsing the dualities of north and south, synthesized and organic. And even without lyrics, you didn't need to see Valdivia's homemade IDLE NO MORE shirt to know that these were liberation songs.

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Recording: Donlands + Mortimer

Artist: Donlands + Mortimer

Song: Too Much

Recorded at The Drake Underground, January 6, 2013.

Donlands + Mortimer - Too Much

Full review to follow. With co-vocalists Carmen Elle and Steven Foster having a very busy year with some of their other projects, it was no surprise to see D+M becoming a little less active. Nice, then, to see them on stage celebrating the release of their New Mythology album, and playing most of its songs. One sign of how much respect the band is viewed with is that there was a full room for this Sunday-night show that was only announced a few days prior. They might not be playing at a more frequent rate coming up, but at least there's the album to keep them in our minds. (Available as a download card at the show, one presumes that it will be going live on their bandcamp page presently.)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sunday Playlist #36

Sunday Playlist #36

Field Music - Rockist Part 4

The Wave Pictures - Kiss Me

Gabe Levine - Shake Out Your Shoes

Imaginary Cities - Temporary Resident

Jim Guthrie - Wish I Were You

Sunday Playlist is a semi-regular feature that brings back some of this blog's previously-posted original live recordings for an encore. You can always click the tags below to see what I originally wrote about the shows these songs came from.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Recording: Yacht Club

Artist: Yacht Club

Song: Can't Leave the Castle

Recorded at Polyhaus ("Feast in the East 21"), January 4, 2013.

Yacht Club - Can't Leave the Castle

Full review to follow. "Quit hiding your hooks, artists," said Ben Cook before this new project dove into another catchy number. In Young Governor, Marvelous Darlings or any of his other projects Cook has never been one to conceal the pop imperative. The additional instruction for this artistic incarnation might well be, "don't be embarrassed by your influences". If the antecedents sounds like they might be True Blue and the Beverley Hills Cop soundtrack, that's all right when the songs are this catchy and the energy this infectious.

It looked like there were a few Feast in the East first timers out last night, which is great — hopefully more people got a taste of what's going on in Polyhaus every month. No line-up listed yet, but next month's instalment is scheduled for Saturday, February 2, 2013. You can keep an eye on Tad's webpage for updates, or join his facebook group to get invites for forthcoming Feasts.

Recording: Digits

Artist: Digits

Song: Because It's Wrong

Recorded at Polyhaus ("Feast in the East 21"), January 4, 2013.

Digits - Because It's Wrong

Full review to follow. I dunno if it's the European influence, but visiting expat Alt Altman looked a little more prepared to partake in his own dance party than I remember from his days here. But I was glad to see that he's still making his music with his own DIY equipment, like that foot pedal made from a computer keyboard. It means that things can — and will — go wrong, but it also keeps his performances strictly in the moment. Add to that some well-written pop tunes, and Digits remains a superior electro-pop live performer.

It looked like there were a few Feast in the East first-timers out last night, which is great — hopefully more people got a taste of what's going on in Polyhaus every month. No line-up listed yet, but next month's instalment is scheduled for Saturday, February 2, 2013. You can keep an eye on Tad's webpage for updates, or join his facebook group to get invites for forthcoming Feasts.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Recording: The Big Sound

Artist: The Big Sound (feat. Todd Simmons)

Song: Ain't Too Proud to Beg [The Temptations cover]

Recorded at The Great Hall, July 8, 2011.

The Big Sound - Ain't Too Proud to Beg

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: The Big Sound

The Big Sound

The Great Hall. Friday, July 8, 2011.

Allow me to list some things that I'm not particularly fond of:

  • dance nights
  • crowded places
  • cover bands

It was quite possible, I thought to myself as I entered The Great Hall, that I had headed to the wrong show.

This was then a brand-new venture, launched by Chris Sandes and Aaron Knight and combining an idea from each of one of their projects. Sandes' "Loving In The Name Of" is a large-scale covers night, featuring an all-star band of local musicians playing "the greatest hits of all time". Knight's Shake A Tail DJ night has been filling dancefloors with hits of the '60's for over half a decade. The Big Sound was conceived as a tribute to Motown's "sound of young America" with a night filled with classic sides as well as a big-band live experience.

As is usually the case, The Great Hall was plenty hot when I arrived, and that was just as the place was starting to get well-filled in. Soon, the non-stop cavalcade of hits from Knight had the floor packed in with dancing bodies, and as I was boiling I was beginning to feel claustrophobic and mildly regretful.

Looking around, I was struck by how damn young the crowd was. In my own youthful era of Boomer/Big Chill backlash, Motown was by no means considered all that cool, and I could never have even conceived of going to a night like this. I think it's easier for this generation to get right into it without all that baggage. Which is good, because the music is wonderful.

My disposition improved somewhat when the musicians started quite literally filling up the stage, and I saw a cavalcade of familiar faces. Boasting "seventeen of Toronto's finest musicians" — and that's not counting the vocalists — this was a lineup to deliver a no-shortcut wall of sound. Alongside Sandes, there were several members of the Steamboat axis, including Jay Anderson, Andrew Scott, Mike Smith and Matt McLaren. There were horns (including Jeremy Strachan and Jay Hay, a couple of the city's finest improvisers), a full string section, and Eric Woolston on vibes.

And in front of all of that, the rotating cast of vocalists, each of whom would sing lead on a couple songs and provide backups on the others. Looking for singers with soul, there was a mix of folks from different scenes, with some who were quite familiar to me (Drew Smith, Alex Lukashevsky, Maylee Todd) with some that I didn't know (Tanika Charles, Todd Simmons, Saidah Tali Baba). Charles started the set with "Dancing in the Street", and she was the first revelation of the night — the sort of pure, powerful voice that makes one ask, "how did I not know about this?"

Even familiar faces brought something new to these songs: I knew that Alex Lukashevsky was a nimble vocalist, but I would never have considered him in this context. It turns out that he was perfectly cast here, nailing The Contours' "Just a Little Misunderstanding". Todd Simmons (who also, it appears, performs as Rodd Skimmons) did an ace David Ruffin turn on "Ain't Too Proud to Beg".

Looking over everyone across the stage, I was dumbfounded to think that groups used to do this before proper stage monitors existed. Here, it looked like everyone could hear each other, though it surely helped that the band seemed pretty well rehearsed. I can only imagine that a show like this must have been a real challenge back at the mixing desk. It certainly sounded decent in the hall — at the start, Sandes' keyboards were on top of everything a little bit, but once it was all balanced out it was quite impressive.

The high point was surely seeing Maylee Todd absolutely tearing into "I Want You Back", nailing the youthful Michael Jackson's high notes and bringing down the house. Tanika Charles had another star turn on "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" before an Alex Lukashevsky/Maylee Todd duet on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to close the superbly-executed forty-minute set.

In the end, the accumulation of things I liked was mostly enough to overcome all the things I didn't. And, at any rate, while it's well-befitting to be generally suspicious about cover bands, that doesn't mean you can't, y'know, make the occasional exception. Hell, I even made it back for another instalment. A roaring success, The Big Sound has become a regular event. the next edition (which will be Volume IX) will be going down at Great Hall on January 25, 2013.

I'd posted a song at the time of the event here, and now there's another one to go with it here.