Global Beat Fusion: 49 Hours in Toronto

13 11 2008

By Derek Beres

I’m not sure why Toronto is called “T-Dot”. Oh, I’m sure there’s a very simple reason, but sometimes things remain more powerful when a mystery. I had made the mistake of referring to it as “T-Town” at one point, and was nearly assaulted by my friends. I supposed it’s like when tourists call New York’s Houston Street as if it were a city in Texas—if one can imagine the political and social distance between Manhattan and the state that spawned George W. Bush, there is no mercy in our reply.

Yet my friends were lighthearted in their scolding, and I noticed during my short time in Toronto that everyone I encountered had a similar attitude. Maybe it was the gorgeous architecture of the seasons—a slight, crisp chill surrounded by pockets of sunshine, a not-very-bitter drizzle that gave way to the lingering scent of autumn. I had made my way 90 airplane minutes north to attend and perform at the 7th Annual Small World Music Festival, one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching global music gatherings in North America. Rivaled by (and piggybacking) Chicago’s seminal World Music Festival, the Annual Small World Music Festival provides Toronto with a nearly two-week influx of amazing talent from across the planet in an ambitious feat of cross-cultural programming

I was invited by CIUT radio DJ Richard Martin, aka medicineman, whose show “No Man’s Land” is one of a handful of world music programs that have sustained and prospered in a radio market that focuses on anything but international sounds. We met in Montreal nearly five years ago and have since stayed in touch, often trading band names and mp3s in an attempt of giving innovative artists access to the very few media outlets dedicated to international music. He also led me to some things I would have never even imagined possible, like the world’s largest rodent (a guinea pig-looking creature the size of a pig) in residence at the zoo inside High Park, and a restaurant dedicated to fusing, of all things, of Hungarian and Thai cuisine.

After a surprisingly smooth flight into Toronto (on Continental, no less; my luck would not persist on the way home), I ended up at the Drake Hotel Underground to DJ alongside Eccodek. The party was in celebration of their new CD, Shivaboom (White Swan). I first met Andrew McPherson, Eccodek’s founder and keyboardist/producer, when he sent me a copy of the independently released More Africa in Us while I was working as an editor at Global Rhythm magazine. Despite the fact that I had never even heard of Guelph, I was immediately taken to the record. It fused tasteful elements of African music into a lightly textured electronic palette. His follow-up, Voices Have Eyes, did more of the same, only expanding into Turkish and Indian elements, along with flourishes of dub.

Read the full column on PopMatters.


The Blindness That Sees

4 11 2008

Jose Saramago
September 2008, 334 pages, $15.00

Review by Derek Beres

Considering that this book review is only being assigned due to the theatrical release of the 13-year old Blindness (11 years in English translation), it only makes sense to discuss both film and book. Let me begin by saying that when I read this book for the first time, it immediately became my favorite novel, and I have since read everything this Portuguese author has written.

His Nobel Prize was in good faith—he is one of those rare scribes who has truly found an original voice, redefining literature through his seemingly “ungrammatical” refusal to use any punctuation other than periods and commas. His sentences can last three pages, and yet the reader is never lost, never once not amazed at how one man can create so profound a rumination on universal topics wrapped into the heart and soul of everyman.

This is the major reason why it is impossible to make a film “as good” as the book. The medium of movies creates distance between the characters and the individual. When plastered across the screen, no longer can you understand the unnamed characters in Blindness as differing aspects of one person; no longer do you integrate the emotional and psychic content of each voice as one aspect of yourself.

The movie is symbolic of the Genesis—the one becomes the many, and the many are separate from the one who is yourself. The doctor’s wife is now Julianne Moore, not the strong archetypal feminine motif; the doctor is the dim-witted but lovable (or, at least mostly likable) Mark Ruffalo, not the uncertain persona within each of us capable of self-doubt and deceit.

That said, Fernando Meirelles’s adaptation is outstanding on a number of levels. While I was slightly skeptical entering the theater, I had to remember this is the man who directed City of God and The Constant Gardener. Like those two movies, Blindness is cinematically stunning and mentally stimulating.

Read the full review on PopMatters.

Rediscovering America(na)

4 11 2008

It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music
By Amanda Petrusich
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
August 2008, 304 pages, $25.00

Review by Derek Beres

During her interview with Larry Singleton, the man who picks all the décor for the Lebanon, Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel chain, music journalist Amanda Petrusich distills the muse of her life—the quest for Americana—down to its essence: “Singleton is peddling earnestness, industriousness, and faith, trying his hardest to ‘remind’ us of a time when life was less virtual; the fact that our memories of these objects and eras are entirely fabricated has little to do with his endgame. Even if we’ve never baked our own bread or churned our own butter—even if we’re deeply skeptical that ‘simpler times’ have ever really existed for human beings on planet Earth—we still understand, immediately, what these tools are meant to represent.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the very question that led her to write her latest book, It Still Moves—“What does Americana look like?”—was not found at a folk festival or sitting in her Brooklyn apartment reviewing the latest Wilco or Calexico records, but by watching several of those 500+ infamous red barn stores whiz by on her interstate travels. Cracker Barrel does indeed bring us warm-hearted memories of the old days that never existed for most of us. The company magically conjures images of calling the family dog inside while the rainstorm barrels over the fields, or the smell of crisp, baked apple pies wafting in the autumnal breeze. Where or why we have these images is altogether another question, yet certain stores—like Cracker Barrel—make a killing from the impulse.

Yet Petrusich’s real question isn’t what Americana looks like, but what it sounds like. And this is a question she is most ready to, if not answer, then at least explore in-depth. She is a passionate writer whose love for music shines through on every page. As she explains early on, she is not concerned with how many records are sold or what tactics artists use in the studio. Her approach is more intangible, hence more emotionally tactile: Who are these people creating this music? What are their dreams, ambitions, philosophies? We can hear the result of their craft. What is the foundation of their songs? This is, in large part, what makes this book so enjoyable—the people behind the songs, not to mention her own personal perceptions of what goes on behind her scenes.

And it is a refreshing approach, especially in a time when most anyone can publish a book (last year, over 400,000 new titles hit shelves and websites in America alone), and the majority of this literary landslide lands in the most egregious and mundane genre imaginable: memoirs. It takes a keen eye (and pen) to write your own story for the greater good of the topic matter; Petrusich nails it. Indeed, it is embedded in her subject matter’s philosophy. As she writes early on, “most traditional Americana music is produced without much concern for its commercial potential”. During the story that unfolds thereafter, her thesis is proven over and again.

Read the full review on PopMatters.