Sunday, 24 February 2013

Taking the INSIDE OUT at the MABELLEarts mid-winter Parade

It’s approaching Saturday night, mid-February, and a classic Canadian snowstorm has fastened its frozen-hellish grip on Toronto. Through the windows of a westbound subway pulling out of Kennedy Station I can see the early brew of rough weather through the twilight of a cloudless setting sun. Tonight I am traversing the Bloor line and back – in its entirety – to bare witness to the MABELLEarts third annual inside/outside mid-winter parade. Also, I have been commandeered to help out; just exactly how I am unsure of at this point.

Mabelle Park in summer.
The high-rise, high-density neighbourhood of Mabelle Park, located a five minute walk Northwest of Islington Station, mirrors countless other subsidized housing projects instigated by the Toronto Housing Corporation (THC) in the 1960’s and 70’s throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Characterized by high rates of crime and living conditions close to squalor, places like Mabelle Park would generally be on a list of locations to avoid on a Saturday night. But not this Saturday night.

When a community becomes segregated from vital resources and falls into poverty, its members are either forced to live their lives hand-to-mouth or relocate (an option that is also off the table for many due to strict economic pressures). At Mabelle Park, a third solution was created after its residents became too fed up with political ignorance and social marginalization: build a new community foundation, based on inclusivity and self-expression, to allow for an outlet to ‘make art, tell stories and creatively transform the place that is Mabelle’. In 2007, MABELLEarts was founded under the name ‘Pigeon Creek Collective’ to give that voice back to the people living in the area.

Drummers warm up before the parade.
MABELLEarts has since unashamedly proclaimed their place as a vibrant community arts group in Toronto, holding several events each year and programming weekly with both Mabelle residents and community artists from around Toronto. On this particular night of inclement weather, we flooded onto the stoops and front doors of Mabelle Park and took the inside outside, marching along snowy sidewalks with a drum ensemble around an outdoor living room and jars of preserved memories. At the end we all enjoyed hot food and cider made by MABELLEarts members. Because our group at PARC joins in the process of transforming space and transforming lives, they were there too. It was a night for celebrating amidst the whiteness.

For MABELLEarts and PARC members, these are the things that make them feel a part of a community. The motivation to construct and plan a night of this capacity becomes the dedication of individuals who may have never before been involved in something of this scale. The passion behind everything is unobtrusively present. The lives of people right in front of you, hanging in a bed strewn under a tree or radiating around a desk lamp set in the snow. You are caught in the moments of someone else’s life bleeding into your own. It is as close to pure magic as possible. 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Old People: Why We Need 'Em

We give ourselves to our youth – through meticulous parenting, with the millions spent on their education each year, in the organizations dedicated to eradicating the poverty, suffering and abuse of our little ones; all good endeavours indeed. But what about the elderly?

The big questions remain in many a North American family: who will take care of our elders after they cannot take care of themselves? What is to be done with our aging population, as the ‘baby boomers’ retire en masse and consider full time care facilities (most of which are already overflowing)? Moreover, who will stand up to support these wrinkled people? Not droves of us, as we so clearly see with those who aid the other side of the age spectrum. It is the absurd conundrum of an ignored demographic – one that has the potential to change our harmful ways…If only we would listen.

Old people playing video games and whatnot.
Old people are our history in the flesh – nay, temples of infinite wisdom that we so commonly turn our backs to, discharge as a bunch of outdated prudes who have fallen into the so called ‘generation gap’. All the while we repeat our mistakes as if completely blind to the lessons waiting to be learned from yesteryear. We seek answers to all of life’s questions yet fail to consult those who have done the most living. These are the people who are most in touch with the past, who have beautiful stories of an era behind us, of an age we only romanticise as being ‘simpler’; more sophisticated and dusted with an air of all-together-ness. We are so terribly far from the truth but too stubborn and selfish to admit this to ourselves, never mind other people.

Being wrapped up in the present doesn’t have to mean we forget where we came from. Everyone has roots; everyone was created from a lineage that survived the circumstances which led to their existence – your existence. We are bound to this history whether we know it or not – it lives in our blood and in the people who are still around to tell you about it. Other cultures feel it rightfully appropriate to respect and revere their elders as ‘repositories of cultural and philosophical knowledge’; the Cree (one of the largest groups of First Nations/Native Americans in North America) rely on these members to pass down wisdom and stories  - the backbone of their culture – to the younger populace. West African tribes such as the Ogoni people of Nigeria or the Benga in Guinea rely heavily on their elders as spiritual protectors and for assistance in raising children.

We must end the ignorance of those who have lived a life we claim we know everything about yet still struggle for harmony. The oldest among us have the capacity to help us find meaning, direction and even happiness, so why do we shun them into the corners as mere social and moral responsibilities? We can locate ourselves within those who have lived long before us – all we have to do is slow down and pay attention.

Happy 100th Birthday to the beautiful Vera Nicholson!
Sending love to you, my dear, for making the world a much brighter place to live in.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Why I Love Macaws (and you Should too)

Scarlet Macaws in the wild.

John Berger’s timeless article entitled Why Look at Animals brought forth to the scientific community an extremely important paradigm for how humans understand non-human animals. This paradigm was explained by Berger as a dichotomy of perceptions; on one side, the physical animal is represented. Its flesh, natural habits and ecosystem are embodied in the reality that plays out in front of us and is something that can be studied, analysed and predicted. The other side of this dichotomy represents the symbolic characteristics of an animal; be it the spiritual and mythical manifestations of an animal or its use in folklore. When comparing non-human animals to humans, Berger (1977) states that ‘Animals are born, are sentient and are moral. In these things they resemble man. In their superficial anatomy – less in their deep anatomy – in their habits, in their time, in their physical capacities, they differ from man. They are both like and unlike’ (Berger, pg.6).

I have a thing for Macaws because Macaws are freakin’ awesome, no exceptions. Since the inception of the Spanish Conquest and European Exploration into South America, macaws have been revered to the Western world as some of the most beautiful and stunning species of parrots on earth. Often referred to as ‘rainbows with wings’, spotting the macaw’s trademark patches of brightly coloured feathers and large beak is not very challenging, especially if one ventures into the thick of the Amazon in early spring during their mating season.

But what really blows my mind is that not only do wild macaws generally mate for life, most macaws will also be observed in the wild alongside their mating partner and this close relationship will usually last their entire lifetime as macaws are incredibly social creatures that bond together for extensive periods. Macaw researchers have also observed mortality rates in macaws and have noticed an interesting trend between partners after either male or female has deceased: usually within two to five months after one partner has died the other partner will also die, and scientists believe this phenomenon is linked to macaw depression in post-mortem. This act of complete dedication can be reflected on traditional monogamous values in North America; the profound relationship shared between macaw mates can be perceived as an ideological aspiration, deep-rooted in Western notions of commitment and devotion.  

Hyacinthe Macaw 'couple' in flight,
Unfortunately, because ecological degradation is now the leading cause of species loss in the Amazon, the slowly declining rates of macaw populations in Central America are currently low enough to deem this animal at risk. Scientists fear that the fragmentation of macaw habitat will eventually isolate certain populations and consequently weaken the number of species beyond feasible restoration.

But the case for Macaws is now being fought on a multi-front level as Macaw poaching and chick selling has become uncontrollable between Western and Central American economies. Because poachers can make large amounts of money from the sales of living macaws, a great deal of pressure has been put on locals to generate revenue by capturing and promoting these animals as domestic pets.

Limited mobility, lack of companions or mates and low stimulation are all factors that contribute macaw depression during domestication. It is our concepts of entitlement that have prevented us from realizing that these animals should not be kept as pets.

A development in education initiatives to raise awareness on the effects of macaw domestication in North America while ensuring that the illegal pet trade can be greatly reduced via strict monitoring programs is imperative to ending the abuse of this incredible animal. Secondly, successful conservation strategies in Equilateral South American communities should be used to model the future of macaw protection in their natural habitat. Adopting a principal of local ownership and knowledge-based leading will be essential to reaching this goal.

The macaw represents a plethora of values and connections to the human world and developing strategic conservation authorities is crucial to the survival of this amazing creature. Full macaw conservation will not be achieved within the next few years as programs dedicated to this mission must have a far reach and be made permanently sustainable. The case for macaws might be a tough one, but the preservation of this species is important to both the human and non-human worlds.

Monday, 4 February 2013

8 Unexpected Covers (That are Actually Worth Listening to)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Korn’s cover of Another Brick in the Wall it’s that quality music just can’t escape the tainting of unimaginable creative slaughter after it finds the hands of some angsty teen’s pants eruption of a ‘band’ with an oversized ego. Let’s face it: in the world of musicians playing other musicians stuff, the majority of covers aren’t even fit for Hillary Duff’s IPod.

But there are exceptions. In some far flung corner of the musical universe, people are making sense of what it means to recreate a musical masterpiece, and the results are ear-gasmic. Get ready for a cover apocalypse: 8 re-does you’ll want to re-do again and again

1) Bon Iver covers Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me

In an off the floor studio solo take, budding alt-folk musician Bon Iver appeases his fans by beautifully modifying an early 90’s classic. The song, originally sung by Bonnie Raitt but made famous by Bruce Hornsby, is elegantly stripped and simplified by Justin Vernon (under the pseudo name of ‘Bon Iver’), yet somehow also elevated by the powerful vocals set beside a grand piano.

We receive another small treat during the last moments of the song as Vernon incorporates a snippet of ‘I Found Love’, another (great) Raitt hit.

The original:

The cover:

2) Youth Group covers Alphaville’s Forever Young.

We’re moving backwards in time to the German ‘synthpop’ band Alphaville and their less famous original single ‘Forever Young’. Although the band couldn’t attribute their success to this piece, a plethora of covers would arise during the subsequent two decades, most of which were total crap and included people merely rapping over the original (thanks, Jay-Z, but no thanks).

Insert Australian-native band Youth Group. After being asked to cover the song by American T.V producers from The O.C, which is a terrible series with an amazing soundtrack, Youth Group responds with an actual quality rendition. Infusing Australian rock-pop with retro roots, Youth Group almost one-ups Alphaville…..Almost.

The original:

The cover:

3) Tokyo Police Club covers Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone

So perhaps this example won’t fit into the ‘musical masterpiece’ category, but that doesn’t mean it can’t turn into something awesome. Here we have one contemporary artist borrowing from another, although both are from completely different and opposing genres. Tokyo Police Club, a four piece post-punk/pop band from Newmarket, Ont., decided in their latest cover album that selecting radically dissimilar songs to play would be a good idea. One such outcome was a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’.

Whether you like it or not, it’s hard not to admit how TPC has transformed this pop annoyance into something a little more tolerable. And kind of funny, when you think about it.

The original (listen at your own risk):

The cover:

4) Sun Kil Moon covers almost an entire Modest Mouse Album (and still keeps it classy).

Modest Mouse fans are usually surprised to learn about how Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek pretty much reformatted an entire set of their works in his 2005 album ‘Tiny Cities’. All eleven songs from this era are Modest Mouse reworks including covers of ‘Ocean Breathes Salty’, ‘Tiny Cities Made of Ashes’ and ‘Dramamine’.

Listen as Kozelek tampers the eccentric nature of a Modest Mouse tune and wraps each song in his authentic bliss. This selection is but a snippet of his work but is a personal favourite of mine – enjoy ‘Tiny Cities’:

The original:

The cover:  

5) James Vincent McMorrow covers Steve Winwood’s Higher Love

Anyone who grew up in a household that included a radio auto-tuned to any station boasting ‘today’s hits, yesterday’s classics’ will instantly recognize the aforementioned song. This chart topping hit from the mid-80’s once preceded the likes of Madonna and some other band called Bananarama, and will forever be etched into the minds of young adults who were forced to listen to it in their youths.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and meet Irish singer/songwriter James Vincent McMorrow, an indie folk artist with the larynx of an angel. In true JVM style, Higher Love is usurped and transformed into a chilling piano cover and thrown into the eardrums of many lucky listeners.

The original:

The cover:

6) Moneen covers Alexisonfire’s Accidents while Alexisonfire covers Moneen’s Passing of America

For the early 21st century punk rocker in all of us, this little treat is a must-have. Moneen and Alexisonfire are known industry buddies, often making surprise guest appearances at each other’s shows or, in this case, covering each other’s songs in an EP cleverly entitled ‘The Switcheroo Series’. The 6 track album includes two covers of each respective bands songs and an original by both Alexisonfire and Moneen. The results are both creative and hilarious.

Moneen’s ‘Accidents are on purpose’ (original Alexisonfire song here):

Alexisonfire’s ‘Passing out in America’ (original Moneen song here):

     7) Yael Naim covers Britney Spears’ Toxic

Again, not an original we’d quickly throw on the awesome shelf. On the contrary, if there’s anything we’ve learned thus far it’s that sucky music doesn’t have to stay that way if someone far more talented can get their hands on it. My next example: Yael Naim’s completely creepy and memorizing version of a Britney Spears song that came straight out of the local sewage treatment facility (a place vaguely familiar to Spears).

I honestly have a hard time reaching the end of this cover. Not because it isn’t great, but because I start yearning for faux leather spandex and a life size Russian doll at about the first chorus. Let me know if you feel the same way or, you know…Just me?

The original (GAAHHHHH DON'T DO IT! DON'T DO IT!):

The cover:

     8) The Postal Service covers Phil Collins’ Against all Odds.

Our final cover finds its way out of a side project from the guy who made nerdy kids everywhere a desirable demographic. Yes indeed, Ben Gibbard is taking a slice from one of the best percussionists we’ll ever know, and he’s going Postal. Deal with it.

The original:

The cover:

This list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, you probably don’t agree with every entry. Hey now, there’s a comment box! Look at that. A place to voice yourself.