Prince, Bowie, and Others: Why Does it Matter to Us?

In these early months of 2016, we’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of grief, all over the world, at the news of the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and other important musicians. On the surface, this might seem odd; after all, the vast majority of us were not personally or even distantly acquainted with any of these musical artists. This vast grief goes way beyond mere empathy for the death of a fellow human being—this is really personal. But why do we, total strangers to these musicians and their families, feel this loss so deeply?

You are shaped by your music as surely as by your genes. A song imprints itself on you during the most traumatic, mundane, or blissful events of your life, and whatever happens afterward, that music will be a part of your personality forever. No matter how profound—or silly—that song might be.

Music and roses

Think about it. You hear the opening chord of a song from ten or fifteen years ago, and instantly you are Back There. You remember that first crush, or that graduation ceremony, or driving to the vet with your sick cat for the very last time (oh, “Bright Eyes”)—and you remember every sound, you feel the rain or see the glaring sunshine, and you feel again every intense emotion you felt at that exact moment. You are once again wearing those platform shoes and that big hair and those blazers with the huge shoulders—oh wait. Am I projecting again?

But it’s true that, in my case, the music of the eighties is indelibly linked to who I was then. My “Here Comes the Rain Again” depression in the spring of 1984 blossomed into a brilliant and wonderful summer (“Might as well jump. Jump!”). Early Queensryche and late Pink Floyd were my soundtrack for visits to southern California in the nineties. And The Prayer Cycle album by Jonathan Elias led me through two pre-2001 visits to Manhattan and soared through my mourning on 9/11.

There are probably many reasons why music accompanies and shapes our lives. Surely our attraction stems first from the rhythms of our mothers’ bodies when we were in the womb and then the rhythms of our own bodies. But I think we’ve got a symbiotic two-way relationship to music where it both affects how we feel and lets us express how we feel.

Music and fireI remember when the evangelical church began railing against Jesus Rock music; anti-rock prophets assured everyone that rock rhythms altered people’s brains so much that they became literally incapable of choosing good over evil. The idea that music can remove free will is, of course, ridiculous—yet there’s no question it can influence our moods. In the past, sometimes the best cure for my gloomy mood was to play the anthemic “Never Give Up” by Boulevard, followed by “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.

On the other side of things, music lets us express ourselves. David Miller, a professor of mine at Syracuse University, once said that when you’re feeling sad, it can be good to play sad music. Happy music can force the sad feelings down, where they fester without being dealt with. But sad music helps you get those feelings out into the open so they can dissipate. (It’s true. During that tough Syracuse year, the sad “Cruising for Bruising” by Basia, together with “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, almost singlehandedly kept me alive.)

Everywhere on this planet, human beings make music. We can’t help ourselves. Music is our constant companion, our first impulse, and for most of us, our psychological necessity.

In 2004, after all my stuff had been in storage several hundred miles away for four and a half lonely years, at last I managed to get everything shipped to my new home. On a glorious, sunny Saturday, I finally got to open my hundred boxes—books and CDs first. Box after box, I found treasures I hadn’t heard in all that time. I hugged my Police CDs to my chest and cried. I played Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd. I played Loreena McKennitt and Tchaikovsky. I played The Prayer Cycle, and Officium by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek.

What I felt and actually think was true was that long lost pieces of my soul were whirling back into me and making me a whole person again. That music was me—and I was back! That’s what music does. That’s what music is.

And when we lose those musicians who had also become parts of our personality over the years, we have indeed lost a genuine part of ourselves.

(A version of this article previously appeared in the June 2013 issue of the now-defunct Zen Dixie magazine.)


k.d. lang Makes Luminato Fans Yell “Hallelujah!”

kd lang

Hallelujah, what a voice!

I think k.d. lang could coax music out of a rock. Watching and hearing her coax and tease each note from a quiet, tender song, and then belt out a ballad with such pure voice and power, you start to wonder if there’s anything, musically, that she can’t do. I admit, though, that my own favourite moment in last night’s free concert for Toronto’s Luminato arts festival was when Ms. lang sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

I confess that I’ve always disliked that song, feeling like it was melodically kind of boring. But when lang did it on her “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” album, all of that changed. For me, it typifies how she puts her whole soul into a song, pulling every nuance of meaning and emotion from it and sharing it with the audience. I stood in David Pecuat Square, downtown, under the stars with several thousand others, and listened literally in tears.

Once a year, for ten days, Luminato fills Toronto with art, music, and literature. Some of the events in other venues can get pricey, but the festival makes sure that there are plenty of free events too, so no arts lover is left out. And clearly, they  don’t skimp at all, even for events that are free. From Halifax alternative band, The Joel Plaskett Emergency, to Arabic fusion with Yemen Blues and the Sultans of String, to k.d. lang last night, the concerts at David Pecaut Square have been of the best quality — and the greatest fun.

The American band, the Belle Brigade,  who are currently supporting lang on her tour, got us all warmed up with some great folk rock music. But of course the square was primarily  packed with fans of lang’s music, and every one of us responded to her the same way. We swayed to “Hallelujah,” and we clapped and danced to the more lively songs, pulled by lang’s personality and artistry into what felt like an intimate circle of friends. (As she remarked at one point, “Many of you, especially of the female persuasion, may feel yourself drawn toward the stage. I want you to know…this is normal.”)

And when lang and her band, the Siss Boom Bang, burst into a hard rock version of “Constant Craving” (which had been released in a more country style originally), that was the crown of the evening for me. To combine one of my favourite k.d. lang songs with my love of hard rock, well, it made the night perfect. And again — musically speaking, there’s apparently nothing she can’t do.

Even the weather cooperated, being warm but not oppressive. And after the concert, everyone seemed relaxed and fulfilled, strolling and chatting along the streets on the way to their cars or public transit. This great festival is almost over for another year, with just this weekend remaining. But Ms. lang and the Siss Boom Bang made sure that it’s going out with a bang indeed.

Can I get a “Hallelujah?”

Trifecta – Guitar-lovers get a Triple Treat

Pavlo, Rik Emmett, and Oscar Lopez after "Trifecta" concert

Pavlo, Rik Emmett, Oscar Lopez

Those of us who love the guitar experienced a triple treat recently at Koerner Hall, at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. Three guitarists who are known for their music in different styles – the Latin musician, Oscar Lopez, Rik Emmett of hard rock fame, and Pavlo the Mediterranean guitarist – came together in a concert in support of their marvelous album, Trifecta. And to say it was a magical evening is an understatement.

The album itself had been an experiment in combining styles that have their own distinct flavours to see how well they could mesh. While Latin and Mediterranean music may sound similar and work more organically together, could they then be successfully combined with a rock ‘n’ roll sound? These three musicians gave us a living demonstration that they can.

There is something about watching master craftsmen at work that is just riveting. It didn’t matter what type of music these men were playing: their hands and fingers moved with such ease and control along those strings that you could almost believe the guitars were mere extensions of their own bodies. And they could coax divine sounds from them with the mere flick of a couple of fingers and the fine movements of a guitar pick.

Koerner Hall interior, Royal Conservatory, Toronto

Koerner Hall

The rock element was somewhat toned down, with the Latin and Mediterranean sound often predominating, as Emmett provided background rhythm and power chords during Pavlo’s or Lopez’s complex finger work. But the guitar leads of a hard rock band are swift and intricate, so Emmett was perfectly equipped whenever he soared into the same heady realms as his counterparts.

The atmosphere of the concert was warm and almost cozy, partly due to the genius of Koerner Hall itself. It’s arranged so that nobody is that far from the main stage. And the warm colours and soft woods around the stage and beamed across the high ceiling guarantees an intimate sound. Pavlo remarked that he’d been to Koerner hall soon after it opened last year, and immediately thought, “This is where we have to play!” He turned to us in the audience and said, “Isn’t this the perfect place for this concert?”

The musicians have been touring, off and on, since January, so they obviously know each other very well by now. Lopez often got the others laughing, and there was a lot of entertaining banter back and forth. At one point, Pavlo and Lopez goaded Emmett into getting up and demonstrating the patented “pelvic thrust” which, he explained, “every rocker has to learn at rock school.” Some of their giddiness might have stemmed from the fact that this was the final concert of their long tour. But the three musicians seemed genuinely relaxed and enjoying each other’s company.

At these moments, we in the audience felt as though we were part of a big family just hanging out and amusing ourselves. But each time these three guitarists got back down to business and began to play again, we were lifted to another realm entirely. A realm of brilliant skill and exquisite music that left us breathless.

The Orchid Ensemble at the Toronto Music Garden: a Perfect Fusion

Exquisite music as the sun sets

Han Dynasty lament and the Willow Tree

It was a very typical Toronto sort of concert event, complete with beautiful setting, exquisite music, airplanes, and condos.

We sat in the curved, broadly stepped amphitheatre of the Toronto Music Garden, surrounded by lush greenery, listening to the Orchid Ensemble playing a Chinese-modern fusion of music from different regions of the Silk Road. A perfect cultural setting. And to the right, beyond the border of high trees surrounding the Music Garden – several condo buildings lining the busy downtown street outside. To the left, the dock for several sailboats along the shores of Lake Ontario – and the Island airport, from which the sound of occasional helicopters and small planes punctuated the music.

Condos in the background

Greenery, music, and condos

Yet none of this detracted in the least from the experience. I’ve been to several Music Garden concerts now, and somehow the Silk Road music, the musical instruments, and the beauty of the garden blended into a natural fusion. The concert began with a perfect rendering of “Hujia,” a lament from the Han Dynasty of the third century BCE, and the huge weeping willow tree serving as a backdrop for the ensemble seemed to sway its trailing tendrils along to the haunting Chinese melody. And that mood of unity wafted over the audience and kept us riveted for the entire hour.

Some people ate supper there, having brought containers of sushi, vegetable wraps or burritos, or perhaps a small pizza picked up on the way. The audience was just as diverse: people of Asian heritage sat cross-legged beside those from the Caribbean. I reminded the man beside me (whose family obviously came from India) not to forget his cell phone on the grass. And the two Caucasian women behind me discussed whether they should some day try to visit the Calgary Stampede.


The instruments were primarily Chinese: Lan Tung’s erhu, a two-stringed fiddle with a sound box held on the lap and a long neck held upright, and the zheng, a flat, 21-stringed instrument lying on a stand in front of Haiqiong Deng, who plucked the strings with her fingers. But Jonathan Bernard played a marimba, using padded mallets, and added several drums and assorted gongs, bells, and other small percussion instruments.

The ensemble used music from their current CD, Road to Kashgar, to take us to several stops along the Silk Road. We heard a Mongolian folk song at one point, a Bengali song at another, and even an Ashkenazi song in tribute to the Jewish community that settled in central China in the tenth century.

This was a multicultural tour of that mystical ancient trade route, played by a multicultural musical ensemble in multicultural Toronto. All that would have been missing, as essential parts of Toronto, would have been the downtown condos and the sounds of the Islands. But we had those too. No wonder it all fit together with such perfection.

The willow tree bends to listen

The Orchid Ensemble

Herbie Hancock Dispels Summit Stress

As the music of Herbie Hancock and his talented friends carried us away on Saturday evening, it was easy to forget the violence that had taken place just a couple of hours earlier, a couple of blocks away. Most people will remember June 26, 2010 for the way a few hundred thugs hijacked the peaceful protests associated with the G20 Summit in Toronto, and began smashing windows and setting police cars on fire, drawing thousands of riot police in response.

But not us. Oh sure, the after-effects of the riots could be felt even at the concert. Because all transit going into the downtown core was cancelled, it meant that many of us had to walk a long, long distance to get to Nathan Phillips Square, the courtyard just in front of City Hall. And on the way to the venue, we often walked past stray riot police and businesses with smashed windows. Some of us even wondered if this Toronto Jazz Festival concert might be cancelled, being as close as it was to what had seemed like a war zone just a few hours earlier.

But once we arrived, it was hard to believe we were in the same city. Canadian bassist Brandi Disterheft opened the concert as planned, and reminded us why we had all come here despite everything. Her varied, creative music set just the right mood, supported by William Sperandei and Chris Gale on the trumpet and tenor sax, respectively, and by Stacie McGregor on piano and Sly Juhas on drums.

And then it was time. Hancock and his bandmates (**) took the stage and the place exploded. And he gave us all a means of dissipating the tensions that had gripped us during the day. He even made a point of reminding us that we couldn’t rely on the G20 Summit leaders (or, implicitly, the police) to produce peace in the world: it fell to each of us to produce this peace in our own hearts.

I myself, not having followed jazz through the years, only knew Hancock’s name and didn’t know his music at all. Yes, yes, I know: I’ve been sorely deprived all this time. But the skill, life, and liveliness of the music, not to mention the virtuosity displayed by each member of the band, kept me riveted all evening.

They played many pieces that long-time Hancock fans obviously recognized. And they even did covers of some songs I knew too, such as “Court and Spark” by Joni Mitchell, or “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Those actually brought tears to my eyes. This was sweet music and catharsis all in one. And then Hancock did several pieces from his latest CD, The Imagine Project.

I may not have followed his music before this, but now I know I have countless CDs to catch up on. This music helped all of us remember what was really important in life, and dissipated the stresses of the G20 weekend. And even though it took me well over an hour to walk home afterward, Mr. Hancock, Brandi Disterheft, and all their bandmates made the experience more than worth the effort it took to get to the concert and back.

(Mr. Hancock was accompanied by Greg Phillinganes on vocals and keyboards, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Tal Wilkenfeld on the bass guitar [how do they make them so young these days?], Vinnie Colaiuta on the drums, and violinist and vocalist Christina Trane. Each of these musicians was so good, they deserve several paragraphs of their own. I was grateful to be able to see and hear so much talent all in the space of a couple of hours.)

Here’s what we got for an encore, though this particular video was recorded at a different venue:

Songs the Brothers Warner Taught Us All

It’s as though Megan Lynch was born to sing these songs. Her new album, Songs the Brothers Warner Taught Me, is such a heartfelt rendition of the great music of Warner Brothers productions that you can almost imagine her singing in the lovely black and white movies of the 1940s, with their rich, mellow sound.

These melodies will be most familiar to those of us who are older, and who grew up on Bugs Bunny cartoons. But the cartoons have been replayed and revived so often, for so long, that a great many younger people will know this music too. (You wonder how many people in North America automatically think of a frog dancing in tux and top hat, the instant they hear the words, “Hello ma baby, hello ma honey, hello my ragtime gal…”)

Lynch gives us the songs in a much different way from how we remember them in the cartoons. These are the grownup versions, lush and mature, with the full lyrics. There’s no cartoonish quality here, and yet Lynch captures the mood of the songs with confidence and aplomb. You want saucy? You want “The Latin Quarter.” How about dreamy? Head straight for “It Can’t Be Wrong.” Lynch’s voice is as rich, clear, and true as that of any singer who sang the originals.

The Songs the Brothers Warner Taught Me website allows you to download the whole album, or else choose the individual songs you want. For each song, there’s a brief description of where the music first appeared, and how it was used in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons and Warner Brothers films. There’s no suggested minimum price, but you’ll want to pay Lynch, and the other musicians who appear on the album, a price that makes it worth their while to have created such great music. Give them the thanks and appreciation they deserve.

I actually squealed when I heard the beginning of “We’re in the Money,” and remembered the countless times I’d heard that tune as I was growing up. A lot of us will be familiar with these melodies without at first remembering why. Along with the pleasure of Megan Lynch’s renditions, we’re going to get the delightful frisson of recognition and nostalgia as it all comes back to us. The Brothers Warner taught a great many of us these same songs too.

I Still Believe in Haydain Neale

“I still believe in love…Yes I do…”

I can’t tell you how terribly sad I am today at the news that Haydain Neale, the singer for Jacksoul, died in hospital on Sunday.

I had never heard of him till a few years after I moved to Toronto in 2000. But he was beloved of CBC Radio personalities, so it wasn’t long before I began to hear the music of Jacksoul featured as I listened to the CBC every day. And I absolutely fell in love with his gentle, almost haunting voice.

I’m really not a hip hop fan, much as I try. I loved the music of Jacksoul because it hearkened back to the sweet, smooth music of people like George Benson, which I had always loved.

When Haydain had his car accident in August of 2007, his recovery seemed to be taking so long that I worried that the injuries had been so severe that he might not be capable of making music any more. We in the public really never knew what the injuries were, and the long silence didn’t bode well. I thought, the longer it drew out, that the chances were increasing that we would never hear Haydain Neale make new music again.

How stunning that I was correct, but for the completely wrong reason. As I heard on the news this morning that he had died, I also heard that he had been battling lung cancer for seven months. As though he had needed that big struggle after his long recovery from the car accident!

It feels like we barely knew him before he was gone. My condolences go out to his family and friends. Their loss is much greater than ours, but ours is terribly sad. Farewell, sweet singer.