Articles by: Stevie S.Stevie S.
Born in Ottawa, Stevie S. is the arts critic for NDG Free Press, Culture Plus and Arts and Opinion. Her travel articles have been published in Canada and abroad. A guest journalist for seven European countries, she has written on food, art, music, theatre and film. Polyglot, she is the author of three bilingual children’s books series: House of Seasons, Le Cahier Orange, and The Crazy & Amazing 5 Senses Book - for which she received a Mr. Christie nomination. An accomplished classical pianist, published poet, and an acclaimed creative dramatist, she is the recipient of an Ontario Arts Council Award. At the age of 49, she took up the banjo and proceeded to embark on a song writing journey. Once a professional actor, she acted in Canada, England, Fire island, and Greece. She had the lead role in the award winning film, 'Her Decision', directed by Glen Salzman.

Flying into Heaven with Il Volo

October 5, 2012 11:49 am
Flying into Heaven with Il Volo

Seeing the sensational new pop-opera trio Il Volo (which translates as “The Flight”) was one of those miracles that happen when the moon hits your eye like a big-a pizza pie, and amore fills a concert hall holding 1,000 people waiting to fall in love instantly once they hear the first note sung by male angels on earth. I was one of the thousands – held as though against my will – until…

Here is how it all unfolded. I spotted a humongous crowd milling around the lobby of Montreal’s Place des Arts. (I was still wearing my press pass, having just left The World Film Festival media room.) I stopped at the table where a lovely young woman named Sarah was fighting off the hordes trying to upgrade their seats, some insisting they were part of the PBS VIP donor group who were promised a “meet and greet”  pass. I asked Sarah what all the commotion was about. “It’s Il Volo! Everyone wants to see them.”

I hadn’t heard of Il Volo, so Sarah explained that it is an Italian trio of teen tenors – now #6 on Billboard’s Top 200 Music Album Charts. Il Volo is on a North American tour. I was to discover that Céline Dion, Barbra Streisand (Il Volo will sing with Streisand in Montreal in October) and Placido Domingo sing the praises of Il Volo, as does Michele Torpedine, manager of Andrea Bocelli and Il Volo.

Sarah insisted I get into the concert, yet I was tired and had no interest in hearing opera pop-style. Besides, I told her she was turning away people and I did not wish to take away anyone’s chance of
buying a ticket. Sarah got on the phone and began talking in Italian to “Barbara”, who was in charge of these singing songsters. Sarah told me to stay at the table; then she disappeared. Within five minutes, she returned and handed me a ticket for a front-row seat. Sarah told me to wait until after the concert so I could meet the three fellows. “I’ll come and get you. I want you to meet them and Barbara too.” I felt obligated now.

When I told Sarah I might leave at intermission, she hesitated, but took the gamble and gave me that ticket, hoping I’d stay to personally meet Il Volo. “Nancy, I would love for you to meet them… and Barbara knows you’re here.”

I have never heard such a thrilling vocal concert in my life! The moment Il Volo burst onto the stage, the atmosphere became electric. As the lights beamed on each of them ascending the stairs like handsome Apollos appearing before us, everyone began yelling in ecstasy. The trio’s presence dazzled our senses. Luscious harmonies of thrilling sonority surrounded us. We were all under Il Volo’s spell as time, trouble and turmoil seemed forever banished.  Il Volo’s passion, wit and delivery of stunningly romantic songs were periodically boosted with heartwarming scenes projected on the back wall. When the trio sang Smile, Charlie Chaplin film clips lit up the back of the stage.

But this was not a performance in need of bells and whistles. The three prodigies – 19-year-old Piero from Sicily (whose voice resembles a young Domingo); Gianluca (his dashing good looks and suave manner make you swoon [he’s only 17]); and from Bologna… the adorable Ignacio, also 18 – funny with tonal textures far beyond his years. None of these guys were vocally trained when they first appeared separately in 2009 on the Italian talent show Ti lascio una canzone. Nonetheless, producer Michele Toredine matched the lads up to form Il Volo, with singer /producer Tony Renis also on board.

Now worldwide stars, the tenors perform such standouts as O sole mio, Une amor così grande, E Più Ti Penso, Per Te and Maria – sung solo by Gianluca – but that night my favourite for the evening was El Reloj.

I was on a high, and so happy to be called in by Sarah to meet the guys before their groupie fray entered the small room. Gianluca pointed out his mother who looked like a teen herself. Barbara gave me
insightful information about their careers.

As I was leaving, Sarah yelled: “Come on, Nancy, you have to get your picture taken with them.” Before I knew it, my arms were around all three, and it was “Smile”. Exhilaration lasted the entire week. I had
hit the sky like a flying pizza pie!

Next time you’re dining in Little Italy, order Il Volo!

Musical Mayhem Goes beyond the Greenbelt

September 4, 2012 8:00 am
Musical Mayhem Goes beyond the Greenbelt

It’s a fact – to make it as a musician, you have to tour. As a result, because a musician’s vocals and vibes need to be heard beyond home turf, many local bands are going beyond the greenbelt.  This month a slew of Ottawa bands are traveling to Montreal to perform in pop Montreal, one of the coolest festivals to take place in North America. It spotlights an ebullient blast of bands boasting the bellicose and the beautiful – a harvest of music blends that are far removed from ‘topology’. The only pop to use that word consist of artists popping out on stage from all over, and Ottawa talent is thundering ahead, starting with A Tribe Called Red.  This native all-aboriginal group mixes traditional Pow Wow music with contemporary club sounds. They call their remarkable brand Pow Wow Step. It’s a mix of hip hop, dancehall and related rhythms steeped in all sorts of electronic sounds. These guys are innovative beyond the max. They turn traditional dance hall music on its ear.

Hollerado

Among the line-up is Hollerado. This name may seem familiar to some because these four guys started out as friends who formed their own Ottawa moving company by the same name. Now they’re a quartet that puts pizzazz and punch into pop rock. Hollerado has enjoyed international success with a world tour as well as a Juno nomination.

Kyrie Kristmanson, a lady of inestimable artistry is also featured in this festival. Ottawa fans describe her as ethereal, challenging, raw and incredible. Integrating her guitar (she took it up at the age of nine) and the trumpet (she plays that too) with her vocals, she has created a sensation in the bilingual music scene across Canada. Evidently, she’s breaking new ground with a new album, and we can expect lots of surprises from her on September 22, when she performs at Théâtre Olympia during the festival. Kyrie is a rare find.

Equally quixotic is Kalle Matteson.  For the past years he has been writing music and performing with a Bob Dylan-like delivery. In the past, Kalle Matteson was a solo act, but has now evolved into an experimental folk-rock quintet. Backed by guitar, bass drums and horns, the effect is as soothing as the rippling sounds of waves slipping into the shoreline. Kalle’s performance style weaves a silky cocoon of warmth in the room.

Kyrie Kristmanson

Silken Laumann will also be performing in the festival. This is a duo consisting of CBC’s resident electronic artist, Adam Salkaley and Rolf Klausner of the indie folk troupe, The Acorn. They offer electro-pop retro style in rhythms reminiscent of the eighties. The sounds harmonize beautifully together making an original musical matrix.

Finally, Pop Montreal will also feature some iconic pop stars. For example, audiences will enjoy American Idol’s Jacob Lusk & the R Kelly All Stars. As well, Lil B of hip hop fame will be present.

Pop Montreal’s four-day festival starts September 19th. For more information visit: www.popmontreal.com

Nina Bains Uncensored: The force behind the Ottawa International Film Festival

August 21, 2012 9:00 am
Nina Bains Uncensored: The force behind the Ottawa International Film Festival

Dynamic and daring, filmmaker/entrepreneur, Nina Bains has put Ottawa on the international film map. Her ingenuity, drive and determination to give local filmmakers their silver screen glory has made everyone feel ”f’ilmfabulous”. The buzz during the five-day event (Aug. 15-19) was unmistakable, and those nighttime parties OIFF held  at Arc Hotel, Fat Boys Smokehouse and Babylon Night Club added to the celebratory spirit.

“I love to throw a party,” said this 34-year-old mother of two who spends six months of the year planning the festival and the other six months scouting out locations for film companies shooting in Ottawa.
“I love adventure and getting the adrenaline going,” she said, flashing a radiant smile, which instantly made me understand how her exuberance, passion and charisma could convince sponsors to get involved, which they did whole-heatedly in the form of beverages, food, accommodations etc; and this year, for the first time she was able to receive assistance from Invest Ottawa. That’s a great step forward, considering that since 2009, Nina has been putting her own money into the festival, not to mention some of her own films – she’s made three – so this year marks a turning point of success for all the filmmakers, not to mention the boost in status of this indie event which she hopes to turn into Ottawa’s version of the Sundance Festival.

This is Hannibal director, Maximilian Moskal

The festival has grown significantly with 27 film screenings including, shorts, documentaries and features made mainly by local and farther afield talents, including south-of-the-border directors. There are premiers too. “The Day”, an apocalyptic film made in Ottawa, by Doug Aarniokoski closed the festival, but it will be open to the general public only on August 24th. Nina was art department co-ordinator on this film which was shot in Carleton Place.

The Ottawa International Film Festival is not without meager beginnings. Nina recalls the day that the film fest started out as a two-hour event, three years ago when a single feature was screened under the name Boxcart Film Festival – held at the Jack Purcell Centre on Elgin Street. “I remember we sat on white plastic chairs and my kids made refreshments for the people watching the film. Those were the days.”
In 2010, there were 10 films shown at the Mayfair Theatre, and now all the films are shown at The World Exchange Plaza on Albert Street. “I am fatigued.” she admitted, but that’s to be expected at the end of this five-day marathon of oodles of films that included 14 films made by lesser known talents and bigger names such directors Karim Ayari (Polar Bear Love was the first film to tour Canada that used a DSLR camera). He also directed Nina’s latest film, ‘Thirteen Downs’ – a thriller involving family misunderstandings which Nina also co-produced with her life partner, Shawn Kazda. “This year, was fantastic for us. It is also the first time reps from Disney and Alliance attended the festival, so we hope some of the films catch the attention of a major distributor.”
Nina is of East Indian origin and she was born with Bollywood on her brain. “I grew up with Bollywood. I always wanted to make films. I began dreaming about making a festival happen 12 years ago. I did my research and discovered Ottawa had very little in terms of showcasing our filmmakers – many of whom I met at Carleton University where I studied film.” She mentioned her best friend, Marie Lemay, whose husband Martin Forcier (known for the film, ‘Crossing Nirvana’) directed ‘Undercurrent’ -shown this year at the festival.

This is Hannibal, a film about wrestler, Devon Nicholson.

Nina revealed the blend of documentary and fiction created a nice potpourri of audience appeal. “One of my favourite documentaries was ‘Hannibal’, a film about Ottawa native, Devon Nicholson, a wrestler whose career soared and then plummeted in a single moment when disease and debt threw him the cruelest punch. out there for  Ottawa to see.”

Nina is no stranger to the documentary genre. Last year, she went to Calcutta and Mumbai to make a documentary on child sex slavery and human trafficking, titled, ‘Caged Innocents. She cleverly slipped into areas with hidden cameras. Nina is fearless when it comes to exposing the world’s injustice and evil. In 2006, she went to Haiti to make a film about politics, but got caught in a nightmare when the government was in violent turmoil. She was facing machine guns at every corner and  was ordered by the UN to get out.
Now on safer turf, Nina has created a festival that is diverse, outspoken, fun and enlightening. Ottawa has been hit by ‘Hurricane Nina’; her presence is fantastic, her contribution to Ottawas’ cultural landscape is remarkable.

A Perfect Pairing: Artist and Writer

August 13, 2012 9:00 am
A Perfect Pairing: Artist and Writer

Without illustrators, writers would never see their works come to life in poetry, short stories, graphic novels or children’s books. Illustrators who collaborate with writers effectively bring life to specific scenes and characters that live in a writer’s head. Through their genius, these agents of visual art are able to translate and transform letters, sentences and paragraphs into instant images that inform and enhance the story.

Writers describe exactly what they see in their mind’s eye until they are blue in the face. It is the gift of the artist to be able to ‘read’ into writers – ‘see’ what they are writing and morph it all into a vision that unites action to image. They are the star, yet many remain in the very background they area asked to paint…

Children's author, Robert Munsch and illustrator, Michael Martchenko are a famous writer-artist pair.

I have been fortunate to collaborate with one such artist named, Colette Gagnon.  She quietly immersed herself in the creative drama projects, which I developed to teach kids about prehistoric times using drama and art. Her keen talent proved to be uber-rewarding for the kids. The props and mural she created with the children stimulated their imaginations, transporting them to other worlds based in reality and fantasy. She gently guided them like a seeing-eye demi-god.

Another inspiration was Lynne Meloche, a fantastic artist whose hilarious drawings were perfectly suited to the amusing family that lived in my head, destined for a children’s book. I wrote about this family using verse poetry to convey how the five senses of these crazy characters led to antics that bordered on the absurd. Lynne and I were a happy duo, and the more we discovered how much fun these characters were, the more Lynne enlivened the entire story. Her drawings were spot on for this work (The Crazy and Amazing Five Senses Book). She saw exactly what I wanted. I even ‘blocked’ where each character was to be on each page and tried to give her specific ideas as to how I saw these characters in my head. My attempts to draw them were pathetic. Because of her, the book took on a life of its own. Her drawings were a huge success for kids. I had the pleasure to do a book reading at Chapters here in Ottawa, and the kids laughed far more at the pictures than they did the words.

Could you imagine reading The Wizard of Oz without the quirky and colourful depictions of the Land of Oz?

Years ago, I made wooden shape verse books about nature and illustrated them in the most primitive way, using pen, magic marker and letraset for the text. I made about 50 by hand. I enjoyed the band saw cutting, drawing and colouring in, but when a publisher approached me to have them mass produced, it was time to find a real artist. A delightful cheery chap named Olivier Dumoulin refined my drawings and prepared them for publication. His patience was remarkable.

In the past, I have interviewed oodles of artists. Most remain humble about their beguiling talent. Their visions brilliantly explode onto the canvas or a page filled with words, creating immeasurable impact.

The Facts About Writing Fiction

August 10, 2012 4:05 pm
The Facts About Writing Fiction

A good writer creates a short story or novel based on what he knows – what he has experienced. Something in his past or present state of affairs affects him deeply. The story he writes may be about a person that has made some kind of impact on him – not just a family member or friend but a stranger, as well.

Sometimes, writers see a face and create a character behind that person. For example, a woman I once saw standing at a bus stop interested me. My imagination went into full gear, and out popped a short story. It was called The Powder Case. This story introduced a woman in her eighties, who while applying her makeup in the bathroom, passes out for reasons not told – until the end of the story. The reader may think she has died – until her husband gets to her in time. It is a study in character that expands into themes of love and devotion. There is a fair bit of suspense and irony.

This character was named Mrs. Jilasi. The simple act of seeing this little old lady at the bus stop triggered a story that resonates with readers. When I read it at a writer’s club two months ago, we discussed its impact. How could a piece of fiction be so real, and why did it hold interest for listeners? After much discussion, we concluded the story involved health, a near-tragic incident, relief and love. These are themes that come into everyone’s life sooner or later. These listeners felt emotionally invested in Mrs. Jilasi. They also wanted to hear what the outcome would be and how the plot twists would resolve.

A piece of fiction must include more surprise than predictability, and create believable characters we understand and embrace.

A piece of fiction must include more surprise than predictability, and create believable characters we understand and embrace. We may love or hate these characters, but it is crucial that as character development occurs, we recognize their humanity. They must seem real. We react to their emotions and experiences, even cry, as one listener did during my reading of The Powder Case. This listener empathized with the situation, along with the vanity, anguish and love that defined the actions in the story. She said it was so real. Yet, it was pure fiction.

This can often run a writer into danger. If the novel is about characters or events within a family context, a reader can assume it is biographical in nature; a family member or friend can take the story to be about them. They are right in so far as some aspects of their lives may have provided the story seed.

I have written a story based in a real setting and on a relationship about siblings. Only one element in the story is true; the rest is fiction, formed by a multitude of brain synapses throwing up mental images and emotions that live in a writer. A writer can reinvent reality as real events and people known to him become morphed into a new reality – shaped anew by the mysterious talents and ideas percolating in his brain. Mixed into a boiling pot, these disconnected fragments are formed into a fluid piece of poignant fiction. But here is the real truth: most writers wing it as they write. The characters take on a life of their own as do the events.

Writing is not for control freaks.

Writing is not for control freaks. You have to let it all happen; you are the conduit through which the story is created. You are the stylist and ‘plot chaser’, for often the plot runs away on you, guiding you, and that is magical.

Some writers have no idea how the story will end. The creative thread of words flows to create a tapestry of truths that are all fictional. So, if someone ever tells you he is in the novel you have written, you can reply by saying: “Thank you for inspiring me to mutate you into something you never were or will be with events that never happened or will happen.”

The fact is great fiction confounds; fact and fiction blur into one.

S

August 7, 2012 9:00 am
S

The cornucopia of offerings in Ottawa’s theatre scene is brimming with exciting plays-from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry the Fifth (both which are touring the city’s parks) to The Great Canadian Theatre Company’s production of the father and son drama, The Secret Mask, and Theatre-Nouvelle Scene’s Quelques Humains (Pierre-Michel’s absurdist portrait of a group of decadent, cynical adults)-these plays present poignant plots steeped in a common theme: the human dilemma.

The Irving Greenberg Theatre

Take for instance Karen Balcome’s work, Snapshot. Directed by Patrick Gauthier, this unique piece invites Ottawa theatre-goers to witness what happens when grandfather and granddaughter behave like foes rather than family. Heavy and light-hearted moments define the action and tone for the play as the two protagonists find themselves feeling lost and alone after the loss of their beloved wife and grandmother. Can they make a connection with one another or are they destined to be family in name only? Can their secrets be shared and conflicts resolved? The main protagonists suffer in their own way, but like most of us, they yearn for some kind of connection. Negotiating conflicts and overcoming stubbornness can create new beginning for both  Snapshot is a story about crossing divides, and stumbling upon a path that accidently brings unity to an otherwise disconnected relationship. It will be staged at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre next month.

The play, My Name is Asher Lev, is sure to stir the hearts of every artist watching it. Set in the 1950’s in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, the stage play was adapted by Aaron Posner from the book by Chaim Potok. The 9th Hour Theatre Company will be presenting the play inside Sandy Hill’s Arts Court Theatre, until Aug. 25. A bit autobiographical, My Name is Asher Lev daringly presents what it means to be an artist tormented by conflicting generational values. The protagonist, Asher, is an artist conflicted with his dreams and his parents’ aspirations for him. This is a taut story ripe and reeling with intense family derision. Asher is pitted against his deeply religious, tyrannical father. Asher, a gifted artist, is obsessed with painting, but his traditional upbringing does not allow for artistic expression. His parents are aghast at their son’s disinterest in Judaism along with concomitant daily rituals. The masterpiece Asher creates is a glaring insult to his family. His paints a crucifix, but it is his mother, not Jesus who is on it. This painting graphically references her own pain, for her other son was killed while traveling for the Rebbe, the community’s a great spiritual leader.

My Name is Asher Lev

Asher’s angst has combined with his mother’s in this great art work. But triumph is often the flip side of tragedy. When an artist chooses, gain gives way to some kind of loss. Jacob Kohn’s, Asher’s art teacher, tells him: “As an artist, you are responsible to no one and to nothing except yourself and the truth as you see it”. In the end, Asher has to choose between family and destiny.

Ottawa’s ‘playfest’ has something for everyone interested in the human condition. Allow yourself to be transported into the world of others while enjoying great theatre!

Acting: The Craft of Deceit to Get to the Truth

July 31, 2012 4:25 pm
Acting: The Craft of Deceit to Get to the Truth

Acting and poetry saved my sanity as a teen. At 13, I auditioned for the role of  Juliet – Shakespeare’s daughter. I was in grade nine, and I was up against grade 13 gals. I’d never taken an acting lesson, but I got the part. Getting up on that stage was an epiphany; I found my voice. I was a lonely kid who turned to the piano for solace. I dwelled in a world of make-believe where nature was my trusty friend. I thought that music, animals and stones were gentler than people. People were complicated; an emotional decipherer – I wasn’t. This mystery about human nature became most important  when I took up acting professionally in my late teens.

High school gave me confidence to move beyond and so I found myself playing the lead in Sinbad and The Mermaid. It was my first pro gig, and I was a teen. Things picked up when I moved to Toronto to pursue acting seriously, studying at York University and then Manchester University, followed by a stint at Granada Studios. Returning to Canada, I auditioned at Stratford and was rejected. I eventually toured Canada doubling as a mime and story teller for Global Village Players.

With each role, I began to see there were two parts to acting. First, you had to make the character your best friend and take her into your heart. Second, you had to be grateful that this character allowed you to be ‘her’. Roles demand you uncover aspects in your own being that are rarely activated. Can you embrace the life context of this character? Often, the process of ‘becoming the other’, as I call it would take weeks.

I toured Canada as a mime and story teller for Global Village Players.

Acting became a way for me to dig deep into who I was. After playing a mad woman in an insane asylum who thought she was Amelia Earhart, I had burn out. For the role, I studied Alzheimer’s patients. Maybe I found myself in these souls locked in loneliness – living in a world far removed from the daily rat race. I ventured into madness.

Acting is the art of deceit. I remember playing Gerd, in Ibsen’s Brand. One night, a young woman from the audience came to talk to me back stage. She told me she couldn’t believe I wasn’t really Gerd. You seemed to be that wild girl from the mountains. In England, I had the honour of playing Bianca in Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy, Women Beware Women. Evidently, my phoney English accent was ’authentic’ enough to fool a few: a sweet lady visiting me backstage gushed over my Oxonian accent and ‘perfect’ diction. It was time to uncover the deceit. I blurted out in my Ottawa Valley accent. “Thanks a lot; I’m Canadian.”  She looked stunned.

While on tour, performing The Trojan Women in Greek amphitheatres, I played Andromache and Athena. Playing a princess and a Greek goddess was a double dose of acting deceit!

I wanted to share this wonderful craft with youngsters and allow them to express themselves in ways that would be accepted and embraced.

The desire to stop acting happened in an instant. I was waiting to go on stage to play Helena in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. In a flash, I realized I had outgrown the desire to deceive. I no longer needed to be another person to accept myself. Ironically, the deceit of acting had led me to myself. I no longer became excited about entering the psyche of others.

Instead, I wanted to share this wonderful craft with youngsters and allow them to express themselves in ways that would be accepted and embraced. I wanted to give them opportunities for self-discovery too. I became a creative dramatist and acting teacher. I have found acting can embolden the shy and calm the wild.

The truth is, acting demands the suspension of disbelief by everyone except you. Those characters held up a mirror to me. I see and accept who I am now – not who I would like to pretend to be.

Ode to Ottawa

July 30, 2012 4:20 pm
Ode to Ottawa

This city is one of the most beautiful to behold. As a poet, I am inspired by how our gracious capital harmonizes urban man-made structures with nature’s creations. At every turn, I see vistas of green, picturesque pathways bordered by flowers and water, water everywhere. What other city can boast a canal smack in the centre of its core – now a recreational waterway which majestically strides 202 kilometers along to meet another city!

Ottawa has a splendid array of fascinating facades in many downtown neighborhoods. Some gleam gloriously tall as their modern glass exterior amply displays the visual virtues of sunlight or the reflection of a rainbow arched over the horizon. Ottawa gives you the feeling of eternally expansive skies. There are no unsightly skyscrapers blocking the beautiful blue.  Many cities enclose lofty climes, depriving us of enjoying those magical clouds that have their own ever-changing forms.  In fact, this city is a feast for the eyes; it is a haven for the old and new living side by side. Look at all those Gothic and Romanesque churches. They are not relegated to side streets or residential-only sections. Some are large, others demure. Many are a testament to those bold Scottish builders of exceptional masonry skills whose legacy embodies resilience and fortitude. This is where might, artistic vision and spirituality find their unified domain. They beckon painters and architectural historians alike.

The Canal at the Glebe

Other kinds of beacons to the past can be found in century-old homes such as those in Sandy Hill and beyond. Generations of families have lived and died in them. Nostalgia is celebrated in Ottawa. You need only join a walking tour to discover this. Reflect on the days when milk was delivered in bottles at your doorstep. Nature was never far away. I recall at the bottom of my street on Denbury Ave., where I spent my younger years, there was a swamp that served both as a skating rink in Winter and a polliwog provider in Summer. Of course, that’s gone, but nature still prevails in the West-end residential section of the city.

No matter the city I walk in: Paris, London, Vienna, Budapest, Athens, Madrid, Barcelona – to name a few, I have discovered that all peripatetic travelers are artists at heart. We are explorers eager to transform that which lies before us into a poem, a painting a photo, even a simple letter. We are prone to getting lost, which luckily leads us to discovering a favourite spot to rest weary feet and ponder the view. Silence.

How lucky we are to be surrounded by the Ontario Greenbelt! Water meanders gently in parks shaded by enormous trees. Look carefully for those secretive pathways bordering pretty ponds that seem to pop out of nowhere. A city designed for scenic drives and devoted cyclists; you can just about reach any part of Ottawa on two wheels or two feet – not in a day for sure – if you want to see it all. But make sure you revisit these parts. Something unpredictable or is sure to come your way. Go to the Glebe and spread you wings.  Make a wish under those great trees.  I  did and wrote this:

New Edinburgh Park

“So many trees,

so much to see.

How to comprehend

Such wondrous beauty?

It’s time for some sidewalk talk. Wander into Westboro Village, and shop till you drop, then go for a swim.

Hercules who owns the beachside bar has weekly night-time bands playing reggae and Spanish music.  Try one of his amazing pina coladas as the sun sets. You’ll be writing poetry!

Speaking of sweetness, I love Lindenlea. What a cozy enclave of happy houses! They hearken back to times where neighborhood kids enlivened the streets with laughter and had sleepovers every weekend while moms were busy making their own version of Girl Guide Cookies.  The same holds true for New Edinburgh which is actually old – don’t be fooled by those well-heeled houses. There is great character here – a stately setting for any artist at large.

Without a doubt, Ottawa has an allure which is intensely appealing to those of us with artistic souls. So here is my poetic take on my hometown.

“I’ve learned in life

no matter where you roam…

no matter what befalls…

Home is best of all!”

From Keys to Strings

July 10, 2012 9:00 am
From Keys to Strings

From keys to strings, a musical adventure begins!

Friends never ask why I took up the piano. Not so with the banjo! When they discover I devote time to the banjo rather than the piano, they panic: “Stick with the piano; it’s a much nicer instrument! Women don’t play banjo! You’re from Ottawa, not the Deep South!”

I tell them I bought my Goldtone banjo right here at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. Still, they find it strange I would ‘switch’ to banjo. One pianist friend of mine whose arms are as graceful as a ballet dancer’s told me that my new choice of instrument was “unfeminine”- the harp would have been far more appropriate.  She was right on that point. Carrying the banjo case around ain’t exactly Grace Kelly gorgeous.

Mark Twain on the banjo.

Most importantly, the banjo and piano are totally unrelated instruments. The only thing they have in common is the need for finger dexterity. One is percussive, and the notes are already there; the other is a ‘plucker’ with strings, and frets to guide you. So why the banjo?

Years ago at the Bluesfest, I met Tony Levin, one of the world’s greatest bass players. I was interviewing some veteran musicians performing at the event for a Montreal paper. After chatting for a while, he asked me that obvious question: “Why did you take up the banjo. It’s so different from the piano,” he found it amusing – not a common occurrence. “Do you find it harder than piano?”

Not wanting to waste his time with a nobody like me, I tried to sum it up in a few succinct sentences. “The banjo is portable; it is a social instrument. I love the lyric in the songs for banjo. The stories are about good old fashioned God-fearing people who have a lot of common sense and wisdom. And yes, it is incredibly difficult – at least for me.”

Mr. Levin’s parting words were: “Keep on plucking. Your enthusiasm is great!” (Unfortunately, my enthusiasm did not match my level of banjo playing). Still, I followed his advice and persisted, fresh on the heels of Mark Twain’s banjo comment: “If you want to feel strychnine running through your veins…feel life like you never have, then smash the piano and take up the banjo.”

I didn’t tell Mr. Levin this that Twain’s words really resonated for me, for I was in a slump following a failed relationship. I needed to feel alive again. Ever hear of banjo therapy? Maybe, it’s in the twang.

Furthermore, traveling around with a banjo on your knee beats carrying a suitcase of soundless clothes. True, the film Deliverance gave the banjo a bad rap, but the Dixie Chicks fixed all that.

It was just before they hit the charts, that the banjo put me on a new track of life.

Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks.

There were no female teachers up here, so it was a thrill to go to Elkins College in West Virginia and study with Murphy Henry (a woman) who basically made us females feel feminine and empowered toting our banjos around and taking them out to play together. I’d never experienced that kind of music. It was light, yet sorrowful in solo, responsive yet complex. The banjo repertoire offers spirited glimpses into humanity’s triumphs and woes, such as Keep on the Sunny Side; It’s hard Ain’t it Hard; even murder makes its banjo mark, Pretty Polly.

One night there was a huge jamming session in the park in Elkins. Bluegrass groups were brimming. You could move about and join anyone you wanted to. I remember a really friendly all-female group of players plucking away their banjos in bluegrass style, giving a rip roaring rendition of Cripple Creek. I felt the joy of banjo, vocals, and unity. We must have replayed that tune 20 times, and each time I felt a growing ecstasy. Then there was a tap on my shoulder from behind. It was a Mennonite lady loudly declaring: “Sweetie, you really have the Lord in you!” That did it. I nearly converted on the spot!

Playing the banjo turned me into a singer/songwriter. The banjo brought me fine friends, professional gigs and a chance to learn about life through songs steeped in tried and true experiences.

I left the piano for over a decade.  But if truth be told, I came back to it – like a lover longing for the one she first loved.  Hey, that line belongs in a banjo song!

Piano Plight, Fright and Delight

July 6, 2012 9:00 am
My quest has taught me each piano has its own personality along with its owner.

I love traveling, but there’s always this snag that comes up. As a pianist, I get antsy if my fingers can’t find a piano to play. I become irritable; my skin breaks out.

My obsession to locate a piano when away has led me into some weird and wonderful places, including a defunct Parisian furniture factory storing a sad Steinway put out to pasture; a sanatorium in Berlin whose Heintzman belonged to a deceased patient; even a damp basement in Algeciras’s army barracks where a beautiful Bosendorfer rested at ease. These pianos had been neglected, but they served me well.

The acoustics were great, but her Yamaha piano was missing as many keys as most 80-year-olds are teeth!

In Nantes, I befriended Beatrice, a flute player whose ‘den’ was a restored jail cell. The acoustics were great, but her Yamaha piano was missing as many keys as most 80-year-olds are teeth! “It’s going to the piano crematorium in two days,” she announced without a trace of sadness.  Sitting in a ‘chair’ that resembled some kind of Inquisition contraption, I proceeded to play Debussy’s ‘Little Shepherd’ – a symbolic piece of music for this relic facing the death sentence!

On a merrier note, I discovered Mexico is user friendly to piano players. In San Miguel de Allende, I wandered into Whiskey Monkey, a New Orleans piano bar. I asked if I could ‘tickle’ the notes on the Baldwin. It appeared to be in good shape, so Pepe, the owner urged me give it a go. There I was playing Bach and Brahms in a jazz bar!? Diners were either highly inebriated or had grown tired of hearing the same jazz standards, but Pepe – having had a few drinks himself – invited me back the next night. I became a regular at Whiskey Monkey for the next week.

There I met José. He owned the pharmacy in the centre of town. “I have a 200-year-old library in my house with an equally old piano. But like wine, it has grown sweeter with age.” Handing me his card, he told me to knock on his door between 10:00 and 11:00 AM any day. “Lupita, the maid will let you in, and I’ll come down.”

“I have a 200-year-old library in my house with an equally old piano. But like wine, it has grown sweeter with age.”

I jumped at the opportunity. His bell-like sounding no-name upright inspired me to attempt a Brahms Intermezzo. It was a heavenly experience. I was inspired for sure by the plethora of paintings surrounding me – biblical saints staring down from the lofty walls. Bach’s ‘Ave Maria’ had to be played. The next ten mornings transformed into a sonorous ritual: José would come down in his pyjamas, ask Lupita to bring us coffee, and for over an hour I would play. Jose would sit listening and then he would begin to tell me fascinating stories about his ‘famous’ ancestors – also painted and framed alongside the angels.

My spiritual epiphany happened in Prague’s 13th-century Klementinum inside the sublime Hall of Mirrors concert hall. I heard a hypnotic quartet perform. There was no stage. The piano was a Petrof.  I had never heard of this make. Its sound was godly. After the musicians left, I felt compelled to play this 19th-century miraculous instrument. I became intensely engrossed in its exquisite, rapturous sound. I recall I played Massenet’s Elegy Melody, some Satie and Walter Carroll’s Sea Idylls. I heard nothing except the notes. I lost all sense of time and place. Waking from this reverie, I stood up to hear another sound: clapping! People had quietly re-entered the hall, perhaps thinking I was a tag-on unannounced artist; the concert wasn’t over. It was funny yet moving for me.

My quest has taught me each piano has its own personality along with its owner. Some are tired souls; others bright and self-assured. Unplanned, these piano meetings have created many amusing experiences, not to mention the friendships that have formed along the way.

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