Posts Tagged ‘music’


May 30th, 2016

The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura — a group of youth musicians from Paraguay that play instruments made entirely out of recycled garbage — have been brought to Vancouver by a local non-profit that has spent the last few years collecting disused instruments for the group.

Click the link below to listen.

CBC Radio Vancouver

Ukulele me

February 27th, 2015

It’s that time of year again here in Vancouver: yes, it’s ukulele season. Next weekend is the annual Vancouver Ukulele Festival, a three-day celebration of the weirdest little instrument on earth.

I’m highly attuned to news related to ukuleles, because there was a time in my life when people kept on giving them to me. I’m not sure why, but I’ve got three now. I don’t really know how to play them, but they’re fun to have around.

ukulele 2

And I love the sound of them, too. In fact, the first story I ever wrote for the CBC show Definitely Not The Opera was about the ukulele — its reputation as a goofy comedy instrument and its growing popularity. The uke was still the underdog and the bad joke of the music world back then, but over the past decade, as I predicted, it’s gained a lot more respect.

More and more musicians have discovered the uke’s versatility and its tiny, tender heart. Since I recorded that story for CBC, Eddie Vedder has recorded an entire album full of ukulele songs (appropriately titled Ukulele Songs). And the instrument has gained some indie cred at the hands of artists such as tUnE-yArDs and Jens Lekman, too.

But the master of the ukulele love song, in my estimation, is still Stephin Merritt. From his many Magnetic Fields masterpieces, to his work with the 6ths, to his silly solo ukulele ditties, he breaks my heart with every strum.

ukulele 1

Still not convinced that the uke can be a soulful instrument? Check out this cover of “Motherless Child” by Vancouver musician (and Ukulele Festival organizer) Daphne Roubini.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I think I have something in my eye…

Happy Cassette Store Day!

September 27th, 2014

It came to my attention earlier this week that there’s such a thing as Cassette Store Day. And it’s today! Yep, September 27, 2014 is the second annual day devoted to the celebration of cassette tapes.

To mark the day, stores all over the U.S. and the U.K. will be selling special cassette releases by artists ranging from They Might Be Giants to Townes Van Zandt, from Weezer to Best Coast.

Founded in London by three independent labels, Cassette Store Day is kind of like Record Store Day except that it’s more about celebrating the format itself than supporting the businesses that sell it.

Apparently, last year’s inaugural event was a “runaway success.”

So why would anyone want to celebrate such a rattly old obsolete recording format?

Lots of reasons.

According to Cassette Store Day’s UK website, Bobby Gillespie of Scottish rock band Primal Scream loves cassettes. 

“Cassette is a cool medium to listen to music on,” he’s quoted as saying.

“Warm and fat. Good bottom end.”

I’ve got no opinion on the bottom end, but there are plenty of reasons I loved cassettes back in their heyday. They were cheap. Easy to customize and share. And they gave off that wonderful dusty/sweetish smell when you opened their hinged plastic cases. Remember cassette tape smell? Mmm.

These days I mainly love cassettes for the nostalgic pang they give me. They remind me of the days when I had to press my cassette recorder up against the radio speaker to catch snippets of my favourite songs. Of lazy days spent filling those long strips of magnetic tape with songs to give to friends or lovers. Of carefully lettering a tape case insert to make a song list fit elegantly onto that little paper rectangle.

Back when I was first learning how to make radio, I produced an ode to the cassette for CBC Radio 3. It was called The Lost Art of the Mixed Tape. It analyzed the keys to creating a perfect mix and lamented the demise of the culture of the cassette tape.

But Cassette Store Day seems to indicate that it’s not dead after all.

This NME article from last year’s Cassette Store Day offers some compelling arguments for why the cassette format might be on the verge of a rebirth. It points out that you can’t sell MP3’s at a merch table and that cassettes are the cheapest and easiest format for young bands to produce. It insists that Cassette Store Day isn’t just hipster nonsense.

I’m not fully convinced. I still think cassette tape appreciation is going to remain a music nerd niche. Like vinyl collecting, only less pretentious and kinda crappy.

But whether they make a real comeback or not, to me cassettes will always represent thoughtfulness and effort, beauty in imperfection, and the act of listening hard.

How’s that for a good bottom end?

Driving music

May 16th, 2013

I’ve been a reluctant commuter for the past few weeks. Since our move at the end of February I’ve been driving the kids back to our old neighbourhood so they can finish out the school year.

It’s been a grind. For most of my adult life I’ve lived (rather smugly) within walking distance of school and work. Now here I am sitting in the car for nearly two hours a day. That’s ten hours a week. Forty hours a month. I could be spending those hours on so many other things. Writing a novel! Practicing “Moon River” on the piano! Outlining my interactive documentary proposal! Or at least catching up on the laundry.

But since the daily driving is unavoidable for several more weeks, I’ve been looking for the bright side. This week I finally found it. It’s one of the few pleasures that comes along with long car rides and somehow I’d forgotten all about it: listening to music. Sick of the few kids’ CDs that have been rattling around in the glove box for years – and forbidden by my outraged progeny to switch over to CBC Radio One – I dug into a not-yet-unpacked box in the garage last weekend for a fresh selection of music.

I’d forgotten how intensely you listen to music in a car. At home, music frequently becomes background noise. But in the car there are few distractions. No email to read, no Twitter to check, no proposals to research, no laundry to do. So you listen harder.

It works for the kids, too. When I put on a new CD, they become utterly still and silent in the back seat. They focus on the music. They absorb the lyrics and memorize them and think about what they mean and later on at home they sing them with astonishing accuracy or ask about difficult words or concepts. I’m often surprised by which song grabs their attention. It’s usually something complicated – the song about death or evolution. Sometimes, less surprisingly, it’s the song with the words “monkey butt” in it.

I covered the subject of kindie rock – kids’ music that appeals to parents – a few years ago for CBC Radio 3. Since then, with my kids starting school and getting busier, family music appreciation time has fallen by the wayside. The hours we’re spending in the car this spring are a chance to grab a little of that time back. My kids are getting older now and I know it’s just a few years before they develop a taste for grown-up music. We’re nearly there, actually. The oldest would really prefer to listen to Queen most days. So I’m glad we’re rediscovering our stash of quality kindie rock one more time. A few times I’ve even found myself leaving it on for my morning drive home instead of switching back to Radio One.

Suddenly I feel like I’m going to miss all of this driving time once the school holidays begin.

Good thing we have a few road trips planned for this summer.



Adult beginner

December 12th, 2012

My son and I, both novice piano players, have been learning a couple of Christmas duets this month. I think it’s brought us closer. On the piano bench, I mean. Emotionally, not so much. Practice-time conversations usually run along the lines of:

Him: “Slow down!”

Me: “You’re playing too slow.”

Him: “I haven’t learned that part yet!”

Me: “You need to practice more, we’ve only got three more weeks until Christmas!”

But bickering and power struggles aside, Christmas is a great time to be learning to play the piano. The Charlie Brown specials on T.V. have provided tremendous inspiration for the boy. And the seasonal nature of the pieces we’re learning gives us a highly-motivating hard deadline.

The deadline, of course, causes frustration. But from what I’ve been reading lately, a little frustration is a valuable experience for children. And aside from the important lessons in failure, learning to play the piano offers other benefits to kids — from IQ boosts, to EQ boosts, to the possibility of tremendous success in politics.

As for me, I doubt I’m receiving any IQ boost from my weekly lessons and my evening noodlings. But it’s satisfying to be learning to play music again after a decade of dancing about architecture.

Besides, my learning music sets a good example for my kids. And it does enrich my relationship with my son in unexpected ways. We’re learning to listen to each other. We’re learning to get in sync.

And it gives him the occasional very satisfying upper hand. Although I’ve been taking lessons for several months longer than he has, his young, elastic brain gives him an advantage at times. After hacking my way through “Jingle Bells” yesterday, I apologized for all the mistakes I’d made as he’d sailed through his part error-free.

He hopped up from the piano bench with an exaggerated sigh and a barely-concealed smile.

“Yeah,” he said, “you need to practice more.”

Payback time is sweet.