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From ancient Greece to modern times, Thanksgiving is delicious: Wild turkeys, however, are downright mean

wild turkey walking

Wild turkey walking in grasslands

The origins of Thanksgiving can be traced back to ancient autumn full moon festivals. In ancient Greece, the women celebrated the festival of Thesmophoria in honour of the goddess Demeter for the gift of grain. The Romans made offerings at wells and fountains to the Camanae, oracular water nymphs. The Chinese opened the temple of the God of Wealth. The Jewish people still celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot. And native North Americans celebrate three significant autumn moon festivals: the Green Corn Festival, the Harvest Moon and the Feast of the Hunter’s Moon.

While local customs and seasons may have varied, festivals of thanks typically featured an abundance of food, a giving of thanks and a break from work (whether it be hunting, shepherding or harvesting). The ancient Celts celebrated summer’s end with the feast of Samhain (known today as Halloween), which featured roast boar from the hunt, roast beef from the herds, nuts from the forest and breads made from harvest grains. The Norse and Anglo-Saxons also celebrated the end of summer on the first full moon of their lunar calendar with harvest bounty, mead, ale and sacrificial beef.

Our European ancestors also held thanksgiving festivals, which they celebrated with a grand feast prepared from wild game, domestic animals and food crops, or whatever was on hand at the time. As they emigrated to the New World, they brought these customs with them. Martin Frobisher’s famous thanksgiving feast, held on Baffin Island (today’s Nunavut) in July, 1578 for safe sailing over storm-tossed seas, consisted of salt beef, biscuits and peas scrounged from the ship’s larder. Frobisher’s offering was a paltry pantry compared to the grand feast of thanks held by Samuel de Champlain and his French settlers in Ile Saint Croix in 1604 to celebrate their safe passage to the New World. Neither did it compare to the early harvest thanksgiving festival held by the Pilgrims in Plymouth in August, 1621. Coincidentally, both were communal feasts featuring wild game, fresh fish and harvest produce shared by the settlers with their native North American neighbours.

The life of a pioneer was not easy. Many died of starvation trying to scratch a living out of New World soil. After a bleak winter on Ile Saint Croix, the French settlers were moved to Port Royal, where Champlain established L’Ordre de Bon Temps, a social gathering that guaranteed a “laden banquet table” provided by a designated Steward responsible for ensuring the success of the feast. The popularity of the order grew and the rivalry among the hunters was so high they started foraging days earlier to provide a menu of “ducks, bustards, grey and white geese, partridges, larks … moose, caribou, beaver, otter, bear, rabbits, wildcats … sturgeon,” which was served “together with fruits, vegetables, fresh bread, pastries and wine.”

While Champlain made no mention of turkeys being on the menu, he wrote about a marvelous bird described to him by the natives of Massachusetts, which he rightly guessed was the wild turkey that inhabited the eastern half of North America. Champlain’s wild turkey should not to be confused with the tamed Mexican turkey the Spaniards introduced to Europe in 1519 and navigator William Strickland brought back to England, or with its descendant, the large domestic turkey that graces the family Thanksgiving table today. “They are as large as a bustard, which is a kind of goose, having the neck longer and twice as large as those with us,” Champlain wrote in his Voyages. “All these indications led us to conclude that they were turkeys.”

According to hunters, chefs and gourmands, while the wild turkeys our pioneer ancestors served on special occasions may not have been nearly as fat and juicy as the turkeys we buy from our local farmers, butchers and grocers, they were far tastier. Over the years, the wild turkey became the preferred fowl for special occasions, and had Benjamin Franklin not lost his case against the Bald Eagle, it might have become the national bird of the United States.

It may come as a surprise to those who have seen the flocks of long-necked wild turkeys strutting along the steep forested roads and through the campsites of Cypress Hills Park as if they own the place that these once-abundant birds were almost annihilated in the early 1900s by unregulated hunting, logging and farming. They may be smaller and scrawnier than today’s turkeys, but they’re hardy and adaptable … and they can fly … really really fast. Wild turkeys can fly as fast as 55 mph for short distances. They’re not so bad at running, either, managing speeds of 15-30 mph.

They’re also more aggressive than their tamed cousins.

“The Jolly Life” exhibit at the North Battleford Western Development Museum, which features the life of an early farmstead wife, has on display one of the last seven wild turkeys in Saskatchewan bred in St. Gregor in 1929. “Newcomers to the province hunted wild turkey for food,” the exhibit notes explain, “and cleared away the birds’ bush habitat for farm land.”

By the early 1900s, wild turkeys were already a rare breed in Saskatchewan and everywhere else in North America. And although they could fly fast, they couldn’t fly far. They also had poor depth perception and sense of smell and were not the brightest birds on the block, being easily trapped by the settlers and natives who regarded them as a primary food source. As the pioneers cut down virgin forests in their push west, they also cleared away the natural habitat of wild turkeys. In the 1920s, the birds had dwindled to around 30,000, and were devastated even further in the prairies by the drought of the 1930s. By the 1940s, they were nearly extirpated from Canada and were barely hanging on in remote areas of the United States.

With the regeneration of new woodlands, the introduction of new wildlife restoration laws and the efforts of game officials to encourage the protection and breeding of the surviving wild turkeys, their numbers slowly began to increase. At first, however, the restoration of the wild population was hit and miss. Techniques like game-farm and pen-raised turkeys failed because the hens were improperly imprinted and had no experience surviving in the wild. With the advance of trapping techniques and the development of a rapidly propelled cannon net, wild turkey numbers increased. Thousands of the birds were captured or moved with drop nets and immobilizing drugs.

The reintroduction of wild turkeys to North America is one of the great North American conservation success stories, particularly the eastern variety. Today more than 7 million wild turkeys are roaming forested areas of Canada, the United States and Mexico. Hunters are literally flocking to Ontario, where a 2007 survey reported between 80,000 and 100,000 wild turkeys living in the province. Alberta and British Columbia are also popular places to go wild turkey hunting. Smaller populations live in southwestern Alberta and southeastern Saskatchewan, where the gregarious gobblers can be seen puffing up their breast feathers and spreading and shaking their magnificent tail feathers to attract the admiration of the hens.

In some areas, though, flocks of wild turkeys have been spreading into urban areas and becoming a nuisance. They’ve been digging up lawns and gardens, perching on cars and terrorizing pedestrians and motorists. John Brassard, a Barrie, Ontario city councillor, was attacked by a couple of the large birds while driving home. When he stopped and honked his horn, “they started pecking at the grill,” said Brassard. Similarly, garden bloggers report wanton raids on their urban crops. Some folks have taken revenge by inviting the feathered pests to Thanksgiving dinner as the main course and in the process have discovered the culinary delight of tender, juicy roasted wild turkey breast served with rich, dark pan gravy.

There’s no need to take such drastic measures in southwest Saskatchewan, where the wild turkeys graciously confine themselves to the Cypress Hills and an area just past the bridge along the narrow winding road from Maple Creek. With Thanksgiving right round the corner, the local butchers, farmers markets and supermarkets are well stocked with big, fat, blasé traditional domestic turkeys. Those who are hankering to try something new and different, however, can put away the rifles, face paint and gobble calls and order a wild turkey online. Our pioneering forebears undoubtedly would have done the same if they’d had the internet back in their day.


The Gull Lake Advance, Oct. 2, 2012

Won Best Research Story award in the 2013 SWNA (Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association) Better Newspapers Competition, sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan.

Written by barbaramackellar

February 23, 2013 at 6:59 am

Posted in Features

Federal funding for Lac Pelletier Métis Veterans War Memorial announced

The Honourable Steven Blaney, Minister of Veterans Affairs, and Métis Elder Cecile Blanke, President, , Prairie Dog Métis Local 123 Association Inc.

The Honourable Steven Blaney, Minister of Veterans Affairs, and Métis Elder Cecile Blanke, President, , Prairie Dog Métis Local 123 Association Inc.

Swift Current, SK — On Jan. 23, 2013, The Honourable Steven Blaney, Minister of Veteran Affairs, and David Anderson, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and for the Canadian Wheat Board and Member of Parliament for Cypress Hills-Grasslands announced at a press conference in Swift Current funding of up to $22,575 for a war memorial in Swift Current to commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The Community Métis Veterans Monument will honour 16 veterans who grew up around Lac Pelletier Valley and served in the First World War, Second World War or Korean War.

In attendance were Métis representatives, family and friends, some of whom were veterans in military uniforms resplendent in medals come to support their community’s great achievement and honour their dead. Four colourful banners beautifully depicting Métis history by artist Sherry Farrell Racette hung on the south wall. On the north side of the room was a shrine displaying the photos of each of the 16 Lac Pelletier veterans.

Elder Cecile Blanke, President, Prairie Dog Métis Local 123 Association Inc. and recipient of the prestigious Southwest Citizen of the Year award, opened by offering to say a traditional Michif prayer.

“Good afternoon everyone. In our Métis gatherings we always start with a Michif prayer. So I thought it would be fitting to start with one today. I know that in a lot of things that happen today prayers aren’t allowed and I feel bad about that because I think we always need the spirits near us to lead us in the right direction.”

Blanke ended the prayer by thanking the spirits “for Stephen Blaney  to tell us of this good news…”

Guest speaker Mr. Wayne McKenzie, Past Leader of the Association of Métis and Non-status Natives spoke next about the need for a Métis cultural centre “where we can discuss and promote our own history and the contribution we’ve made as Canadians, not only in the wars we fought, but in terms of employment and economics. We have many contributions and may artifacts that need repatriating … ”

McKenzie thanked Métis leaders like Blanke for promoting their history “and not depending on someone else to put an interpretation on our history, our struggles and our aspirations in the future.” He also thanked her “for bringing light and hope for every community in Saskatchewan to tell their stories. We shouldn’t have to wait for government to give us the resources to tell that story and to make sure our children stand up and be proud and able to properly integrate into society.”

In his welcome speech, Parliamentary Secretary David Anderson opened by saying he was honoured to share the good news for veterans and thanked Cecile “for a couple of things. One is your long dedication to making sure the history of your people is remembered. I also want to thank you for your prayer.”

Anderson also thanked Minister Blaney for coming to Saskatchewan to make the announcement. “Minster Blaney has been Veterans Affairs Minister for nearly two years now, and one thing I can say is that everyone who has met him can see he is very passionate about  the cause of veterans and about improving the level of service that we provide to veterans and their families. I appreciate him coming to Swift Current.”

Anderson went on to commend Blaney for being one of the ministers willing travel to the rural areas of Canada and meet the people. “We know many veterans live in rural communities. I want to thank you for the work you’re doing outside the cities for the veterans and for our people.”

Since assuming the position of Minister of Veteran Affairs, Blaney has made significant changes to existing programs and policies. Thanks to Blaney, benefits and services for veterans suffering from severe diagnosed medical conditions and disabilities have improved and the New Veterans Charter provides support for veterans making the transition from military to civil life. He also launched the “Helmets to Hardhats” program, which helps former Canadian Forces members find well-paid jobs in construction, and initiated “Cutting The Red Tape” to help veterans have easier access to benefits and programs.

“I’m very proud to be in beautiful Saskatchewan. It’s my first time,” Blaney said and also thanked Blanke for her prayer. “It’s very inspiring and certainly is something that is good to do before undertaking any action.” He thanked MacKenzie as well “for reminding us of the greatness of the Métis nation, and today there’s another reason to celebrate.”

Blaney launched into a heartfelt speech about Canada’s aboriginals, who, he said, “have a long history of fighting for our country … Many thousands gave their lives.” He reminded us that “Canada’s prairies are home to the Métis” and announced that, “thanks to Prairie Dog Métis, a beautiful monument will stand in the valley” to honour the 16 Métis veterans of Lac Pelletier and surrounding communities for making the ultimate sacrifice.

“Cecile Blanke brought this forward,” said Blaney. “She has taken the initiative. This would not have happened without Cecile.”

Blanke expressed how pleased she was with the news of funding for the new Métis war monument. “It took lots of hard work to get this together, even coming up with the design. It came up in — not a dream — a monument with a Red River cart wheel … The monument must be more than just a monument.”

She drew our attention to a model of the “vision” monument made by her assistant, Tekeyla Friday, a local Métis author raised in Maple Creek. “It has 24 posts with names on all four sides of each post.”

Blanke closed the conference with moving stories about her father and the Métis veterans he invited to their home when she was a young girl. “They enlisted freely without hesitation to fight for their country. They were anxious to go. So was my dad, but he was 39 and too old to enlist. He was always interested in the soldiers on leave and invited them over. They brought alcohol, so they talked freely. I will never forget them or their stories.”

The Métis veterans had a very hard life after the war. They had no land to come home to and difficulty accessing their benefits. “Some sold their medals. Some drank themselves to death,” said Blanke. Others hid their native roots and integrated into society.

“So when we get this monument, the spirits will say, ‘They’re home.’ We will be able to tell our children who this monument is for. This is the most joyous day I will ever have.”


The Gull Lake Advance, Jan. 29, 2013

Written by barbaramackellar

February 18, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Posted in Features

Interview with a Shuffle Demon

The Man Behind the Myth

My first “up close and personal” encounter with a Shuffle Demon was on a dark and stormy October night in the season of the witch. Black cats prowled Toronto’s back alleys and howling wind whipped the leaves from the tree branches.

He introdcued himself as Richard Underhill. If this were a Tolkien novel it would signify that Shuffle Demons live under hills. They do not…not this one, at any rate. Richard lives in a sprawling second floor flat in the Queen West district, near La Calle, the funky little Latin American café where I enticed him to dine with me in exchange for an exclusive interview for the Halloween issue of What’s On Queen?.

Shuffle Demons I’ve observed neither look nor act alike. They do share certain traits in common, though. They’re all talented musicians with a penchant for travelling abroad. And there are three things Shuffle Demons cannot resist: good eats, good booze, and good schmooze.

While Richard confirmed my observations, I was not prepared for his revelation that the answer is more complex than books on demonology would have us believe. Sorry horror fans, but the shadowy origins of the Shuffle Demons was not brought about by either human or animal sacrifice. Shuffle Demons are part human and part mythological creatures who evolved from nature and technology.

Once we had dined and were relaxing comfortably over a bottle of excellent Chilean wine, my fascination for folklore finally compelled me to ask, “What are Shuffle Demons and when did they make their first appearance in this world?

“They are the offspring of another creature known as the Shuffle Monster.

“The Shuffle Monster is an intuitive, improvisational musical response to a simple, sweet jazz melody. During mating season, it swells up and attacks the melody for the sake of variation and complexity, and somehow these two musical entities end up entwined in a Shuffle Groove.”

In other words, this particular species of demon evolved accidentally and unconsiously from musical DNA. The primal sounds of the Shuffle Demon may be described as a juxtapositioning of simple jazz riffs with monstrous improvisations which then results in a stream of uncanny shuffle grooves. Can you dig that one cyberjazz fans?

When did this remarkable phenomenon first manifest itself in our conscious, or real world?

“That’s hard to say. I think it’s primitve and goes way back to our tribal roots, when we sat around fires together, sharing our communal wealth and drawing men in spacesuits on the walls of South American caves.”

“I see,” I said, nodding sagely.

Um, that is to say, when did you first realize you were a Shuffle Demon?

“It all started out west, when I planted trees with some hippies. By the end of the summer, I was a BC hippie cool type. After that I studied music at York University, where I met this super cleancut guy named Mike Murley, carrying a sax case, and I asked myself, “Who is this guy?” We were like mirror opposites. He was into ultra conservative jazz, and I was into Sun Ra: you know, the New York big band from Jupiter sound.”

Although they later shared a place, music was another matter. They were scared of each other and the music didn’t gel.

“Mike was too good and I was too weird. Then one night the lights went out and in a state of semi-sense deprivation, our jamming clicked.”

As students of David Mott, professor of the York Jazz Composition course, they were encouraged to express what they felt.

“He gave us the tools and then told us to do our own thing.”

That’s when Richard composed the tune, “Mott’s Guru Ship.”

“I admired Mott so much, I was afraid of becoming a Mott clone. So, first I wrote a lilt, then this riff to destroy it, as a melodic statement to funify it. What you end up with is a lilt in front of a massive shuffle groove. This was my first major encounter with a shuffle monster. They’re part of the fun stuff on the fringe.”

Richard and Mike hit the streets and started busking on the corners of Yonge and Bloor and along Queen Street. Then drummer Stitch Wynston joined them, followed by their thrid sax man, Dave Parker, and finally bassist Jim Vivian.

“We called ourselves the Shuffle Demons because the ‘shuffle’ is a musical groove and ‘demons’ signify ‘shuffle monsters.'”

Their street perrformances became wilder and more outrageous, and they whirled and played like ecstatic Dervishes, rejuvenating a dying street scene. The ’50s had Gerard St. Village; the ’60s had Yorkville; today we have Queen Street, Bloor Street, The Fringe Festival, jazz festivals and lots of other happenings. But the Shuffle Demons hit the streets in a void.

“Nothing much was happening in the way of street theatre. We woke a sleeping demon. The streets of TO came alive, and we boogied to pretty much an overnight success. Our first release, Streetniks, speaks volumes about the spirit of our early beginnings.”

Why did your music became so popular so fast?

“I think that music is a language and we were talking a very basic primal musical language that everyone speaks.”

Since those first days, the band has continued to grow and evolve. All the original Demons but Richard have pursued other musical paths. The new ensemble is practically a whole new band with a new sound.

“At first I called it ‘acid jazz,’ but that’s a misnomer with retro connotations. I think ‘cyberjazz’ really says it all. ‘Cyber’ communicates our departure from our old stuff, while ‘jazz’ indicates our tribal roots.”

Even better, they’ve discovered a whole new street on the internet. A very alive and happening street that invites freedom of artistic expression.

“The internet is the perfect tool to do your own thing.”

What are your plans for the future?

“I want to go ‘back to the future’ and blend my past experiences — like the time Mike Murley and I took part in a Zuni Buffalo Dance in New Mexico — with cyberjazz; eclectronic sampler, harmonized wa-wa sax, Farras B. Smith’s cyberdrums, Mike Mulligan’s bass and Eric St. Laurent’s guitar. The cave paintings of men in space suit are a kind of logo for our primitve cyber-space jazz. Our music, bios and photos will go out on the internet and get downloaded by our international tribal sycerstreet fans. The internet allows total freedom of artistic expression. No one has control: not even the record companies, the medi, or the government. I have a new identity on the internet: RAPU (Richard Albert Patrick Underhill). It’s my African alter ego. My address is: rapu@io.org. Call me and join the tribal circle of the Shuffle Demons for cyberjazz an cyberjams.”

As he unmasked, a mythical silver-spacesuited cyberjazz Shufffle Demon emerged. This, coupled with e spectacle of Queen Street natives passing by the café window created a Halloween atmosphere. But while we humans dawn a demon mask for a day, Richard’s musical persona is a lifestyle.

For those who do not have access to the internet, you can catch Richard Underhill live every Monday night in October and November at Cameron House on Queen West, with drummer Stitch Wynston, bassist Andrew Downing, and guests. Don’t miss special guest Kevin Quain, premiering music from his cassette, Hangover Honeymoon. Those of us who celebrate Halloween will appreciate the FX: on the outside, Cameron House is swarming with giant metallic ants, and inside, the front room will be haunted by Shuffle Demons doing their “Blue Plate Special” thing.

“Will you be wearing a space suit?”

No answer. I guess we’ll just have to discover for ourselves what monstrous cyber-grooves shuffle off to Cameron House with the Shuffle Demons these next couple of months.


What’s On Queen?, Oct. 1995

Written by barbaramackellar

January 28, 2013 at 1:02 am

Posted in Interviews

October Browne on October Browne

October Browne began her music career busking on the streets of London, England at the tender age of 11 with cymbals, tambourine, kazoo, harmonica and guitar. She immigrated to New York in 1988, where she immersed herself in the Irish music scene. In 1991, she moved to Canada and made Toronto her home. Known for her fine fingerstyle guitar playing and exquisite vocals, October has played with such notable musicians as Kirk Elliot, Anne Lederman, Ena O’Brien and Oliver Schroer. 

Browne’s haunting ballad, “Lady of the Streets” (Stuck on a Cold Steel Pole, 1995) grabbed the attention of the local media, winning high praise from critics and a good deal of air play. Also a founding member of Morgaine Le Fay, she wrote the rollicking song, “The Gate” for their debut album, Up She Flew (1997). This fall she’ll be releasing her own self-titled debut album in time for the Samhain celebrations at the Harbourfront Lakeside Terrace.

Curmudgeon‘s entertainment editor spoke with Browne before the release concert about her songs and working with some of the North American music industry’s finest musicians, guys like bassist Peter Bleakney and drummer Gary Craig, a dynamic duo known for their work with Anne Murray. “My producer, Evelyne Datl, has played with them over the years and that’s how they came to be on the album.”

With talented female Celtic musicians like East Coast fiddler Natalie MacMaster and Irish-Canadian multi-intrumentalist Loretto Reid on board, the album virtually cooks with proverbial “Goddess Power.” Browne met MacMaster while gigging at the Dawson City Music Festival and ran into her again in Toronto. “I love her playing. She has such feeling and she’s very smart, very quick.” Reid, on the other hand, she’s known for years and the two have worked together on other projects. “Besides,” says Browne,” if it’s amazing whistles you want, she’s the obvious choice.”

Other North American greats on the album include guitarists Russell Broom of Jann Arden, Colin Cripps of Blue Rodeo fame, and Kim Ratcliffe, a Holly Cole accompanist. Browne gives the lion’s share of credit to Datl, however, the behind-the-scenes magician who single-handedly wove the project into a cohesive tapestry.

“We started recording two years ago in October, but before that, there were grants to write and musicians to contact. Evelyne was there for me through it all. I really couldn’t have done it without her. She encouraged me to record, helped write grant applications and did all the producing.” Datl also co-wrote two songs with October, helped arrange the material and played numerous instruments (harmonica, piano, synths, organ, tablas).

Although October Browne has a mind-boggling variety of styles, the common thread throughout is Browne herself. “First I thought, ‘What a mish-mash. How are we ever going to make this stuff cohesive?’ But I believe we’ve done it. By having Gary, Pete, Evelyne and myself on all the tracks, we’ve kept a consistency throughout.”

Browne is a gifted songwriter whose versatility is reflected in a wide range of original offerings featuring unique arrangements and a broad spectrum of influences, from Lou Reed to James Bond and old Music Hall. “There’s something for everyone,” says Browne. “When I write songs, I don’t stop to think, ‘Now I’ll compose a pop song, or a folk song.’ I just write what comes. I’m influenced by a lot of different musicians and types of music.”

Although Browne’s ballads are my personal farourites — I’m a fool for ballads and hers are exquisite, all her songs are captivating. There’s not a single “throw-away” track on the album. “I don’t like filler. I may not be as prolific as some songwriters, but I take great care with each song.” In fact, she already has a few new songs under her hat for her next album.

The original ballads include “Faithless,” which show-cases some of Browne’s finest guitar work, and “Just Wanna Dance,” a song inspired by a lone dancer at Lee’s Palace. “I saw a young hippie girl at a Nomos concert doing her own free-style dance among some traditional dancers who seemed to find her a little ‘odd.’ Out of generosity, Dora Keogh and Thomasina Reilly took her by the hand and danced with her, and I was so touched that I wrote, ‘Just Wanna Dance’.” Incidentally, the rich-sounding keyboard in this piece is actually a B3 organ.

Browne’s stirring ballad, “Naked & Small” resonates with old-fashioned border English balladry reminiscent of the sixties Celtic music revival, while the Mellotron gives it a modern feel, “similar to John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields. The lyrics come from a personal experience that a lot of people can relate to, something I probably wouldn’t write now,” she muses. “It was a particular time in my life.” Browne’s upbeat “Distant Shore” is another  ballad original with a subtle blend of electric and acoustic guitar and a powerful lyrical angst that takes it beyond being more than just an old-fashioned love song. “It can touch on a lot of things, like having a rough childhood.”

In contrast to her ballads, Browne’s most recent work, “No Return” is a fast-paced retro number with a bit of everything from James Bond, Peter Gunn and the Beatles to the Addams Family’s Farfisa organ. But despite its camp, she considers it her most meaningful song. “It’s about how offended I am by genetic engineering. Even though the long-term effects are not known, these guys don’t have to label. It’s all based on profit and greed and not caring for the planet. the song is called “no return” because that’s where I feel we’re going. I feel that our hearts need to be more open as a species.”

The first track, “Song of O,” is a catchy tune with Dylanesque mouth harp by Evelyne. And it’s a double entendre. “Since it’s about me, I thought of calling it Story of O, but “Song of O” seemed a little more subtle. It’s the first song I ever wrote, so it’s perfect as the first song on the album.”

Natalie MacMaster plays an awesome fiddle in Browne’s re-mix of “The Gate,” a fun tune she wrote for the Morgaine Le Fay album, Up She Flew, about the James Gate pub on Bloor near High Park. “A lot of my material is emotional and serious, so I needed a light-hearted tune on the album. It’s the Beatles with lots of fiddle.”

Browne and her accompaniment also add a few surprising new twists to old favourites. “I just love the groove that Gary and Pete create on “”Foggy Dew” and Loretto’s amazing whistle.” They also do interesting things to Beatle George Harrison’s version of the Hindu chant “Govinda,” a Sanskrit hymn to Krishna. Evelyne’s arrangements combined with Kim Ratcliffe’s slide guitar and Loretto’s whistles and uillean pipes create an unforgettably cool and unusual Indian-Celtic cross-over. “My album holds surprises for everyone.”

Since surprises are rare in the age of post-modern cynicism, I highly recommend October Browne.


Celtic Curmudgeon: Arts & Entertainment Review, Samhain 1999

Written by barbaramackellar

June 7, 2012 at 5:39 am

Posted in Interviews, Reviews

Tenth Annual Beaches International Jazz Festival

Beaches Jazz Festival Poster 1997Another hot July has descended upon Toronto, reminding its denizens that the Beaches International Jazz Festival is near. For the creative organizing team and tireless volunteers, though, the festival is a year-round project. More energy than meets the eye goes into staging the city’s internationally acclaimed jazz spectacle, a cultural event that draws crowds from around the world, and all for a worthy cause — proceeds are donated to local charities.

Those who have never attended the Beaches Jazz Festival are missing out on one of Toronto’s most exciting annual events. A stroll through the heart of the Queen Street East community during festival time is like ambling down Bourbon Street in the French quarter of New Orleans. The jazz is hot, the cafes are cool and the air is super-charged with the enthusiasm of thousands of tourists from all walks of life.

The festival offers musicians a unique environment for creative expression, resulting in a delightfully diverse repertoire. This year’s Streetfest will feature a lineup of forty-nine bands scattered throughout the neighbourhood, jamming into the wee hours of night in a variety of venues, from cafes and pubs to lawns and rooftops, while the main stage on Alex Christie Gazebo in Kew Gardens Park will showcase a weekend of truly stellar open air concerts.

Lorraine Klaasen

Lorraine Klassen

Fans are in for a special treat with an exciting roster of big name headliners, including three sensational Canadian jazz queens: Ingrid Jensen, Lorraine Klassen and Carol Welsman. In 1995, Vancouver-born Ingrid Jensen won “Best Newcomer” at the Cork Jazz Festival in Ireland, and the Carmine Caruso Solo Trumpet Competition in Kalamazoo, and her album, Vernal Fields, took the Juno for “Best Mainstream Artist of the Year.” Down Beat magazine gave her a four-star rating and she’s been ranked as the freshest hot trumpet player on the world jazz scene.

Exotic Montreal-born jazz diva Lorraine Klassen, daughter of acclaimed blues-jazz singer Thandi Klassen, sings in Zulu, Xhosa, Swahili, French and English while performing dynamic dance numbers. Klassen was all the rave of last year’s concert. Her recent release of a new CD, Free at Last, “a flamboyant collection of rousing instrumentation and song,” proves that Klassen has a whole new bag of jazz tricks up her sleeve.

Carol Welsman

Carol Welsman

Internationally acclaimed jazz singer/pianist Carol Welsman (granddaughter of T oronto Symphony Orchestra founder Frank S. Welsman) received a 1996 Juno nomination for “Best Contemporary Jazz Album” and was voted “Best Female Jazz Vocalist” by the Jazz Report. Welsman spices up old favourites and original jazz numbers with her warm, sensuous vocals in English, French, Italian, Brazilian and Spanish.

The male talents in the concert include such top performers as East Coast piano man Joe Sealy, Aussie guitar sensation Dave Hole, Toronto’s award-winning guitarist Don Ross and piano virtuoso Hilario Duran. Rated alongside Gonzalo Rubacaba as one of Cuba’s greatest jazz pianists and composers and master of sensuous Afro-Cuban rhythms, Duran is at the forefront of the contemporary Latin jazz scene.

Don Ross is the first Canadian to win the U.S. National guitar Championship and was hailed by the Montreal Gazette as “Canada’s best acoustic guitarist.” Son of a Scottish immigrant father and a Mikm’aq mother, Ross grew up in a musical home. His innovative composition and flat picking technique has earned him world renown and five critically acclaimed CDs.

Described as a slide guitar maverick, Dave Hole became an overnight sensation when he sent his self-produced CD Short Fuse Blues across the world. After a football accident that damaged his baby finger, Hole developed a unique and vibrant slide guitar technique that has rocketed him to the top, starting with two European tours with blues guitarist Gary Moore, the release of Working Overtime in 1993, followed by a North American tour and two more albums, Steel on Steel and his most successful CD, Ticket to Chicago, recorded with some of Chicago’s greatest blues musicians.

Joe Sealy trained under Daisy Sweeny, former teacher of Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones, and has performed with Sammy Davis Jr., Carol Channing, Zoot Simms and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Sealy’s latest CD, Africville Suite, a deeply moving and beautifully performed tribute to the first black community in Halifax, won a 1997 Juno Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Sealy was living and working in Halifax during the demise of Africville and began composing the suite in memory of his father, who was born there. The Joe Sealy Quartet is an extremely tight and exquisitely bodacious jazz band.

Joe Sealey

Joe Sealy

In this year’s Streetfest, one of T.O.’s old favourites, the Climax Jazz Band, will be creating a storm in front of Pet Value. The Not Affiliated Big Band will be blowing their classical jazz horns on the Beaches Art Centre lawn, Swing Shift will be swinging outside the Tribute Home Sales Office and Bellefair United Ensemble and the Mississauga Not so Big Band will be amusing the masses at Bellefair United Church.

Stix will be rockin’ the Beach Dental crowd while the Confederacy of Dunces will be playing like fools at Stoney’s. The Blackboard Blues Band will be chalkin’ up dust at the Fire Hall, the Crocodiles’ll be snappin’ at the Roastery and Captain Jack’s, while the Steve Sherman Project conducts jazz experiments by Pizza Hut. For something completely different, catch the funky Celtic band Enter the Haggis piping it up with Craig Downie and fiddlin’ around with Duncan Cameron and at Gallagher’s Irish pub.

For the young at heart, the Etobicoke Youth Ensemble will be groovin’ at Tejas and the Thornhill High School Big Band will be swingin’ by Beach BMW. Fathers and Sons will be hanging out together at the Wave Zone while the Fundamentals are pressing mint by the Bank of Montreal. Those seeking southern comfort will dig Dee Sly & the Crawdads at Lion on the Beach…and the list goes on.

With so many marvelous jazz mavens to take in, the Beaches International Jazz Festival is worth taking time out to enjoy. There’ll be live jazz in the cafes and pubs, quaint little shops along Queen to browse, and a cacophony of street vendors hawking everything from refreshments to arts & crafts and festival t-shirts and programmes to raise funds for local charities. The warmth and hospitality proffered by local merchants is added incentive to return year after year to one of the most happening jazz festivals in the world.


What’s On Queen, July 1997

Written by barbaramackellar

June 2, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Posted in Previews

Neil Jordan ponders The Butcher Boy

Oscar-winning writer and director Neil Jordan swept into town this spring with his fiery young protégé, Eamonn Owens, in tow to present the Toronto premiere of The Butcher Boy, his latest and possibly darkest film out of Ireland. Based on Patrick McCabe’s best-selling novel of the same name, Jordan’s distinctive screen adaptation won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Festival, and fifteen-year-old Owens received a Special Mention for his powerful debut performance as the precocious Francie Brady.

Surrounded by a circle of critics, the enigmatic Irish director casually sprawls on a couch in his sunny Yorkville hotel suite answering questions ad nauseam about his latest cinematic achievement. Smiling shyly and squirming in his seat like an overgrown school boy, Jordan seems uncomfortable in the limelight. He bides his time, as though pondering every syllable of each query. Luring the mystery man out from behind his director’s mask is a challenge relished by all but one seasoned critic (who wishes to remain anonymous). “Jordan is a difficult interview,” she pronounces during the break. “You have to goad him with a cattle prod before he’ll talk about his work, and when he finally says something, it’s the same stuff he’s been feeding all the other media.” Arriving partway through the screening, she quickly concludes The Butcher Boy is a typical “boy-goes-bad” slice ’em up flick — which it is not. There’s no Jason-meets-Freddy or Halloween schlock in this butcher shop. It’s an authentically Irish tale right down to the bolloxing bogmen, black-skirted priests and archaic Co. Monaghan dialect.

While The Butcher Boy is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, it is far from being a slick Hollywood slice-and-dice horror. Shot on location in the provincial town of Clones, Jordan’s film is a black comedy that cleverly combines art and realism with old fashioned voice-over narrative (by Stephen Rea). Unlike most literary adaptations, it’s also miraculously true to the spirit of McCabe’s novel. “I found the book very cinematic in a strange way, even though it’s stream of consciousness,” says Jordan. “It’s a story about a Dennis the Menace type who sees himself as a superhero. I thought it one of the best accounts of childhood I’d ever read.”

Jordan was so impressed, he asked McCabe to write the screenplay. “Since Pat’s a friend of mine and we come from the same environment, it just happened naturally. In a sense, I was recreating his childhood. I cast him in the movie [as Jimmy the Skite] and shot him in the town he grew up in…I wanted him as involved as possible. He wasn’t used to writing script, though. His first draft was too long, so I asked him to shorten it, which he did, but when I saw all the changes, I had to say, ‘Sorry, Pat, but I don’t remember asking you for a whole new novel.’ He was worried about hinging the whole film on voice-over, so we ended up writing together.”

The result is a brilliantly performed look at the effects of sixties pop culture on an unstable small-town boy growing up in the underbelly of Irish culture. And yes, Francie does go mad and chop Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) to pieces, but she deserves it — or so I thought. Not in Jordan’s opinion:

“It was very important that there should be no villains in the piece, because you can easily say, ‘Okay, Francie’s the way he is because those ladies in the shop treat him consistently horribly.’ Then you’d be able to blame them. Even Mrs. Nugent does nothing wrong to the boy in the end. She just doesn’t want him in her company. It is important to see very clearly that it is the child’s mind that drives him, that there is some disturbance in Francie’s interior world and not any particular character, not even the priest who half abuses him. The entire adult world around him is well-meaning. They just don’t notice his specific trauma.”

“Then why is Francie so mad at the ‘well-meaning’ adult world?” I ask. “He had a hard upbringing and must find compensation for the series of disasters that happened to him,” Jordan explains. Francie lives in an imaginary world to escape a life of poverty and shattered dreams. His father, Benny (Stephen Rea), is an alcoholic jazz musician down on his luck, and his mother (Aisling O’Sullivan) is a frail woman who slowly drifts into madness and suicide.

“Actually, Francie is always ahead of the adults,” Jordan continues, as though lecturing a class of attentive school kids. “Even the psychiatrist, but he’s manic, obsessive and estranged and given to grandiose behaviour. For instance, when his blood brother, Joe (Alan Boyle) gives the goldfish to young Nugent (Andrew Fullerton), the son of his nemesis, Francie perceives it as the ultimate betrayal. That’s why he tries to win as many goldfish at the carnival as he can…because he thinks it’s the key to his friend’s heart, to winning him back.

Finding the right Francie Brady was possibly Jordan’s greatest challenge. “I had a team turning Ireland upside-down. We did read-throughs with 2,000 children. It got to the point where I thought we wouldn’t be able to make the movie because there’d be no point without the right child. Eventually we found Eamonn Owens in the tiny town of Killashandra, Co. Cavan, working in his parents’ vegetable shop. He’d never acted before, but when I began working with him, I realized he would be marvelous. I cast his young brother as well [Ciaran Owens], and his friend Joe goes to the same school. I’d like to work with Eamonn again. It’s very rare to come across someone with so much energy and power.”

Jordan’s new young star may take to the screen like a fish to water, but even he has limitations. “The most challenging scene for me was with Milo O’Shea as the [homosexual] priest in the reform school,” says Owens,” because I couldn’t identify it with anything in my life to know what to do in the scene. But Neil was brilliant and Milo O’Shea was fabulous. He knew to perfection what he was meant to be doing. It was easy after a while, even though I was quite worried about the scene.” Overall though, Owens has been having tremendous fun. “I particularly enjoyed the scenes in the house with Stephen Rea, especially when he broke the TV set. Seeing him kick in the screen was very entertaining. He’s extremely funny.” After his debut with Jordan, Owens took a role in John Boorman’s irish gangster film, I Once Had a Life. “I hope I’m offered more parts in the future. If I continue to enjoy acting, I’ll study it in school.”

For Jordan, working with Owens effected a kind of catharsis. “It was a weird experience for me, because Eamonn looks like me when I was his age, especially in the altar boy’s costume. I remember growing up in Ireland at the time and being told I was surrounded by ghosts all the time. The Catholic thing is very strong there, very basic in a very superstitious way. As a kid you were told that voices would speak to you from the sky at any moment. I was terrified by the possibility that one of these figures would appear to me and say, ‘Neil, you are the one. Come and work with us. Wear a black skirt like us, Neil.'”

Sinead O’Connor as The Virgin Mary

Jordan’s apocalyptic scenes and special effects are macabre, gritty and disturbingly funny manifestations of his own childhood fears. “I remember seeing the nuclear blast on TV and being taught what to do in case of a nuclear strike. ‘Get under the bed.’ we were told.” Amid all this gory Goth, Sinead O’Connor’s Virgin Mary shines like a glossy Hollywood neon goddess. “It’s the way the religious statues and pictures appear in real life. They’re very gaudy. I love religious art, the Hindu gods and Indian spirits. If you saw the Virgin Mary, she’d appear very bright, with a big spotlight behind her. I was going to make Marilyn Monroe the Virgin Mary, the way you would imagine it in the Hollywood way. Sinead looks more like the ‘real’ Virgin Mary in the iconography I grew up with: the beautiful profile, dark hair, sallow skin, lovely bone structure — just like Sinead.”

The Virgin Mary’s language is pretty upbeat for a religious icon (she uses the “F” word) and may offend those with delicate sensibilities. According to Jordan, “It didn’t offend them in Ireland. Maybe it will in the States, but that’s how Francie imagines her talking, and she talks in his voice.”

As for the use of authentic dialect, the film is very confusing for an audience not familiar with Irish colloquialisms, and it may take a good ten minutes just to get the accent. “You’ve got a choice,” insists Jordan. “You either mess it up and make it mid-Atlantic, in which case it doesn’t have any integrity at all, or you make it as accurately as you can for the people involved and hope that the audience will reach it. For me it’s better not to compromise so that the power and strength of the movie is more intense. I think if you tried to flatten out this adaptation and make it acceptable all over the world, however you imagine it, you would destroy the book entirely.” Jorden is undoubtedly right, but the Co. Monaghan dialect makes voice-over a necessary evil in this film, for North Americans at least.

The language barrier apparently has had little effect on audiences in England and Europe, however, and Jordan remains in awe of how well The Butcher Boy is being received across the pond. “It’s been praised very highly and it’s getting quite a significant audience for the kind of movie it is. I think movies are becoming a bit too anodyne.”

Whatever the reasons his disgruntled critics attribute to his self-reflexive time-lags, Jordan has not lost his Midas touch. His heady cast of professionals, amateurs and authentic townsfolk, his juxta-positioning of location and studio filming with surrealistic special effects and unique use of religious symbolism in The Butcher Boy recall the art films of Bergman and Fellini, but from a distinctly Irish point of view. Following in the footsteps of these and other art-house icons, Jordan has carved out a body of work and a stock troupe of actors headed by Stephen Rea.

While behaving more like an angry young author than a fervid film director may be a thorn in the side of some critics, Jordan wears both hats with aplomb. Judging by his collection of screenplay awards, his writer’s hat fits remarkably well. So what if he’s crammed it into his back pocket alongside a crumpled Dennis the Menace comic and old chewing gum?


Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1998

Written by barbaramackellar

May 28, 2012 at 4:52 am

Posted in Interviews

A Child’s Guide to Fairies

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The Secret Life of Fairies

Who hasn’t wondered at one time or another about the daily lives of fairies? For those of us who want to know, author Penelope Larkspur and artist Leslie Elizabeth Watts offer The Secret Life of Fairies, a delightful child’s guide to Fairyland.

Penelope begins logically with a few cautionary words on entering Fairy World. And since young readers are remarkably logical, she goes to great lengths to tell all…or most. Some questions are necessarily left unanswered, but only because “fairies like their privacy,” she explains, which is why “no one has ever seen inside a fairy bathroom”

Bathroom arcana aside, author and artist show us a typical fairy home furnished with intriguing birc-a-brac: acorn goblets, sprouting sofas, canopied beds (to protect sleep-fliers), silver spoon mirrors, mouse-hide carpets, a cozy fire of wooden matches blazing on the hearth.

We spy a fairy feast in a moonlit wood where a royal family sits atop a raised toadstool dais and dancers twirl about a bonfire in gossamer gowns to flute and harp and walnut-shell bass. We forage a field by day where tiny fairies ride on ants and wingless fairies fly on bundles of sticks by saying the magic words, “Horse and mattock.” Mostly, though, says Penelope, fairies raise white fairy horses called “rades” and fairy cows for milk, and fairy hunting dogs for catching wild mice.

We learn that fairies love fashion an avoid clothes that “pinch, rub or itch.” They prefer dew-draped spiderwebs and jaunty green-leaf hats, or snapdragon caps and bat-wing capes on rainy days. Did you know that one wool hat lost in the woods equals 20 fairy sweaters? They also love bread, butter, berries, bluebells abd bowls of milk. Penelope also reveals a recipe for fairy cake that anyone can make.

Now I can’t imagine a more perfect summer pastime than The Secret Life of Fairies, even for the timid fairy seeker. No need to venture further than your own backyard. Just follow Penelope’s tips: leave a dish of milk in the garden, and plant bluebells for feasts and pink and red flowers for hats, but don’t plant St. John’s Wort, or leave horseshoes and other iron objects laying about. And for the record, fill out the “fairy sighting” form on the very last page.

For a first-hand sighting, warns Penelope, you must be on the lookout for fairies, “especially on moonlit nights. You may hear them before you see them” she cautions. “The thrum of  a harp or the lilting melody of a flute will tell you they are nearby.” Be very quiet,” she cautions, “for fairies do not like to be watched.”

Sounds perfectly logical to me.


Celtic Curmudgeon Arts & Entertainment Review, 1999

Written by barbaramackellar

May 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Posted in Reviews