Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Forgotten Woman

My review of The Forgotten Woman appears in this week's Westender. Pick up a copy to check it out!

The Forgotten Woman
By Andrea Warner
Three stars

In a patriarchal society women quickly go from commodity to liability, and there’s no better evidence than The Forgotten Woman, Dilip Mehta’s devastating documentary depicting some of India’s 45 million widows who have been disowned by their families and blamed for their husbands’ deaths.

The women are shunned and exiled, many finding a home in Vrindavan, which is thought to be, literally, “heaven on earth.” The film reveals a holy ashram filled with women of varying ages living inside rooms no more than windowless cells, earning a mere six rupees a day for eight hours of chanting. And while one local villager proudly maintains Vrindavan’s divinity because “no one ever goes hungry there,” it’s still gut wrenching to watch the widows lined up for hours to receive a handful of rice or lentils.

There’s such an overwhelming sense of hopelessness in the first thirty minutes, it’s a personal triumph to be introduced to the Canadian woman who heads the Association for Strong Women Alone where widows are taught basic survival skills and support as they fight for their land rights. The film goes on to reveal how other widows live, and the disparity between those with privileges and those without. (Unsurprisingly, the severity of the widow’s living conditions is directly proportionate to education and affluence.)

This is an accomplished first film, but is a bit confusing at first. A few seconds of set up at the beginning would have provided context, permitting a more immediate grasp of the material. But, Mehta has captured, hopefully, the cusp of change as widows go from Grim Reapers in saris to women with basic human rights.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Young@Heart review

My review of Young@Heart appears in this week's Westender.

By Andrea Warner
Four stars

Old people singing punk rock songs = funny stuff. But Young@Heart is more than a one-note joke: it’s an endearingly bittersweet and touching documentary that proves inspiration is ageless.

The film follows the Young@Heart chorus, a group of swingin’ seniors from Northampton, Massachusettes, who have found international stardom with their curious penchant for tackling everything from the Clash to James Brown. What could have been a novelty act has instead morphed into a fantastic opportunity for a second life, akin to what Johnny Cash’s did on his American Recordings.

Hearing such classics as Stayin’ Alive (check out the music video on YouTube and you’ll be first in line for the movie), I Wanna Be Sedated, and Golden Years as interpreted by this group is pure joy. Director Stephen Walker has been blessed with a motley crew of richly quotable and fascinating people, including one lovely flirt, famed for her recent burlesque act, who’s been with the choir since it began 20 years ago. She happens to be 93 years old. The Willy Wonka type at the helm is Bob Cilman, the tough choir director who takes delight in introducing the seniors to Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia.

Young@Heart’s second half takes on a much more somber note, but such is the documentary form and it’s subjection to real life. Detractors will fault the film’s sentimentality, but only the hardest of hearts will leave the theatre not wanting to call their grandma.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Afrocentric schools in Toronto

My article on Afrocentric schools in Toronto appears in the new issue of Passion Magazine, on newsstands now.

Going Beyond Black or White

Forty percent of Toronto’s black youth aren’t graduating from high school. Is an Afrocentric school the solution or a part of the problem?

By Andrea Warner

Amidst a media feeding frenzy, Torontonians Angela Wilson and Donna Harrow became unlikely spokespeople for the biggest education controversy to hit the city in years. For the past several months, school board meetings have served as the backdrop for the heated debate over Wilson and Harrow’s proposed Afrocentric schools. In January, a narrow majority voted 11-9 in favour of one school to be opened in 2009. Reaction has been mixed, to put it mildly.

The proposed Afrocentric school aims to provide an alternative for black youth who are falling through the cracks of the current administration —approximately 40 percent of Toronto’s black youth do not graduate from high school — by creating a curriculum that is more engaging. Louis March, a spokesperson for the African Community Heritage Association, feels the timing is crucial.

“There was a survey recently of 110,000 students in Toronto, and 75 percent of them said they don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum. The colour, the shape of the students in Toronto is changing,” March says. “You cannot be talking about African history and just put two pages in about slavery. You have to be honest to history in its totality.”

Josh Matlow, a Toronto District School Board trustee, opposes the creation of an Afrocentric school. His website features lengthy blog entries and media clips on the subject, while his group on Facebook, the social networking website, is titled Don’t Divide Our Students By Race. To date, the group has 128 members.

“We have 558 public schools in Toronto, and we have black students in virtually every one of them. I don’t believe that going down this road will respond to the core challenge of helping black students or all students in our schools,” Matlow says. “The premise is a positive one, and it’s vital to change the way we teach kids about African and black peoples’ histories. However, I think it’s just as important to teach white kids, other kids, as it is to teach black children. Black students need to learn about themselves and their own identity, but all other students should learn to respect black heritage as well.”

The obstacles to graduation facing black youth in Toronto are plentiful: poverty, stress on single parent families, and the lure of gangs and violence to name just a few. Akiela Clarke is currently finishing her grade 12 year. She is one of the students for whom the system has worked, but she attributes that success to her mother’s strong influence and involvement in the academic process.

“I was fortunate to have parents who were pushing me, parents who went to university. [These other youth] don’t always have parents saying, ‘Go and do your homework,’” Clarke says. “Everything that I have learned wasn’t from school because school is taught from a Eurocentric curriculum, and everything I’ve learned is from an Afrocentric curriculum, and that’s what made me be strong. But, many of these students are not like me; they don’t have the same parenting background as me, so they don’t have that approach to learning.”

The academic challenges facing black youth have the potential to manifest more serious problems in the future. “Eight out of ten people in the provincial parole system in Ontario did not finish grade 12, so we know there’s a strong likelihood where they’re going to end up — in gangs, violence,” March says.

Preventative measures to help black youth succeed have become a top priority for many people. But, one question on March’s mind is how an Afrocentric school would be different than Toronto’s 36 existing alternative high schools?

“The school system is working for maybe 90 or 95 percent of the students. But there’s a student body there that is having major problems engaging in the system, so you don’t change the whole system because of 5 or 10 percent.

“You set up an alternative school because all students do not learn the same. And the government recognizes that, and that’s why they already have 36 alternative schools in Toronto, so it surprises us that we have to do a song and dance for 37. The school board identified the community that was having problems, and they set up a school for them, so that they can feel total or full in the education process,” March says.

TDSB trustee Matlow’s website currently touts a new arts-focused public school that promotes a “middle-school experience in an enriched arts environment.” Ultimately, he fully supports alternative schools, but feels an Afrocentric school crosses the line by dividing kids by skin colour.

“It would be a school that’s created for black students. You would never see anything in our policy that would say ‘black school only,’ and it’s not accurate when people say this would be a black only school,” Matlow says. “However, in practice it probably will be. But, if the premise of the creation of the school is to respond to the challenges we’re facing because there are too many black kids dropping out, it’s a reasonable assumption that it would be attracting primarily black enrollment. By doing that, we are creating a division based on race.”

This is one of the primary questions circling the school proposal: Is Toronto setting a dangerous precedent for race-based schools? Opponents to the school believe yes. In reading through the various news stories and discussion groups online, one word forms the foundation for much of the opposition: “segregation.”

Seventeen-year-old Clarke sees the Afrocentric school as a possible solution not a throwback to segregation. “People need to define what segregation is,” she states. “No one’s being forced. Segregation is the act of being forced to go somewhere beyond your will, and that’s what happened in civil rights. Many people use the argument that we’re taking a step back. No, it’s not a step back, it’s a step forward because how are we supposed to integrate if we don’t know ourselves?”

Matlow isn’t convinced. His website urges parents to contact their trustees to oppose the school, and the concerns he voices resonate with others who oppose the project.

“To say that an Afrocentric curriculum is what will connect them with their presumed culture is narrow. It doesn’t consider the individual well enough,” Matlow explains. “To divide students by the colour of their skin, to perpetuate artificial divisions is wrong for any reason. We want to teach kids that they can find love, support and care within a community that has a whole variety of different faces.”

March admits that the proposed school may not be perfect, but that it’s worth the effort if they can reach out to even a few at-risk youth.

“If we can save 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 kids, it will be worth it. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the students are doing fine, so this discussion is not for them. Either you’re doing well in the system or you have the socio-economic support to fill in the gaps,” March says. “For these kids, it’s not there. So, let’s do something about it. Let’s step up and let’s demonstrate wisdom and courage. Let’s monitor it and if there are aspects you can incorporate into the overall school system then do it. Of course we fear this failing because everyone will be lining up to say, ‘I told you so.’ But please do it right so that it has a fighting chance of succeeding, so our kids have a fighting chance of succeeding.”

It’s difficult to determine what will most benefit at-risk minority youth, but it’s an issue that requires creative innovation to ensure doors are open to every child. One thing is for certain: the answers are no more black or white than they are right or wrong.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Woodsman

My review of The Woodsman (on now at the Pacific Theatre) is in the Westender.

The Woodsman
By Andrea Warner

Pedophiles and child molesters don’t make sympathetic protagonists, but they do make complex ones. Written by Steven Fechter in 1994, in response to Megan’s Law—which required authorities to notify communities when a known sexual offender lived in their midst—the Canadian debut of The Woodsman tackles a child molester’s attempt at rehabilitation after returning to his hometown following 12 years in prison. While the volatile subject matter is handled with grace and dignity, the actual production boasts moments both compelling and clunky.

Dirk van Stralen is fantastically creepy-yet-human as Walter, a dead-man-walking the tightrope between his desire to change and his desire for 12-year-old girls. Walter wants to re-acclimate to society, and is frustrated that his time served and his therapy sessions haven’t made him “normal.” His choice of apartment across the street from an elementary school seems suspect to his brother-in-law, Carlos, and to the cop, Lucas, who watches his every move, but it also lets him spy on a man he calls Candy who seems to be scoping the schoolyard for little boys. Walter’s relationship with a co-worker, Nikki (Rebecca deBoer, who struggles with some of her line delivery), does little to banish his demons either, despite her belief he’s a “good man.”

The cast commits to the uncomfortable material with gusto and earnest heart. The show’s best moments are its toughest ones, particularly when Walter befriends a little girl in the woods. It’s impossible to know for sure at the play’s end whether Walter will remain part of the 20 percent of rehabilitated sexual offenders. This is the interesting grey area around second chances: Walter’s redemption will be a lifelong battle. Though bravely tackling these thorny issues, the script feels uneven, and certain smaller details detract rather than add (for example, the therapist’s reclamation of his Jewish ancestry feels pointless; it should either take up more space or none at all). The Woodsman packs strong muscle, but is ultimately hampered by its dull blade.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

True West

My review of True West (on now at the Playhouse) is in today's Westender.

True West
By Andrea Warner

Old-fashioned cinematic westerns typically depict the clash between good and bad, order and lawlessness, in the simplest of white-hats-and-black-hats terms. By avoiding this construct in favour of a more murky reality in True West, playwright Sam Shepard challenges the entire concept of the “Wild West,” that mostly fanciful cornerstone of the United States’ finely-crafted national identity. At True West’s tragi-comic centre are Austin and Lee, a pair of starkly contrasted brothers that Shepard uses to explore a variety of American myths throughout the dense 90 minutes, including “real” Western landscapes lost to suburban sprawl (Calgary, anyone?), what constitutes male identity in modern society, and that dramatic perennial, family conflict.

Austin (a flawless Vincent Gale) is the good son. A playwright trying to score a million-dollar deal, he struggles to hammer out a script in his mother’s kitchen. Lee (Brian Markinson) is a wanderer and a thief, whose sudden appearance is not an entirely welcome surprise. When a producer shows up to hear Austin’s pitch, Lee sidelines the meeting, successfully selling his own story about a “true” western . The brothers are forced to work together on Lee’s screenplay, their “good” and “bad” qualities morphing as Austin spirals into a drunken stupor and Lee tries desperately to prove he’s a capable writer.

Markinson’s Lee is complex and dangerous. Like Austin, the audience is suitably scared of his short fuse, but director Dean Paul Gibson allows Markinson to attack his first scene with such ferocity, he is left with little room to maneuver. A slower build would have created an even bigger payoff. True West’s final confrontation is tenser than a gunfight at high noon, boldly and wisely refusing to provide the audience with a cookie-cutter hero who rides off into the sunset.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Explosions in the Sky

My interview with Explosions in the Sky is in this week's Charleston City Paper. I've pasted the article below, but check it out at the CCP to see pictures.

A Happy Accident
Explosions in the Sky: four humble guys who will light up the night

By Andrea Warner

It took Explosions in the Sky nine years to make it to Charleston. They're astonished they've made it this far. This week's show is only one of several exciting "firsts" on a long list of springtime events that will sweep the Austin-based band up — including a trip across the Atlantic for a lengthy European tour and an opportunity to curate U.K. music festival All Tomorrow's Parties.

Checking in from a pit stop on the band's current American tour, drummer Chris Hrasky still can't quite believe the casual jam band he helped start almost a decade ago has morphed into an international indie phenomenon — and all without lyrics or a singer.

In a time filled with American Idol-style crooners ruling the charts, Explosions in the Sky opts for an instrumental approach. They specialize in intense live shows, creating waves of sound that crash in and then quietly recede.

Throughout the 15-minute conversation, Hrasky uses the words "strange" and "weird" every 30 seconds. His humble befuddlement at Explosions' success is endearing and refreshing. When asked if he had any idea that the band would go as far as they have, his reply is quick and resolute.

"No, God no," he laughs. "We just sort of started it as something to do after work, just the four of us playing music. We had no real ambition to go on tour or put out records or anything. It's still a surprise nine years later that this is basically our career, I guess. It's a strange way to make a living."

Success and all of its trappings have sidelined plenty of promising bands, but Explosions seem almost devoid of the types of ego that have toppled other greats. A deep camaraderie keeps the guys grounded, preventing any Metallica-sized clashes.

"One of the reasons we've been able to play so long together is we're best friends basically," Hrasky says.

"It's weird with a lot of bands, they record and then tour together, and then, when they're not doing that stuff, they never even see each other. It's just a crazy way to think of a band. I don't think any of us would even want to be in a band like that."

With four studio albums to their credit, Explosions has continued to perfect their songcrafting skills, while focusing primarily on guitars and drums when playing live. Their new six-song collection titled All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone (Temporary Residence) was recorded by John Congleton (The Roots, The Mountain Goats). Mark Smith, Munaf Rayani, and Michael James (who also plays bass) comprise the rest of the lineup. While Hrasky denies developing a "sound" narrative, he admits hours are spent attempting to create the perfect mood for a song or a part.

"Being instrumental music, people just kind of adopt the songs themselves, you know?" he says. "Personalize it to their own lives, their own ideas, their own stories or whatever they can put along to the music. That's kind of our goal. To make music that engages people or moves people in some way."

As Explosions continued to build their reputation for being a killer live band, they noticed their fan base broaden from "dudes in their 20s" to include "13-year-old emo kids to 50-year-old Pink Floyd fans." The band is thrilled by the diversity and happy that the music they like to write is connecting with a gamut of people.

"It's just very strange," Hrasky says. "It's something I don't think any of us will ever get used to. Playing a show and there's 1,000 people there, in some town where you don't know anybody. It's very surreal. I kind of hope we don't ever get used to it."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hot Chip

My cover story on the band Hot Chip appears in this month's Discorder. Pick up your copy now!

Get Out on the Dance Floor!
Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard talks about turning teenage angst into toe-tapping dance music

By Andrea Warner

The path leading from the Beatles to Destiny’s Child is like a treasure map for the minds behind Hot Chip, the UK’s hottest, manliest, bust-a-move-revolutionaries. Their influences have more variety than a sampler cereal pack, and listening to Hot Chip’s music is akin to the best cram session ever in the evolution of rhythm. On tour to support their latest album, Made in the Dark, Hot Chip’s sound is beat-heavy, slyly amusing, and deceptively sincere. They are disciples of a simple cause: getting you sweaty on the dance floor.

Grade school chums Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor met at the age of 12 while attending the same school in a suburb of London. Their shared love of music fostered a friendship that still thrives today, which is refreshing in an industry that has so famously fractured dozens of bands in the past. Over the phone with Goddard, who is in London before embarking on Hot Chip’s North American tour, he’s humble, happy, and still a bit in awe of how far they’ve come.

As teenagers, Goddard and Taylor would hang out on Friday nights and play their acoustic guitars, singing covers of Oasis and Blur, “any band around 1994”. This lead to writing songs and recording on a four track, before Goddard started producing music on his computer in 1996.

“When we first began, myself and Alexis, it was very rudimentary,” Goddard says. “We didn’t have the capability to record lots of different layers of music or different things. We would do a little bit of electric guitar, acoustic guitar, a little bit of one old keyboard—my technology teacher at school gave me an old keyboard and we used to use that—and we would play very simple, almost kind of folk or country music. We were playing very different music.”

Goddard describes the Mexico EP, which was released during this period, as “quite sad and melancholy.” The slow, acoustic music of that EP does little to hint at Hot Chip’s future reputation as the dance band with the wild live shows. But, one thing from those days stuck.

“The band was actually called Hot Chip at that point,” Goddard says. “We actually made the name up, like on stage at one point. We started playing gigs in parks nearby the school, and then the kind of usual places small bands play, like pubs.”

The evolution of Hot Chip’s sound from acoustic to dance was just a part of growing up.

“It’s a kind of typical thing, isn’t it, the teenage angst? I guess it’s something to do with your personality developing. You have these melancholy ideas…I think what I feel is that we just kind of got a little tired of being melancholy all the time. We started to be inspired more by groups like Destiny’s Child or things that Timbaland was doing. We started to find that more exciting music and it influenced us to make more pop or R&B music.”

Hot Chip was also expanding the band to include Owen Clarke, who originally provided the artwork and the creative direction for the band’s self-released albums, before officially joining Hot Chip as a musician. (One of Clarke’s official musical credits on the band’s MySpace page is “hand claps!”) Stints at Cambridge and Oxford to attend university also helped complete the band’s lineup as Felix Martin and Al Doyle joined the group, and following graduation, the five devoted themselves seriously to making music. Hot Chip made their first commercially available album, Coming on Strong, and have been writing, touring, and remixing ever since.

Though they now earn enough money solely from playing music, Hot Chip has remixed over 30 songs for other bands including Kraftwerk, M.I.A., and Rilo Kiley. This is just one of the ways they have managed to diversify their money-making strategies as new bands everywhere are learning that big money no longer comes from record sales.

“For a long time in our career, we worked juggling other jobs to make money and get by,” Goddard says. “We kind of DJ’d to make extra money occasionally and do re-mixes for other artists. The record sales have slumped so dramatically in the last few years, bands need to have other ways of getting by financially—remixing, DJing, playing live. We try to balance all of those things.”

The band’s live shows have become a hot ticket for concert enthusiasts, and Hot Chip’s been tapped to play several of the largest festivals this year: Coachella and Glastonbury. The Vancouver show has been sold out for months.

“What some people find exciting about it is that we’re making electronic music and the way that most bands do that is by using just a laptop or having everything sequenced or controlled so it’s perfectly in time. It’s all controlled by a computer originally, so you get this very well-oiled slick dance music,” Goddard explains. “Whereas the way that we do it is much more organic. Like you’ll see the five of us on stage just playing together, like a rock band, but making the real house music or techno or R&B. We don’t do it in the same way that most people do it when they play live. That’s very important to us, to be very physical on stage, playing together and to be enjoying that and having fun and really working at it rather than just having it all pre-programmed.”

The energy from playing their complex songs live seems to fuel the crowd, which Goddard describes as “an electricity in the air” that happens at many of their shows.

“In Lawrence, Kansas, it just felt like a total party,” he says. “People were just really, really going for it, having fun. Those are the shows we feel good about when we can see people smiling and enjoying themselves. Luckily that happens quite often with us. We went to South America, Brazil, and played a show and there were maybe 20,000 people and a lot of them were really just dancing. It’s a fantastic feeling when it all goes right.”

The band has been touring extensively for the last several years, and the travel side is a major bonus for Goddard, who used to be an enthusiastic photographer, and loves experiencing other cultures.

“I’ve been to hundreds of places that if I wasn’t in this business I wouldn’t have had the chance to visit. I love being in Japan. I love the culture and the food there. I love the shops and the clothes you can find there,” he says. “We’ve had great visits in Texas, California. I’ve got friends in Boston that I see. New York is great. We’ve always had a great time when we’ve played in Canada in the past. Spain, Portugal—I love different kinds of world cuisine, trying local cocktails. It’s so rich in new experiences, I’m really thankful for all of that.”

And, even though touring can be exhausting, it’s also an incredible perk, Goddard admits, especially if your band mates are your best friends.

“When you’re touring on the tour bus you have a lot of free time to spend with the people you’re touring with. A lot of chances to just have fun with people: play games, listen to music, or just drink with people and talk,” he says. “It’s a very sociable thing to do. Obviously you get moments where you really want time alone, where you want some privacy, but most of the time it’s really a happy and joyful thing.”

If Hot Chip’s photo appeared in a teen magazine, the caption would likely read BFFs, or Best Friends Forever! Though they have worked with some of their biggest heroes (Kraftwerk, Robert Wyatt), and loved it, they don’t really want to branch out and take on big names for future albums.

“Most of the time, we’re kind of happy working just with each other,” Goddard says. “I don’t really have a strong desire to get lots of guests on our album or anything like that. We’re quite happy being quite self-sufficient.”

This might be the real key to why their music makes people so damn happy—the band genuinely likes each other, and loves what they do. There’s still a bit of innocent naiveté that fills Goddard’s voice as he describes Hot Chip’s good fortune, and how the five men have become “kind of brothers”, which includes all the good and bad that comes along with that relationship.

“When you spend three weeks on a tour bus being with each other all the time, we end up kind of needling each other, or slightly annoying each other, but when we’re apart, we really kind of miss each other,” Goddard says. “When we see each other again after break, it’s really kind of joyful and we make each other laugh a lot, and we enjoy each other’s company. It’s a strange situation because you start a band and not thinking it’s going to be your career. We started our band just because it was fun and exciting to us, but we didn’t ever really think it would be our day job.”

But, what a killer day job it is.