Category Archives: music

Toronto the Good and Bad

Three things I really appreciate are live jazz, modern languages, and descent people. Toronto has all three in abundance.

Jazz at Massey Hall "The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever"

Jazz at Massey Hall “The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever”

On Friday, I was thrilled by the “Molly Johnson and Friends” jazz concert at Massey Hall, which is a splendid and venerable concert hall. Molly Johnson, who was delightful as always, is one of my favourite singers. One of her many fine guests was Denzal Sinclaire, whom I well knew would be worth the price of admission on his own. Her pianist for the evening was the outstanding Robi Botos. What a show!

On Saturday I met with a local international group a couple of blocks from home and spoke in Portuguese for two hours. On Sunday I went to a cafe a couple of blocks in the other direction and signed in ASL for two hours. On Wednesday I am going across the street to a Spanish/French evening where people from a dozen countries will switch from one language to the other every 30 minutes. Fun!

Today I heard a woman at the health food shop checkout say, “Last time I was here, the cashier undercharged me by two dollars. I hope it won’t screw up your accounts if I pay that back now.” Good!

What’s not to like about Toronto? Maybe it is just this: Toronto is a place where you hear great musicians giving a dazzling performance at a terrific venue, and the audience conducts itself as if it is trying not to get noticed, as if everyone snuck in on a school night and they are afraid they’ll get caught if they make too much noise. Decades ago, my mother saw the one and only Louis Armstrong play at [Massey Hall] the O’Keefe Centre, (which later became the Hummingbird Centre) and she says that the audience was so reserved he rolled his eyes and grumbled, “What a swingin’ crowd.” Same thing when I saw Ray Charles at the venue formerly known as the Hummingbird Centre; I wanted to shout at the audience “Come on, everybody; it’s Ray freaking Charles!” and I would have been heard without needing to shout.

Toronto has all kinds of good stuff, from the world’s greatest public library system to North America’s most comprehensive municipal recycling program, and of course endless opportunities to immerse yourself in food, music and languages from every corner of the globe. But somehow, Hogtown has no personality. Toronto is less than the sum of its parts.

It is said that Toronto looks down on the rest of Canada, and that the rest of Canada hates Toronto. From both sides, this is unfortunate and uncalled for. For better or worse, Canada and Toronto are not so different from one another. Both could and should be so much greater than they are. If only more parts of Canada had some of the stupendous resources Toronto has. If only Toronto had some of the personality that other parts of Canada have.

Sorry if I sound ungrateful, but I have to be honest about how I feel. I’m glad you’re here, Toronto, and I definitely don’t hate you, but you make me feel like a Toronto audience.


Filed under geography, languages and communication, music

No pianos have been built in Toronto in 35 years, but it doesn’t have to stay that way

No pianos have been built in Toronto in 35 years, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

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You Are Here: Iceland, Where Björk Comes From

Björk Biophilia

Björk's 2011 album Biophilia "combines nature, music, and technology"

In honour of the inimitable musical artist Björk, who was interviewed by Stephen Colbert this week to promote her new album Biophilia, I decided to devote this edition of You Are Here to her homeland.

I know you could find it on a map, but I bet you’ve never been there and don’t intend to go any time soon; and I think you likely know as little about it as I do. So let’s see what we can find out.

Although Iceland is culturally European, it is kind of “out there”, and not just geographically. Here’s a nifty example:

Instead of using family names, Icelanders use patronymics and matronymics. Hence, the full name of the above mentioned artist, Björk Gudmundsdottir, means “Björk, Gudmund’s daughter”. For this reason, the Icelandic phonebook is listed alphabetically by first name.

This might sound impractical were it not for the fact that there are not very many Icelanders. Over the centuries the population has periodically been cut down by half as a result of plagues, famine-inducing volcanic eruptions, and mass migration to Manitoba, leaving the current population at about 320,000 (considerably smaller than Halifax) in an area of 103,000 km2 (bigger than Portugal, smaller than Cuba) — and 62.7% of that is tundra. Sound like Canada? Indeed both countries have a population density just above 3 people per  km2.

Iceland, geyser catland

Geyser Catland, Iceland. Image: Terekhova via Flickr

Iceland has many geysers, (one of which, Geysir, gives us the English word for… You guessed it!), lots of fjords and hundreds of volcanoes. What Icelanders lack in firewood, they make up for with geothermal power. Iceland kicks environmental ass.

First settled in the ninth century by the Norse (although it’s hard to think of Vikings “settling down”), but possibly previously visited by Scots, Iceland’s original population of was (according to genetic studies) of Nordic and Gaelic origin.

Iceland was granted independence from Denmark in 1918 and formally declared itself a republic on 17 June 1944 (following Allied occupation during WWII while Denmark was occupied by Germany). The current Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, has twice made Time magazine’s top ten list of female world leaders.

Icelandic Language Day (dagur íslenskrar tungu) is celebrated on 16 November. On top of Icelandic, (an inflected North Germanic language of Old Norse derivation, largely unchanged over the centuries), English and Danish are studied in school and widely spoken in Iceland. Icelandic Sign Language (based on Danish Sign Language) was officially recognised as a minority language in 2011. Your first Icelandic word is Ísland. Guess what it means. (Hint: it’s the same as the French word l’Islande and the Korean word 아이슬란드 .)

The Canadian Connection

The Icelandic currency is the króna (ISK). But with the economic crisis and the Euro looking shaky, there was talk of Iceland adopting the Canadian dollar.

There are 88,000 people of Icelandic descent living in Canada (the largest community outside of Iceland), and Islendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, has been celebrated for well over a century. So at the end of July, after seeing my play in the Toronto Fringe, you can go to Gimli and have some wholesome Viking fun. If you can’t get to Gimli, find out what you’ve missed by reading Icelandic Connection (formerly The Icelandic Canadian magazine). Or stick to the classics, like the 14th century Eiríks saga, which describes Erik the Red’s pre-Columbian voyage to Vinland (Newfoundland).

The temperature in the capital, Reykjavik (pop. 118,000), will be a few degrees above freezing for the next week or so; yet another reason to visit Iceland without delay. And here’s one more. If you’re ever dickin’ around Iceland and find yourself hard up for entertainment, you might want to visit the The Icelandic Phallological Museum.


Now I have a regular byline that links to my blog. Henceforth, my Post City articles (such as my latest, on Black History Month) will be followed with: Evan Andrew Mackay is a Toronto playwright and humourist who writes about culture and social justice.


Filed under cross cultural understanding, geography, language, music

Talking with Aliens and Jann Arden

Not at the same time, obviously. Jann Arden is much too busy these days to chat with extraterrestrial lifeforms, intelligence notwithstanding.

Jann Arden is more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and sings better too. She comes across as wise and youthful in equal measure.

Jann Arden endures hasty photography

Jann Arden endures hasty photography

What has she been up to recently? What hasn’t she been up to! A live CD/DVD Spotlight, a new book Falling Backwards: A Memoir, her radio show Being Jann, and for the last six weeks of summer she brings reality to TV on Canada Sings!.

Jann is on the panel of “judges”, although they are more like witnesses, alongside Montrealer  Pierre Bouvier of Simple Plan, and Robert “Vanilla Ice” Van Winkle (you know you’ve been missing him).

Here’s a taste of what she had to say to me last week at the Pantages Hotel in Toronto:

On Canada Sings [Arden playfully sings an A natural], did you want to be the mean judge with the accent?
Yeah, wouldn’t that have been easy. You know, when they made me the offer I thought, “I don’t want to do this.” But my manager said, “It’s not what you think. It’s not 100 kids that want to be flown to Vegas to be famous and get a record deal.” These are people that want to earn money for their charity. These are people that don’t typically sing and dance. These are firemen, teachers, zookeepers, truck drivers. What a cool concept! Everybody wins. Not a record contract, but a nice chunk of money for the charity of their choice. Plus, they have this experience that takes them over the course of a few weeks, working with vocal coaches and choreographers, and they get to be in the spotlight on a national TV show, singing and dancing in a production that is as good as anything I’ve seen on Broadway. And I am not kidding you; nobody sucks! Nobody!

Are you concerned one of these groups of ordinary working Canadians might do so well that they quit their day jobs and leave a hospital or something without a staff?
I would be thrilled if that happened…

Oooh, cliffhanger! Read on at Post CityQ&A with Jann Arden: Juno Award winner, author and celebrity judge on Canada Sings“.

Whereas Jann Arden is completely down to Earth, the subject of Getting Over the Alien Language Barrier is the contrary. I’ve taken my obsession with languages to new heights. AE the Canadian Science Fiction Review had the vision to publish what I had to say, and everyone else is part of the government coverup. It starts like this:

You never know when it’s going to happen. A flying saucer pulled off the side of the highway with the hood up, alien waving a tentacle wielding what could be a sparkplug, a cellphone or a ray gun and shouting, “Znelflgjpd knorb zlothkpmzus!” How would you respond? You’ve hit the alien language barrier. With NASA’s Kepler telescope spotting potentially habitable planets by the dozen outside our solar system, it may be time for us to start brushing up on our extraterrestrial language skills, or get ready to tutor E.T. in Earthish as a Second Language.

Read more at AE Sci Fi

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Filed under interviews, language, languages and communication, music