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Rhythms of Life explores Nova Scotia connection to worldwide cultural diaspora

Multimedia becomes multicultural in a 'live musical documentary' exploring shared heritage at Pier 21 on Saturday.
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Moja Makani's multimedia concert Rhythms of Life brings its celebration of musical roots and cultural diversity to Pier 21's Canadian Museum of Immigration on Saturday at 1 p.m.

If you do the musical math, you can trace the the origins of today's pop music, hip hop and R&B back to the American south, the Caribbean and to Africa, powered by the celebration of life and the memory of the anguish of an uprooted and oppressed population.

The Halifax stage production Rhythms of Life follows the thread all the way to Nova Scotia, where Black Loyalists, escaped slaves and Maroon settlers established roots that became interwoven with East Coast culture and remain a vibrant part of daily life to this day.

Featuring the music of local ensemble Moja Makani, the multimedia presentation takes the stage of Pier 21's Canadian Museum of Immigration on Saturday at 1 p.m., displaying the latest incarnation of an evolving show promoting unity and harmony in an age of division and discord. African folk and reggae classics are joined by original songs displaying those influences, combined with archival images and narration by Halifax actor Troy Adams that guides us along this audio-visual journey tracing the culture across the Atlantic, over the Gulf of Mexico and up to Canada.

"There's a strong Caribbean-Nova Scotian theme, because that's a big part of our history," says Moja Makani co-founder, trumpeter and guitarist Dave Harrison. "Even in 1974, when Harry Belafonte was in Halifax at the establishment of the Black United Front. And there are connections to American jazz: Duke Ellington's third wife came from Africville, and Louis Armstrong played up here, there's a picture of him in Digby.

"So there is all this worldwide cultural interface with Nova Scotia. We found some interesting tidbits, and we believe the show should be filmed and recorded for the archives, because we feel that what we've achieved is a statement on the evolution of culture in this area. Of African-Nova Scotian culture, but also all cultures, and all the issues we have around the world. ... It's hard to put it all into a few words, but the show certainly asks the question, how did we get so divided?"

Harrison pauses, before explaining that the answer to that question is another question, "Aren't we all just members of the same race, the human race?"

"That theme circles through the entire presentation, and we're really pleased with what we've achieved, and we really do want to get it across to Nova Scotia."

Rhythms of Life began as a more straightforward concert tracing musical roots from Africa to North America, with the musical assistance of Reeny Smith and the St. Thomas United Baptist Youth Fellowship Choir. They also recorded their songs for the Rhythms of Life CD, which benefits African development projects and Dartmouth's MacPhee Centre for Creative Learning. But when Moja Makani looked at taking its show to Alderney Landing Theatre, organizers there saw a greater potential in the concept that could utilize video projection and a more dramatic staging to make its message even more potent.

"They put us together with theatre director Pamela Halstead, who helped us shape the concept and draw on our own experiences," says Harrison. "Like our drummer Dave Skinner, he grew up on Gerrish Street, and he shared the story of his grandparents, and we have pictures from 1925 at the Gerrish Street Hall, and what a vibrant cultural and musical scene came out of that place."

A veteran member of the Halifax scene going all the way back to CBC-TV's Frank's Bandstand in the 1960s, Skinner joins bandmates Harrison, Shirley Jackson on sax and guitar, percussionist Henry Bishop and trombonist-bassist Craig Pothier in the core ensemble. Rhythms of Life is like a trip back through time for the busy musician and instructor who grew up listening to his dad's jazz records, with great drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, and hearing live jazz and blues from the steps of the Gerrish Street Hall, played by Joe Sealy and Bucky Adams.

"When I started to play drums at 18, I had a really good swing beat," he recalls. "I was going to QEH, and I sat in with the band up the street playing Beatles tunes, and when I started swinging, the guitar player turned around and said, 'I thought you could play drums?' And I said I could, but this was my beat.

"And he said, "Well, that's the wrong one.' But I picked it up from there, and I kept playing with anybody and everyone that I could."

So Skinner played at dance parties, often in kitchens and living rooms, learning new songs and dance steps from visitors from Montreal and American sailors who turned up.

"I realized that if you wanted to play around town, you had to learn a wide variety of styles. So I played for country and bluegrass bands as well as R&B and so on," says Skinner, who relishes the chance to stretch out with the variety of styles found in Rhythms of Life.

"There aren't any reggae bands around town that I'd be playing with, so I like having the chance to put a stamp on that style, and mess around a little bit with soca and some of the rhythms that I've leant to the tunes.

"And because so many tunes are originals, from Dave and Shirley, they've let me put my stamp on those, and it's been fun and a challenge to make each tune come alive."

With the mix of images from centuries of history and Halifax's more recent past, and Adams' narration, Harrison says Rhythms of Life has the feel of "a live music documentary" that he wants to see thrive as a production that will tour to area schools as well as theatres around the province. He hopes audience members will connect with the way a song like Peter Gabriel's Shaking the Tree, inspired by the struggle for women's rights, feeds into other songs about freedom and social justice, while underlying message about the need for cultural awareness, the importance of immigration and diversity.

"All those messages are in the show, without coming right out and saying it," he says. "It's got a combination of remembering the past, even when it's sad, and being brought up by the joy of the music, which is the ultimate means to bring people together.

"You look at what artists like Harry Belafonte and Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel did in bringing attention to Apartheid, and the pressure that was brought to bear, culturally, by raising awareness through music. Or the healing power of music, not so much for joy but for relaxation and a sense of peace. So music plays a big role in where we've been, and where we're going, which is a main theme of the show."

Harrison adds that Rhythms of Life will continue to evolve with the contribution of guests like African dancer and musician Toria Aidoo, who also designed the group's onstage outfits, and as the ebb and flow of history brings new issues to the fore. He notes its current nods to residential schools in Canada and the Syrian refugee crisis as examples of how much further we have to go.

"This (tide of negativity in the U.S.) has come in with such rapid force, and maybe it was always there beneath the surface, but it's diametrically opposed to our show," he says. "It's a totally foreign message compared to what we're doing, and maybe because we're older or we're ex-hippies or too idealistic, but this is our history as a community, and it needs to be shown and it needs to be understood.

"If you don't know where you've been, you don't know where you're going, which makes this show all the more relevant."


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Stephen Cooke

About the Author: Stephen Cooke

Stephen Cooke is an award-winning arts journalist who's been covering the local, regional and national scene for over 25 years.
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