One of my favorite bands is a Canadian group called July Talk.
If you’re from Toronto and like a certain type of high spirited, alternative rock then you’d know this group. Bandcamp.com describes their music as “Tom Waits and Amy Millan shouting whiskey-soaked lullabies while backed by Crazy Horse”. I don’t know these artists but if the names mean anything to you then maybe you’d like July Talk too.
I’m sharing the song “Beck and Call” because it features Tanya Tagaq, another Canadian, known for her talent in Inuit throat singing.
Ever heard of Inuit throat singing? Me neither. I had to look it up. It’s a form of harmonic chanting, practiced by Inuit girls, usually sung in competitive duets. Called katajjaq, the sound is rhythmic, guttural and animistic.
When I first listened to “Beck and Call” I had a hard time identifying Tanya Tagaq’s voice. After watching this video I learned what to listen for. You can watch the follow-on video with an improvised performance by Tanya. Be forewarned, it’s not the most accessible of music.
What I like about “Beck and Call” is its combination of hard rock with layers of traditional, non-traditional sounds. Individually I don’t care for the music of Tom Waits, Amy Millan, Crazy Horse or Tanya Tagaq. Pulled together though, with the innovative talent and unique energy of July Talk, it’s a great song.
The fact that July Talk is from Canada, a country which prides itself in diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism – that’s a bonus.
It’s still January right? I can still reflect on last year and highlight my Best of 2016?
Actually, this started out as a post about my Best of 2016 until I realized I was choosing photos for which I hadn’t yet published a story.
Why not? Sometimes it was because the story wasn’t big enough and the photo was all there was of the telling. Other times, it was because the story was too big and I wasn’t up for the telling.
In any event, here are some of my favorite photos of 2016 and the stories that were never published.
Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo
Omoide Yokocho or “Piss Alley” is a small, iconic bar district in Tokyo.
It’s not the most friendly place. In fact, one of the bars on the outskirts has an explicit “No Tourists” sign (written in English for those pesky foreigners).
However, further inside the boundaries where the yakatori stalls are cheek to jowl with the izakaya bars, the hosts are friendlier and the atmosphere more welcoming.
I was waiting on my kushiyaki plate and fiddling with my camera, when I noticed this gentleman across the alley. A quick nod was all I needed to take this shot.
Tokyo, Japan. January 2016
MAG marker in Laos
In Laos I learned some new words.
MAG. UXOs and Bombies.
Mines Advisory Group. Un-eXploded Ordnance. Little bombs.
During the Vietnam war there more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. That’s equivalent to one bombing every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Thirty percent of these bombs did not explode. They remained dormant but live and were (are) hidden dangers to civilians years after the war had ended.
Walking through Laos we learned very quickly to stay on MAG cleared paths. Random rambling could be deadly. UXOs are still being found today.
These little blocks indicate MAG cleared safe zones. They seem so innocuous. Faded rocks on well trodden foot paths. Stepping stones on quiet streams. Gentle reminders that bucolic rice fields were once war zones.
Plain of Jars, Laos. February 2016
Border Guards at the DMZ South Korea
Our coldest and wettest day in South Korea was spent at the DMZ/JSA. It was appropriate weather for visiting a site that was bleak, dark and overwhelmingly desolate.
The tale of border patrol between North and South Korea is sad.
On the North side of the Joint Security Area (JSA), there’s a heavily armed soldier aggressively watching the border for South Korean attacks and North Korean defections.
Behind him, a heavily armed soldier aims a gun at his head, aggressively watching him for his possible defection.
On the South side of the JSA, the ROK guards maintain a constant intimidation stance. They watch the North and South side of the border.
Across an expanse of about 500 meters, the South Korean guard stares down the North Korean guard.
It’s a stare down that’s been on going since 1953.
Panmunjon, South Korea. May 2016
Hometown Burger & Fries
After a photo crawl through Toronto’s Graffiti Alley we took a break in a nearby Queen St diner.
It had been a perfect summer day.
Warm but not hot.
Fresh Canadian air and brilliant sunshine.
Vivid street murals which had popped with vibrancy and life.
It was a visual respite to hide out in a cool and dark diner.
And the burger & fries were excellent!
Toronto, Canada. July 2016
Hong Kong Red
The first time I visited Hong Kong was after a year of living in Beijing.
After the rough and tumble turmoil of China, I remember wanting to drop to my knees and Thank God for my return to urban sanity, order and control.
Since then much has changed. I’ve lived in and visited better and worse cities. But I will always have soft spot for Hong Kong.
For me, this photo captures the city’s essence. The mural’s wild graphics and kooky clown portray Hong Kong’s frenetic energy and character. The blur of the pedestrian adds the feeling of motion, a constant in this city that never sleeps.
The first time I attended a Pow Wow it wasn’t even a Pow Wow. It was a Native American concert with time carved out for a traditional and fancy shawl dance demonstration. Lakota rapper Frank Wahn was the headline feature but the highlight for me were the dance performances. I’ve since attended larger and more official Pow Wows. Every time, just like the first time, I am impressed by their color and pageantry.
There’s something spectacular about a Pow Wow. It begins with the Grand Entry when distinguished elders, veterans and leaders of the community enter the circle with the Eagle Staff. They’re followed by a parade of all the inter tribal participants. Over the PA system the MC announces the entrants and the participants dance to the rhythmic beat of the drum singers. It’s all very exciting and well …grand.
Modern day Pow Wows are a way to preserve the rich heritage of the North American Indian tribes and in many cases, include elaborate demonstrations and contests for dance and song performances.
In the summer months there’s a regular roster of Pow Wows throughout Canada and US. When I attended my first pow wow, it was relatively low key with most of the spectators visiting from surrounding areas and reservations. This year I noticed an increase in the number of tourists and international languages peppering the crowds. Modern day intrusions, like unabashed selfie takers and intrusive drone cameras (!) have become distractions. Thankfully, they are still minor in occurrence.
Generally performers are friendly and amenable to posing for pictures (with permission) and talking about their regalia. I met Brittney Shki-Giizis who gave me background on her outfit and close-up pictures of her dress.
Called ‘regalia’, Brittney’s outfit had sewn-in symbols of her tribe and clan; flowers for the Ojibwe tribe and her crow ‘helper’ from the Marten clan. The outfit was all handmade, intricately embroidered with millions of tiny beads. It’s no wonder that her dress cost thousands of dollars to make.
Crow for the Blackbird clan
Brittney is also an avid vblogger and her Youtube channel gives a fascinating look at Pow Wows, in front and behind the scenes. Check out her vlog entry here for the Six Nations Pow Wow where we met … and yes, I agree with her: it was a sweltering 40 degrees and the paparazzi like spectators were embarrassingly aggressive in taking pictures. Hopefully, she doesn’t remember me as one of them.
I would’ve liked to take a shot with the newest of the Red Rocket replacements. However the Bombardier specials are late in roll-out and not as frequent on the Spadina route.
One day when I have more time (and I’ve figured out the six different types of TTC payment options), I’ll hang around long enough to board.
New city bike lanes
Richmond is a three lane, one way street leading into the heart of down town. It is an alternative to the busy Gardiner and DVP highways. In a rash of Green fever, the city converted one of the lanes into a bike lane. It’s had mixed reception. Harassed drivers complain about added congestion to the already congested rush hour crawl. Frustrated cyclists cry “It’s about time! There should be more bike lanes.” Both sides have their point.
As a driver myself, I hate the bad behavior of some cyclists. Specifically the ones who ignore road rules, scoot through stop signs and straddle the roles of pedestrian and pedalist. But even good cyclists have to ride defensively; to avoid errant drivers, sudden dips in the road and randomly opened car doors. Defensive riding means sometimes swerving left … into shared lanes … into my car.
Which is why I like bike lanes.
Stylish and Cool
Of course there’s always the old style way of getting around.
At a sidewalk patio I eavesdropped on these shoes – I couldn’t help it, they were so loud.
The Stylish pair on the left was hitting on the Pointy Pumps to the right. They were fated to meet don’t you think?
On the opposite end, Blue Jeans and Nikes didn’t say much. She had her coffee and newspaper. She was cool.
I know I’ve been away too long when I discover parts of my hometown that I’ve never seen before. Less than a block from where I used work, there’s an alley festooned with street art and urban murals. Made famous by Rick Mercer, Graffiti Alley runs parallel to Queen St West and stretches from Spadina to Bathurst.
Hubby and I were en route to Ossington for a photo crawl but stopped at Bathurst for a quick look. Our quick look turned into three hours of roaming and photo shooting.
The street art was amazing. Vivid and vibrant, the murals thrummed with energy and colour. In Seoul, I’d been impressed with the city’s attention to art in public spaces. The art in Toronto is different. It is brighter, edgier; more street-wise. The murals are complex, detailed and quirky. They reflect the diverse make-up of the city.
Although visually appealing to look at, the murals don’t always make for good pictures. My favorite shots were juxtapositions of art and real-life. Sometimes, art and reality transpose themselves.
It used to be that I’d run into the Chinese grocery specifically for the steamed rice cakes. I’d look for the saran wrapped packages, throw a couple in the cart and move on to the more desirable selection of Swiss chocolate rolls and candied walnuts. The steamed cakes were for my mother. In Cantonese they’re called Nian Gao, in Hakka they’re called Wun Ban.
When I was little, my mom made Wun Ban at home. She’d use her Osterizer to pulverize rice and water, strain it and pulverize it again until the liquid was silky smooth. Sweetened with a bit of sugar, she’d steam the cakes in round pyrex bowls. When they finished cooking, they’d be pale unappetizing discs of solid beige jello. My mother was the only one who enjoyed this dessert. My brother and I certainly did not and my father never once tried it in all their years of marriage.
How to describe the taste?
It was made of rice and it tasted like rice.
My mother loved it.
With a sharp paring knife she’d cut a slice, spear it with the tip and delicately bite off small portions. She’d chew it slowly and savor the soft gumminess, the mellow, understated flavor of rice. Eating Wun Ban was a quiet activity. Talking interrupted the flavor or maybe, the memories that the flavor conjured.
My mother said that her father made Wun Ban to sell in his Auntie’s shop. He’d fry green onions to a golden brown and sprinkle them on the batter before steaming. He’d score the cooked cakes into half inch strips and cut them into rectangular portions. As she spoke, I vaguely recalled a large netted box spread with sheets of pale steamed cakes, cooling in the shadow of my grandparents’ dining room. It sat on old wooden table covered with a red and white checkered oilcoth. I remember tearing a long, soft, stretchy rope of cake, holding it high above my head and nibbling up the length from one end.
In Toronto I can buy Nian Gao in the Chinese supermarket. On my way to visit my mother, I’d stop and buy a couple packs for her. At least, I used to. The last time I was there, I automatically reached for the Nian Gao, my muscular memory forgetting that she had passed away.
I bought it just the same. That night, I cut a slice and silently chewed on the slightly sweet, almost nutty, starchy graininess of rice.