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Berklee plays host to Canadian artists

Victoria Cheng | 7/29/2009, 9:18 a.m.

Rebecca Muir, a Canadian studying songwriting at Berklee College of Music, said she sometimes wonders whether Americans are even aware of her home country just across the northern border.

“Nobody really knows about us, and we might as well not even exist, because most people don’t really think about Canada,” she said.


Then she paused, and hedged toward diplomacy.
“Maybe some Americans do,” she added. “I mean, I don’t want to offend anybody. I definitely don’t want to offend anybody.”

The polite and patriotic songwriter will perform in the “Canada Comes to Berklee” concert next Wednesday, Dec. 12, alongside a handful of fellow Canadian music students and three rising Canadian music acts, to spotlight the continual contributions of our neighbors to the north to musical forms that some might see as quintessentially American.

k-os brings his genre-bending blend of rap, reggae, funk and rock to Boston for the third time this year; Bill King and the Saturday Night Fish Fry will play a blues set infused with the rhythms of the American South; and The New Pornographers, a critically acclaimed indie rock group whose name everyone stumbles over at least once, will round out the eclectic mix.

The show is an opportunity for Americans to find out more about Canadian music, Muir said, including the thriving blues scene in her native city of Halifax, Nova Scotia — a long way away from Robert Johnson’s Mississippi Delta.

“Culturally, I’m sure it’s different, because in Canada, the blues didn’t come from where we are,” she said, noting that she had grown up listening to her father perform with Dutch Mason, Canada’s premiere blues artist. “But in Halifax, we’re just playing the blues because we love it.”

k-os, who was born in Toronto and lived in Trinidad for a few years as a child, echoes this enthusiasm about being Canadian.

“I’m a Canuck to the bone,” he said, adding that his multicultural Canadian identity is clearly visible in his music.

“My music transcends so many different genres of music. Canada is very much a multicultural place. Anyone who comes to Toronto and walks the streets is always like, ‘There’s so many cultures here: there’s Chinatown, and there’s Jamaica-town, and Portuguese-town, and there’s the Italian neighborhood…’

“What speaks to that is the fact that my music is rock one minute, then hip-hop another, reggae another minute, then punk rock another. So I think that’s woven into the fiber of the music.”

k-os’ boundary-breaking work has garnered attention in the United States and Europe. A recent collaboration with the Chemical Brothers yielded a hilarious video spoof of a martial arts movie for a song entitled “Get Yourself High,” earning a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording.

Bill King also appreciates his perspective on the music industry from outside the mainstream. King likens the relationship between his music and that of Canadian pop “monster-park artists” Shania Twain, Celine Dion and Avril Lavigne to the relationship between minority French-Canadian Quebec and English-speaking Canada.

“We’re the French,” he said. “When it comes to blues, jazz, folk, world-beat stuff, it has its own audience; it’s always on the outside.

“It will never be as popular as pop or rock, but the audience is pretty devout and hardcore about the music,” he added, chuckling.

Many of the musicians who will perform at the concert also have a personal connection to Boston and to Berklee.

King was awarded a scholarship to the music school in 1965, but did not have the additional funds available to attend. He saved his letter of admission as a keepsake and is excited about collaborating with musicians in the college he thought about attending three decades ago.

k-os grew up exposed to cultural icons like the Boston Celtics because of “how widespread American culture is,” he said.

During one summer visit earlier this year, he and a couple of friends took off walking after a show and wandered throughout Boston.

“I remember that [walk] almost more than the performance, just checking out the city and marveling at it,” he said. “The city is amazing and the people in the audience were really, really keen and open to the whole idea of the hip-hop I was doing.”

He characterized his style of hip-hop — “if you really want to put it in a category,” he said — as “alternative or different.”

His live performances are backed by a band, an experiment that he notes is gaining popularity around the country, with legendary emcees Rakim and Ghostface Killah recently performing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., and asking fellow performers for feedback on their bands’ groove and timing.

While k-os said he has encountered some criticism that he is “diluting” genres of music, his attitude — that this exchange of influences has been productive for him — seems to reflect his profoundly Canadian sensibility towards the potential for multiculturalism.

“I think we should be able to patch a lot of different things together,” he said, “and hopefully, if you’ve got culture, that’s going to rub off on anything you do, you know?”

“Canada Comes To Berklee” takes place on Wednesday, Dec. 12, at 8:15 p.m. at the Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston. Tickets are $30, or $22.50 for seniors, and can be purchased at the performance center’s box office or through Ticketmaster at 617-931-2000 or www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, call 617-747-2261 or visit www.berkleebpc.com.