University of Bologna + Istituto Italiano di Cultura Toronto 

Are you there? You’re on mute? I can’t see you. What if I hang up and try again?  Sometimes, I think that making digital connections is like trying to teach your grandmother how to use Zoom. You may eventually get there, but how to make it meaningful? 

In my experience working in education, I do see a break, heightened by the pandemic, where generationally, we talk “across” one another. You’re speaking, and I’m speaking, but we’re not communicating.    

The jazz tradition has always been a place for people to work alongside one another and be able to communicate through music. I think about artists like Mary Lou Williams, who was not only one of the greatest pianists of her generation, but was a clear mentor to so many, and was able to channel her work as a composer.  She has become a champion for a generation of artists. 

Sheila-Watt Cloutier, asks the question:  How do we live sustainably in our environment? (P9) and how do we protect the wisdom we require to sustain it? (10). While Watt Cloutier was speaking about land and water resources, I think that the questions fit our cultural environments, as well.  

How do we protect music as the cultural space that will sustain the generation of elders and teachers, as well as build the cultural space to sustain newer generations of artists? At present, this is a pain point for artists in Canada.  We were extremely fortunate to be financially supported during the first eighteen months of the pandemic, but now, the arts communities haven’t yet recovered. Artists are struggling to not only feed and house themselves and their families but be culturally relevant on this shifting ground. 

Artists are always relevant because we speak to the truths of society and of our common human experiences.  However, I would like to encourage folks to work together in this difficult moment, where there are common points of tension related to our musical work, to a shared experience of wanting to connect with audiences, and through a time when we are all learning to use new technologies in our work. 

Watt Cloutier also said what is absolutely the truth, “what affects one will affect us all.” This is true when it comes to the health of the music industry and our sustainable futures as artists.  So how can music help us navigate the intersection of tradition and innovation? 

Admittedly, I am not an expert when it comes to innovations in the music and culture industry— after all, I perform and research music created in the 1950s, albeit for modern contexts and audiences! That is why I keep close with such smart colleagues and peers, like our friend Paolo [Granata] here, and why I try to surround myself with folks who are very innovative about changes in the culture industry. 

That said, there are a few ways that I think about the intersection of tradition and innovation.  Firstly, people are recognizing that: 

  1. Guerilla investing – the listening supporters need to have a stake in an artist’s success. We could see more of that happening in Canada and It would be welcome. NFT’s are one way, but also supporting artists on Bandcamp and Patreon is another way to ensure that artists can keep working on connecting us all.  A colleague of mine here in Toronto, producer and entrepreneur Rookz, is working to ensure that all artists who play venues in Toronto are able to contribute to their union pension.  Such a small detail, but one that could make an enormous difference.  I’ve been astounded to hear the creative solutions that folks have made to connect their music to wider audiences through the pandemic.  I think that virtual performance platforms like the Side Door and digital platforms have created space for music creators with various abilities by working around traditional disabilities – and that paired with the technology funding that was available to artists during the initial stages of the pandemic offered a real promise and way forward. I would like to see such initiatives continue.
  2. Queer ethnomusicology – Author Zoe Sherinian writes that queer ethnomusicology is about preferencing the knowledge of those who live on the cultural margins to define the terms of their self-identification. In other words, we enable people to tell us how they identify rather than label them through outdated words related to historic styles and settings. In many cases, this will challenge Western heteronormative thinking about everything.  I’m inspired by the beautiful example of music made by Indigenous artist, Jeremy Dutcher, who recalls an Indigenous language spoken by only a few, and who causes us to reexamine musical intersections, as we (collectively) rediscover forgotten songs, phrases, and traditions.  

Finally (for today) I’d like to consider: How do we rethink the idea of the nation, calling on Indigenous ways of knowing and being? 

There are people far more qualified than I to answer this question, and I want to name those folks who I have learned from:  Dr. Pamela Palmater who writes on Indigenous sovereignty, Jody Wilson -Raybould our former minister of parliament and first Indigenous Justice Minister, and Buffy St. Marie, music and cultural icon.  

When I worked for a very brief time at Indigenous Services Canada, which is the governmental arm that facilitates Crown-Indigenous relationships (extremely complicated), I learned that there are 133 individual first nations groups in the province of Ontario alone as well as Métis people, and the many urban and rural Indigenous folks not living on reserve. While there are groups that share infrastructure and governance structures as well as several common languages, there are many unique structures, ways of life, ecological considerations, beliefs, and practices. 

Canada is a country that houses many cultures, that is, in fact, multi-cultural, but that does not mean that each person who resides inside these borders is made to feel safe and valued.  Our institutions remain unjust, our society still privileges wealth and identity for some. I have, in large part, been responsible in my work at Humber College, for reviewing the processes of our education (namely music degrees and certificates) to determine the “loopholes” for unfairness towards people, to identify where and how such processes have been discriminatory in race and gender.  As evidenced by the work of many, and here I will give a shoutout to Nancy Simms, the Director of our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, we are now involved in complex processes of “unlearning.” 

How do we unlearn pathways of colonization? We listen to stories of harm. We believe people when they tell us they have been harmed by people and practices. We keep listening as our ears become full of the stories, and our hearts are breaking. We listen without trying to prove individual innocence.  Then, we break the pathways of harm. We unmake harmful traditions that privilege some over all, and we unmake pathways that are unreasonable. We recognize that making life better for people who live on cultural margins does not, in fact, change life negatively for those already privileged people, rather we make space for people to tell us who they are and what they require for a healthy life for themselves and their families. 

So I then suppose that in order to rethink the idea of nation, we must first listen to those voices who have been silenced, we must give reparation to those who have been harmed, we must ensure that all people have access to safe and healthy spaces to live and work, and we must heal and rebuild structures that were once used to marginalize, and we must, in fact, recognize that the conditions which govern the most vulnerable of us, govern us all.