Heartbeat of the Drum
The Heart of the City Festival at SFU Woodward’s
Written by Justin Ramsey & Photography by Ravi Gill
The first day of November did not disappoint. The sun shone clear in the grey-blue sky; and despite the almost-wintry nip in the air, the trees held fast to their fall colours. The night was equally pleasant; Halloween hangovers kept the sidewalks of Gastown unusually quiet—a change I welcomed as I ventured towards SFU Woodward’s for the Heart of the City Festival.
Decades have elapsed since the Eastside was the commercial centre of Vancouver; but in spite of its dramatic economic shift, it has always been—and seemingly always will be—a cultural force within the city. Many First Nations organizations still operate here. It was home to Vancouver’s experimental avant-garde of the 1960s and ‘70s, the legacy of which remains intact in the many studios and artist centres that operate around this neighbourhood. It is home to the largest Chinatown in Canada, Vancouver’s Ukrainian Canadian Cultural Centre and the Federation of Russian Canadians, as well as the ever-popular Powell Street Festival celebrating Japanese Canadian culture.
The Heart of the City Festival pays homage to the vibrant, collaborative essence of this oftentimes fraught place, celebrating creativity and community in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. From October 29th until November 9th, over 90 performances, workshops, and activities will be held across 25 venues—all of which are either free to the public, or pay-what-you-can.
And naturally, SFU Woodward’s would be a perfect venue. With its fine and performing arts campus located at the historic site of Woodward’s department store—a “heart of the city” during its years of operation—SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement welcomed two of the festival’s events in the Dvajad Mowafaghian World Art Centre. The first was a concert by Thee Ahs, scheduled for this silent Saturday night.
Thee Ahs are a four-piece band consisting of drummer Mareesa, bassist Dan, guitarist and songwriter Davina, and lead singer Sarah. Dan and Davina are both students at Simon Fraser University—Davina is in the music program, whereas Dan is at the Beedie School of business administration—so the concert provided a platform for SFU to support its own talent while contributing to the Heart of the City Festival’s diverse appeal.
The World Art Centre encapsulated the day’s late-fall beauty and the night’s serenity; orange, red, and yellow gels over the lights created a cheerful yet relaxed atmosphere. Six silver lights shone upward against the room’s characteristic, convex brick wall, in front of which sat one drum kit, two guitars, and three microphones. With the wooden decorations accentuating the space and intricate shadows patterning the floor, it lent the feeling of being in a cozy, autumnal tree house. The complimentary tea and plate of fresh fruit contributed to the relaxed mood—although it arguably detracted from the ambience one would expect from an indie rock concert.
Indeed, the evening’s unusual quietness was perhaps less welcome for Thee Ahs. With two rows of seating arranged in a shallow semicircle around the stage area, the youthful band drew a conspicuously older audience; the small gathering appeared to be largely friends or family of the group. The band members alluded to this rather blatantly when they announced that they were dropping a song from their set list, on account of it being “too juvenile,” “full of swearing,” and “only for kids!”
Thee Ahs’ frontwoman Sarah tried to crank up the energy in the room. She playfully swished her pink frock to and fro, showing off her impressive vocal versatility through the series of short, mostly fast-paced songs. And her secret to staying pitch-perfect: not hot water with lemon, but rather a bottle of Coke Zero! Volume-wise, however, Sarah faced stiff competition from the bass, guitar, and drums, which nearly drowned her out at times. It was difficult to decipher lyrics; when she took out her teddy bear-cased phone in the middle of the third song to snap a selfie, I wondered what phrase had precipitated that moment.
I was disappointed by the band’s lack of charisma, which in turn was maybe owed to the lack of a crowd. Between songs and during technical difficulties—Davina’s guitar string broke partway through the second song, and then another adjustment had to be made later—the band murmured insularly amongst themselves. With Halloween just passing, a new month just starting, and a great festival concurrently happening, I thought there’d be more than enough source material for a few anecdotes. When the concert ended, a brief “Thanks for having us!” seemed a flimsy bridge between loud, pulse-pounding music and stiff stillness that followed.
Nevertheless, Thee Ahs delivered a varied set of highly hummable tunes, playing to a little audience with a lot of heart. And that’s the purpose of the Heart of the City Festival: to centre art and culture—both emerging new acts and traditional cultures—as the vibrant, vital heart of Vancouver.
The Heart of the City Festival continued on Sunday November 2nd, once again in the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre. While the room itself remained unaltered, the atmosphere was changed—or, more accurately, charged. The drizzling clouds couldn’t dampen the lively community spirit, and the room buzzed with people of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. All four rows of seats were nearly full at 1:45, fifteen minutes before show time; and sitting in the fourth row, I felt a little unlucky. However, three more rows of seating had to be added behind me, with several more onlookers left standing against the back wall.
Sunday’s event was a cross-cultural performance between Sawagi Taiko and Tzo’Kam. Sawagi Taiko is an Asian Canadian, all-women ensemble that composes and performs taiko drumming. Taiko drumming is a Japanese cultural form that dates back hundreds of years—it’s even mentioned in creation myths—but the practice only found its way to North America in the 1960s. Katari Taiko was the first taiko ensemble in Canada, formed in Vancouver in 1979; in 1990, a number of its female members established Sawagi Taiko. While drummers have joined or left the group since its inception, Sawagi Taiko has always consisted of seven or eight performers, anchored by founding member Linda Uyehara Hoffman.
As Sawagi Taiko began their first song, the once-white lights shone with a lively pink hue against the brick wall. The group’s movements were choreographed and coordinated as they played over all parts of the drums, generating a rich variety of tones and timbres; and even smaller instruments—rattles, bells, claves—could still be heard harmoniously alongside the taiko. Throughout the entire song, the women smiled radiantly. With such powerful percussion, one might expect taiko drumming to be foreboding, even warlike, but it was astonishing to discover how such infectious joy could be infused so inextricably into the sound.
And not just the sound, but also the feeling. If you have never heard taiko drumming before, you should. It’s not hard to imagine why it is featured in stories of divine forces and ancient gods. The resonance filled my body and pumped my blood; I could not tell if the sensation was more like that of falling swiftly or rising rapidly, but my heart seemed suspended in my chest. When I was suddenly seized by a brief coughing fit, I realized I had—for short while—been literally left breathless.
Despite sounding entirely different, the drumming of Sawagi Taiko blended smoothly into that of Tzo’Kam, who performed traditional Lil’wat music and dance. Tzo’Kam, which means both “chickadee” and “visitors are coming” in the Stl’atl’imx language, was founded by Flora Wallace in 1997 and is now led by her son, Russell Wallace. Tzo’Kam’s melodious vocals and rhythmic refrains included the Berry-Picking Song, Grandmother Song, and Gathering Song, some of which included specific gestures; during the Crow Song, Tzo’Kam invited audience members to dance with them—and those that weren’t onstage with the group were called on to caw along with the music! On many occasions, Sawagi Taiko also joined in Tzo’Kam’s songs and dances.
Indeed, the two groups did not perform merely in conjunction, but in intercultural collaboration. At times, they juxtaposed their arts for heightened impact—after a particularly intense taiko drumming piece, the lights turned a calming blue as Tzo’Kam sang a soft, lullaby-like hymn. But at other times, they seamlessly integrated with one another. At one point, Russell Wallace partook in the taiko drumming, after which he had to spend a few minutes catching his breath. “It’s as tough as it looks,” he conceded afterward.
Wallace and Uyehara Hoffman explained that their partnership began with the Powell Street Festival. “We discovered that many of the songs share the same tempo and spirit,” recounted Uyehara Hoffman. Indeed, beyond their musical congruency, the two groups—First Nations and Japanese Canadians—were united by a returning sense of spirit formerly banished from their communities. One taiko piece called “Renshuu,” usually used to rehearse the drumming techniques (“renshuu” literally means “practice” in Japanese), fit perfectly with the Lil’wat “Friendship Song”“Renshuu” was played as the “Friendship Song” was sung , the voices of the singers wavering hauntingly amidst the rumbling of the drums.
At the end of the concert, the audience leapt to their feet in standing ovation. Perhaps everyone felt that same sensation that gripped my heart during the performance; for an hour and twenty minutes, our pulses were one with the taiko drumming and Lil’wat music. It evocatively emphasizes how an appreciation of diversity and inclusivity forms the heart of Vancouver’s communities.
This was the 11th year of the Heart of the City Festival. It is produced by the Vancouver Moving Theatre with the Carnegie Community Centre, and the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians, and hosted by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement.
Justin Ramsey holds a Masters in Comparative Media Arts from Simon Fraser University. He works as an arts administrator with various institutions including Presentation House Gallery, North Vancouver, and Republic Gallery, Vancouver. As a freelance writer, Justin has contributed to several publications and platforms, including MONTECRISTO Magazine and NUVO Magazine.