by Dan Rubin
My first school teaching job came to an end in 1985, when my family split up (the usual Gulf Islands mix-and-match melodrama) so I found myself ready for a break and some graduate study in education. I had had wonderful experiences with students and I needed time to think about these encounters and make sense of what I had seen. I also wanted to be near my daughter, who would grow up shuttling between two parents and two households in Victoria.
By this time I was also ready to make more music. I had been hired to perform at Expo 86, in a trio that included Kelly Crowe on piano and Mark Dowding on flute and sax. The world’s fair in Vancouver, as it turned out, would offer more than a few performances at the BC Pavilion, thanks to a chance connection made through CBC radio.
While teaching at False Bay School, I had developed a keen interest in drama. Working with students, I developed scripts and directed more than a dozen original plays, many of them with musical scores. The plays we performed for island audiences, and then one toured Vancouver Island, and finally, our last original work found its way to a national audience.
Dragondreams was an hour-long radio play telling an evocative story about some students who are experiencing simultaneous dreams of riding on dragons. When I sent the producer of Morningside a copy of our complete radio play with music and sound effects, he asked if we could come into Vancouver for an interview.
Two students were selected by the class to accompany me into the city. When we arrived at the CBC very early in the morning, we were told that only two of us would get to speak on air, for lack of a third set of headphones. I handed the two we had over to the two students, but I was told I would have to be interviewed as well. It seemed the host sitting in for Peter Gzowski in Toronto, one Stuart McLean, insisted on this. Oh no, I told him, these students came all the way here to be on the radio, so they will have a chance to speak on air or we won’t go on. After a tense pause, the impasse was resolved. The two shared a headset and took turns. That worked. The interview went ahead. Quite a few people heard a clip from our play and the three of us talking about how it was created.
A few weeks later, I got a phone call right out of the blue from Sally Glover, who had heard the interview on the radio. Would I be willing to join her and dancer/choreographer Sylvia Hosie travelling around Vancouver Island to audition acts for Vancouver Island Week at Expo 86? Sounded good to me.
That adventure included sliding off a snowy highway on the way to Port Alberni, gliding into a soft snow bank with Sally (many months pregnant) behind the wheel, then being pulled out by a friendly truck driver. We called our trip The Caesar Salad Tour, because we had a chance to try out versions of this classic dish in every hotel from Victoria to Port Hardy. The salads were good. But even better were the young performers. Their presentations and their creativity were simply stunning. In fact, they were so good, that before we knew it, we were scripting a four-hour variety show called Spirit of the Island.
Sally sold the main producer for the BC pavilion on the idea of the show, and we were suddenly handed a week’s run on the Plaza of Nations Stage, the largest venue on site. Sylvia Hosie pulled me aside at one of our planning sessions and told me that I was the show’s lighting designer and stage manager. I was willing but I was hardly trained for the job. Sure, I had done some lighting design for a couple of small theatre tours. How complicated could it be? How many lighting instruments would I be working with? Twelve hundred, she told me. I just sat there with my mouth open.
It was a crazy show, but a huge success. I was plugged into a clear com every night to call lighting and stage cues. We went on just before dusk and finished as darkness brought forth magnificent fireworks over False Creek. At its height, our show drew fifteen thousand viewers to the stage, blocking all foot traffic through the world’s fair. The dance troupes were magnificent, the singer songwriters were deeply moving and even though we had to re-jig the script every night as various performers arrived and left, it all worked out very well.
After Expo, it was time to move to Victoria and get into graduate study. I realized after the first week that I would have to shift into overdrive, so that’s what I did Over the next three years I attended daily classes, wrote dozens of papers, and worked at three jobs at the same time. Very soon I also found people to play music with.
A wonderful friend of mine, poet and writer Linda Rogers, had commissioned an original musical piece for Spirit Quest, her festival that would combine music, magic and First Nations traditions. I had been thinking for some time about how to integrate music with visual imagery. I teamed up with two fellow musicians, Scott Sheerin (whom I had first met at a festival in Atlin) on soprano sax, flute and bass flute, and percussionist Niel Golden playing tabla and guitar, to develop the music.
Stunning visuals were provided by my friend, photographer David Denning, whose original images of the living world included landscapes, microscopic creatures and photographs of people exploring the outdoors. The Magic Garden was an evocative suite composed of five movements based on the five elements of traditional Chinese medicine. It was only in the last section that humans were shown, as we explored our deep connection with the living world. In the auditorium at the Royal BC Museum, as the last note died away, we waited for the audience to respond. There was a long pause. It took many seconds then they all exhaled together, and only after that came the applause.
I learned from this how powerful it can be when you combine images with music, even in the form of a simple slide show. It is as if the music says to your head, “Come walk with me” and while your head is engaged, the images come straight into your heart.
My next chance to perform with Niel and Scott came following a kayaking trip in the Queen Charlotte Islands. After camping in a grove of culturally modified cedars, sixteen feet across at the butt, I returned ready to speak and sing about the need to preserve these places of wonder. The result was the show we presented at Victoria’s first Fringe Festival, Rubin Dan and the Giant Clams, or What’s a Nice Wilderness Like You Doing in a Province Like This? Complete with humorous accounts of how complicated kayaking can get once you realize all the equipment you will need, accounts of what I had found out there in the wild and songs about the power of the natural world, it was quite a strange show.
After that, the three of us realized we had something special. We travelled to Vancouver to record an album version of The Magic Garden, but once that was done, it was time to proceed in a more mutually balanced way. We decided to call ourselves New Earth, and we began to meet weekly to rehearse and develop a repertoire that mixed folk traditions and world music with jazz style improvisation.
Scott was an amazing listener, particularly adept at creating melodies that were both graceful and unexpected. Niel laid down powerful polyrhythmic support, and I added my own quirky lines on violin, bouzouki, mandolin and cello guitar. Our options were even richer since all three of us played piano, Niel could shift to guitar, while Scott was at home with anything from flute to bass flute to soprano sax and percussion.
In 1989, I had finished my three years of graduate study, and decided some travel was in order. With a cheap Circle Pacific ticket from Air New Zealand, I headed west to visit my parents in Hawaii and my sister in Australia. The way that ticket worked I could visit Hawaii, carry on to Australia, and stop three other places on my way home. I chose to visit New Zealand (where I had friends), the Cook Islands and Fiji.
Backpacking in the Whitsunday Islands, the scuba course on the Great Barrier Reef and an invitation to the national book awards in Aukland were amazing parts of my travel. Of course, I carried my fiddle with me. In a little village on Beqa Island in Fiji, I stayed with a man who turned out to be a fellow musician, so I joined his band and learned some local tunes. In Australia, after I played in a talent night at the backpacker’s resort, I was invited to stay on for three more nights to entertain the participants in a local sailing regatta. It was a great trip and, after all the hospitality I had encountered, a cold shock to come back to Victoria and realize I had no place to live. But there was a job at the Royal BC Museum waiting for me, so it didn’t take long to get resettled and continue creating new sounds with my musical partners.
Our local performances on Vancouver Island and occasional jaunts out to the Gulf Islands, led New Earth into the recording studio for two days of taping. We decided that whatever we recorded would be live and spontaneous. So we recorded direct to stereo. In the end we selected a dozen tracks that included some pieces developed in rehearsal and a handful we had improvised straight off the floor. The problem was that we had recorded directly to stereo, so we weren’t sure how to rebalance the instruments on the tracks.
Luckily, we met Russell Dawkins. Russell is something of an enigma. A former test pilot for the Canadian military, he had moved into sound recording and established a reputation locally and internationally for superb live recordings of ensembles and orchestras. Remixing our stereo tracks was no problem for Russell. Sitting in the back of a stereo store just off the island highway, we watched and listened with wonder, as Russell used compression and EQ to rebalance the sound and bring out whichever instrument we wanted.
Once he was done, our recording New Earth: World Music from Canada’s West Coast was mastered and ready for release. Assuming we had only a limited local market, we made a few hundred cassettes, even though CDs were now coming into vogue. I offered to send out at least fifty as promo copies, but Scott didn’t think that was a good idea. Finally, he agreed I could send out twenty. One of these went to a company I had heard about who were booking artists for the next world’s fair, scheduled for 1992 in Seville, Spain.
But it was still a surprise when the phone rang in my little waterfront cabin early on a Sunday morning. I had been up very late working on a consulting report so I was feeling a bit fuzzy when the voice on the line said, “Hello this is Michael from Great World Artists in Ottawa. We would like to know whether you would be interested in performing at the World’s Fair?” “Who is this?” I asked, assuming it must be a practical joke. I almost hung up. But Michael assured me the offer was real. He told us we were invited to go to Seville for up to five weeks, to appear as opening act in the Canada Pavilion at Expo 92. I negotiated our fee, plus travel, plus per diems and soon we were on our way.
That trip was a huge eye opener. Along with a selection of other artists from across the country, we stayed in the house we called Casa Canada and travelled down to the Expo site to perform three concerts a day, six days a week, for the five weeks we were in Seville. Lucky for us, we arrived just in time for Santa Semana, the week when huge religious icons carved out of wood are carried on the backs of teams of men from church to church, while bands play and people sing flamenco in the streets. And once that week leading up to Easter was done, it was time for Feria de Abril, the traditional gypsy horse fair, a huge local holiday, for which the city provides its own district, where tents spring up once a year to hold the drinking, food, singing and dancing that celebrate the ancient traditions of flamenco.
Once our string of performances in Seville was finished, I took off, to travel through southern Spain and into Portugal. I ended up living for a week in Faro, then travelled back to Seville by rental car to retrieve my instruments, after I was invited to perform in a bar, in the town where King Henry the Navigator once had his school.
Spending time in Europe was wonderful. Like my travels in the South Pacific a few years earlier, it opened my mind. These experiences resonate in my memory, proof that music can be our passport to other places and people and cultures.