Avoiding Activist Burnout (feature in NOW Magazine)

The cover story for the August 8-14 issue of NOW magazine was titled “How to Fight Activist Burnout”, featuring an essay by artist Syrus Marcus Ware.

Ware has juggled a busy art career with working other jobs, in addition to “working pretty much full-time” as an activist.  Eventually, all this resulted in a season of burnout that “affected everything”: art practice, activism and family life.

Ware cites the support of friends and lovers, accessing care supports and even luck with being able to pull through, acknowledging that many activist-artists don’t make it.

Ongoing awareness of these kinds of difficulties is the main reason I’m amplifying Ware’s message here.  It’s an important message for activist musicians and is especially relevant during periods of “the heightened political divisiveness we are seeing today.”  Moreover, I’ve experienced burnout myself juggling musical pursuits, multiple jobs and personal commitments, without being seriously involved in any activism, let alone to the degree Ware has been.  However, I do want to be more involved and it’s through music I can make that happen.  Yet, I’d very much like to avoid burning out again.

Given the political shite we are continuing to experience these days, community is not only necessary to safeguard against personal burnout, but it’s the key to an activist life.  (Actually, it’s probably the key to life itself, but a more focused point needs to be made at the moment!). Ware has expressed the “need to care for activists before the toll on them becomes too great” – to “celebrate and nourish”, which Ware does through writing “love letters” and drawing portraits – and a call to continually combine artistic practice with activism, “using every form of communication as an agent of change.”

In a quest to find further solutions to avoiding burnout, Ware talked to some “comrades in the struggle” and found these are important: 1) seeking balance among various pursuits (when it’s easy to get caught up in something specific), 2) various forms of self-care, physical and mental 3) awareness of the toll that being in “crisis mode” takes – and our limits for tolerating this.

All of the above might be somewhat intuitive or touted as common knowledge or “common sense” but we would do well to revisit these points, to keep them in mind since we can easily forget about what’s good for us.

For me, the golden combination of community, music and activism is best expressed and experienced through the HONK! movement and related activity.

Apart from the simple joy that comes from participating in HONK!, it is an established system of civic engagement that promotes inclusivity and the breaking of social barriers.  It means I can step away from it if I need a rest and be satisfied that my like-minded friends are going to keep playing music, bringing love and joy to the people and supporting those in need of support.

Being able to rely on others and take a rest once in a while are the key ways to avoid burning out. In so doing, we can help maintain a life balance, take care of ourselves and avoid being in crisis mode for too long.

In the face of continued or renewed struggle, that’s the way forward when it comes to succeeding at the long game.


Frank Dukes’s coolest idea EVER

Toronto music producer Frank Dukes has had a lot of cool ideas – just ask Drake or Eminem or Kendrick Lamar or Rihanna or Lorde or…well, you get it.

But beyond his creative work as a producer and songwriter, Dukes has contributed to the industry in his approach to how sampling is dealt with. In order to help artists bypass the mire of clearing samples that are used in the beat-making process of creating songs, (and by doing so, help mitigate the “robbery” of songwriters), Dukes created a readily available sample library called the Kingsway Music Library: essentially a sonic version of Getty Images catering to hip hop and pop music producers.

But this new idea takes the cake.

Dukes has partnered with The Regent Park School of Music in Toronto to create a project that will not only inspire high profile artists, but is also a fundraiser for the school and a cool outlet for the kids.  The school’s general mission, according to Executive Director Richard Marsella, is “to offer young kids access to music education” by removing the high costs that bar so many under-privileged from the joys of music.  About 1000 kids across the city are currently benefiting from the school’s programs.  Further, RPSM intends to “empower” the students and “help them act as positive role models” in the community.  Taking this mission and “cranking it to 11” is what comes of the collaboration with Dukes.

Simply put, Duke’s idea was to create a sample library featuring young musicians from the RPSM so that when the music is used, the proceeds go back to the school.  More specifically, Dukes says, “the money from the masters side and the retail side goes to RPSM…and then when the music gets sampled, the school also gets a royalty.”  It’s the first music sample library that funds music education.

So cool!

Lately, RPSM has been tweeting about all this, how their kids have been involved in a recording project called Parkscapes Vol. 1, and how it has been first picked up by Taylor Swift! One of the pieces has been sampled on “It’s Nice to Have a Friend”, from her brand new album, Lover.  I bet those kids are crazy excited!

You rock, Mr. Dukes.


Frank Dukes Vice article from February 2015

Frank Dukes Complex article from April 2016


Review: Rinzler’s Contradictions of Jazz

I’ve come to regard this book as a personal sacred text. It’s as much about how to think as it is about jazz. I see myself returning to it over and over, mainly because I need as much help with thinking as I can get. Also, if anything supports the jazz-as-life metaphor (while not explicitly stating it), Rinzler’s book does. And I can dig it. Rinzler begins with a brief exposition of the various ways two concepts can be in opposition to each other and create a complex, dynamic tension rather than be mutually exclusive (e.g. gradation, propagation, juxtaposition, etc.). We can let ourselves be trapped into thinking that it’s either…my way or the highway, for instance – i.e. mutual exclusivity – rather than hold that both “ways” might co-exist and together offer a more complete version of reality. In Part 2, Rinzler follows up with the explanations of eight primary (and paired) values of jazz and how they may or may not manifest themselves, and then in the third part explains the musical and practical ramifications of these oppositions or contradictions: individualism vs. interconnectedness, assertion vs. openness, freedom vs. responsibility & creativity vs. tradition. Finally, Part 4 is an exploration of what these pairings “mean” in jazz, as well as existentially. As a result of reading this, I not only understand jazz better – an art I have practiced myself for over 20 years – but I also understand life better. Rinzler - Contradictions

HONK! ON Festival Makes Successful Debut

Our first HONK! ON Festival was amazing.  And of course it went by in a whirlwind of sound and colour.

Before all that though, the time spent thinking and organizing and anticipating slipped by rather slowly and then BAM it was suddenly run-up week and the jitters kicked in.  Our apartment was HONK! Central with t-shirts and last-minute to-do lists everywhere.  The first day seemed a little surreal and even with all the prep still going on, it took a while to sink in that it had really arrived…

Marion referred to the opening band social evening in Dufferin Grove Park as being a “soft start” and it really is the way to go as far as organizing a festival is concerned.  We probably got the idea from the band gathering they did for the opening of HONK! Fest in Somerville last October.  Although you need to have virtually all your prep done by opening night, because it’s more informal than the public performance days, you have a chance to iron out a few things at the last minute as well as answer questions and get everything in motion for the real deal starting the next day.

My official opening really started with greeting and then rehearsing members of the Ad HONK! Band, our open, festival-only band for independent participants and anyone else who wants to support.  We worked on two tunes: an original of mine called “Town Hall” and Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas.”  It went really well but took way more energy than I was expecting.  As we were cluing up, other band members began showing up and it was nice to see connections and re-connections established among the musicians.  I was super impressed that Extraordinary Rendition Band showed up in full regalia! Some spontaneous jamming went on until it was time to quiet down for Clay & Paper Theatre’s show going on in elsewhere in the park.  It was a real bonus for us that they were doing the show, as it became an optional activity for our participants.  After chilling at the bonfire for a while ERB blasted out some jams and we had several park patrons join the crowd.  Of course, as the evening drew to a close, we got approached by park staff about noise complaints. Oh well,  there it is.  Next year we’ll probably do Christie Pits Park because we can have a larger gathering and it’s also a designated park for music events.

After leaving Dufferin Grove many of us went to Drom Taberna to hear/see the Scruffy Aristocrats, one of our participant bands (and a sub-set of ERB).  Jim, the sousa player came to say hello to Marion and I and mentioned his nervousness at having to follow the Heavyweights Brass Band but they were awesome – great sounds, great charisma.  We left during their second set – long way to travel back to York – and heard the next day the band got asked to do a third set.  Matt, the alto player said it was probably the most fun, best received gig they’d done so far.  Thank you Drom and Drom fans.

You’d think after all that and feeling wiped out on the late-night TTC ride home that getting at least a bit of rest would be so easy.  Nope.  So wired!  So Saturday started way too early with me going to pick up a rental van. We loaded up our t-shirts and other gear and went to pick up Trevor’s drumkit (he plays in my band Sax Drive).  We had plenty of time to get to Alexandra Park by 11am, meeting with Gerry and Catherine, a couple from Street Brass who volunteered to help.  In the interest of having an unrushed morning, we decided to leave the barbeque pick-up until later in the day when I could leave after my band’s set.  It was probably just as well.  A little while later we learned it crapped out on us.  Fortunately, we were borrowing it from Candace (the person who designed our wonderful t-shirts!) and she and her friend Bri who visited us from Indiana for the weekend, took care of it for us.  I honestly don’t know how we would’ve handled it if they couldn’t!

Apart from that and a couple short rain showers the afternoon went off without trouble.  The Ad HONK! band kicked things off at noon with a little processional along a portion of Dundas before turning south on Bathurst towards and into the park. There were only a few people on hand at the start to welcome us but I’m sure next year and as we build we’ll have more people.  In fact, there weren’t huge crowds throughout the day but the advantage of having it all in one place is that the bands can support one another as well as have the opportunity to socialize.  This doesn’t really happen to the same extent when bands are assigned to perform at different locations.  I think this is the primary reason we plan to keep the festival a smaller event, at least for a while.

After the performances we marched over to Trinity Bellwoods, sending four separate groups over with short gaps between.  Meanwhile, Kevin, our master-at-HONK!-grilling, was assembling the new BBQ.  The bands set up in a collective outside our booked BBQ area and proceeded with a tune-sharing and jam.  I loved this part.  There wasn’t much to do but wait at this point so I was able to join in.  It ended up being great additional exposure for our festival in this other location (including the neighbourhood between parks), and immensely satisfying as we were denied our original permit at this park in the 11th hour and had to re-locate.

That evening was much more chill although when we finally made it home, exhausted but content, there was a bit of admin work to do for the Sunday Pedestrian Sunday event.  I had only received the plan from the Kensington organizer the day before and the visiting bands in particular still only had a vague idea of the plan.  We also had one of our local groups bail on us so we had an extra slot to fill.  It all worked out really great though.

I went to play in the 12pm Street Brass set on Sunday and managed to recruit some members to come back and play at the new spot at 5pm.  I had to get my own band set up for 5:30pm and help Trevor with his kit.  I think the pre-finale processionals through the market were a big hit although I only caught glimpses.  Then the visiting bands were set up in a triangle spanning the south end of Kensington Ave where they alternated tunes for a closing 45-minute set.  At just after 8pm we were off to Drom once again for the after party.  We literally drank the place out of radlers.

The most heartwarming of the post-festival experience was to learn from several of the local musicians just how fabulous the whole thing was – not just the festival itself – but the whole HONK! vibe, how exciting it was, how inspiring it was, etc.  They finally get it.

My only regret is that, not being much of an extrovert/schmoozer, I didn’t take the initiative to talk to more of the visiting band members.  Apart from a handful, I don’t know if they felt like it was worth coming!  But I guess this is only the beginning.  With this foundation, as we travel to other festivals we can make stronger connections and close this gap.

Marion and I are seriously considering another trip to Somerville this fall.  I hear there’s going to be an open band that I can participate in so I’m definitely bringing my horn this time.