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There’s an ongoing debate being broadcast and put in print across the entire country.  Two different teams presenting two different vantage points, pushing for (almost) the same thing.  Months ago, CTV launched http://www.savelocal.CTV.ca – a website designed to inform broadcast television consumers about the new “tv tax” that’s been put on the table as a means to help protect local stations from going belly up. It’s made strides with its point of view, stating that when the tax is imposed, cable and satellite service providers will just let it roll downhill onto the consumer’s doorstep – not an entirely unrealistic theory.  In fact, service providers have already voluntarily admitted the intent, being warm and up-front honest letting the good customer know the increase might equate to $5 – $10 on monthly bills.

Local-TV-MattersA sub-page of the website – http://localtvmatters.ca/the-facts – counters that honesty, suggesting that it’s impossible to even apply a projected range to the increase given that 1. the tax isn’t even approved for imposition and 2. negotiations would then take place. Also on that particular page is representation of other network logos, including those of Global, A and publicly owned CBC. And, that’s not the only private-sector arrangement CBC’s gotten involved with lately, they’ve also snuggled up with the National Post in a two way exchange. CBC’s evolved exceptionally well over the last year or so – especially with respect to diversifying programming and kicking up their overall aesthetic but its not clear how a public/private arrangement will effect things in the longer term.

To counteract the assertions major networks are making, a second website dealing with the issues, http://www.stopthetvtax.ca, was launched. Almost exactly mirroring the overall message of CTV-lead Local TV Matters, it takes some reading to realize who’s attacking who.  Both websites have a days, hours, minutes and seconds countdown, both are urging visitors to contact the CRTC and both are fighting the imposition of any tax at all.  What’s different is this website sets the stage for service providers to cry wolf and say they’re barely making a cent.  The main splash is riddled with myths that are busted by facts about the profitability of being a service provider, presented by the service providers.  Hmm.

StopTVTaxOne myth says that in actuality, providers would go broke just providing broadcast television and that they need to bundle it with other add ons and services to survive. There may be some truth to that, but something suggests that the bleeding profits from providing broadcast signals aren’t quite that dire. They’re business people, and business people don’t stick with businesses that are money losers, especially in an economic crunch (just watching Dragon’s Den will show that).  That being said, the bottom line is that both websites are pushing against having to pay the tax at all; well, at least that it shouldn’t be paid by the consumer.

The coalition behind Local TV Matters is saying local TV is necessary and their feedback is that people want it… this fee’s coming, (is also necessary) and providers are going to come after consumers, and they’re already ripping them off. Stop The TV Tax on the other hand is saying the tax isn’t even the right answer, that they have no choice but to pass it on if it was imposed and even say “Canada’s big networks want the CRTC to impose another new fee on your bill” – true, but the CRTC doesn’t impose the fee being on the bill, and that’s misleading.

In fact, the CRTC issued this statement:

Consumers should contact their service suppliers, as this increase is not required or regulated by the CRTC. The CRTC considers that these companies can absorb a contribution to the LPIF of this size and does not see any reason why these supplemental costs should be transferred to their subscribers.

The LPIF by the way is the Local Programming Improvement Fund (a separate fund altogether), which received an increased contribution back in 2008, who paid for that you might wonder? If the guess was that it was passed onto consumers through small bill increases; that’s correct. And, even with that increase, the CRTC recommended against the trickle down effect. Providers defend themselves by saying that they’re obligated by law to broadcast the currently ‘free-to-air’ local signals, and imply that if they have no choice but to broadcast, consumers have no choice but to pay.

Regardless, they should be legally obligated to broadcast those signals; it shouldn’t be optional to pick up the local signal. And, don’t forget that providers are already (willingly) shelling out “in excess of $300 million” a year to US broadcasters according to Local TV Matters. They also provide the tidbit that in the last five years, basic cable bills have gone up more then four times the cost of living.

It doesn’t take an analyst to prove that; a quick comparison of the bills coming into my house put broadcast providers comfortably at the top in terms of how much it eats into income, after shelter (which is expected to take the lion’s share).

So, until November 2 when decisions are made that will no doubt change quite a lot, it’s a matter of public opinion and you just have to decide what side of the line to stand on.

Yuk Yuk's

Yuk Yuk's

Hailing from Sackville Estates trailer park in Nova Scotia (but half Newfoundlander – her father’s from Rocky Harbour), Nikki Payne has come a long way and has had one hell of a ride, or at least one hell of a time riding it! That can almost be taken literally as it relates to this interview even. Payne was delayed as a result of a fender bender the day of, but still she pulled through! She accredits the unforeseen as being what ultimately got her into her line of work and says herself that she’s “still not sure if it is a career,” as she laughs. “[It was] a total fluke! My whole career. I was a mascot for my college athletic teams; that led to all this.”

From mascot to Mercer, Payne got her big break on Rick Mercer’s Made in Canada. “He’s given me a lot of breaks,” Nikki admits. Just as recently as March 2009, Payne was back on the CBC show circuit as a guest of George Stroumboulopoulos on his show, The Hour. When she was asked about what she thought about The Hour experience, her only comment was, “George is HOT!!!! Such a big crush.”

Nikki Payne

Nikki Payne

Of course, Nikki and George share similar roots. Many are familiar with her signature delivery of humour on Much Music’s Video on Trial, but she’s enjoyed plenty of other network television success not to mention a few awards, nominations, and national comedy tours! With so much going on, there was just too much excitement to choose from, “they’ve all been highlights because I’m just so happy to be doing this. But, Just For Laughs was a big dream come true; Last Comic Standing on NBC was this out of the blue thing that was great and Comedy Inc. was like summer camp!! It was me just getting to hang out with people who I really I like and get paid for it!”

Every comic has their own approach. Their own style. With Nikki, her style cannot be missed. Unsure of how to really define her own style, Payne offers, “I hump things. There is Ethnic comedy, female comedy and alternative comedy. I think I’m observational, I observe an object; and then I hump it.”

Surprisingly, everyone is not a fan. Ever curious as to whether any spitfires created from Video on Trial commentaries? Nikki didn’t offer any examples but did reveal, “there is the “I Hate Nikki Payne” Facebook group. Maybe you could ask them…wait don’t!!”

But still, she keeps at it and the reason being is simply put. “Honestly, I have no skills. I know that’s a hack line but really, no skills.” But when asked for advice for emerging performers, the sensible and smart Nikki comes out, “do it because you love to make people laugh. Don’t let your ego ruin it.”

Nikki Payne at Yuk Yuk's

Nikki Payne at Yuk Yuk's

There is a serious side to her as well, like anyone. When world issues were brought up, she exclaimed, “Issues??? Like global warming??” and also shared that a real defining moment which only took place recently when she gave her father a kidney in 2008 elaborating, “that changed everything.”

She is currently at work on a one person show; in fact it is being called My Big Fat Donated Kidney; so from life experience comes inspiration, perhaps. Payne is an observer after all! Up next in Nikki Payne’s immediate future though, are two held over appearances at the St. John’s Yuk Yuk’s (April 23 – 25 / April 30 – May 2) which are not to be missed. In her words, up next for Nikki is “world domination… and a trip to Signal Hill!

Documentaries are made to tell stories, to make a point or at least get some thoughts going about one.  What moved Barbara Doran to write and direct her most recent film was the story of a woman named Susan.  At only 31 years old, Susan took her own life and left only a note.  The note wasn’t written to her loved ones, it was written to a video lottery terminal, telling it she had to let it go.  Doran described reading the note as “chilling” when she eventually got the opportunity.  “I knew nothing, I’d seen [VLT’s] in bars and they seemed innocent.  I had no idea of how many tragic stories there were until starting this project.”

John Dunsworth in Playing The Machines

John Dunsworth in Playing The Machines

The film is called Playing The Machines and it tells a number of tragic stories about Canadians who become helpless to the addictions of VLT’s.  Another belongs to Sherry Rhino of Halifax, NS who was left behind after her husband set fire to their car with himself inside, unable to bare the pressure of addiction, despite counselling.  But the film does more then simply attempting to shock its viewers with heartbreaking tragedy.  Real research and commentary is fluid throughout the piece and what was jarring is the fact that in Alberta, the revenues generated from VLT’s actually outweighs those from the oil industry.

According to a publication called The Walrus, 8 of 10 provinces are still allowing 90,000 or so VLT’s to be operated throughout the county and Newfoundland and Labrador was amongst the first five provinces to let them in during the early 1990s.  In this province, $72 million a year is generated from VLT’s and lotto and 62% of people contributing to that are considered problem gamblers.

As for the ongoing public awareness campaigns, Doran says she’s “happy they’re doing it but the problem isn’t the player, it’s the machine.  You press the button and its all decided by a computer chip, what’s on the screen is just animation.  On average for every $30,000.00 pumped in there’s a $500.00 payout and you don’t even remember the money, you remember the win.”

There doesn’t seem to be consensus on what the addictive quality is, but the documentary actually slows down the animation that plays on a VLT’s screen to reveal how the jackpot icons closely align for split seconds to create what’s called a near-miss effect.  It would explain why engaging the machine is important to get the player.  In fact, the documentary features John Dunsworth from The Trailer Park Boys who is a reformed gambler himself and at one point where he is sharing a story in front of a VLT, he goes through the motions and does everything but push the button.

Dunsworth has become one of the country’s biggest advocates for the issue, being most vocal within his home province of Nova Scotia.  Doran came across his efforts in her research and called him up to see if he’d be interested in speaking to her for the film.  They’d initially considered him as host but opted instead to insert him more organically and he became part of the project’s team.

That team includes some other well established veterans such as Nigel Markham as the Director of Photography, Chris Darlington as the Editor, a score by Duane Andrews and producer Rob Blackie.  Harvey Hyslop was behind the sound along with Paul Steffler who did the mix.   The film opens with a brilliantly executed title graphic animation as well which is the work of Peter Evans.

Playing the Machines takes a deeply passionate look at a very compelling issue.  Doran’s work on this film is important and relevant, and perhaps efficiently direct.  The film will be broadcast nationally on CBC Newsworld’s The Lens, March 24th 2009 at 10:00pm ET or 11:30pm here in Newfoundland.

originally published December 2008

CFMA logo

CFMA logo

With Edmonton and Ottawa among previous host cities the Canadian Folk Music Awards, created in 2005, will be brought east for the first time ever to St. John’s. The CFMA’s were created in response to the fact that there seemed to be a nation-wide void for recognition of folk and roots music. While the Juno’s and the East Coast Music Awards make considerations, the CFMA’s were designed to publicize the many achievements of the entire genre, across the country for the whole year. Pairing up the CFMA’s and St. John’s couldn’t make more sense, without even mentioning the phenomenally successful annual Folk Festival, the province has strongly developed it’s culture into a tourism charm, with the folk music scene and overall lifestyle playing a strong part.

This has already been a memorable year for many Newfoundland folkies, with the reunion of hall of famers Figgy Duff who returned to the stage for four performances in 2008. Kelly Russell said “all it took to say yes was a phone call from Pamela Morgan, ‘n we were all in,” and so a 9 year hiatus was broken. “She wanted to put out a live CD and do a release for it,” Russell shared. That took place at the Bella Vista but the highlight for Russell was at the Folk Festival the next day. “For the older crowd there was a sense of nostalgia and the chance to see us again but for the young people it was a chance to see us actually perform.” Figgy Duff did make a return to the stage in 1999 as well marking their silver anniversary and still 34 years later they have a strong fan base and will be one of the most anticipated highlights of the 2008 CFMA Gala.

The group’s reunion certainly won’t serve as the exclusive highlight though if the line up of performers is any indication. A recipient of the Order of Canada, Murray McLauchlan and two-time Juno winner AlexCuba will also take the stage. Enoch Kent, an acclaimed Scottish traditional music singer is set to perform as well as the Juno-nominated Aboriginal a cappella group Asani.

Another performance featuring Blue Rodeo accompanist and two-time CFMA winner Anne Lindsay alongside Smithers piano accompanist Emilyn Stam will get a little help from the fiddle students of St. John’s Suzuki Talent Education Program (STEP fiddlers) to pay tribute to Oliver Schroer, a renowned Toronto fiddler, died of leukemia in July at 52. He developed a teaching concept called Schroer’s Twisted String in which he made squads of colourfully-dressed young fiddlers and taught them music he’d written in a fun and interesting way. Stam is a graduate of the Smithers squad and for the tribute will pay it forward, teaching a Schroer number to the STEP fiddlers.

The spotlight is also on Schroer, who leads the pack of nominees with a total of four nods for his album Hymns and Hers, one of three albums recorded in his short year long battle with the disease. He’s up for Contemporary Album of the Year, Solo Instrumentalist of the Year, Producer of the Year and the Pushing the Boundaries award. Behind him with three nominations apiece are Vancouver roots singer/songwriter Wyckham Porteous and Nova Scotia fiddler Troy MacGillivray.

Award nominations for Newfoundland artists totals two – one for Daniel Payne up for Traditional Songwriter of the Year and one for Rik Barron nominated for Children’s Album of the Year. Within the National picture, Atlantic Canada has 5 nominations including the two for the host-province. The others all went to Nova Scotia’s Dave Carroll of Halifax for Contemporary Singer of the Year and Chrissy Crowly and Drumlin each nominated in the Young Performer of the Year category.

To suit the truly National scope that the awards promote, the gala will be presented en francais aussi. The gala’s hosting duo is made up of CBC radio-legend Shelagh Rogers and Quebec traditional dance expert and Juno award winning musician Benoit Bourque, who has been recognized by the United States government which provides him with funding to teach Quebecois traditions to Franco-Americans. Rogers has been getting noticed, or heard rather, since 1980 with the CBC becoming the youngest female on-air starting in Ottawa. She has been the host of many national CBC programs, most recently The Next Chapter – a weekly program devoted to Canadian writing of all kinds.

The two will host the gala event which will take place in St. John’s at the Arts and Culture Centre at 8:00pm and tickets are still available for $44.00 from the box office. WestJet’s notably kicked in a 10% discount for anyone flying to the Capital city for the fourth annual awards which will no doubt a cultural highlight early on in the winter season. A series of four workshops will also be offered to anyone interested on the days book ending gala itself which is on November 23, 2008. For more information about these, the complete list of nominees or more event details the CFMA website can be of service at www.folkawards.ca.

originally published July 2008

Laila Biali

Laila Biali

Vancouver native Laila Biali is among the standout artists attracted to this year’s Jazz Festival to run July 16th – 20th though it’s now known as the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues festival. Since its start in 2002, this will be the first year it incorporates blues artists as well as jazz. The Laila Biali Treo is suited by neither label really as Biali shared, she’s coming back to Newfoundland after long supporting tours for Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega supporting of her own album From Sea to Sky.

Have you been to St. John’s before?
Yes!  During my last year of high school our band trip went there and Nova Scotia.  I remember climbing down the coast to stand on the “easternmost tip of [North America].” Something about that was thrilling and stands out to this day.  I also recall looking out onto the Atlantic through mist and fog, being filled with a sense of history and wonder.

What are you looking forward to?
The joyous people!  I grew up in Vancouver and heard that Vancouverites are statistically the most depressed people in Canada and Newfoundlanders are the most joyful!  Not saying I agree, but somebody else apparently had the research to prove it! The delightful accents; one morning we were at a local diner ordering breakfast and our lovely waiter exuberantly repeated our orders.  None of us had a sweet clue what he was saying!  We were shocked at how strong his accent was and embarrassed we weren’t able to better understand! Everyone, including the waiter, had a laugh.

Any nervousness about covering Canadian ‘greats’?
Not particularly, though I felt it was an honour; something to be treated with seriousness and respect.

Who did you learn the most from, recording this album?
That’s a hard one.  I learn from everyone who’s involved with a project.  From the artists whose repertoire I was exploring to incredible musicians and engineers. I think Claire Lawrence, the producer, stood out amongst the rest in terms of his role and the number of things I learned.  He’s an incredibly diverse, experienced professional, who’s been a musician for many years and was the producer for CBC’s jazz beat show.  He’s worked with and produced many of the world’s best artists.  Claire is a very quiet man, almost shy, but bold in vision and very strong in opinions. He works incredibly well with artists, clear and opinionated but sensitive and cooperative.

How did you meet your various band members?
My first encounter with George Koller was at the distillery jazz festival, in 2004 I believe.  He was playing with “the shuffle demons” on one of the outdoor stages.  Something about him seemed mysterious and i was immediately drawn to him and his playing.  Then, during one raucous number he picked up his bass and started screaming.  That’s right. He just stood there and screamed.  The person next to me must have noted my surprised response and explained that George had recently traveled to some exotic jungle in central or South America and studied animal calls.  I don’t know if that was true (and believe it or not i still haven’t asked George himself!), but what i do know is that i have yet to meet as adventurous and experimental a musical spirit.  He’ll do anything!  And yet he never compromises the music.  It’s never the stuff of “circus stage antics.”  he is the real deal. I first heard Larnell Lewis, our drummer, on a demo that a former piano student of mine once brought into a lesson.  I was really impressed with the young man playing the bass, and my student told me it was this young multi-instrumentalist, Larnell. And i mean this guy was really playing the bass.  His pocket was amazing, and at that time he was only in high school.  Within the next couple of years, Larnell graduated and attended Humber College’s jazz program.  That was when word of his prodigious drumming got out.  The crème de la crème at Humber (teachers like Don Thompson) were buzzing about this new young drummer who sounded like Tony Williams.  I’d also heard only rave reviews about his personality.  Stuff like, “the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.”  He was on my radar for a couple of years before i finally had the opportunity to work with him on “from sea to sky.”  Now he’s a part of the family, and we’re all just thrilled.

What was your favorite space to perform in and why?
That’s another tough question.  I have to admit that the capitol theatre in Moncton was stunning.  I believe it was, along with the adjoining “empress theatre,” one of the first built in Canada (1922).  The history of the theatre is incredibly colourful.  It was devastated by a fire just four years after it was built.  Once restored, it became a hub for vaudeville entertainment and then a major venue during the silent film era.  It was even left vacant for a relatively lengthy period of time.  Now it is one of our country’s heritage jewels.

What do you think drew you to piano?
According to my mom, it was Sesame Street, the popular kids show in the 80 that drew me to the piano.  The way she tells the story, I was just three and a half years old when I climbed onto the piano bench and plunked out the theme song.  I hadn’t been taught a note of piano yet I was able to play by ear.  She and my father, who had been considering enrolling me in gymnastics classes, quickly changed course and settled on piano lessons.  It was love at first note for me.  Even as a little girl, I’d dream of performing virtuosic concertos for large audiences, as a princess, of course.

Why were you attracted to this style and genre?
To be totally honest, initially it was by default that I got into jazz.  I ran into arm problems as an aspiring concert pianist in my teen years. It had been my dream to go to Juilliard and at the age of 12 I was already playing very demanding ARCT level repertoire.  By the time I hit age 15, all sorts of overuse symptoms had started to pop up, which is strange because, although I was very ambitious, I was never consistent with practicing.  But the arm problems were a very real issue, and eventually I had to stop playing classical music and take a break.  That was when I discovered jazz.  I was in my final years of high school and Mr. Rebagliati, the music teacher at Handsworth Secondary, started turning me onto a few jazz records and had me play in the senior combo.  But it wasn’t until i heard Kenny Wheeler perform at Humber College that I genuinely knew that jazz music was something I wanted to pursue longer term.  His music reminded me of the contemporary and impressionistic classic music I was in love with as a classical pianist.  But then there was this exciting element of improvisation. Suddenly, the gap between classical and jazz was bridged and I knew that I could find my voice here.

What’s the ultimate duet for you?
I would have to say Bobby McFerrin.  His duo record with Chick Corea, play is a desert island record for me.  If you mean another pianist sitting with me at the same piano, I’d say Keith Jarrett.  But I would be the “phantom” duet partner and would just watch him play both of our parts by himself!!  (Doesn’t he have two brains and four hands?? Sure sounds like it!!)

How was touring with Paula Cole?
Amazing.  I have learned so much from Paula, as a musician and a human being. She is one of the most sincere people and artists I’ve ever met.  Absolutely electric on stage. But fiercely smart and talented though she may be, she has such a gentle spirit.  She loves to learn and is always observing and listening.  She is profound.

Are your skills and style self taught or studied?
A combination.  I spent 11 years training very seriously as a classical pianist, who laid a firm foundation technically and harmonically for me as a jazz pianist and composer.  I also certainly learned a great deal while at Humber College as a jazz major, from the teachers and other students.  As a vocalist, I’ve barely studied.  I had a handful of lessons during my years at college.  But I am now studying voice privately in New York City on a more regular basis with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

How did you select the songs for the album?
I borrowed piles of CD’s from my local library, saturated myself with the music of my favourite Canadian songwriters, then chose the songs that would lend themselves to a jazz context and that I connected with the most.

What have your travel experiences been like, various world festivals?
A luxury.  Though the travel gets exhausting and artists often only get to see airports, hotels and venues (as opposed to actual cities). I’ve been blessed to experience such a breadth of culture still while young and one learns how things vary from place to place, stylistically.  Audiences demonstrate appreciation in very different ways, depending on where you are in the world.  It’s been fascinating.

How’ve you found going from Vancouver to Toronto to New York?
Wonderful!  I still bounce back and forth between all 3.  I don’t feel like a travelin’ gal with no home, but one who has 3 beautiful cities to call home.

What can people expect from Laila in the future?
I just moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY and feel like I’ve entered an open and somewhat “anonymous” space where I can be free to shake off any pre-conceived notions and labels that have been used to define what I do.  Definitions and categories can be helpful, but I reached a place recently where I started to feel boxed by labels like “jazz pianist and composer who also sings.”  My ideas about audience expectations in accordance with these labels started to colour the creative process.  I found myself trying to come up with songs that would fit within those labels.  I started to obsess over what people were expecting from me and trying to answer to these imagined expectations.  It completely stifled my creativity.  So moving to NYC was the best thing I could do.  After touring with Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega during in 2007 and early 2008, I found myself wanting to move beyond simply writing instrumental original jazz music and arranging songs by other songwriters.  I wanted to find the intersection between the instrumental music i was already hearing and writing and the capacity of lyrics to connect powerfully with the listener. And so, in a sense, i am exploring a season of song-writing.  It’s very different than just arranging other people’s songs or writing instrumental music.  I find it much more demanding.  But the results are so rewarding.  I’m also trying not to think of myself specifically as a “jazz artist.”  Even though jazz is an incredibly open and generous category, it can also feel limiting.  I want to create music that is its own category.  Something distinct.  Something utterly unique.  All of that said, a new recording is definitely in the works.

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makin’ sense of it all

keepin’ track of it all

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