December 2007

The Free Burma Concert
musical guests: CaneFire, Adam Solomon, Fern Lindzon, Russell Leon Band, Faith Nolan, Eliana Cuevas
writers: Oolagh Laidlaw & Karen Connolly
guest speakers: Jack Layton, Bob Rae & Larry Bagnall
December 2, 2007 Lula Lounge Toronto
A beautifully eclectic chorus for freedom in Burma
by Sebastian Cook with photos by Roger Humbert
The tragic massacre — of monks, no less — that ended Burma’s recent Saffron Revolution is indeed a powerful pause for thought with regards to moral relativism. While Western nations invest many thousands of lives and billions of dollars in 'democratizing' the Middle East, the people of this mysterious country have now been suffering under brutal military rule for over a half-century. Burma’s international beacon is Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Suun Suu Kyi — the country’s rightful leader who continues to live under house arrest more than 15 years after winning the election. And so it was on a cold and rainy night that the virtuous vision of Toronto-based pianist Jeremy Ledbetter to have Canadian artists and politicians lend their voices to Burma’s cause came to life at Lula Lounge. While a room of about 120 Canadians savoured a rich variety of music, thousands of Burmese people risked their safety to receive news of the concert via the BBC’s Inside Burma.
Opening the concert was The Russell Leon Band, an indie-rock crew whose impressively eclectic palette reminded me of Sublime, the Beatles, and Blues Traveler with a distinctive Celtic flair. A reggae jam called “Into the Wild” and a meditation on the essential nectar called “Coffee” both resonated as well-constructed and accessible pop tunes.

Up next was the sultry vocal-jazz stylings of another top-notch Toronto-based pianist, Fern Lindzon, backed by the sublime guitarist Tony Quarrington and Ben Miller on bass. Lindzon’s delicate voice and Quarrington’s feathery guitar work together to make quiet music with a powerful impact.

Tony Quarrington, Fern Lindzon and Ben Miller
It was then time for the evening’s first guest speaker, federal NDP leader Jack Layton, whose primary focus was on the morally questionable reality of Canadian corporations making money in Burma; ironically, he spoke while his wife Olivia Chow canvassed the room for donations. Layton’s intelligence, knowledge and natural sincerity are all too rare amongst today’s politicians, evidence of someone who truly believes in the idea of public service. Another Member of Parliament, Larry Bagnall, followed Layton with a seemingly heartfelt if haltingly delivered summary of what the Canadian government is doing to address this humanitarian crisis.
We returned to music as the vehicle of conscience with Adam Solomon of African Guitar Summit and leader of Tikisa. From Afro-calypso to more traditional blues to scat vocals; hearing Solomon playing solo brought to mind the literally hundreds of times I have seen him around the city, echoing his beautifully natural streams of consciousness.

Next was the delightful Faith Nolan, accompanied by the Singing Elementary School Teachers of Toronto, with a catchy call-and-response song called “Peace, Jobs and Justice”, which segued into an Afro-Cuban rhythmic chant. After a brief speech from former Ontario Premier Bob Rae, one of Canada’s brightest Latin-jazz stars, Eliana Cuevas, sang a gorgeous duet, “Song for Burma”, that had been arranged by her partner Ledbetter.

The most dramatic moment of the night belonged to Oolagh Laidlaw, whose poem “I Am Not Afraid” brilliantly captured the spirit of the Burmese saffron revolutionaries who spoke out knowing that the response to their voices could be gunfire. Speaking as the voice of a man who was writing to a family member from prison, author Karen Connolly gave an equally evocative reading from her Burma-inspired novel “The Lizard Cage”. Taken together, these offerings spoke with stunning clarity to the people of Burma’s courage in the face of fear.

Adam Solomon
The honour of closing the Free Burma Concert fittingly went to Ledbetter’s marvellous Afro-Latin calypso-jazz crew CaneFire. Even without half of its regular lineup, CaneFire still displayed the rhythmic and melodic panache that makes it one of the most exciting live bands in Toronto.
I had the chance to speak with the proud organizer a few days after the show, as he was at a bank attempting to wire the proceeds from the concert to Burmese activists — via Thailand. Ledbetter would have to return another time, as the time difference meant the banks had closed for the day. He deserves our gratitude for creating what may very well have represented Canada’s most genuine and powerful statement against a dictatorship that guns down monks in the street, whose crime is to ask for nothing more than food and freedom.
Jeremy Ledbetter
We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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Roger Humbert
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