Interview with Janet Lumb – musician, composer


—> Click on this text to hear Janet Lumb play the “Chant of Maarya”.


Q. You are a musician, a sax player, film composer and activist. How do you combine all this?

A. They are all for me integrated. I was always someone who was not content enough to do just one thing. Even when I was working as a child care worker, I was playing in bands at night, going to demonstrations on the weekend. There was always this drive to pursue several different things at the same time.

Q. How did you become an activist?

A. It would come from my mother even though she was politically quite different. My mother’s a fighter. My mom was very loyal to the progressive conservatives and she had a strong connection with Diefenbaker. She was a pioneer. Nothing really stopped her in her belief of trying to make changes, improve things around her and for the community. That had a strong impact and influence on me as an individual. She was the first Chinese Canadian to get married in a church. My mom was born in Canada but she lost her citizenship when she married my father who was Chinese but not born in Canada. She helped fight to have the Chinese right to vote around 1941. She fought during the gentrification of the Toronto area. Chinatown was slowly dying and they wanted to demolish Chinatown for the new changes and my mom was active in fighting to make sure it happened organically instead of it being destroyed. She was the first Chinese to get the Order of Canada. She was born at the beginning of the 20th century, in a family of lots of kids, like a baseball team and she played baseball back in those days. She walked past two white schools to go her school, because the Chinese were not allowed to go to the same schools back then. She defied a lot of things but still remained a strong believer in being a Canadian and established herself within the Canadian community. She was seen as the official mayor in Toronto. People would always seek her opinion about things. My mom had that fight in her. My father was a strong businessman, but we didn’t see him much. Both my parents worked. We had the three typical stores. We had the dépanneur-like corner store, the laundry and the Chinese restaurant. All the kids, six of us, worked in the dépanneur. My parents ran all three businesses. My father was prominent in the community as well but it was definitely my mom in a strong matriarchal setting that influenced me.

Q. But your politics are a far cry from progressive conservative. . .

A. When I think back about all the gray hairs I gave my mother, when I was growing up, in my teens, I don’t know where the tables turned. My siblings think it was when I went to Trent University, because Trent University had a strong revolutionary Marxist party, RMG. Sociology was my interest, native studies and sociology, and the sociology department was strongly RMG in the early 70’s. Although I do remember when I was fourteen, fifteen, taking a strong position about politics, saying when I can vote I will vote NDP. I remember hurting my parents a lot but I was young and arrogant, needing to individualize my sense of self, to make a statement, I stand against what you represent, I am going to go with the NDP. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that my family has a strong rags-to-riches story. We grew up sitting on big wooden bean sprouts crates for chairs. There was this metal sheet that was our kitchen table that was used for other purposes after the meal. At the same time, my parent’s restaurant was starting to do well. My father’s entrepreneurial edge started an 85 cent lunch which in those days brought in a lot of business people. My parent’s restaurant was the first restaurant to have a liquor license. At the time the restaurant started to do well, I was the adolescent age of 12, 13 in the 60’s, granola, hippy days, so their need to make a good impression at the same time I was in the rebellious age forced me to take a departure from my parent’s politics.

Q. How did you choose the saxophone as your instrument?

A. My siblings were in a band called Asian Minor back in the sixties. My two brothers played drums, my sister played keyboard, I was eleven, twelve, and listening to Motown. This story, a little offshoot, but I will go there because it’s where it really started. My brother got run over by a truck, his whole leg was taken off by the truck and my mother went to the hospital and gave blood for my brother. Meanwhile she was pregnant with me and she didn’t know, so three or four months later when she found out, she freaked out and I was born with my fists super closed and super irritable at everything, noise, light, voices, sound. The day I got home from the hospital, my mom bought me a transistor radio and that always accompanied me. I was easily frightened. She said my fists were clenched for two years. So from the day I came home from the hospital I had music therapy. Plus I had a musical family with my siblings playing in a rock band. I could sing backups, but I knew I didn’t have a voice in terms of being a front singer, so I thought, saxophone is just to the right of center, it accompanies the voice, it always goes under the voice and that’s why I decided to go with the sax. I was twenty-eight.

Q. What kind of music do you compose?

A. I have a strong background in acoustic instruments. I worked as a volunteer for the Vancouver Folk Festival for about ten years when I was in Vancouver. When I started to get involved in music, I felt strongly against digitization of synthetic ‘synth’ stuff. I was known and specialized for acoustic live instrumentation. That turned into world music. Music that I do has an organic sound to it. The person I work with now, Dino Giancola, we split everything. We met in a rock band. The first film we worked on together in 1989, because I had worked with other people up to that point, getting film contracts and slowly learned about the craft, Dino and I recorded our whole film on real tape, cassette recording tape. Since that time, Dino and I, he engineers, he has the studio, and he’s behind the mouse. He played guitar in the band and I played sax. He covers the string areas, I cover the wind area and I know musicians in the city and it’s easy for me to bring in other instrumentation from other cultures to complete the music.

Q. Could you give me the context of the composition “Chant of Maarya”?

A. It’s the opening of a film by Hunt Hoe, a fiction film called Seducing Maarya, about a Montreal immigration story about a woman from India, living in Montreal and her experiences living with this. Nearly all of Hunt’s films are about the immigration experience, the Asian Diaspora, that segment of music was the opening into the film, and so it’s not a full song.

Q. You founded the Montreal Asian Heritage Festival?

A. We are now called Festival Accès Asie. I was approached by Bernard Nguyen, who talked to me about the Asian Heritage Month which is an American idea that started in 1976 that got picked up by Canada in 1993 – first by Toronto and that group died. In Montreal, we are the longest running Asian Heritage festival in Canada and there are ten cities across Canada that celebrated it last year, with Vancouver being the largest festival, one year younger than we are. The central idea is to give visibility to Asian presence in the cultural climate in Montreal, that there’s a lot of talent in the city but very ghettoized and hidden within the community and not known to the society at large and that was the initiative and principle of the festival, to celebrate Asian arts, culture and history.

Q. What is Quebec Stand Firm?

A. Essentially, every single right that we have, in the Asian community, has been fought for by agitators and activists. Nothing is given. Every tiny thing has to be fought for. In the early 90’s, activist artists from the visible minorities approached the Canada Council and said, you are an exclusive regime that is supporting only white artists and it is completely exclusive. So Council put a committee together to address this issue which is called the Racial Equity Advisory Committee and they started to change their policy. For example, they started to change their eligibility criteria. Before you had to be trained, professional training in an institutional setting before you could be considered an artist, and in other traditions, from non-occidental traditions, it is based on master-student, like in India, Japan. Or, classical music, before, meaning Beethoven or Bach but did not include Chinese classical music or Indian classical music. One of their efforts in 2001, around Sheila Copps’ days, Canada Council made a strategic decision to focus on and target visible minorities. Issues were fought through the Equity department and a number of different activist artists who lobbied council saying, cultural diversity, multi-culturalism from the 70’s with Trudeau, that’s all well and good, but visible minorities have a particular situation and needs special attention. So Canada Council strategically gave some money and fast forwarded a number of organizations across Canada who were run and operated by visible minority arts organizations. So in Toronto, there were 30 odd groups, in Vancouver, 15 to 20, in Montreal there were six of us. So the six groups met through that including Black Theatre Workshop, Nyata Nyata Danse, Les Editions du CIDIHCA, Teesri Dunija Theatre, Timbuctu Festival, a rich group, all strong activists in the arts who felt it was important to continue to advocate because there were still some things, especially in Quebec, that had to be addressed. So when Sheila Copps came into town, we wrote a big statement on the website because there was a national event in Ottawa representing all the artists across Canada to deal with this forum on cultural diversity. We gave our statement there. We customized the same statement for a municipal position. Between the six of us, there was easily 200 years of experience. I was the youngest. Black Theatre workshop is 35 years old for example. There is this wealth of politicized, educated and progressive-minded artist-political groups that continue to criticize and advocate. Right now, municipally, the city is acting and reacting strongly to the whole cultural diversity issue right now, that wasn’t on the table a few years ago.

Q. What is happening with the Asian Festival now?

A. Our season starts in May, 2007. We had a big successful event on April 19, Asian in Fusion to launch our program with 40 performers and 20 volunteers. Our May program themed as “Silent Heroes” starts on Thurs. May 3rd and goes to Sat. May 19th, 2007. I invite everybody to come.

Q. Recently, you came back from a meeting with the Canada Council. What was this about?

A. R.E.A.C. Racial Equality Advisory Committee. Quebec Stand Firm is a result of this committee. The community activists went up to Canada Council and said, I am not included in your grant criteria and I do art and so do tons of people from the non-white groups. They fought for all of that. Every two years there is a new committee that is put together by Canada Council. It’s like a watch dog to insure Canada Council is aware or making sure racism is not institutionalized as it used to be. This year, I was asked to be on the seventh React. We work closely with the Equity department, which is a department that deals specifically with these issues. Most of us were artists. The invisible minorities are not in React. What happens is often reflective of who is in power and the context and environment of what is going on. The new director seems like a shaker and a mover. But we are working in the climate of the Harper government. When Sheila was in power she had promised Canada Council doubling of the budget – no ifs, ands or buts, and when the new government came it, it didn’t double.

Q. What kind of music would you like to do now?

A. Interesting you ask that. I used to play in this rock band and I played consistently with this one woman, Charmaine LeBlanc in an alternative rock band, and we played together for 14 or 15 years. Then I was played in a Brazilian band. Now, I am playing a few tunes with a funky, R & B soul king of band. And I thought, am I up for starting a whole new project for live music. And then my film music stuff. I love doing film music. The great thing about doing film music is you sometimes have to do period stuff. They ask, we want fifties or sixties to create the setting. I did a big project with Chinese restaurants around the world, in thirteen countries, Brazil, Madagascar, Africa; it was incredible traveling around musically with that kind of project. My new project is a back-burner; I have at least sixteen backburners that one day I would like to… I have always been an audio-visual type artist, like in Les Foufounes Electriques days, painting direct, I was part of that scene, and playing music while someone was painting, dancing. I have strong tendencies to work in a multi-disciplinary environment. I would love to go back to school and learn about orchestration, learn classical. Doing music in a dialogue with other disciplines, do a big opera, a Chinese opera but modern… all back-burners things.

Q. If you had your choice, who would you like to collaborate with?

A. Wow… wow… Robert Lepage, which would be quite the treat. Even if they are dead… Ben Webster, as a sax player, he was my all-time hero. I would love to collaborate with him in heaven somewhere. Wow.. Just thinking about my heroes. Charley Mingus who is a standup acoustic bass player and an incredible jazz writer.

Q. What are you plans now?

A. I feel like I am in this transitory stage right now. When I turned forty, I told everybody life starts at forty, such a strong turning point, in our prime. When I hit fifty, I said the same thing. You’ve done your craft and cultivated a lot of skills. I like to believe that at age fifty I am emotionally mature. I don’t know. I’ve thought about going back to school and doing my masters – another back-burner thing – a masters on arts and ethics and is there a relationship between them, the question of ethics, beauty and ethics. Social responsibility. I would love to do that. Maybe combining more project base but dealing with those subjects. There is a new wave of arts and activism, not marginal as it used to be. It’s like white bread now, accessible, easy to find, popular and mainstream. With young kids, it’s a given, not a marginal side or cultivated. The way it is impacting today with youth and the population is more integrated into our society. The way things are happening with Bush and Harper is forcing people to take positions.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

A. I guess my final word on this is ultimately we all have to fight, especially in North America. with this superficial, wasteful, spoiled, entitled attitude and re-insert and re-embrace integrity and humanity, justice and consciousness back into our daily living and we have to go back to those basic kind of values we seem to be losing more and more in North America.

More about Janet Lumb can be found here.