Call & Response: Lal

Call & Response: Lal

This week I'm a ladies man. The fifth annual Ladyfest Toronto is on this weekend and, according to the website, it is a four-day arts, music and culture festival put on by a "do-it-yourself collective who seek to promote urban feminism".

Four amazing nights of music are included in this year's festival and local world music activists Lal headline the launch Thursday night at The Boat. Led by out-spoken singer Rosina Kazi and producer Nick Murray (aka Murr), Lal have been trying to make a difference since they released their amazing trip hop debut Corners back in 2002 on Toronto's Public Transit Recordings.

Over the past six years they've explored all kinds of musical genres via a handful of singles and their sophomore record Warm Belly High Power, all while taking their music and message to a growing number of cities and ears. Their new album Deportation is very political and their most cohesively written album to date.

I spoke with Rose and bassist/composer Ian de Souza about their new record, the upcoming US election, and how we can make our city better.

blogTO: Why are you called LAL?

Rose: Well, in my mother tongue (Bengali) it means the colour red, but we initially wanted to call the band 'nil' which means blue but we know people would not pronounce it right so we chose 'lal'! But the colour red does evoke some very different emotions and also represents a radical attitude so it ended up working out. We hope our music reflects the complexities of the colour red.

Your music to date has been a blend of all types of electronic music. What was the biggest musical inspiration for this new album?

To be honest, it was more international folk music that influenced this CD and not electronic music. After touring around the folk festival scene and seeing how amazing the energy was and how good the songs were, I realized I wanted to write good songs. I hope we did that.

Your lyrics surround activism. What specifically fuels your inspiration: books, TV, blogs, newspapers? All of the above?

Well, definitely a mixture of books, our lives, my work at the Toronto Women's Bookstore, our friends, family and just observing what happens here on a day-to-day basis or anywhere we travel to. Not really into the newspapers, because I really don't trust the media and I'm still wrapping my head around blogs! the bookstore allows me access to books but also community and it's amazing and inspiring at the same time. It can be overwhelming because there are so many issues that need to be dealt with!

Why did you call your record Deportation? Aside from the literal definition, does the term mean anything more to you personally?

We named the album Deportation because we had a friend named Queen Nzinga, who was a CKLN host, activist and artist from Costa Rica who got arrested on International Womens Day at Ryerson. She was deported shortly after. We also supported activists when they were working on the project threadbare case, which was a group of Pakistani men who were arrested and detained and eventually deported on suspicion of terrorism, yet there was no proof of any crime committed.

We also have many friends who are working on migrant rights and after traveling we got to see how other places are dealing with new migrants and this new scare on terror. We wanted people to sit up when they saw the title and realize that these issues are serious and that communities are being affected all the time, even though you don't really hear about it. It's like this secret that you only really know about if you are effected by it first hand, but then the rest of us don't really know how newly migrated people are being treated. I was born in Canada, so even though I've dealt with racism, sexism, etc...I never really realized my privilege around citizenship until Nzinga was deported and then doing work with No One Is Illegal. I mean, I knew things were messed up but experiencing and learning about what was going on really shook me.

Ian: There are many layers of meaning of the word 'deportation', at least as far as the record is concerned. When citizens of a country are targeted and feared because of their name, religion, colour of skin etc, it fosters a feeling of deportation on a psychological level. The marginalized do not have the same guarantee of protection of their rights as the rest of the wider society. If you happen to have a muslim name, or born in a particular country or simply have the same name as someone who's on a list somewhere your right to defend yourself in a court of law, judged by peers, 'without a reasonable doubt' could- and, in many instances, have been suspended.

An inner 'deportation' of sorts, we saw it happen with the Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians during the second world war. On another level, migration is in itself a 'deportation', albeit a self-directed one. It takes a lot for someone to leave family and blood behind, whether for economic or political reasons. The decision is a difficult and often painful one. We won't even get into the subject of the reasons for why they are forced into making the decision in the first place.

The US election is fast approaching. Do you think Obama will win? If he wins, will the world be a better place?

Rose: I hope he wins. I don't really feel comfortable commenting about the US elections since i'm not in the thick of it, but i do hope he wins. He's providing hope and his experience is so different then past presidents. But at the same time, the President of United States of America will have to do certain things whether he likes it or not. It's such a privileged position that is backed by some huge companies, lobbies, so who knows what will happen. And doesn't it suck that when there is finally a chance for a black or female president it's when the US economy is terrible and who ever comes in has to clean Bush's mess? I just hope if he gets into power he'll rule from a place that is for the people of America not from his own personal agenda.

Ian: I (we) think that it's the rest of the world that will look at the US differently. His win would be a small step to living up to the grand view that Americans have of themselves and a call from a nation that relatively sane and intelligent people have a voice in shaping their country. I'm (We're) not holding our (collective) breathe(s) though.

How do you feel about playing in the US?

Ian: Having been pulled off a plane on the way to a gig in the States, I (we) would have to say that playing in the states doesn't quite elicit positive feelings. Just getting into the States to do any gig is a major problem, even for those who have no reason to set off alerts. If you happen to have a Muslim-sounding name, or your passport says that you were born in a country that is on a US 'watch' list, you can multiply this a hundred-fold. There are a lot of great things about the US and what America has contributed to the world in terms of art and culture. The problem is, most people seem to have forgotten about them down there. The years of dumbing down society has reduced the concept of the under dog rebel, free-thinker to a frightened, undereducated xenophobe.

What do you like best about living in Toronto? What do you like least?

Rose: I love the mixture of communities. The food, music, cultures clashing without the tension that is experienced in the US or the UK. It's still there but it's played out differently, which is what I also don't like about Toronto. This politeness and the mixing of communities is really not as mixed as you'd hope in regards to all people hanging out but for me I bounce around different areas and take in as much as I can. It fuels lal's music.

What's the biggest issue affecting our city right now? What do you think is the most important thing we need to do to improve our city?

Rose: That's a hard one. I think poverty is up there as well, environment, prisoner justice rights, young people and violence, education, housing, urban planning, local transit...the list goes on. I don't think there is just one but that there are many of which most are interconnected. Personally, I think we need to get more people from marginalized communities in positions of power and that's from the city council to CBC radio. We need to get folks into political power who aren't only part of a privileged class, and we need to include young people. We also need to start teaching anti-oppression in all areas from the education system to the police force...

What does it mean to your band to play Ladyfest again?

It's amazing! We played the first one, and it was quite a long time ago. It's great to see Ladyfest still around, as well as Lal! So many bands and festival come and go and so to have to groups who have a commitment to social issues is amazing!

How does it feel to be the only lady in your band?

Well, I'm not really aware of it. I mean, I don't really play into gender roles, and I feel very like one of the guys, or rather that they are just one of the girls!

What can people expect to see/hear/feel at your Ladyfest show?

It's up to them I guess. We like to be really free with our live show so it's quite different then our recorded music, so definitely do not expect the record.

Ladyfest Toronto Launch Party
Feat. Lal, Emma McKenna, Miau Miau, The I Love You Twos, DJs Droppin's Dimez
Thursday, September 18
The Boat
158 Augusta Ave
Doors 8pm
Cover $5-$10 (sliding scale)

Call & Response is a series of weekly Q&A's with artists from or playing in Toronto. Photo: PTR.

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