TTC Busker Profile: Maria Kasstan
You might breeze by TTC busker Maria Kasstan on a regular basis, so nondescript and passive are her dress and demeanour. But after watching her perform at the southbound platform of Bloor-Yonge station and getting to know her a bit better, it's become difficult for me to think of a more suitable application of the age-old adage that looks can be deceiving.
I discovered a powerful and complex woman behind the gentle folk singer and guitarist, who is also a member of the Toronto activist group, the Raging Grannies. And there was something else in her warbling voice and sad eyes that captivated me, too, but I wasn't initially sure what it was.
I couldn't, after all, have expected the tragic story I was about to hear.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Who is Maria Kasstan, and what does she do?
Well, who I am now and who I was five or six years ago are probably two very different people. Since my husband died five years ago, I've really felt like a widow, and that's my primary identity now... which is kind of odd, because I didn't know that could happen to you. I've kind of lost touch with the things I used to do.
You know how we're all supposed to have a third eye? I guess it's open more than it used to be. I don't know how else to describe it. I suppose it was my husband's parting gift to me.
Why did you become a TTC busker?
I've been a TTC busker for three years. The reason I became one was because I couldn't get the whole story of what happened to my husband out to the public. It was covered only briefly in the news. It looked like the story was going to go away, and I decided to take my voice out there and use it.
Can you tell me a little about your late husband? What kind of person was he?
He was a really introverted, nerdy, quiet guy who liked to work out chess problems, really loved dogs, and was crazy about baseball. He loved to listen to k.d. lang. He had some pretty big hurdles in his life, and he never complained half enough. I think he would've lived longer had he complained more.
What happened to him?
He had a heart attack in front of police headquarters, on Oct. 1, 2004. It was 9 a.m. I'd said goodbye to him about fifteen minutes earlier at the corner of Dundas and Bay. By the time the police found him having his heart attack, they actually pronounced him dead, which they're not allowed to do. They did not provide any CPR; they simply decided he was a deceased street person. They didn't treat it as a medical emergency. It was just so casual.
When I came looking for him a few hours later, they lied to me and told me that he'd been found by a civilian bystander. They wouldn't even admit there were police present in finding him. And that's how I found out how police treat street people. When you're homeless or you appear homeless, the loss of your life isn't a big tragedy, but an inconvenience.
Is there a connection between your husband's death and your album, Love Songs for the Homeless Guy?
My husband was headed to the North American Community Gardening Conference the day he died. He was a casually dressed man in his late 50s, with a beard, and he had this bundle buggy with him. So there it was -- he was condemned for the way he dressed. And that's where the song Fashion Crime comes from. I wrote that song the night that I finally heard the 911 call, about five months after the actual incident. I had to go get it through the Freedom of Information Act.
How long have you been playing the guitar and singing?
I guess I started playing the guitar and singing when I was about 14, in 1964, and I made my first LP in the '70s. It's been very on and off. When you have little kids, you sing lullabies. When you're angry, you sing protest songs.
What do you sing about?
My genre is folk music, and I sing about my husband a lot. I sing the songs I've written for him and about him. Sometimes, I actually sing to him. I also sing about things to do with nature and social justice, which I've always been concerned about and at least somewhat involved with.
How are you involved?
I was a founding member of the Green Party back in the early '80s. I haven't continued to be consistently politically active. I don't really do anything with the Green Party now except vote for them, when I get the opportunity.
How did you become involved with the Raging Grannies?
Well, after my husband's death, I was, quite literally, a raging granny... all by myself. So if you're a granny, and you're raging, I highly recommend that you find some other raging grannies and get together and try to make some noise. We're an international movement; there are Raging Grannies all over the world.
I'm not a very good granny to my grandchildren anymore. I feel so alienated from ordinary day-to-day life. Part of me is all broken, and it doesn't work right. So I try to compensate by being this kind of granny.
Who would you say are some of your musical influences?
Certainly people like Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs... people like that.
As a TTC busker, what's the most the interesting thing you've had dropped into your hat while you were performing?
I've had a few religious medals dropped in. I once got a whole tray of lamb slices from somebody's party that they never even used. A couple of bottles of wine, too. Oh, and marijuana joints -- those might've been accidental. But no live animals yet.
Other than the subway system, where else do you perform?
I love some of the little clubs around Toronto, like the Tranzac on Brunswick. I used to go out to the Renaissance a lot. I go to Dave's Gourmet Pizza up at St. Clair and Christie, which is a great place with live music every Thursday night.
What do you do when you're not busking or with the Raging Grannies?
I do some educational things about pollination and seed-saving with sister organizations Seeds of Diversity Canada and Pollination Canada. I'm a volunteer with the Toronto Beekeepers Co-operative down at the Don Valley. And I'm a volunteer at the Good Neighbours Club where I do a music workshop.
I noticed the song you performed for me on the subway was about the UN Climate Change Summit that wraps up today. How do you think our government has been representing us at Copenhagen?
I am ashamed. Our government does not represent the will of the people at all. We don't need the tar sands. Apparently they're willing to bargain almost anything to develop them.
This world that we have now is a kind of a feudal society. There is an aristocracy and the rest of us are just serfs. They give us this illusion of democracy, and I think it'd be interesting to have a real democracy, one in which everyone was included.
Watch Maria perform Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen written by fellow Raging Granny Helen Riley, below.
Every Friday, TTC Busker Profiles aim to shed some light on the talented people who add a little something to our daily commute -- Toronto's true "underground" musicians.
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