Before I went to the preview show of Life, Death, and the Blues, I had difficulty describing what it was going to be like, despite reading the various posters and previews. All I knew was that it was going to have music in it and it was going to have Raoul Bhaneja in it. And since I still remember being impressed by Raoul Bhaneja’s One-Man Hamlet at Edmonton Fringe in 2008, I knew I wanted to see what the artist was up to now.
And afterwards, my companions and I agreed that it had been different than we expected, and thought-provoking and enjoyable. I had lots of blues music in it – played and sung by Raoul Bhaneja and his band (Chris Banks, Tom Bona, Jake Chisholm), by Divine Brown, near the end of the show by featured guest, local blues artist Kat Danser, and at intermission by local trio Old Jack Tap. The featured “Legends” during the show are different every night, and so are the intermission Youth Blues Challenge acts.
The backbone of the show was narrative, by Raoul Bhaneja about how he’d explored the blues genre throughout his life, and by both Bhaneja and Brown about the history and geography of the blues in general. And what I loved most about the show was the head-on way the conversation addressed the issues of racial prejudice and assumptions, stereotypes and privilege, the difficulty of not being complicit and the “magical Negro” myth, all involved in having white people and people of other ethnicities exploring the history of the blues (mostly developed by and for African-Americans in the USA). As a self-identified beige person, (he was born in England to an Indian father and Irish mother, and seems to have grown up attending private school and travelling with diplomatic-service parents who settled in Canada), Bhaneja told some of his own stories of encountering biases and overcoming challenges due to his colour and ethnicity. But Brown, a Black Canadian woman, called him out repeatedly on his whitesplaining, reminding him that these experiences did not qualify him to speak for African-Americans or justify calling himself a blues insider. She also pointed out that it’s not really appropriate for people of other ethnicities to criticize Black communities for not being quick to embrace retro movements and nostalgic preservation of times of unhappy memory. She points out that even his childhood travel adventure to Egypt and the pyramids represented the death of many slaves. Even though it was a scripted show written by Bhaneja, I was happy to see the aspects which might have been problematic being identified by Brown, a confident talented Black female performer. The banter between the two of them also illustrated and challenged the expectations of sexual tension in the blues – and then the jam session with local blues performer Kat Danser shook that up some more, both in the way she glossed over Bhaneja’s glib flirtation and then in her performance of the Ma Rainey song, “Prove it on Me”, a 1928 celebration of butch culture and lesbian romance.
Early in the show, Bhaneja mentioned a hip-hop harmonica player from Montreal, Bad News Brown (Paul Frappier). The “Death” part of the title became explicit late in the performance when he talked about Bad News Brown’s death from apparently-random violence on a Montreal street, four years ago that night. The next song was a version of Jim Croce’s Bad Bad Leroy Brown, which the band had played in the first act, but with lyrics paying tribute to Bad News Brown.
Another noteworthy bit was Bhaneja singing a Hindu song about the Indus river that he’d learned from his father, Nale Alakh Je, accompanied by his upright-bass player Chris Banks, and with Divine Brown singing an English translation in harmony.
Life, Death, and the Blues continues in the Citadel Theatre Club space until March 1st, with tickets available here. And then, Vigilante!