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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, June 04, 2005

concert at Vantech

Last night, while Kimmie and I were watching a DVD of the Spielberg-Hanks WW2 series Band of Brothers, the phone rang. Kimmie got it: it was her 12-year-old niece Nellie inviting us to a musical performance today at Vantech in East Vancouver. Kimmie thanked her profusely for calling, and agreed to come.

Kimmie had never met Nellie, nor indeed heard of her, before 3 February this year, when her older brother Freddie, dying of cancer in the palliative care ward of Lions Gate Hospital, told their sister Joanne that Freddie had, besides his wife and grown daughter, a second, secret family in East Vancouver. A former art student of his, Laura, lived there with their daughter Nellie (named after Freddie and Kimmie's mother). They'd had a relationship for 23 years.

The news sent shockwaves through the immediate family just before Freddie died on Valentine's Day. Joanne, Kimmie's closest sister, older by 4 years, at first embraced the new family members, but then, in the emotional maelstrom surrounding Freddie's death (and his last-minute revision of his will), exploded in fury at other family members and swore never to return to North Vancouver. Neither Freddie's widow, nor his legit daughter, nor his other sisters, wants anything to do with this sudden new addition. Kimmie and I, though, have remained friendly. Indeed I, writer and emotional nontraditionalist that I am, have enjoyed the whole thing.

We've visited them a couple of times at the co-op where they live on the East Side. But it's been two months, so it was a surprise to hear from Nellie last night. Today, Kimmie and I duly made our way over town to Vancouver Technical School on East Broadway to hear the concert.

Wan sunlight was trying to penetrate the masses of spring cloud; the air was still cool. Part of the pleasure was visiting the high school itself, opened in 1921, which neither of us had been inside before. I made some notes in the prose sketchbook I took with me:

Massive, with mullioned windows and a heavy, waxy, honey-colored oak door. The auditorium has pink walls, even in the dimness, with lights pointing up high on the walls, which are covered with huge sidewalk-art murals: a bodacious black chick with massive hair, honkin' breasts straining at her clinging striped shirt, and 10-inch rainbow-striped platform sandals. The panel next to that: some kind of Walter Raleigh rabbit, bubblegum-colored hat and ruff, and lower half giving out to curvilinear graffiti-style writing. Reverberant with kids like a public pool. Seats are curved pale plywood, and there is a balcony, also covered with sidewalk mural like an overpass. Little Asian girls in white T-shirts hustle past. Daylight bounces in from painted cinderblock through orange exit doors propped open. Louder: anticipation.


In short: the auditorium had a lot of personality. It's a vocational school, strongly ethnic, so there were many Asians and a few blacks, with some whites stirred into the mix. Nellie stopped by before the show and was delighted to see we'd come: long dark hair, pale white skin, dark observant eyes, excellent teeth. Her mother Laura joined us.

The concert was the year-end culmination of a program launched by the Sarah McLachlan Foundation to provide musical instruction to kids in the inner city, and indeed Sarah was there herself, sitting a couple of rows down from us among the other program brass. An unpretentious pop star in her dark singlet, long skirt, and flip-flops, she handed out bouquets and plaques on stage to award-winning kids before the show. (At the very top of the show there was a stirring rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" belted out by a tiny Asian girl in white T-shirt and black tights, backed by other tiny kid musicians.) The first girl on stage to accept seemed almost overcome by the wild applause and being embraced by Sarah.

After prolonged opening ceremonies the show launched, and I really enjoyed it. Nellie was among the opening percussion acts, an intermediate group of about 9 kids, where she played triangle and cowbell, then a smaller mixed group of 4, where she played a Yoruba drum of some kind. Their spokesman was a cool teenager who clearly was deeply into percussion and who took care to pronounce Cuba "Cooba" and to make sure we knew what the time signature of each percussion piece was. They put down very listenable grooves, nice and audible; I could have drifted into trance if they'd played longer.

After them, pianos and guitars, mixing things up admirably with selections like the theme from The Simpsons (a surprisingly complex and challenging piece when you just listen to it), "Little Prelude in D Minor", the Mission: Impossible theme, and "Stairway to Heaven". All with riotous applause and hoots of energy from the darkened audience.

At intermission, 2 hours later, we decided to go. I peeled the back of my T-shirt from my plywood chair and we headed into the sunshine, after congratulating Nellie on her good work.

"I'll have them over to dinner," said Kimmie. "Sometime after Susie and Bill's anniversary."

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