Iron ploughs and horsepower tamed the Prairies, but grit and imagination played just as large a part. The pioneers who first tilled the black loam, many of them of Eastern European stock, were obviously hardy: how else could they endure the Arctic cold of winter and the mosquito plagues of summer? But they must also have been visionaries, for there was little indication that the land where the buffalo roamed would one day ripple with tawny sheaves of ripening wheat, blue fields of flax, and yellow plains of canola.
And they were musicians, too. After the long days in the field, the mandolins and accordions would come out, the fiddles and guitars, and harvest time rang with dance bands in barns and community halls.
Sadly, though, those days are all but gone.
“Back in Saskatchewan right now, that community thing isn’t like it was even 20 years ago,” reports Prairie émigré Jesse Zubot, on the line from his home studio in Britannia Beach. “Everything has kind of become disconnected; all the small farmers are getting bought out. They still have fall harvest dances and stuff like that, but it’s not like what it used to be.”
Nonetheless, that’s the environment that produced one of the West Coast’s busiest and most accomplished musicians. Although the multi-instrumentalist started classical-violin studies at the tender age of four, it wasn’t long before he was maintaining a parallel career, playing in bands led by family members.
“It started as polkas and waltzes and all that stuff with my grandfather,” says Zubot, whose great-grandparents left strife-torn Ukraine for Saskatchewan in the early 1900s. “And then I was in my dad’s band. He did a lot of rock music and country rock, and some old-time stuff as well, just to please the locals. So I ended up learning guitar and drums and keyboards and all kinds of instruments to play all this music.
“They were like cover bands, right?” he adds, laughing. “And then I started a rock band in my teenage years. I was pretty into it, playing guitar—and I made almost as much money as a teenager as I do now, I think, ’cause we had gigs all the time.”
What Zubot does now, however, doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to what he did then. Although he still picks up pocket change playing on folk, rock, and country recording sessions, he’s more deeply engaged with Vancouver’s burgeoning improv scene, both as an instrumentalist and as the proprietor of the Drip Audio label. As a soloist; as a member of Fond of Tigers, Gordon Grdina’s East Van Strings, and radical throat-singer Tanya Tagaq’s band; and as a creator of scores for modern-dance artists such as Chick Snipper, Lee Su-Feh, and Susan Elliott, he’s become known as an especially fearless musician—and one who can swing freely from out-there skronk to soaring melodic lines.
It might seem odd that a Prairie boy raised on polka music could become an avant-gardist with an international reputation, but Zubot says more radical sounds were also part of his eclectic upbringing.
“Me and my brother and father would do free-improvised jam sessions,” he reveals, after noting that Zubot senior, who played saxophone, was probably the only musician listening to Ornette Coleman and Rahsaan Roland Kirk “within a 300-mile radius” of the family farm. “My dad built a pretty big music room on the side of our home, and we would improvise in there. At that point I really didn’t know exactly what it was, and I didn’t know anybody else who did it. But we had some pretty good times—and that all happened before I was 16, I guess.”
From barn dances to out-there explorations, all these influences helped shape Zubot’s music into what it is today. And in some strange way the community spirit of the Prairies is also a major force behind Drip Audio, a labour of love that, so far, has released 31 CDs, mostly by Vancouver-based artists.
“With the label, I’ve kind of treated it as a community collective, almost, just trying to make it feel like everybody’s involved as much as possible—even though I’m a bit of a control freak, I guess,” he says. “But the general feel of the label has to do with supporting the scene, and working with friends, and creating together, kind of. So, yeah, I guess I’ve learned from my upbringing, for sure.”
A number of Drip Audio artists—including Aeroplane Trio, DarkBlueWorld, Fond of Tigers, Franí§ois Houle, the Wilson/Lee/Bentley trio, the Gordon Grdina Trio, Inhabitants, and Zubot himself—will be featured as part of CBC Radio Two’s SignalFest, at the Mother Corp’s headquarters this weekend (March 4 to 6). The showcase stems directly from CBC producer Michael Juk’s respect for what he describes as Zubot’s “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, create-something-out-of-thin-air way of doing things”.
“The commitment and passion that guy has for the music is astonishing,” Juk adds. “He’s nuts, in the best possible sense.”
But the CBC’s involvement is also a nod to the growing strength of Vancouver’s underground improvising scene—and to the idea that its “outsider” musicians offer sonic thrills unavailable elsewhere. Others seem to be coming around, too: Fond of Tigers and Inhabitants have recently won Juno nominations. People seem to be buying into the notion that improvised music functions as the research wing of pop—and that without it the world would be a much duller place.
“Every form of music you listen to takes from others,” Zubot contends. “All of the hot, hip music of the moment borrows from experimental forms, as well as from traditional forms and world music. Like, you listen to that new Kanye West album and you’ve got a weird, improvised vocal solo on his hit, and it lasts for about four minutes. And right now, if you look at the indie-rock scene, almost every album coming out is using avant-garde string sections or new-music arrangements.
“It’s pretty obvious that everyone’s interested in originality and creativity,” he adds, “so it’s quite bizarre that people don’t let it blow wide open.”
It’s hard to say if that day will ever come—but if it does, Zubot and his Drip Audio crew will have done their part.
Jesse Zubot plays solo and with Fond of Tigers as part of SignalFest at CBC Studio One on Saturday (March 5).