In Ottawa, debate on the $9-billion purchase of 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters continues. In Afghanistan, fighting has entered its winter sleep, although body bags are still being shipped to Kandahar. In New York City, our country recently lost its bid to join the UN Security Council. And all over the world, a maple-leaf patch on one’s backpack no longer guarantees a friendly reception, leading many Canadians to ask one simple question: who are we, anyway?
Saxophonist Coat Cooke has been puzzling over just this for years. Old enough to remember the golden age of Pearsonian diplomacy, the artistic director of Vancouver’s Orkestra Futura is dismayed by what he sees as the creeping rise of militarism in our culture.“One of the sources of pride that I had, as a young man, was that Canada was perceived internationally as a peacekeeping nation,” he explains, interviewed by phone from his Kitsilano home. “I always felt that we were going to try to make the world a better place. We weren’t going in with guns; we were going in with doctors and teachers and engineers. But over the last decade, we’ve turned from a peacekeeping nation into a warrior nation.”
It’s the lack of debate around this that irks him the most. Cooke’s no ideologue, but he’s puzzled by the fact that Canada’s radical shift in direction is rarely discussed in political circles, in the news media, or by private citizens—and that’s the thinking behind Orkestra Futura’s new interdisciplinary production, Shake the Walls.
“We need to take responsibility for speaking out,” he says, and with that in mind he’s added a couple of mouthpieces to the all-star septet’s lineup, in the form of singer DB Boyko and poet Kedrick James. The latter, one of the most charismatic performers in Vancouver’s spoken-word scene, is responsible for articulating Cooke’s concerns, and he says it’s been a complex task.
“I think the idea was to engender a sense of what people are thinking and try to represent that as an alternative viewpoint—one that has an artistic spin, as opposed to whatever version of a political agenda might be spun,” James explains in a separate phone conversation. “Because it’s hard to take a political stand, when you don’t know what’s solid ground to stand on. These issues are so complex, and you can feel so distant and removed from them—but you do have to deal with them.”
Developing Shake the Walls has involved months of back-and-forth between Cooke and James. At one point, for instance, they discussed dressing the band in burqas, only to drop the idea as both inflammatory and distracting. The final product retains a degree of theatricality, spurred along by Krystal Lomax’s video collage and Cooke’s compositions, which reference various Middle Eastern idioms, from Iranian classical sounds to Afghan rap. The work is not, however, aimed at winning the viewer over to its creators’ point of view—which, in any case, is still evolving.
“Nobody likes having a finger wagged at them,” Cooke stresses. “I know I certainly don’t. So what I want to do is to stimulate discussion.”