Powerful sounds at Powell Street Festival

The festival of Japanese heritage builds a music roster that spans a “violinistextremist” and a fairyland-set multimedia show

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      Kytami’s name sounds Japanese, but her blue eyes suggest otherwise. In fact, when asked about her heritage, the self-described “violinistextremist” says that what should be a simple question isn’t at all easy to answer.

      “It’s complicated,” she explains, in a telephone interview from her Victoria home. “I was actually adopted, and I was adopted to a mixed-race couple. My dad is Japanese Canadian—he was actually born in the internment camps during the Second World War—and my mother’s from England. But I’m also of mixed heritage: I’m a mix of Japanese, Filipino, Spanish, English, and French.”

      Even her stage name is a mashup: Kytami, she notes, draws on her Gaelic first name, Kyla, and her Japanese middle name, Tamiko. It’s appropriate, though, given that her music combines the European classical music she learned as a child with the folk elements she picked up playing with intercontinental roots act Delhi 2 Dublin, all set to the insistent rhythms of electronic dance music. And while her act is tailored to the needs of EDM festivals such as Boonstock in Penticton, which she’ll play this Friday (August 1), it’s also going to be a good fit with the Powell Street Festival, which she’ll headline on Saturday (August 2).

      “You know, I’ve always felt a really strong tie to Japanese culture,” she stresses. “My dad had a very large family in Vancouver, and his parents—my grandparents—they didn’t speak English, really. So, growing up, I’d go over to my grandparents’ house and there would be sushi on the table. I didn’t think it was out of the ordinary; it was just my family!”

      The Powell Street Festival, now in its 38th year, is Vancouver’s annual celebration of its own Japanese heritage, and there will certainly be a sumo contest and displays of traditional Japanese arts and crafts. But for many the main draw is the festival’s music programming, which has grown ever more inclusive over the years. Koto recitals and taiko drumming are still on the menu, but they now share space with the Appalachian-inspired string band Shout!WhiteDragon and postrock trailblazers Spring.

      Most of the action will take place at the festival’s main site, which has traditionally been Oppenheimer Park. With sections of the park currently occupied by housing activists and the homeless, the fest is having to move to Alexander Street between Princess and Dunlevy avenues, as well as Jackson Avenue between Railway and Cordova streets. One of Powell Street’s most intriguing musical offerings, however, is going to take place at 229 East Georgia Street, home of the Centre A gallery and Music Temple, a beautiful and bizarre multimedia installation by Emi Honda and Jordan McKenzie, of the Montreal-based psychedelic-folk band Elfin Saddle. Set in a miniature landscape that shades from a crystalline fairyland into darker realms of recycled metal, it’s an immersive audiovisual environment, and as such it can be viewed through September 13. But on Saturday afternoon (August 2) it will also become the set on which Honda and McKenzie perform—using conventional instruments in addition to the noise-making components of the installation itself.

      Jordan McKenzie and Emi Honda perform amid an art installation.

      “It’s a motorized system that allows things to be triggered off and on in varying cycles, so that they always overlap in different ways,” McKenzie explains. “So it’s improvisational in its nature in that it always changes, but also we can change the pitches of things and the configurations of the various instruments and sound devices that we can plug in.”

      A video about the installation can be seen on the Powell Street Festival’s website, but Honda says its Vancouver incarnation will be lusher, with more living greenery. She also notes that Music Temple references both her own Japanese heritage and current events in our striking but unsustainable city of glass.

      “My family runs a temple, so I’m familiar with that kind of atmosphere and how things get set up,” she says. “But at the same time, for this show I was thinking a lot about utopia, something that’s beautiful and perfect. But often to make something that’s beautiful and perfect involves other people’s effort, and often suffering.”

      The Powell Street Festival runs at various venues from Friday to Sunday (August 1 to 3).