Prospecting for Performances @SPARCsymposium #Cobalt2018

If you know your “Voyageur periodic table” you’ll know that a piece of silver from the famed Beaver Mine in Cobalt Ontario is inlaid into the centre of the first fret. And if you already know that, you may also know it’s partly there to reflect the importance of what has been called “Ontario’s Most Historic Town” and partly there because of my own deep connection to Cobalt. It’s the town where my grandfather was mayor and provincial MPP, the town where my dad was born, the town where my cousins still live and the area where the whole extended family shares a cottage - just down the road at Bass Lake - where we’ve been coming since we were babies.

So it’s always very special to be able to make the presentation in Cobalt and even more special to work again with Felicity Buckell - a gentle but powerful and persistent force for developing cultural capacity and cultural demand in this community - this time as the local organizer of the SPARC Symposium, a gathering of remote and rural community arts presenters from around Ontario. Back in 2014, Felicity and I collaborated on building what I consider to be the gold standard of integrated education/outreach/community programming - including school presentations at local French, First Nations and English schools, songwriting workshops, community presentations and portraits - with her Pied Piper Kidshows organization, which was also a sponsor of this symposium.

Our activities with the symposium included participation in a panel (with Jack Langenhuizen of the Motus O Dance Company) at one of our favourite local haunts, the Chat Noir Book Store Cafe in New Liskeard; a presentation at the coolest bar in Northern Ontario, the Miner’s Tavern (our third presentation there over the years - a record) and portrait sessions at both the Miner’s and at SPARC HQ at the Community Hall (a former YMCA facility above what are now the town offices).

In truth, turnout of SPARC delegates at the Miner’s presentation was a bit disappointing but the crowd was fleshed out with locals and some visiting prospectors who were in the area prospecting for the mineral cobalt - much in demand these days for use in rechargeable batteries such as the ones used in Tesla and other electric vehicles. As you know, people come forward with the most amazing connections to the project at pretty much every presentation I do and this one was spectacular. One of the members of the prospecting team, Kevin Tateishi, approached me during the portrait sessions after the presentation and let me know the player with his arms folded second from the left in the bottom row of the 1941 team photo of the Vancouver Asahi baseball club that comes up in my presentation was his great uncle Ken Kutsukake. Just amazing!

Also amazing was having lead prospector Jessica Bjorkman bring some tools and cobalt-rocks into the photos AND finally getting a bunch of portraits with one of our favourite Cobalters, Miner’s proprietor and local councillor Rochelle Schwartz!

The “performance pocket” segment of the presentation was beautifully filled with original songs by Robyn Dewar, John Shymko (who also saved the day with the loan of his portable sound system!) and Temagami songwriter Dave Laronde taking his third turn on Voyageur over the years and proving yet again that there are some powerful songs and stories being told in this part of the country. After the show, as we were setting up for the portraits, Kevin Closs (in town for SPARC) did his extraordinary acoustic arrangement of "O Canada" for what was perhaps the 10th time over the years on Voyageur; local songwriter Alec Morrison covered a Grievous Angels tune in honour of local MP Charlie Angus (also speaking at SPARC on Cobalt’s vaudeville era in the boom-town years) and a young man (10? 12?) named Tanner Montgomery (pictured) - who travelled with his family from Thunder Bay to see the show, carrying his own electric guitar as an accessory, no less. Tanner got up on stage and wowed everybody with a passionately rendered fully acoustic version of the Tragically Hip’s “Grace, Too”.

Thanks to all the musicians, to Rochelle for her always perfect hospitality and to everyone who came out to see the show. Thanks to portrait station volunteers Peter & Lara Zwarich (at the Miner’s) and Kevin Closs and Jake Koza (at the Community Hall). Thanks to Paul McLaren at Chat Noir for hosting (and for the cortado!). And thanks, of course, to Felicity and her team for putting on such an important and critical gathering and inviting us to be a part of it.

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Back in the @SCDSB @NPSSnews

Jenna, James, Ryan & Jordan Getting used to this particular stretch of highway 400 - all the way to Barrie for the SCDSB back on May 10th, up to highway 11 on the way to Cobalt for the SPARC Symposium tomorrow and cutting off at Cookstown today on my way to Nottawasaga Pines Secondary School in Angus ON.

It's a great looking school, nestled into a complex with the local library and police station - with a big, bright common atrium right in the middle built around the well-equipped auditorium, where I was greeted backstage by the student crew captained by Dave. Teacher Jordan Hughes (pictured, right) who had seen my presentation at the OMEA conference, brought back the students slated to play in the "performance pocket" (l-r Jenna McCarthy, James Bridges and Ryan Cranston) so they could get comfortable with Voyageur before the show. Soundcheck and set up were accomplished in no time at all and we were ready for students to start filling the seats.

The school is located near Canadian Forces Base Borden - historic birthplace of the Royal Canadian Air Force and home to the largest training wing in the Canadian Armed Forces. That meant that a good third of the students in that audience were from military families. Knowing this, I planned to include a section on our work with veterans and the Canadian Forces College, which made the presentation a little longer than normal. All three performers were terrific - James doing "Freight Train", Jenna doing "Share the Land" and Ryan doing an original song (always great to hear from a student player!) but we came up right against the lunch bell at that point so there was no time for art teacher Chuck Baker to take his turn of for me to make my closing remarks. So instead we retired to the backstage as students headed off to lunch and a good clutch of 20 or so people hung out back there taking turns with Voyageur and doing photos. Chuck was there with his mother and his daughter, Ella, who sang harmony as he finally took his turn on the guitar with an original song entitled "Falling Down". I've posted the video on the Six String Nation YouTube channel with their permission.

Thanks to all the players today and all the staff and students at NPSS who attended today's presentation. Special thanks to Jordan Hughes.

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Honest Erb @abewrdsb

My name in... From Vista Hills it was a short drive (with time for a coffee stop) to my second school of the day, Abraham Erb Public School. And what a welcome! There was my name on the marquee out front. There was a parking spot right by the front door with name on the pylons. A sign on the door welcomed me by name and two students came out with signs to guide me to the library where the presentation would take place. On the way I got an enthusiastic greeting from teacher John Cummings, who had been my contact organizing the event and coordinating with Vista Hills. Positively royal treatment! And those weren't the only friendly faces. There was librarian Nora Davis, who had been one of our portrait station volunteers at our ETFO WRDSB event back at the end of November and then in walks teacher Laurie Beetham, who had hosted me for dinner on that same trip. ESL teacher (and staff shutterbug) Jeanette Voaden accompanied me down to the staff room to have a quick homemade snack and by the time I got back to the library, there was Michael Beetham, Laurie's husband and the educator who had consolidated a bunch of presentations for me in November in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge. Michael is set to retire at the end of the school year but he figured this was the best chance to bring some of his students down from his own school to see the presentation one last time.

Since the presentation was in the smaller, less boom-y environs of the library, I didn't need the usual headset microphone really but Voyageur is not naturally a loud guitar so it would need a little help and there was nowhere to plug in on the portable system they had for the projector. Teacher Jason Walker sprung into action and tapped a student who lived nearby who he knew had a guitar amp at home. Within 10 minutes there was a Fender and we were set to go. For the first song in the performance pocket, Jason sang while teacher Simon Lewis played and harmonized on the Beatles' "Help" and then Simon took over solo for a rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On".

After the presentation, the students filed past, touching Voyageur and asking a ton of questions and then we hung out for a while doing many photos. I'm not sure I'm permitted to link to the gallery Jeanette sent me but there's some good ones in there so if you're interested just do a search for Abraham Erb on Google Photos and you may find them!

Thanks to principal Heather Schumann and all the staff, students and family who showed up for the presentation.

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The View from Vista Hills @viswrdsb

Lee McWebb and Ty Rutherford I leave very little to chance when heading off to do a presentation at a new school. Well in advance, I GoogleMap the destination and plug in the hour I'm leaving in order to estimate the travel time as accurately as possible and then build in some extra time in case of unforeseen traffic issues, etc. Then, on the day of, I connect the iPhone to Bluetooth in the rental car, fire up a podcast and let Siri talk me to my destination. That's what I did last Friday on route to a couple of school presentations in the Waterloo Region District School Board. But in the final 10 minutes of my journey to the first school I began to wonder if I had needed the digital assistance at all - everything was looking very familiar. Had I actually been to Vista Hills Public School before? No! The route was taking me right past Edna Staebler Public School, where I'd presented back in November. A right turn past the school, a left turn at the edge of the subdivision, up the hill and into the new Vista Hills community. And there is was - possibly the grooviest public school architecture I'd seen in a long time. Brand spanking new and looking like if it hadn't been a building it would have been a beautiful design for a colour printer!

The presentation went very well and the students were terrific. One of my favourite things in the presentation is when I ask if anyone knows what makes a tree green and a very small hand goes up and a little person says "chlorophyll?". Vista Hills did not disappoint! The performance pocket featured two performers playing Voyageur, student Ty Rutherford and teacher Lee McWebb. Ty worked through an instrumental version of "Dust in the Wind" and then Lee played the school song, "You Can Be a Hero", which he wrote (seems Lee has a bit of a sideline writing songs for a bunch of area schools!). He had everyone singing along and clapping along in a way that was reminiscent of the clapping in Queen's "Radio Gaga" video! It turns out that this was actually Lee's second time playing Voyageur the first being at Tony McManus' guitar retreat in Elora back in 2011!

I was proud to be able to wrap up what was a pretty great week for Vista Hills. On Monday, teacher Tania Bumstead received the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM. Congratulations Tania!

Many thanks to teachers Tina Giannopoulos and Kristin Rahian and principal Don Oberle and to all the staff and students at Vista Hills.

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An Inspiring Day with @SCDSB_Schools

Clockwise from bottom left: Becky, Heather, Tracy, Shannon, Pauline and Bonnie. Over the years, I've spoken to many music teachers, been a "champion" for the Coalition for Music Education in Canada, been involved in many Music Monday events and presented twice to the Ontario Music Educators' Association. These have all been occasions to see educators dedicated to the idea that a robust music education benefits all other areas of learning - in school, at home and in the community. The impact is felt across all aspects of society and lasts a lifetime. And yet, most of these encounters have taken place against a backdrop of budget cuts and the de-emphasis of the role of music and the arts in school life. That's why my participation in Thursday's "Inspiring Music For Life" event with the Simcoe County District School Board was such a breath of fresh air!

The event brought together teachers and a small group of students from each of 30 schools from across the board at Georgian College in Barrie. In his opening remarks, supervisor Chris Samis talked about how this event was celebrating a rededication of efforts on behalf of the board to better resource music education in the region and make it a more prominent part of the educational experience for students and teachers - with 30 schools feeling the benefits this year, another 30 next year and a further 30 the following year. Together, they spent the day in workshops and seminars building tools to take back with them to their classrooms and music rooms for the remainder of this year and to get started fresh next September. It was an honour to be asked to get the day started with the Six String Nation keynote presentation and kind of set the tone for how music can infuse, inform and inspire every part of learning.

The "performance pocket" segment of the presentation was a little bit different than usual. Instead of one or two or three performers each playing a song to the accompaniment of the portrait slides, we had FOUR guitar players all playing ONE song - not quite Walk Off the Earth but a little bit. Jack Fitzgerald started with Mya Franks seated to his right playing percussion and Bella McCurdy singing. Bella kept singing while Jack handed the guitar off to Mya and Mya handed the bongos to Ethan McBrien and then Ethan played guitar and Ayden Franks played bongos and then Jack picked up the bongos while Ayden finished on Voyageur - Bella singing the whole time with barely a pause between handoffs. Pretty impressive! Teacher John Touchette (Mr. T.) rounded out the pocket with a little Simcoe County original reggae.

There wasn't time or budget to include our official portrait feature but they asked if it was OK to do class pictures with Voyageur following the presentation and I readily agreed. SCDSB media wiz Curtis Dafoe had set up a couple of green screens with iPad camera rigs and student volunteers. I went back and forth between the two set-ups while others wrangled the small classes into the alternating stations. It's the presence of the green screen that inspired me to make the photo for this blog - we didn't really go into the forest for this shot! While many were involved in making the day a success, this is a good representation of the organizing squad featuring (clockwise from lower left) Becky Kennedy, Heather Ellis, Tracy McPhail, Shannon Simpson, Pauline Cook and Bonnie Black. It was Bonnie who had seen me at the OMEA Conference in Huntsville back in November and invited me to be part of this inspiring event - so thank you Bonnie!

Thanks also to Chris Samis and all the teachers, students and workshop leaders for helping to launch such a great initiative by the SCDSB. Thanks also to Curtis Dafoe for his assistance and for shooting the presentation on video (hopefully we'll see a cut of that in the fall) and to Adam and Ron from the Georgian College tech crew for getting us set up so effortlessly. Thanks also to our old friend, Duct Tape Guy himself, Sean McGaughey, for sharing his own music and that of his son. It was great to hear that voice in transition and congrats on the new teaching gig!

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Friendliest Rattlesnakes Ever! @IAMETFOHalton #ETFO

James Shea & Jake Payne When I conceived the Six String Nation project it was intended to start a conversation about Canadian identity that was diverse and inclusive and went beyond the clichés without simply dismissing them. The pieces that went into Voyageur's creation told hundreds - if not thousands - of stories. But in the first flush of media attention that surrounded the project on its debut in 2006, the breakfast shows and news hits didn't have time for thousands or hundreds or even tens of stories. They all wanted to focus on the two or three most famous bits - the ones that most supported the clichéd understanding of Canadian identity. Ever since, I've been looking for a way to tell the story of Voyageur in a more fulsome way, to start more conversations, to inspire more inquiries into the dynamic and evolving nature of "Canadian-ness". And while I have had success connecting to festival and community and corporate audiences, naturally the places hungriest for exactly this kind of conversation are schools. And if I hope to inspire students with this project, I need to inspire teachers first. And I've been especially fortunate to have built a relationship with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario over the course of a few events. Back in the fall, I gave my presentation at an ETFO event in Mississauga and two attendees of that meeting - Dave Buddell and Rob Smolenaars - invited me to come and present to the annual meeting of ETFO's Halton Region membership last night.

Taking the Bronte Rd. exit off the 403, one is struck by the number of directions to golfing facilities. The famed Glen Abbey is not far from there, Deerfield, several driving ranges, Oakville, Angel's View and three courses at Rattlesnake Point, where ETFO's meeting was taking place in the main clubhouse. It was a small group and they had important union business to attend to while Six String Nation photographer Doug Nicholson and I set up in an anteroom to do portraits following the presentation. Spot on 6 o'clock they wrapped up their voting and the presentation began.

As always, I ask event hosts to recruit one or more players to bring Voyageur to life near the end of the presentation. Dave and Rob found two players, Jake Payne (pictured, right) and Jamie Shea (pictured, left). Often, the folks who occupy this role feel compelled to cover some chestnut from the Canuck canon, which is fine - though I prefer to hear a wider range of expression. The best scenario from my perspective is when players play their own music - kind of staking their own claim on the musical map of the Six String Nation. And I was thrilled that both of these players did that in spectacular fashion last night: Jake with an instrumental written on guitar for his then girlfriend (now wife) eighteen years ago in spite of guitar not being his main instrument; and James with a song he wrote called "Home", inspired by the story of Johnny Oovaut and his son Alec, who suffered hypothermia and near death following two days on the ice after their snowmobiles broke down outside of Quaqtaq, Nunavik, QC, in November of 2013. It turns out James had played Voyageur once before: at an impromptu campfire singalong at the farm of our mutual friend Kathy Hill's father following the Summerfolk Festival in Owen Sound back in 2006!

Thanks again to ETFO Halton for inviting us to be part of their annual meeting, to Jake and Jamie for making such great music and to all the teachers who attended and came to get their portraits done after the presentation. Thanks also to Greg for handling tech in the room. And special thanks to Meaghan MacLeod for assisting at the portrait station and Mark Stupple for all his work both at the portrait station and in getting us all set up properly and on time.

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Analyzing the Nation in Cambridge

Teacher Judith Bean and students at Ryerson P.S., Cambridge Doing as many school presentations as I do, I frequently meet teachers who have moved around a bit - sometimes across the country, sometimes just within their own school board, especially as new schools open up in growing communities. But even when they love their new school they leave a little bit of their heart behind with their old ones. That was the case for Kim Gill, the teacher at Groh Public School who initiated Friday's visit to the Waterloo region. And as soon as she got serious about bringing Six String Nation to Groh she knew it was an experience she'd want the students at her previous school, Ryerson P.S. in Cambridge, to have as well. Fortunately, her old colleague there, teacher Judith Bean (pictured here with students from multiple grades and classes), was already a 6SN fan so no arm-twisting was required. Judith even brought her own personal copy of the Six String Nation book for signing and Kim produced a video message for her former students that I slotted into the slide deck at the top of the show.

I'm accustomed to delivering the presentation mostly to middle and high school students or to the older grades at primary schools so I'm always a little nervous that the younger kids will be bored or confused by what is, frankly, a kind of long and kind of complicated presentation. But the students at Ryerson were once again proof that the storytelling aspect of the show - along with the strong images on the screen - is what reaches kids (and adults) of all ages. There's something exciting about being the person who might set them off on a path of knowledge about Haida Gwaii or Rocket Richard and it's always rewarding to see the hands go up with questions or in response to my own questions about whether they've been to Niagara Falls or know who invented basketball or what it is that makes a tree green (it's one of the first big words learned by little kids!).

Teacher Chris Gibson ably filled the performance pocket with Bryan Adams' "Summer of 69" and lead sing-alongs of Stompin' Tom's "Hockey Song" and "This Land is Your Land".

Thanks to Judith and all the staff and students at Ryerson P.S. for being such terrific hosts.
Go Raptors!

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Groh for Gord

Tiana and Sarah with Voyageur In some ways, Friday morning's visit to Groh Public School was a long time coming. After all, I'd met teacher Kim Gill back in 2012 at the UnPlugd teachers retreat in Algonquin Park. But, looked at another way, this presentation - as well as an afternoon visit to Kim's former school, Ryerson P.S. - came together quite quickly after some material from Gord Downie's Man Machine Poem tour wardrobe that Kim had donated to the project became part of Voyageur's guitar strap several weeks ago.

Typically, the presentation I do for schools is aimed at students from about grade 5 up through high school - partly because it's a long presentation and I don't have to change my normal way of speaking within that age range and partly because right near the top of the presentation I mention the impact that knowledge of the residential school system and its terrible legacy had on the formation of the project and it used to be that grade 5 was about the age kids started to learn about that. I'm pleased to say that the issue of residential schools is now being taught earlier and earlier across the country. At Groh, they were starting in grade two and there were kids from that age group in attendance. At the end of the presentation I also went and did a little show and tell with the kindergarten kids so it was pretty much full-school coverage!

The "performance pocket" was handled adeptly by student Tiana Gooray (pictured, left) but Kim and music teacher Sarah McLeod (pictured, right) wanted to do something extra special for this day in keeping both with the Gord Downie connection through Kim and the focus on indigenous issues. So, I prepared two special visual sequences: the first to accompany Kim's class singing Downie's "The Stranger" from Secret Path with Sarah on Voyageur; the second to accompany the Groh school choir - again with Sarah on guitar - singing the Hip's "Ahead By a Century". You can link to the audio below but I'm warning you right now that it's an emotional experience. I know that from both the rehearsal and the performance where they had me in tears!

Thanks to all the staff and students at Groh P.S. for a terrific morning and a great musical experience. GrohPS "Ahead by a Century"

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Amplifying with Shane Belcourt and Cheryl L’Hirondelle #APTN

Shane Belcourt at the DTS Studio No offence to Shane Belcourt, pictured here in session at David Travers-Smith's studio but I am regretting the photo I did not take on this day. The amazing women who were in the room together at that moment were having a bit of a reunion and I didn't want to interrupt. Here's what happened:

Shane is one of the principals of The Breath Films - makers of all kinds of great content including several Indigenous-peoples-related Heritage Minutes. He and producer Michelle St. John are just getting started on production of a beautifully conceived series for APTN called "Amplify", in which a variety of Indigenous artists write a new piece of music inspired by another artist's work. So for the second day in a row I was at David's studio as they shot the recording of Cheryl L'Hirondelle's new song inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer's book, "Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants" - part of what will become the first episode of the series.

I've known both Cheryl and Michelle for many years through a variety of projects and encounters. We have a great series of portraits of Cheryl taken at the Edge of the World Festival on Haida Gwaii back in 2008. David and Shane asked if maybe I would like to bring Voyageur by and see if we might be able to make use of it as part of the session. When I arrived, Cheryl was recording vocal tracks so I just hung out and met the crew. I was giving Shane a tour of the guitar and he was playing as we talked and man could he play! Director, writer, cinematographer, guitarist - quadruple threat! So he got some ideas for some guitar tracks for the song and we went into the studio - first to shoot a little DVD-extras segment introducing Voyageur and then for Shane to lay down some guitar. While all that was going on, Michelle and Cheryl had invited some old friends to come and add some vocals to the track and they were starting to arrive: the formidably elegant Monique Mojica, who had played Grandma Builds-the-Fire in Chris Eyre's 1998 film "Smoke Signals" (Michelle had played the role of Velma - hard to believe that was all twenty years ago!) and the tremendously accomplished and stylish jazz singer and Native Earth Performing Arts dramaturge Rose Stella. By the time Shane was done recording with Voyageur and I had stepped out to do a FaceTime meeting about an upcoming event, these folks were getting caught up as they got ready to start shooting their singing scenes. I thought maybe I should ask if I could get a shot of everyone with Voyageur but I didn't want to intrude on everyone's process. I regret that as I'm pretty sure that would have been an historic photo.

Thanks to David for being his usual calm self in the midst of a hectic shoot and recording session and to the Breath crew: Adam, Tony and Sean. This was just the first shooting day of the first episode that's going to take them around the country for the next little while but I hope we'll get a chance to reconvene with Shane and do a "Places of Note" podcast with him when he's got some breathing room. In the meantime, I'll look forward to seeing the series on APTN when it airs next year.

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David Leask and the Cameron Connections

David Leask with Justin Abedin at the Cameron House In many ways, the Cameron House on Queen West in Toronto is a nondescript kind of building. Or it would be were it not for the murals and marquees, sculptures and signs that have adorned the outside of the building and the people, events, art forms and stories that have defined and redefined the inside over many decades as a cultural hub. It's hard to overestimate the impact that this humble little place has had on me personally, on the shape of the Six String Nation and on the culture of the city I love.

So it's always a pleasure to be at the Cameron - whether Voyageur is with me or not. But yesterday was very special because my friend David Leask - who'd been doing a Monday evening residency there for the month of March to mark the release of his latest EP, "Six in 6/8", with guitarist and producer Justin Abedin at his side - asked if I might bring Voyageur down to be part of his last night in the series. As you may have read here previously, David had been inspired to write some songs based on stories built into the guitar. I offered to let him take Voyageur home for a bit to do his writing and it proved to be an incredibly productive period - with a few songs completed and a couple of others well germinated by the time I needed it back. We've had a few occasions now, at Six String Nation presentation events, for David to play the main three completed songs in the "performance pocket" part of the show. This was a chance for him to use the Voyageur in the context of his own show and to hear those songs - "The Legend of Joe Labobe", "Spirit Wrestlers" and "Against the Grain" - with the accompaniment of Justin's gorgeous electric colourations.

As usual, the Cameron functioned as a place for multiple threads to come together seamlessly. Apart from David's own history with Voyageur, Justin Abedin had played it in concert a few years ago with Justin Hynes at a gala benefit for Mike & Brenda Neuts' MCBN Foundation. And there in the audience were Henry Lees and Dale Jones who had seen David's first major performance of the three Voyageur songs at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts (and provided the photos thereof for this blog!); Marni Thornton, who had hosted the Six String Nation presentation for her music industry class at Durham College; Bob Reid, who - with Blair Packham - has had me on his show on CFRB more than once to talk about the project; Stephanie Marshall, a friend who last played Voyageur on the recently defunct Graffiti's in Kensington Market a couple of blocks away; and Norine Graham-Robinson, who came up to introduce herself after having seen David play at a house concert where the mention of Six String Nation prompted the discovery of a connection between her and two other guests through my mother!

Thanks to David and his wife Mary-Ellen for inviting us to be part of the evening and thanks to Nigel for the usual Cameron hospitality.

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