Thank you Montreal, Thank you Leonard Cohen

Montreal Cityscape with Cohen mural We arrived late in Montreal, which was fine because we had a late reservation at Liverpool House - one of our favourite restaurants in the city. Having said that, we arrived a few minutes early and while they were readying our table we stood near the bar with an aperitif. I immediately recognized the gentleman sitting at the bar facing me as Member of Parliament for Ville-Marie/Le Sud-Ouest/Île-des-Soeurs Marc Miller, who had popped down to see Voyageur during our photo session on Parliament Hill two days earlier. He recognized me too and I went over to greet him (and chide him for not sticking around to get his portrait done). Who was he sitting at the bar with but Minister of Defence Harjit Saajan. Now that's a great way to start an evening out! But a great meal at Liverpool House was only the beginning. On now and through until April, the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal is hosting an extraordinary multi-artist exhibition in tribute to the great Leonard Cohen entitled Une brèche en toute chose/A Crack in Everything. And it just so happened that that night the gallery was open until 2:00am with bars, DJs and a whole scene happening - how could we not go? Besides which, a little known story about the Six String Nation project is that shortly after the CBC Television deal collapsed in early 2006, I started talks with an independent Calgary-based production company who was interested in developing something we could sell back to the CBC. I had imagined it as a series of performances with Voyageur set in locations from which the guitar had been built. For Montreal, I had proposed that we get Leonard Cohen on a stool in the tiny retail area of the Fairmount Bagel Bakery in his old neighbourhood doing a song while other famous Montreal artists pretended to bake bagels in the background. Remember this was just before the huge resurgence of interest in Cohen. The company approached Cohen's people with the idea and apparently he was interested! Unfortunately, CBC was not at the time and the whole idea fell through. It's one of my greatest regrets of the project. In any event, seeing the work of these global contemporary artists in such a magical and intensive setting - from the epically immersive multi-screen performance installation of George Fok to an intimate recreation of the great poet's garret - was more than mere consolation - much of it was truly a revelation. Perhaps not surprisingly, my favourite room was the poetry-organ piece by the genius sound sculpturists Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. The following morning we headed for pastries at our favourite spot, Kouign-Amann, and decided to take the eponymous sweet, dense, flaky, buttery treats up to Mount Royal and found ourselves at the gates of the famed cemetery. Nestled on the side of the hill just before the north gates are two adjacent Jewish cemeteries, including the Shaar Hashomayim where we knew Leonard was buried and decided to make a little pilgrimage. It took us a while to find - especially among many other Cohen family plots - but we eventually found it not far from the small iron gate we'd come in and close to the road, topped with many small stones and messages of thanks and various tokens left by admirers. From there we continued up the mountain to the observatory. Gazing out over the city you notice this huge mural of Leonard painted onto the side of a building on Avenue de Montagne. See if you can find it in the photo above. We drove up from the condo on our way out of town the following morning to get a closer look and it really is magnificent - such a monumental and yet serene and beneficent tribute to a favourite son of the city. We had dropped off a bunch of stuff at Kate's brother's house in Cornwall on our way to Montreal in order not to provide further temptation for the city's notoriously fast-working car break-in artists and headed there to retrieve it (following a quick stop at the Glengarry fromagerie!) - listening to a huge Apple Music playlist on shuffle in the car as we went. Off the highway, down one arterial road to a smaller one and then the secondary road toward the neighbourhood. As we turned onto the residential street, what should come on the stereo but Madeleine Peyroux's rendition of "Dance Me to the End of Love". Our Montreal adventure was over and Leonard had accompanied us virtually the entire way. Thanks to Matt and Erin and the family, Jen and Jim and Mrs. Li.

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Above the Roar of the Crowd

Eliot and Tess Roby We make so many trips to Ottawa and yet so few to Montreal - in spite of the fact that it's so close to Ottawa and there are so many resonances in Voyageur from Montreal and we just love the city so much. So after our successful trip to Ottawa we thought maybe we'd extend the trip by a couple of days and make it a bit of a getaway with our friends Richard and Kate. I found a great deal on AirBnB for a condo for a couple of nights on the 31st floor above the Bell Centre downtown. Of course, the Bell Centre is the new(ish) home of the Montreal Canadiens and with gold from Rocket Richard's 1956 Stanley Cup ring on the 9th fret of the guitar, it just felt right to stay there. There was a game downstairs on Saturday night and who do you think the Habs were playing? None other than the Detroit Red Wings - the team to whom they lost the Cup in 1955, the season of the famed Richard suspension and ensuing riots and the team from whom they reclaimed the Cup the following year on a deciding goal from the Rocket himself, the very win that prompted the creation of the ring that now adorns Voyageur.

A couple of months earlier, I'd received a lovely email from my young friend Eliot Roby. Eliot is the son of my late and much-missed friend Charlie Roby - a wonderful musician and a lovely guy with a lovely family. I've known his kids since they were born and it's been so wonderful to see Charlie's gift for music blossom in his children. Eliot wrote quite out of the blue to tell me how much he admired the Six String Nation project and to let me know that he'd sure love to play that guitar one day. Eliot had followed his older sister, Tess, out to Montreal about a year ago. Tess has been building her music career there in Montreal for a few years now after finishing her studies and weaving herself into the creative life of the city as a DJ and an excellent photographic artist. They play regularly together as a duet with Tess on keys and vocals and Eliot on guitar - including a breakout performance at last year's Pop Montreal. I let Eliot know we were headed his way and we arranged to get together.

One of our favourite places to go in Montreal is the fabulous Jean Talon Market and we were provisioning ourselves for a night in with some wine and cheese and charcuterie etc. and since Tess and Eliot live not too far from the Market we arranged to meet them there and bring them back to our dee-lux apartment in the sky. I remember so many nights at the Roby household over the years with wine and cheese and music and conversation so it felt extra special to be recreating that feeling with those kids now as adults with their own careers beginning to take flight. Eliot played a couple of songs on Voyageur, we ate some more spectacular Strolghino from Les Cochons Tout Ronds, had one more glass of wine then delivered them back to their busy social lives back in their neighbourhood. Tess and Eliot's album for the Italians Do It Better label (home of the wonderful Chromatics!) comes out in April but you can listen to a preview here.

Thanks Tess, Eliot, Sarah, Richard, Kate and Gord for a great night far above the roar of the crowd.
BTW, final score: Montreal Canadiens 10 -Detroit Red Wings 1 - a total rout!

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ETFO Echo at @SLPSKanata @ETFOnews

Marc Cote and Leacock student players The week started with an Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario family event in Kitchener organized by Michael Beetham who had seen me at an earlier ETFO event in Mississauga organized by Jim Giles who had seen me at an earlier ETFO event in Ottawa. One of the "performance pocket" players at that event was Marc G. Cote who had me out to his school in Kanata today (he's the tall one in the picture).

The approach to Stephen Leacock Public School is deceiving. Kanata is (though not for much longer) the site of the Ottawa Senators home ice - a little less than half an hour outside of Ottawa. Broad avenues sprout glossy new low-rise condos on the edge of the leafy, rolling Kanata Golf and Country Club. Past a couple of well-to-do cul-de-sacs and there sits the low-rise landed spaceship of the school - all modern and modular looking with various triangles poking out of the low slung building set well back from the street. It all forms the impression of a sparkling new suburban development. And yet Leacock just celebrated its 50th anniversary!

Marc had been wanting to bring me to Leacock since his first encounter with the project and had been organizing around the idea for some time when I announced I'd be in Ottawa this week so everything worked out perfectly. Marc teaches guitar and gym at the school and has a great philosophy about getting kids involved in music: no clubs or auditions, he just wants as many kids as possible to have access to the guitars and feel encouraged to play - which meant there were plenty of candidates for the performance pocket in today's presentation and they were all fantastic. They're pictured in order around Marc in the photo: Khalil (whose parents were in the audience) played a medley built around "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", James played the intro to "Stairway to Heaven", Lauren played "Blackbird" and Trevor played the anonymous classical guitar piece "A Toye".

Thanks to Marc and the players and all the staff and students at Leacock for a great morning in Kanata - next time perhaps a round of golf to finish the day?

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Inner Sanctum @LoPresearch #libraryofparliament

Herb Davis in the Library of Parliament As students of the Six String Nation will know, Voyageur contains copper from the roof of the Library of Parliament - the iconic building that was the only one spared from the great fire the destroyed the rest of the buildings on Parliament Hill in 1916. There are two rings of copper around the rosette surrounding Voyageur's sound hole and two short strips accompanying the labradorite and moose shin on the third fret. One of my goals with the project is to eventually get the guitar back to all the places from which its materials originate. And yet - in spite of many trips to Parliament Hill since the guitar's completion in 2006 - I had never visited the Library of Parliament. And frankly, had Herb Davis (pictured) not suggested it on a whim following our trip to see the Dominion Carillonneur in the Peace Tower I likely would have missed it on this trip too!

There was an eerie quality to our approach as that is the hallway in which the shootout happened on October 22, 2014 between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons, Kevin Vickers, and RCMP Constable Curtis Barrett after Zehaf-Bibeau had murdered Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the nearby Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There are still bullet marks in the stone and on the doorway to the Library.

Once inside the Library, the feeling changed dramatically. It is the most glorious and serene environment and the acoustics are extraordinary. Designed by Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones and inspired by the British Museum Reading Room, the flying buttresses, double-wythe masonry and focussed lighting make you feel like you're in another world entirely. I couldn't help but quietly strum just one chord so the sound of Voyageur would enter that space and return the gift the building gave us back in 2005.

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Ring Them Bells

Dr. Andrea McCrady with VoyageurDr. Andrea McCrady practiced family medicine for many years in her home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2006 she left medical practice and pursued a degree in music with one of the rarest and most difficult instruments in the world, the carillon. The carillon is the set of bells you'll hear playing music from bell towers as distinct from the chime bells you might hear marking the time or sounding an event. There are less than a dozen carillons in Canada, some of those inactive. While there are electronically controlled versions, the traditional carillon is a massive keyboard and foot-pedal device connected to at least 23 tuned bells by cables. In 2008, following an international competition, Dr. McCrady was selected to become the official Dominion Carillonneur of the 53-bell Gillett & Johnston carillon in Parliament's iconic Peace Tower. And on July 1st of this year - after playing "O Canada" - she descended from the Tower and became a Canadian citizen at a ceremony on Parliament Hill.

Long time friend of the project Herb Davis had arranged for my visit and we piled into the tiny elevator with Voyageur, Dr. McCrady and two other guests, Wendy Stokes-Earl and Clinton Unka, to ascend the tower - passing by the chimes visible through the elevator window as we climbed. In the tiny control room, I gave Dr. McCrady and her other guests a tour of my guitar and then she gave us a tour of her instrument - including all the various controls required to monitor the sound in that small, sealed room. She unlocked several mysteries for me - including why sometimes you'll just hear the bells going for no apparent reason not on any hour or half or quarter. I know because I sounded one of those myself under her guidance! She has played all kinds of music - including folk and rock and even the Star Wars theme, some of it of her own arrangement, others composed specifically for carillon - but always starting with "O Canada". As it was the beginning of Advent, she played "Four Dutch Advent Songs", arranged by Leen ‘t Hart and "Advent Fantasy", by John Courter and then Wendy - who it turns out is a student of Dr. McCrady's - played a piece as well.

Clinton had a pretty amazing story too - originally from Yellowknife, Clinton has lived all over Canada and was Canada's first aboriginal Parliamentary page. He now lives in Madagascar but was home for Christmas and the combination of Voyageur connecting to so many aspects of his life and a request played on the Peace Tower carillon (the "Canon in D") made him a little homesick. I confess the whole experience was a pretty emotional experience for me too. Thanks, Herb, for suggesting it and for making it happen.

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Voyageur returns to Parliament Hill @viraniarif @JustinTrudeau

Jowi, Justin and Arif I first met Justin Trudeau by complete accident back in 2003, back when he was a school teacher. I was trying to obtain something of his father's from the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough to go into the guitar but wasn't having any luck as the institution was in crisis at the time and there really wasn't anyone to talk to. So one day I'm waiting to get on an elevator on the second floor of the CBC building in Toronto and as the door opens, Justin steps out. So I buttonholed him and we had a chat about it and he gave me some numbers to call at the Trudeau Foundation and promised to follow up. Some months later he found one of Pierre's paddles at the family cottage and recorded some audio for us to help publicize the project on a CBC weekend radio show. By the spring of 2006 we were ready to start building but the TV deal with CBC had fallen through and we needed to do some of our own documentation so we arranged to meet Justin in Mount Royal Park in Montréal to make a little video with him about the paddle he'd contributed. That footage has never been seen - mostly because it turns out to have been out of focus! Fortunately, Deborah Smith - a producer at Newsworld - wanted to make her own documentary about the project and virtually replicated our Mount Royal interview with Justin and it can be seen in the film "A Canadian Guitar" (though I can't seem to find any evidence of that doc online - I've got a copy if you'd like to see it). Shortly before my book was published, I found myself in Ottawa for an event at the National Arts Centre and staying across the street at the Chateau Laurier. That same weekend there was a PEN Canada benefit in town with a reception at the Chateau and my publisher, Scott McIntyre, was there so I had an excuse to crash the party, guitar in hand. The place was full of Canada's literary icons. Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson were there, Charlotte Gray was there, and Justin was also there. He was happy to finally see the completed guitar in person and we took a photo on the very first iPhone in very poor light so I've been wanting to get proper portraits with him for a long time - whether he was a politician or not. Back in 2007, my then-MP Peggy Nash arranged for a portrait session to be held in Centre Block on Parliament Hill. We got a few of our most iconic portraits on that day - including ones with Jack Layton, Peggy, Paul Dewar and Charlie Angus, Speaker of the House Peter Milliken, then Defence Minister Peter McKay and many others. Of course, there's been a lot of changes on Parliament Hill since 2007 - including the fact that that school teacher I met is now Prime Minister - so my current MP, Arif Virani (pictured, right), agreed to set up another portrait session for us. Our room got shifted a few times and ended up being a real challenge - nowhere near as accommodating for our set up or as convenient for MPs and staff as the one we had in '07 - but we made it work. The big question, of course, was whether the PM would be able to attend. We got word just a few days from the shoot that he was in and looking forward to seeing the guitar again but we'd have to do our photos with him away from our backdrop and up by his office instead. At the appointed hour - right after doing portraits with the Usher of the Black Rod, Greg Peters, MVO - we suspended activities and headed up to the PM's office. There was a small cluster of us waiting for him to arrive. As I looked across the atrium I saw him coming up the stairs, lead by an RCMP guard ensuring a clear path. He walked briskly. When he saw the assembly near his door he held up a finger and said "I'll be with you in a moment". Then he glanced my way and a huge smile came over his face. "Jowi!", he exclaimed and he came over and gave me a big hug. I honestly had not expected that he'd remember me. He promised he'd be right back and as he headed into his office he said, "It's been a long time since we've seen each other!". "I know, what have you been up to?", I called out. "Not much", he laughed over his shoulder as the door closed behind him. He re-emerged moments later and we finally made good on the promise to get better photos than the poor one I've used in the presentation for years now. I'm glad we were finally able to get these shots. You can see ALL the photos from our moment outside the PM's office and from the portrait sessions downstairs on our Flickr gallery from the day. Thanks to Arif Virani, Michel Carpentier, Cecely Roy and Lucas Veiga for getting it all arranged and helping administer the sessions and to Herb Davis for drumming up extra attendees on the day. And thanks to all the MPs and staff who came for their portraits, including John Aldag, Will Amos, Rene Arsenault, Vance Badawey, Mike Bossio, Terry Duguid, Neil Ellis, Andy Fillmore, Peter Fonseca, Mona Fortier, Sean Fraser, Kamal Khera, David Lametti, Stephane Lauzon, Paul Lefebvre, John McKay, Michael McLeod, Greg Peters, Kyle Peterson, Yasmin Ratansi, Geoff Regan, Deb Shulte, Sonia Sidhu, Sven Spengemann and Nick Whalen. Don't see your representative's name on that list? Ask them why they weren't there!

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Making Connections @ETFOWaterloo

Darrell Kuwabara Probably the most rewarding part of my work sharing the story of Voyageur around the country is the connections I make with people. After all, the guitar is a kind of story engine - built from all these different histories and communities and characters and events that make us who we are. Invariably, these stories resonate for people when they hear them and that inspires them to tell me their stories and that's been the beginning of many conversations and correspondences and friendships. Michael Beetham - an educator in the Waterloo Region - heard my story at an educational event for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario back in the fall and immediately connected on many levels. Within a few days he contacted me about coming out to his part of the province to speak to an ETFO family gathering at the Edelweiss Bar & Grill and helped generate the two school presentations earlier in the day.

I'd arrived the night before in order to be ready to go first thing in the morning and Michael and his wife Lori graciously invited me to their home - along with their friend and fellow educator Suzanne - for a spectacular home-cooked meal and some great conversation. We discovered a common African connection with Michael having spent several tours working on school programs in a few West African countries. The following evening at the Edelweiss, I was thrilled to see not only some teachers I'd met earlier but also Kim Gill, whom I'd met at an educator's retreat in Algonquin Park called Unplugged back in 2012 (Kim had a very interesting idea for an addition to the case or strap, which I'll reveal at a later date). But perhaps the most profound connection of the evening was with one of the players for the evening, Darrell Kuwabara (pictured). He is Japanese-Canadian with roots in Vancouver. His parents were among the thousands declared "enemy aliens" during the second world war and sent to internment camps across the country. That's what brought his family to Ontario, first to Hamilton. He said that growing up his father had told him about watching games in Vancouver played by the Asahi - the Japanese-Canadian baseball team, part of whose ca. 1930's jersey is now on Voyageur's strap. It made his beautiful performance all the more poignant seeing that piece standing out near his left shoulder.

Thanks also to Laura Dicknoether, who also played in the "performance pocket", to our portrait station volunteers Nora Davis, Deanna and Tamara Hurley and to the terrifically helpful staff at the Edelweiss. Special thanks also to Dave Worsley from Words Worth Books for handling book sales at the event and to Michael Beetham for making all those connections possible.

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Music That Really Schmecks @ednastaeblerps

Edna Staebler Players The Kitchener-Waterloo region is primarily known these days for its high tech industries but it's also known for its food - especially the Germanic and Mennonite derived foods that defined the area's rural roots and early immigration. No doubt you're familiar with J.M. Schneider's deli meats? Arguably the Blackberry of an earlier time! The person who did more than anyone to put the region on Canada's food map was author and literary journalist Edna Staebler, most famous for her cookbook of regional specialties, "Food That Really Schmecks" - still available in e-book form. Edna died just a couple of months after the birth of Voyageur back in 2006 at the age of 100 but I'm glad I got to meet her namesake school this afternoon in Waterloo. The presentation went beautifully with the help of teachers Sheila Smith-Jones (pictured left) and Summer Carter (pictured right). The students in the centre, Emma and Kyra, did a great duet of Ruth B.'s "Lost Boys" (great to hear a new Canadian tune!) to wrap up the presentation. I also have to thank the emcees for the day, Jasmine and Bayan. I have a little intro script that I send out to anyone hosting a presentation so it takes the pressure off emcees or organizers to write something and ensures they don't give too much away about the guitar before I get started with the story. Jasmine and Bayan had the script and were rehearsing it over and over as a double-barrelled delivery. Hearing it that many times made me realize a repetition in the script that I hadn't noticed before and so we changed one of the words right there and it's much better - so thanks, you two!

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A Premier Performance @WG_Davis

The William G Davis Razorbacks Players Not long after Steve Paikin's book about former Ontario Premier Bill Davis came out, Michael Beetham of the Waterloo Region office of ETFO invited me to speak to a small group of members and their families at a local restaurant. It would be an evening presentation so I asked if we might be able to tack on a couple of school presentations during the day and he had no problem generating interest. And wouldn't you know the first up to the plate was William G. Davis Public School - named for the man himself - in Cambridge. My contacts at the school were teachers Kim Stenhouse and Jeff Shapiro. Kim had her own whole set of reasons for wanting to host Voyageur at the school. A couple of years ago, she had written a robust section on Six String Nation for the "Hands On Social Studies" curriculum guide for grade 6 classes in Ontario from Portage & Main Press. Any teachers reading this - you might want to click this link and scroll to about page 149 for some ideas on how to prepare for a visit by Six String Nation to your school. Meanwhile, Jeff had his own reasons for anticipating Voyageur's visit as head of WGD's "School of Rock" program. For the finale of Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" he had the whole group of about 30 students up but the first two songs were performed by the students in the picture above. Hannah (holding Voyageur) played "Dust in the Wind" accompanied by the two girls flanking her - Kody and Kaydence - on vocals. That was followed by Dakota (pictured right looking a lot like a young Slash, don't you think?) doing a wicked acoustic version of Hendrix' "Purple Haze" with Desiree (pictured left) handling the vocals. Dakota stayed on guitar for the finale. It was a great start to a busy day in the Waterloo region! Thanks to all the staff and students at William G. Davis P.S. Go Razorbacks!

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Destination Music at DestinationBC @HelloBC #VSConf17 @NSB_Speakers @Hanksvic

Jon Middleton 2 Destination BC We've sure been feeling the love from Victoria BC this year - with this being the third visit in 2017. I'm pretty sure they feel the love right back.
This presentation was for Destination British Columbia - the trade organization that coordinates the branding and marketing of tourism in BC with faces both toward the public and toward the industry. This particular gathering was of Visitors Services representatives from across the province. In a way, each of them is responsible for laying the groundwork for the stories that visitors will create of their travels around this beautiful and diverse province, which is perhaps why the stories of Six String Nation - especially with so many different aspects of BC history, culture and nature represented in the project - seem to resonate so well with this audience.

What was especially gratifying as we gathered for portraits after the presentation was how many people from across the Canada and beyond were there in BC working in this field - very proud of their roots in Ontario and Alberta and Quebec and Newfoundland and France and Australia but equally proud of the regions they were serving in BC. Once again I am blown away by the stories and connections that people offer as they embrace Voyageur in their portraits. It was also gratifying to be able to share the story of the Stuart McLean addition to the case for the first time in BC since the idea was launched with Alistair McLean at another BC Tourism related event in Victoria back in the spring. One delegate at this conference told me he'd worked with Alistair for years and not known he was Stuart's brother!

Speaking of family connections: I worked closely with conference coordinator Belinda Ewald-Middleton in getting together all the details for this event and in seeking to populate the "performance pocket" in the presentation with someone to play Voyageur she recruited her brother-in-law, Jon Middleton. Jon is based in Victoria and while I didn't get to see his show on a swing through Toronto at the Rivoli recently, we did have a chance to correspond and I listened to some of his music in both solo and Jon and Roy iterations online. But I'm not sure those prepared me for the lilting beauty of his solo performance with Voyageur in that room. A few attendees posted short clips on Twitter (check my feed if you want to see them for yourself) and they just make me wish we'd been recording properly as the pairing was stunning.

Thanks to Belinda and her team for all their help at the event and leading up to it and especially to Karen Tunkara for advocating to bring us back to Victoria. Special thanks to our portrait station volunteers, Erin Monaghan and Rhonda Teel and to Katherine Worsley for the hummingbird. Thanks also to my good friends at the National Speakers Bureau for handling the booking. And while I'm at it, thanks to Andrew at Hank's - Canada's tiny, perfect restaurant - for an unforgettable meal to end this trip to Victoria!

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