Music at PARC
The above photo was taken in March 2013, during PARC’s 33rd Anniversary. The event, organized in conjunction with Making Room Community Arts, created a magical market where “art became life, life became art and the past and present traded places.” Fittingly, the event featured the music of Zepheniah James and his band - for more than twelve years, Zephie had been at the centre of music-making at PARC, leading the PARC Drummers, the Wednesday morning Jam sessions and playing more special events than he can count. The night honoured the life of Toby Dancer, a uniquely talented musician and good friend of both Zephie and the PARC community.
The tradition of music-making at PARC extends back to its earliest days and is in many ways typical of many traditions at PARC: they start small with incidental moments in the drop-in, are cemented through friendship, with more people taking part as the dream grows bigger and more hands are required to complete the task.
In an interview conducted earlier this year with Rebecca Bruton, an Associate Artist with PARC’s Making Room Community Arts, Bob Rose, himself a musician and long-time staff person, remembered a time in the early days when there was just a handful of staff, some of them being musicians themselves, who acquired instruments and saw to it that they were played in the drop-in. Bob says, “Music at PARC has always been anchored in individual activity…we were young and we just tried to figure stuff out.”
Bob still remembers the day PARC went electric. With a grant that surprised everyone, PARC bought a stand up piano, a guitar and a PA system. “It was like heaven,” he exclaimed. “We live in one of Canada’s biggest cities and there are things going on all the time that are denied to people because they are poor. It was like a re-creation of culture inside PARC that was denied to members on the outside”.
For years, music at PARC remained what Bob described as “kitchen table, parlour style,” but that changed when Zephie walked through the door. Zephie’s path to PARC was a long, circuitous route from his home in Jamaica. Having discovered PARC, Zephie, who was a kind of musical ambassador, found that “the music never stopped”.
The second chapter in PARC’s musical history began when Toby Dancer arrived on the scene. Bob recalled that, “Toby turned out to be the other lynchpin because he was the member with a depth of musical talent that surpassed anyone else at PARC – worker or otherwise – and musicians seek each other out so I introduced Toby to Zephie, this is the way it worked.”
A musical friendship between Zephie and Toby began immediately, and for a while they played for each other, but the stage had been set and soon others wanted to join in. According to Bob, “There was a real hunger for music.” Zephie, too, uses the word hunger to describe the interest in music he has seen at PARC. Every Wednesday over lunch PARC “becomes more of a nightclub than a drop-in” and Zephie can be found at the centre, with a booming voice and large arms welcoming the next performer onto the stage.
When people began to perform, it blew everyone away how much talent there was in the room. “It was also a place of great healing” added Bob. “It was much better than seeing your psychiatric nurse and way more effective.” Many neighbours who come to PARC for the first time are surprised at what they see – people they would otherwise label “mentally disturbed” are relaxed and happy and playing instruments. “It’s not as crazy as you think,” said Zephie, “it’s more like a family, people talk to you and make it work.”
"Big House" Lyrics
Spend my days working in the city
Spend my nights out on the prowl
Look at my hands they sure are dirty
Trying to make ends meet somehow
Baby, baby, I want to be your lover
But I ain’t got the pocket change
Look at me now my trees are falling
Building a home all over again
Big house, I want it to touch the sky
Big house, a place to laugh and cry
Big house, building a room full of dreams
Big house, I want it to touch the sky
Big house, a place to live and die
Building it over and over and over again
I’m a hammer and I’m a jigsaw
Run my hands on this block of wood
So many souls in this foundation
But it don’t look like it could
Baby, baby, have a little mercy
Give me kindness if you can
Tell me how to go on living
Doing something I can understand
This organizing / rock song was written in 1985 during the first PARC wilderness trip experience at Camp Kandalore. It was first performed in a campfire setting- to inspire member campers and staff to go forward to and collectively undertake the first renovation of the PARC drop-in space. Subsequently, it was sung many times in both solo and band performances, building on the poetic theme of PARC beginning as a living room for people who had none, and someday, through community activity, becoming much more than that.
Over the years Zephie has seen members learning from the professional players and at the same time, the professionals learn from the members. After having played with some of the jazz, blues and country greats, Toby Dancer found himself backing up fellow PARC members with a variety of musical backgrounds and abilities. But then he discovered it as a different kind of challenge, and Bob Rose remembers that Toby learned how to be creative, clever, gentle and welcoming. “He could surround people with the music and be part of these miraculous moments because some of them were fucking amazing.”
PARC has both created and documented some of its music-making history. “Big House,” one of the oldest songs to come out of PARC, is an example of this process. Bob Rose recalled that the song’s lyrics, written at PARC’s summer camp, directed members and staff to “come back ready to fix up the place,” renovating the old PARC building as members and staff alike picked up paint rollers. In doing so, they initiated a tradition of growth and change that continues to this day.
The original Big House lyrics articulate the sense of energy and enthusiasm of the time. The song is often requested and changes slightly to suit the current context at PARC.
Music-making at PARC has grown organically, through little jams, strong friendships and the flow of ideas between performers. Toby’s artist friend Tyde came in to perform, construct imaginative sets and design promotional posters. Many of these posters remain in Bob’s office and form part of what Bob calls “The Tyde Hall of Fame Museum.” Members were needed to prepare the room and other logistics, and soon much of the membership were taking part in one way or another. “We realized we were onto something special because so many people were needed to make it happen… to let the PARC community hear itself, to talk to itself or to sing to itself.”
In this section you can listen to selections of “Jammin”, a CD produced by Toby Dancer featuring Zepheniah James and Toby Dancer backing up many PARC members and staff including: José Bromé, Hazel Jackson, Karen Garson and the PARC drummers. Performances included on “Jammin” were chosen to represent the range and content of the PARC music program, and include live, "off the floor" interactions to convey the inter-active relationship of PARC musicians with their audience.
“Jammin” was a labour of love that took place over many months as PARC member Toby Dancer made audio recordings using accessible and affordable blank video tape to record PARC’s music. Using knowledge gained as a professional musician and recording artist, Toby chose an inexpensive recording tool that used wide band tape to achieve the best home-made collection of whimsical or memorable musical moments and messages. By the end of this project Toby had gathered a large archive of musical recordings from which to select the cuts you can hear on the finished CD.