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Oct. 12, 2012

A musical creativity in flux

Barbara Adler looks beyond spoken word to the world of Fang.

Barbara Adler is a one-woman dynamo, the only one way to describe this talented 29-year-old – a gifted singer-songwriter-musician-performer-poet-youth-ambassador. Many in the Jewish community were introduced to Adler and her critically acclaimed folk music band, the Fugitives, when they performed at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver Jewish Book Festival a few years ago to a crowd of 400, setting the usually staid Wosk Auditorium on fire (figuratively, of course).

Adler met with the Jewish Independent at a somewhat grungy coffee shop on Commercial Drive to speak about the new love in her life, her career plans and the “well-meaning but uninformed” seder she held with her Italian roommate.

“Welcome to my office … everyone should have a place they call their own,” she said. “For me, this is it.”

Adler has been an important part of the Canadian indie music scene for the past 11 years. As a founding member of the Fugitives, Adler and fellow band members Mark Berube, C.R. Avery and Brendan McLeod made a name for themselves touring North America and Europe, spreading the gospel of what’s known as spoken word. Introducing new audiences and demographics to poetry, spoken-word poets have added an innate coolness to what can be regarded as a conservative literary genre.

“Spoken word is kind of an umbrella term that covers a lot of literary and poetry performances,” Adler explained, clearly used to having to describe this relatively new literary and performance category. “Spoken word is a really big category that involves a lot of things ... performance poetry, standup comedy is spoken word, some people call rap and hip hop spoken word, storytelling, and then the big category with the biggest audience is slam poetry.

“Slam poetry,” she continued, “is basically a competition for people who do performance poetry…. It’s usually high energy, the topics are controversial, a lot of personal triumphs-over-adversity poems, quick, easy-to-understand poems.”

Adler grew up in a house full of music, but musical is not the way she chooses to describe her family.

“I was brought up in more of a word family,” she said. “My mom and dad both did linguistics. My dad works at MOSAIC [Multilingual Orientation Service Association for Immigrant Communities] so he is involved in translation and interpretation services for immigrants. My mom teaches English, so does my sister, actually … words were always a bigger deal.

“Music was a social deal that would happen at any family gathering we have. My dad brings out the acoustic guitars and runs through his 20 or 30 Czech folk songs, my family is Czech,” she added. “My dad is a big storyteller, a big talker, and his favorite stories are about growing up in communist Czechoslovakia and going to see jazz and going to see his friends who played jazz. I wouldn’t say we were musical but the idea of caring about music has been there the entire time, all the heroes in my dad’s stories were crazy musicians.”

On the subject of Jewish identity, Adler is candid. “My dad is Jewish … but I think people think I’m more Jewish than I am – maybe because of my face a little bit, or maybe some of my mannerisms, maybe my last name. What is Jewish about my family, maybe, is that my dad is really proud of that side of himself, you know, and he really likes telling the Jewish jokes where the Jewish person is the smartest person in the room – he loves that humor! He loves telling stories about Jewish ingenuity, and the resilience of the people, the education … the hero stories … but we were brought up with no [Jewish] rituals.” She continued, “It’s, like, it would be great to know more, but it’s one of those things where I’m so far behind, you know, that admitting how much I don’t know is a little intimidating as an adult coming in.”

This past April, Adler and her roommate celebrated what she somewhat self-consciously described as a “fake seder.”

“Let’s call it a well-meaning but uninformed seder,” she later clarified via e-mail. “My roommate and I are both interested in reconnecting with rituals, especially those surrounding food. We have dinners celebrating forgotten holidays like Tubilustrium, the Roman holiday of trumpet cleaning, and Lammas, an old English day celebrating the wheat harvest. We recently had dinner to celebrate International Cat Day. We do this as a way to make food and cooking more meaningful, and to mark time through the year. In that spirit, we did our best to do an approximation of a seder. We researched the foods on the seder plate and put that together for the meal. We didn’t do any specific parts of the ritual or tell the stories that you’re supposed to, but eating a plain meal together and thinking about the symbolism behind the food felt meaningful in a mongrel kind of way.”

After returning to Vancouver from a five-week, cross-Canada tour with her own band, Fang, Adler recently announced a big career change. Not only has she decided to leave the Fugitives and focus on her solo career but she’ll be taking a break from spoken word altogether. In a heartfelt posting on her website, Adler reached out to fans, explaining, “What I really want to do is play obnoxious music with a band of people I love and tell the odd story....”

“I want to focus more on Fang,” she told the Independent. “I jokingly call it Vancouver’s première accordion shout-rock band; it’s the only one, that’s why we win that title. It’s a trio – accordion, drums and bass – it’s pretty aggressive, ridiculous music. I sing a little bit, but mostly I [shout-scream],” she said, demonstrating for a moment at the table.

Described in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra program guide (Adler has been the featured performer at past VSO elementary school concerts) as a band that “combines disastrously energetic word and song mash-ups, with an idiosyncratic take on accordion playing meant to counteract anything polka ever did to you, or anyone you love,” Adler describes Fang’s music as “punky, bratty and really fun.”

On the band’s Facebook page, the group is colorfully described: “Fang gives the big kiss-off to guitar-led rock trios and plays its devastatingly exuberant word and song mash-ups on 120-bass piano accordion, electric bass and drums. Its lyrics are snap-shot stories and one-liners written by your rattlesnake-mouthed, laugh-in-church-funny little sister. Quick-witted, irreverent, and surprisingly danceable, Fang is out to make you forget anything that polka has ever done to you.”

“Part of this decision is to, maybe, to do things that people might not like and that is the most exciting thing in this world,” she explained of her new direction. “I don’t actually know what I’m going to do with that ... the idea of just, like, giving yourself permission to do something because it is completely interesting to you [even though] it might not work for the audience is huge.” She added, “I’ve been wanting to do this forever.”

While she is making big changes to her music career, Adler is not making any change to her role as the school liaison for the B.C. Schizophrenia Society’s ReachOut Psychosis campaign and concert tour, which reaches more than 85,000 high school students throughout the province.

It is also clear that Adler has a new love in her life – in addition to her boyfriend (who also plays in both her bands). The new and unlikely object of her passion is her accordion.

“I love the accordion,” she said. “It’s an easy instrument to personify. It has an organic quality – the way it works, the bellows, the instrument breathes … it’s like a crotchety being that you have to fill with air so it can breathe. If you open it up, you’ll see a crazy metal box, the button pushes the lever, a leather flap opens, a lot of really specific mechanical things have to happen to make it work. It’s one of those things that should never work. They’re really finicky, really delicate. Every accordion has something wrong with it but, miraculously and stubbornly, they keep playing. I like the idea of an instrument that’s broken.... I totally identify myself with the accordion.”

Nicole Nozick is a Vancouver freelance writer and director of the Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival.