Music brings the people... well, you know

Published at the Toronto Standard

Slipping into the warm din of 99 Sudbury’s gallery space last night, it was easy to forget about the miserable weather and early onset darkness of November. Laughter and a semi-circle of raucous drummers mellowed the gallery’s pristine air as a large group gathered for a debut concert and CD launch for The Tree, an offshoot of Across Boundaries’ music therapy program.

Situated just north of Eglinton Avenue and Caledonia Road, Across Boundaries is a mental health centre catering to people of colour. “We work from an anti-racism, anti-oppression and holistic framework,” explains executive director Aseefa Sarang, a smiling woman who seems to know everyone in the room. “Our music therapy program is very well-attended. It’s the loudest, most envied program within the agency.” Although music therapy has been in place at Across Boundaries for 15 years, The Tree is a new initiative that aims to storify the musical expression of the agency’s ethnoracial community.

Alex Punzalan is The Tree’s facilitator. For the past four years he’s been embedded in Toronto’s music scene, producing for various artists and performing as part of Styrofoam Ones and Times Neue Roman. It’s also no surprise to discover he’s an alumnus of I.C. Visions (now known as The Remix Project), a government-funded organization serving young people from the GTA’s marginalized and under-served communities. Some of the city’s biggest, brightest creatives have passed through Remix’s doors, either as participants or staff.

“From day one, music and community have been side-by-side in my life but it wasn’t a goal to have a career in music therapy,” explains Punzalan, who grew up in Etobicoke. “I wouldn’t say I do music therapy. Instead, I have jam sessions with participants and see how they respond and feel.” There are no methods or techniques, he says, just the opportunity for each participant to sing, try an instrument or just zone out.

When Across Boundaries client Tess Orcino speaks, bracelets jingle happily. Orcino is 53, slight and friendly, and got the okay from her pastor to miss a church event for The Tree’s debut. Along with cooking class and women’s group, music therapy is one of her favourite programs at Across Boundaries – she says she comes in three or four times per week. Before coming to the agency, Orcino was hospitalized with chronic depression. “At the time I was homeless and they found me a place because I had been living in a shelter,” she says. “Now I’ve been living in a two-bedroom apartment for over a year and it’s been wonderful.” Orcino plays the maracas and says she knows first-hand the benefits of music therapy from a former nursing home job. “Someone can be so still,” she says, “but all of a sudden you’ll see toes tapping and fingers moving.”

Spry, broad-chested retiree Jag Nath is known to most as Mr. J (no relation to the America’s Next Top Model coach). He’s a volunteer with the agency who loves to makes calypso and chutney music, cultural remnants of growing up in Guyana before immigrating to Canada in 1975. “I can sing all kinds of songs and relate to you in a different ways. Like, I can make you laugh,” says Mr. J, before launching into a smile-inducing ditty. “It is good to know some of the (participants), who might have nothing, can come and play a song with me and we can communicate.”

Punzalan finds it liberating to have no knowledge of what participants might be dealing with in their lives. “I get close with clients without talking about their personal issues because they can trust me,” he says. “Music and healing can communicate in ways that don’t need to be described. I focus on unifying each person in the circle, getting them to let go of their outside world for an hour and take a mental break. It’s just like playing in bands with friends.”

Some of his friends show up to play at the concert, part of his idea to move pieces of Toronto’s music scene toward social collaboration. Effervescent musician Maylee Todd, poet/rapper Ian Kamau and singer Saidah Baba Talibah perform their songs in tandem with the surrounding voices, clappers and drummers. It feels like watching a communal art project unfold, and it’s difficult not to get warm and fuzzy about the colliding dynamics: downtown musicians engaging with people who might not normally be exposed to their work, intergenerational and cross-cultural interaction, everyone joining in on Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” At one point Todd cues up a piece on a glowing digital instrument, the Tenori-On. The song is about the sun and afterward, three audience members step up to the mic and talk about how it makes them feel; warm, happy, like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

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