Raoul Bhaneja’s play Life, Death and the Blues took to the stage in Calgary this weekend as part of the city’s High Performance Rodeo. The show sets out to examine whether a ‘beige guy’ (Bhaneja) can be a true ‘blues artist’ if he hasn’t experienced the history behind the music. It’s an ambitious endeavour, part theatre and part musical performance – attempting to tell the story of the blues, examine issues of race relations and provide the audience with an evening of great music all at once.
Bhaneja is joined by Juno Award Winner Divine Brown, as well as a stellar three piece blues band. Opening the show by explaining his ‘beige’ background (the son of an Indian father and Irish mother), Bhaneja begins to explain to the audience the term ‘stereotype’ whilst portraying a number of black sterotypes himself.
Enter Brown, who spars with Bhaneja over whether it is even appropriate for him to tackle the blues when he hasn’t had the cultural experience of being an African American. It’s an interesting and complicated story the two are trying to tell, and unfortunately I found that the dialogue often faltered and became strained. Musically they are brilliant together, but the back and forth over race prejudice gets stale fast. It’s almost as though Bhaneja is just too nice to convincingly be so arrogant and inflammatory .
Thankfully in the second act we get a more realistic glimpse at Bhaneja’s background and his own desire to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion when he tells us the story of his family’s expulsion from their home in India in 1947. He sings a lullaby in his native tongue while Brown accompanies with the English translation, and it’s simple, beautiful and incredibly heartfelt. Moments like this helped the audience connect directly to the performers, the story and the unifying power of music.
While the story may falter, the music never does. Bhaneja is an accomplished musician in his own right, fronting the band Raoul and the Big Time for fifteen years. His harmonica skills left me in awe, and Brown’s vocal accompaniments are a delight. The lead-up to her Act 2 finale is the story of the death of Montreal harmonica playing/rapper Bad News Brown who was slain in 2011. While I got the sense that focusing on a murdered Canadian was meant to show us that there is still much injustice in the world, the tribute felt disjointed from the story. That said, Brown’s delicate and beautiful prayer song was such a powerful moment of theatre it forgave all that came before.
In the end, you will come out of Life, Death and the Blues having learned something about this musical art form (thanks in part to the stellar projections from Cameron Davis) and likely questioning your own stereotypes, biases and place in the world. As an added bonus, the show picks a different local blues star to join them each night to close out the production, which is a brilliant way to connect to the heart and soul of both the community and the blues.
The final jam session is worth the cost of admission alone – a rare chance to experience soul stirring music that you may have never heard before. The emotions felt in that final number are, in my opinion, the true beauty of Life, Death and the Blues.
When and Where?
Life Death and the Blues
On now until Jan 31st. For more information or to purchase tickets please visit: http://atplive.com/whats-on/life-death-and-the-blues/
For more information on the High Performance Rodeo please visit: https://www.hprodeo.ca/
Raoul Bhaneja, Divine Brown