Raoul Bhaneja lives and breathes the blues. Actually, one might say Bhaneja is something of a blues nerd. Ask him about the history of the blues, and he’ll share with you all sorts of facts and information about the greats. Bhaneja is also quite talented at playing the harmonica, or mississippi saxophone. Not a big surprise given that he fronts Raoul Bhaneja and The Big Time, an award-winning Canadian blues band active since 1998.
The question is, does Bhaneja truly understand the blues?
A Theatre Passe Muraille production, in association with Hope and Hell Theatre Co., Life, Death and The Blues is a night of social commentary splashed with music. Bhaneja, who wrote and conceived the show, is joined by Juno-award winning R & B and Soul singer Divine Brown. Together, Bhaneja and Brown stage a dialogue concerning cultural ownership.
Bhaneja is not black, and therefore he can’t understand the blues, argues Brown, a woman of color. Born to an Indian father and Irish mother, Bhaneja’s experience as a ‘beige’ man is not comparable to that of a black man. The blues, Brown says, tell a long history of racial inequality in America and struggle that persists today. The African-American experience is the blues, and vice versa. Experience is not something so easily taken away from any book, or trip down south visiting important blues figures.
As part of their (hit-and-miss) banter, Brown tells Bhaneja to let the music speak, than him jabber on like a textbook, the show’s biggest problem. The music isn’t given room to sufficiently breathe. Moreover, Brown isn’t given that much room either to showcase her tremendously powerful voice. Thankfully, the second act is much better at showcasing Brown’s talent than the first. Even still, Brown isn’t really given that much else to do while Bhaneja goes full steam ahead on with the history of the blues.
That being said, the narrative, staged in documentary form, is fairly interesting. Bhaneja does a good job of demonstrating how the blues is born from and intrinsically linked to black culture. The questions raised don’t necessarily lead to an engaging long-form conversation, but they succeed in stirring thought towards the social character of music genres, and self-identification.
The personal element doesn’t kick in until the second act, where the blues and Bhaneja’s biography come together. The blues becomes less of a simple fascination, and more of an escape to a common ground. The blues takes on a more universal character that goes beyond racial inequality and to struggle itself.
And then, Bhaneja and Brown pay tribute to Montreal rapper Bad News Brown, an emerging harmonica talent who was murdered in cold blood. The narrative struggles to transition smoothly into Bad News Brown’s death and those of other young black men like Trayvon Martin. The message is clear, the black experience continues to be shaped and influenced by violence. While true and important, this part of the show feels slightly out of place because it isn’t as well developed as the previous portions. Nonetheless, the tribute is sung beautifully by Brown, earning her a cascade of applause. Truly the most breathtaking performance at this year’s High Performance Rodeo.
The night ends with a community jam where the three-piece blues band onstage (Upright Bass: Chris Banks; Drums: Tom Bona; Guitar: Jake Chisholm) is joined by a local blues legend to play music. Greg Demchuk is the night’s invited guest, and what a performance! Demchuk and the band bring the house down. An electric jam that ends the show with a bang.
Presented by Alberta Theatre Projects & One Yellow Rabbit, as part of the 30th Annual High Performance Rodeo, Life, Death and The Blues is a show that more or less hits the right notes. The wealth of musical talent onstage alone is enough, really. It’s just too bad that the narrative and music don’t mesh very well. Regardless, audiences will not leave unsatisfied.
Raoul Bhaneja’s Life, Death and The Blues runs Jan 19 – 31 at the Martha Cohen Theatre, as part of the 2016 High Performance Rodeo.
For information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: https://www.hprodeo.ca/2016/life-death-and-the-blues