From Bell Centre to Phi Centre

Sara Diamond is more than an opening act

Montreal’s 23-year-old Sara Diamond is used to singing in front of a crowd of more than 20,000, but on Nov. 29, all 300 eyes at the Phi Centre were there to see the R&B artist shine her own light.

Diamond is most known throughout the city as one of the Montreal Canadiens’ national anthem singers. She began performing the American national anthem throughout the 2013-14 Habs playoff season and has since been asked back regularly, having become a fan favourite. However, Diamond’s lengthy and complex career with music began years before she made her way to the Bell Centre.

“My mom started a label when she was pregnant. When I was 5 or 6, she started recording stuff and writing, and she was like ‘my daughter can sing! Produce her.’” said Diamond.

At 10 years old, Diamond began working with a vocal coach who helped her apply for a FACTOR (Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings) grant, a non-profit organization that provides financial assistance to Canadian musicians. After getting accepted, a representative on the board of FACTOR told her that she was talented and that they wanted to manage her.

From a young age, Diamond had a lot of support from the people around her when it came to her future in music. Her manager then brought her to audition in Los Angeles for a girls group that was being formed by Interscope Records. Just four days after arriving in L.A., Diamond was signed and would go on to spend the next year and a half living in California with her mother. While the Clique Girlz group only lasted three months due to management and parental disputes, Diamond stuck around to see what the city had to offer her as a solo artist. However, her shyness, loneliness and lack of organization as a teenager prevented her from growing as an artist so she decided to leave L.A.

“I kept telling myself, ‘I wish I were home. I don’t want to be here,’” Diamond said. “It wasn’t the right time. By the end of it I was like ‘if I’m in L.A., I want to be famous. I don’t want be here. I’m homesick. I’m sad.’”

When Diamond returned to Montreal, she felt like her experience in L.A. had ruined singing for her, at least for the time being. She instead spent her teen years experiencing everything she had missed out on years before. “When I got home, I got to experience everything I wanted to do. The heartache, the love, the high school drama and all that stuff to write about,” Diamond said.

When she turned 19, Diamond was thrust back into music when offered the chance to audition to sing the national anthem for the Montreal Canadiens. At the age of 12, Diamond had sung for the Alouettes and always wanted to sing for the Habs. After auditioning and getting the gig, the singer performed the National Anthem during the playoff season. Once the season was over, Diamond was unsure whether she would be asked back.

“I guess because I wasn’t really doing anything music-wise, feeling that passion again from the Habs stuff kind of brought that back to me and I found that love again,” Diamond said. “I started working on music again. Just recording, and writing.”
Diamond began working with friends who also hoped to help her thrive in the Montreal music scene. However, she was initially rejected after applying for a FACTOR grant. Behind-the-scenes complications, along with more heartbreak, resulted in her aspirations falling apart.

Diamond described her journey with music as a lot of “almosts.” She once had a handshake deal with Universal Canada that almost went through, but management restructuring weeks later stopped them from taking on any new signees. It was not until Diamond recorded a song with Rebel House Records and the Montreal Children’s Hospital for P.K. Subban’s event that the pieces started coming back together again.

“Everything’s kind of happened super organically,” Diamond said. “Ever since I came back from L.A., there’s been this struggle between ‘I don’t want to do music, but something pulls me back towards it.’ It’s cool cause I’m really just riding the wave.”

And riding the wave seems to be what Diamond does best. After being accepted for a FACTOR grant last December, Sara Diamond released her first seven-track EP entitled Foreword. On Thursday night, the artist performed her biggest solo show in front of family, friends, and fans at the Phi Centre. It was clear the crowd had been waiting a long time to see Diamond in the spotlight after years of build-up in anticipation of the musician’s local debut.

Sara Diamond wows spectators at Phi Centre during Foreword’s Montreal debut. Photo by Jacob Carey.

After opening act Toito performed, Diamond hit the stage and sang all seven songs from Foreword. The artist also paid homage to her inspirations by performing covers of “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys and “Thinkin Bout You” by Frank Ocean. Diamond finished the night by singing “Ride,” a track that has yet to be released. The crowd was visibly wowed by her natural stage presence and her radiant smile that she frequently shone to fans.

Sara Diamond may have had a busy 2018, and 2019 shows no signs of slowing down. Her single with Montreal electronic duo Adventure Club, “Follow Me,” was released last week. She just debuted her music video for “Know My Name” on Billboard, and Diamond just finished opening for Tyler Shaw in Montreal and Quebec City. Next week, she’ll be premiering new music. And, she promises more to come in the New Year.

“I think it’s just the beginning, I hope,” Diamond said. “It’s like part two—the next chapter.”

Feature photo by Jacob Carey.


Death of the musician

Much like the literature, music is open to different experiences

The musician’s individual originality is dead. Talk about artistic intent is largely fruitless. In the era of sampling, tributes and trends, it’s hard to know the intent of the musicians who contributed—directly or indirectly—to the song. What does originality really mean in this era, and how original can music truly be? All artists are influenced by the people who came before them. No artistic work is truly original, and variety is a great thing. Like any artistic medium, you have to understand what came before you to make your own work.

To a certain extent, every artist acknowledes their influences. Radiohead is literally named after the 1986 Talking Heads song “Radio Head,” which they have listed as one of their favourite groups. They even worked with producers of the Pixies, who are one of their biggest influences. “Idioteque,” one of Radiohead’s signature songs and an amazing song to experience live, uses a sample from Paul Lansky’s 1976 song “Mild und Leise.”

Despite the fact that people say Radiohead has an “original sound,” they have clear influences, that might not have stylistic traces in their music, but references their production style and work ethic.

Sampling also complicates artistic intent and the originality of an idea. Take Drake’s collaboration track with Rihanna “Take Care” in 2012. The song samples a 2011 Jamie xx track, “I’ll Take Care of U,” which already has a sample of Gil Scott-Heron song of the same name (2010).  That song is a cover of the original version by Bobby Bland. Drake and Rihanna’s song is the fourth version of the same song. Each version carries so much history, and it’s great to see how a song from 1960 transformed into a contemporary pop hit in 2012.

Each artist presumably had their own intent in recording the song, and each version retains the original vision and eventually expands it. With each new iteration of the same song, new ideas are added, and the vibe changes completely.

Drake uses 52 years of history to share a personal and intimate experience on “Take Care” in collaboration with Rihanna, who brought her own style and influences along with her. Drake’s song is tender and personal, whole but cold at the same time, which Jamie xx brought to the Scott-Heron track one year earlier. Drake and Rihanna add their own textures to the song.

Originality doesn’t really matter because “Take Care” is an amazing track. Sampling is not as lazy as some artists say, it’s a way of sharing a sense of musical history. Crafting a song from a sample is an amazingly intricate artform, much like playing the instruments yourself.

Musicians aren’t the only ones who create musical experiences, audiences also create meaning. People experience music in different ways and in different situations. Does the artist’s intention really matter if people interpret music subjectively? I think not. The beauty of music creation and listening is the act of interpretation and experience.

Artistic intention is a muddled field; did Bobby Bland imagine his song being used 52 years later? Like every single artform, music is cultural and historical. Culture is passed on from generation to generation, with each generation making subtle changes, and occasionally monumental shifts happen as a result of different factors. Music is much more than the individual musician’s originality.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin


Wray Downes: Not just a music man

Jazz pianist Downes talks about his many careers and his love of teaching

“It’s cold out there!” exclaims Wray Downes, as he settles into a chair in the music department’s large conference room, located in Concordia’s GM building.  “At least it’s not raining,” he adds, with genuine relief, as he takes off his cloth bucket hat and unzips his jacket.  On the table, he sets down the only item he is carrying: a copy of Ted Gioia’s book, History of Jazz.  Downes pulls a small parking ticket out of his big winter jacket. “Oh, we’ve got plenty of time,” he says, before tucking it safely back into his jacket pocket.

Looking across the table at one of the most famous Canadian jazz musicians of all time, it is charming and unnerving to see that, at the end of the day, Downes is just another 86-year-old man who will just as happily discuss the weather and parking as he will his career.

Downes, born Rupert Arnold Downes, is a celebrated jazz pianist, composer and conductor.  The musician was born in Toronto on Jan. 14, 1931. With racial discrimination present in Toronto in the 30s and 40s, Downes says life was hard growing up, but his character made it easier. “I had a big mouth, I could run fast and I also had a big fist. So, I could fight my way,” he says.

Downes recalls life was also hard because his parents didn’t have much money. He says they had to make a lot of sacrifices for him to take piano lessons for the first few years. His father was a porter. Downes says, back then, it was considered a good job at $125 to $150 a week. But with piano lessons costing $10 a week and the paycheck rolling in every two weeks, he says it wasn’t easy. So when Downes’ mother found out he could play in piano competitions for money and scholarships, the game started to change.

At 13, Downes started participating in music competitions. Quickly, he started winning… a lot. Downes recalls giving his father attitude when he would get scolded for not practicing. “When my father said… ‘Well you didn’t practice today!’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, but I just won 700 bucks for a scholarship, man!’” Downes said, leaning back in his chair theatrically and folding his hands behind his head. “I was mouthy and cheeky,” he says with a smile, and a glimmer of pride.

At just 18 years old, in 1949, Downes became the first Canadian to win the prestigious British Empire Scholarship to the Trinity College of Music in London. There, Downes recalls, there was “subtle prejudice,” which he first experienced while searching for a place to live.

He says he would see nice-looking rooms for board in the paper, give the owners a call and set up a time to visit. But then, when he arrived, the owners had magically found someone who better suited their needs. Downes started to understand what was going on. “I thought, ‘this crap is over here too.’” Luckily, he eventually found a room to call home, at Mrs. Stanley’s home.  He recalls the small elderly British lady giving him quite a different welcome than the other landlords had.

“She said, ‘oh you’re the first one! Come in!’ and she gave me a big hug.  And I just about swallowed my face.”

After his time in London, Downes would go on to study at other prestigious music schools, including the Paris Conservatory and, eventually, Oscar Peterson’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. Peterson, one of Downes’ many mentors, was the one who suggested Downes try out jazz. Downes recalls the switch to jazz first happening when a London recruiting agency refused him because he was black. “He said, ‘I don’t think we can do anything for a black person.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t quite understand.’  And he just said, ‘What I am going to do with you?’”

Downes’ and Dave Young’s Juno award-winning album, Au Privave. Press Photo

While Downes had to deal with similar situations throughout his life and career, he said he eventually learned not to give into anger. “Anger doesn’t do anything. Anger only affects you, because the other person doesn’t know that you’re angry, you know? Don’t let [yourself] do this to yourself. I learned that lesson a long time ago,” he says.

Downes’ jazz career kicked off in the mid-50s, when he toured all over France and Spain with Bill Coleman, a world renowned jazz trumpeter.  He would go on to work with other big jazz musicians like Buck Clayton, Annie Ross, Milt Jackson, Coleman Jackson and Lester Young, to name a few. He would eventually lead his own trios and quartets and release albums. In 1982, Downes won the Juno award for Best Jazz Album for his and Dave Young’s album, Au Privave.

Although music was always an important part of Downes’ life and career, it was never the only part.

On top of being a jazz pianist, Downes took breaks from piano to be a short-order chef, a chauffeur and a drapery installer. He finally turned to teaching in 1990. “I always did want to teach. I always did want to give back somehow, somewhere. And then, Concordia came calling.”  Downes says he enjoys teaching and mentoring students, and is joyful in helping them find their own style and success.

Downes says he likes to reinforce to his students that, as a musician, it is always important to keep the audience in mind. “I say this to my students: you got to get out there and understand the people that you’re playing to. Because, no people in the club, and you’re out of work.”  Downes says he learnt this lesson a long time ago, when he was told he couldn’t just play his bebop, because some want to hear the standards.

Downes’s 1995 album, For You, E.
Press Photo

“You’re playing for those folks, because they’re the ones who put the money in your pocket and the bread and butter on your table. And, if you adhere to that, then success, hopefully, will come your way. But don’t look down on those people,” says Downes, his tone serious, and his respect for his audience apparent.

Downes is an extremely respected figure in the Canadian jazz scene. However, he is equally respected within academia. “Wray represents a vital link to the past,” says Joshua Ranger, an assistant professor in Concordia’s department of jazz studies. “It’s said that jazz music advances while standing on the shoulders of giants—and Wray is one of our giants.”  He says that Downes teaches jazz in the way of Oscar Peterson and Phineas Newborn Jr.—two jazz moguls. “Sadly, Wray is one of the last such teachers, and the fact that he is still at it after so many years really is a testament to his energy and tenacity.”

These days, Downes contents himself with teaching, cooking, spending time with his wife and kids and playing piano when he wants to. “Been there, done that,” says Downes with a laugh about his jet-setting and musically-busy past.

As he gets up to leave, Downes zips up his winter coat and secures his cloth bucket hat back on his head.  He tucks his book back under his arm before walking out the door to go house to play with his dog, play some piano or maybe cook.


The magic of street performance

Charles Rangel, rock-based lap guitarist native to Los Angeles

Visiting Los Angeles this summer, I knew I would come across a multitude of talented street performers. The one who marked me most is musician Charles Rangel, also known as the “Dime Store Novelist.” I noticed him on 3rd street Promenade in Santa Monica as he was playing lap guitar while trap tapping to “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles. I was in awe. He played lap guitar so naturally and effortlessly, although it looked difficult to do.

Charles Rangel currently performs in the Los Angeles area and in Las Vegas.  You would think by the way he plays that he was born with a guitar in hand. Surprisingly, the 27-year-old musician only started street performing at the age of 20. “I was a band geek in high school, and I wanted to be a rock star. When I was around 20, I was getting out of college,” he said. “I was taking these music classes. I wanted to play and start working, no more sitting in a classroom. That’s when I started street performing.”

He said performing on the streets has given him freedom and the ability to control how much money he makes. “The better you get, the more people give you money, the better you feel about your craft,” he explained. “Street performing is a great way for people to be interested in your music. It brings really cool opportunities throughout the years.” It was on the street that he heard about a stage competition by Rolling Stone magazine back in 2011. He submitted his songs, and was featured in four issues of the magazine. He won and got to perform at the Rolling Stone party.

Check out Charles Rangel’s YouTube channel: “The Dime Store Novelist”. Photo by Dmitry Voznesensky

His music can be described as delicate instrumental rhythms that make you want to lay back and enjoy the breeze—they are borderline romantic tunes. Some tracks also have lyrics and a bluesy-rock vibe. Seeing him perform live, I could only wonder where he got those lap guitar moves. “I was just strolling through a music store in Orange County and some guy said ‘Man, you have to go check out this guy here, he plays lap guitar.’ I watched him play and asked him how he does it. I began listening to him and did it,” Rangel said. “I took it to the street and played the same riff over and over again until some bum yelled, ‘play something different!” He said street performing is what keeps him going. “The style I play on my lap is 95 per cent self-taught. I began making things up with it. I have to create techniques on how to play.”

As much as he enjoys street performing, he said his goal is to tour and to make a good living writing songs. “I want to exert a lot of energy on stage. My number one goal is to tour independently or with a band,” said Rangel. His creative process is rather interesting. He said he can write 10 songs in a day if he wanted to. “When I’m driving, I’ll play the instrumental in the car and sing over it, that’s how I wrote most of my songs,” said Rangel. Anything can inspire him, he said. “What I hear in my dreams is f***** awesome and I have no idea how to recreate it so I wake up and hum it into my phone.”

Rangel also performed in Montreal. He toured across Canada with Canadian rapper Nova Rockafeller who hired him as her guitar player in the fall of 2015. They toured with All Time Low and Set it off.  “Set it off was like my favourite,” said Rangel. “I really enjoyed watching them perform. That tour was a very good experience—it made me want to be a rapper actually.” When he’s street performing, his favourite spots to play are in Texas at the SXSW music festival and the Santa Monica Pier. “Performing on the Santa Monica Pier, there’s just something romantic about it. The ocean behind you, couples are holding hands… it just creates an atmosphere,” said Rangel.

How does he want his music to make people feel? “I want people to feel really good and take their clothes off. That’s what first came to mind,” he said. His advice to street performers: “Be courteous and respectful to other musicians, have fun and don’t set up in my spot.”

Rangel is currently working on a new album.

Check out Rangel’s music at


Kevin Moquin and the Bad Ideas: not such a bad idea!

Kevin Moquin plays electric guitar the same way that he dresses—in homage to another time.
The Concordia student and Virginia native performed his original compositions with Mat Lobraico on upright bass and Brandon Goodwin on drums under the band name Kevin Moquin and the Bad Ideas at Cagibi on Jan. 22.
Moquin’s freshly-pressed suit, black thick-rimmed specs, polite stage banter and the twang of his guitar echoed a rockabilly country western star of the 1950s. As the sound pouring out of the speakers amplified and the guitar playing got angrier, the Bad Ideas no longer seemed agreeable enough to be simply branded “country.”
Moquin’s arrangements reflect his punk rock youth, classical jazz studies, and a growing penchant for old-fashioned country rock.
Local music fiends may recognize Moquin as the guitar player for The Jimmyriggers. He has toured with the band through Ontario and the Maritimes, on top of opening for CCR and well known Québécois musician Michel Pagliaro last year. He also plays steel guitar for the Custom Outfit, a Montreal punk-bluegrass-country band.
“I started right off in the country scene when I moved here over two years ago,” said Moquin, “but it just got bigger when I started playing with other bands.”
Growing up just outside Washington, D.C., Moquin claims having almost no exposure to country. His father played guitar and bass around the house, but Moquin didn’t pick up the guitar until he broke his leg skateboarding.
“The only thing I had to do was play guitar, so that was when I first got into it, and progressively got more serious about it,” he said.
He played in punk rock bands throughout high school, studied guitar privately after graduation, and was eventually hired as a full-time guitar instructor for three years at the same school he once took lessons at.
It wasn’t until he heard the 2006 self-titled release by The Little Willies, an alternative country band featuring Norah Jones on vocals and piano and Jim Campilongo on guitar, that his music taste changed.
“Their record changed my life and my view of country,” he admitted. “It was just so country, but in a different direction. It wasn’t from the pop side, but instead very sophisticated, and at the same time very gutsy and bluesy. I didn’t know what Campilongo played was possible, it showed me how musical the guitar can be.”
Moquin is confident that the original defining elements of rock ’n’ roll—country western and rhythm and blues—are making their way back into popular music.
“To me, the older style of country, or underground country, is becoming the new style of rock ’n’ roll. It’s what people are turning towards to try and escape,” Moquin explained. “I feel like the definition of mainstream rock ’n’ roll is changing.”
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