A letter from Jim Cuddy

Guest Column: Jim Cuddy Five dishevelled, leather-jacketed men are waiting in a Los Angeles hotel lobby.
"Are you guys in a band?" someone asks.
"Um, yeah," comes the reply.
"Where're you, from?"
There is a pause.
"That's where they speak French, isn't it?"
Later, on board a plane destined for the umpteenth concert in as many days, another conversation is started up.
"I heard you guys are from Canada," a fellow-traveller chimes, his eyes glowing. "I had a cousin who went to Montreal once."
The last statement is offered as if the listener might know something about him. As seatbelts are buckled and passengers wait for takeoff, a stewardess approaches the Canadian contingent and asks, "Would you like a Toronto newspaper?"
The response is an anxious affirmative, in hopes of being able to catch up on some news from home. The paper is from Halifax.
The Stewardess looks perplexed, but a witness to the scene tries to smooth things over with, "That paper's for the Newfies, right?"
Not quite, he is told. Wrong province.
"Same thing," he winks to the stewardess.
Scenes like these are all too common for Canadian musicians travelling outside the country, especially in the U.S.
Spreading the word of Canadian music can be a treacherous undertaking. Try mistaking Glasgow for London or Maine for New York- somehow the offence seems greater than mixing up Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Canadians do not expect others to know anything about their strange little wilderness, and it comes as no surprise that people in many countries (not all) know little of the Canadian music scene.
The Canadian music scene, it must be admitted, has not always been as fertile and far-reaching as it is today. Canada has a bit of a history of exporting shameless American and British clone bands. Not to begrudge these bands their success, but it hasn't been great for the national reputation.
The present batch of local talents represents original and interesting mistures of styles and influences. K.d. Lang, the Cowboy Junkies, Colin James, Jeff Healey and Mary Margaret O'Hara are all acts gaining an international profile and are selling records. All are very popular in their own country but it is their travels that have made them popular elsewhere.
Canadians have always been good at blending musical styles. Mixing rock, country, blues, folk and jazz and coming up with a new sound has produced many Canadian stars. American reviews of Canadian music often refer to the "mastery of American music styles" or contain comments like "digging into American roots," yet in the same articles influences of The Band, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell (all Canadians) are mentioned.
Perhaps it is the observer's distance Canadians have from the origins of older music styles that gives us the freedom to alter them. Canada cannot lay claim to any of the blues originators or rock and roll inventors, but Canadians did help these styles grow and change. Canadians have helped to reinvent these styles rather than to slavishly reproduce them. Too much reverence is often a bad thing -- remember the Beatles started as bad Motown imitators.
When a Canadian band goes on the road into other countries we are viewed, from lack of information, as mysterious and exotic (hard to believe, isn't it?). Much like the reaction to the Australian cultural wave, people in other lands can't quite fathom that good music could come from a place they know nothing about.
In rock and roll circles, the Cowboy Junkies have done an enormous amount to gain respect for Canadian music. Their originality and beautiful Trinity Sessions album have helped spearhead a "Canadian wave". Add to this the success of Jeff Healey, k.d. Lang and Colin James, and it has people talking.

Some countries are more generous in participating in the "wave" than others, probably depending on how strong their own domestic music scene is. England is not likely to concede that really good music can come from outside its hallowed ground. But recent performances by the Canadians just mentioned have caused more than a ripple if less than a wave.

Germany, on the other hand, seems to love Canada and Canadian music. There are a lot of Canadian servicemen in Germany and about 95 per cent of the music on German radio is in English, Canadians, from my experience, are well thought of and are distinguished from Americans. There is a lot of Canadian music played on the radio, and the Germans are impressed by good live performances. Here is where Canadians-generally, seasoned live acts-can make a strong impression. Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain seem to be pretty much informed by England and America. Videos and live performances are necessary steps to gain a profile in those countries.

Scandinavia is very receptive to Canadian music. Leonard Cohen's most recent album stayed at the top of the charts in Norway for 26 weeks. There are a lot of touring possibilities in these countries and Canadian music is generally known. It needn't be hugely successful in America or England to be given a chance in Scandinavia- perhaps there is some kind of cold-climate kinship with Canadians.

As for the United States, I'm pretty sure that when Americans are taught geography in school the area on the map north of the 49th Parallel is represented by a blank space marked:"Up There". No matter how great your Canadian success, you start all over again when you go to the States. The rewards can be great, but the journey is very difficult. Americans, for the most part, do not recognize a distinct Canadian sound.

American radio is a hard door to open, but many Canadian bands these days can impress with live playing.
The quality of Canadian music, and recently the quantity, is starting to add up in the States. Slowly but surely.
I'm not sure what will happen next on the Canadian music scene, but it seems pretty healthy. One of the greatest changes lately has been a willingness by Canadians to support domestic music. Traditionally, Canadian bands had to "make it" somewhere else before they were accepted at home. That's not so any more, and that provides bands some stability so they can continue to chip away in foreign countries.

------------------------------------------------------------------------ This letter appears courtesy of Country, Canada's Country Music Magazine.