Category Archives: Local

Two tickets to the gun show

A math teacher named Heidi the Tower took home the championship belt last week at the Women’s Arm-Wrestling Championship.

BY: Tom Henheffer

 

Photograph by Tom Henheffer

 

 

Queen West’s 751 bar transformed into a packed sweatbox of cheers, running mascara and sequin-wrapped female aggression at last Saturday’s Women’s Arm-Wrestling Championship.

“You’d better bring your bulletproof vest, cause I brought my guns,” shouted Bling Bling Blingdra, the surprisingly petite two-time champion, before one match. Wearing tasseled knee-highs and a pink tiger-print tank top, the event’s main villain (and biggest draw) is known for her braggadocio.

“My biceps are bigger than Kanye West’s ego,” she boasted.

The 16-competitor championship, in which all the women have personas and stage names (Faye-Tality, Scarlette O’Terror) and theme music (mostly metal), was first held last July. Steve Rock, a local event promoter, thought it up when he noticed women locking palms on a bar patio. The first event featured six participants and a small crowd of friends. But Saturday’s match, and the ensuing dance party, drew more than 300 people.

All the event proceeds go to Planned Parenthood, but audiences are really there to see the soap-operaesque storylines play out. Scarlette O’Terror, known for her leather outfits and gyrating, heavy-metal entrances, won the first event in July, only to be twice beaten by Blingdra in ensuing matches. Fans came from as far as Ottawa for Saturday’s grudge match between the two, but a first-timer going by Heidi the Tower—a math teacher by day—went undefeated in the early rounds, knocking O’Terror out of the competition. “Growing up with my brothers I always arm-wrestled for fun,” said Heidi.

The bar was sweltering before the final and the crowd, packed into a five-deep circle, burst into opposing chants for the two competitors. Blingdra stood, flexing and holding the championship belt over her head. Heidi looked on, dancing reservedly when the music swelled. But her demureness disappeared once the match began, and she quickly rapped the champs’ knuckles against the velvet pads.

As the crowd filtered out, the smiling newbie stood with the shiny plastic belt on her shoulder.

“My students are gonna go nuts for this,” she said, nodding toward the trophy.

 

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Taking the show on the road

Can’t bear the the thought of sitting in a theatre in the middle of August? With their new production, The Pedaler’s Wager, Clay and Paper Theatre bring the entertainment to you by bicycle.

A parade of bikers—towing drums, horns and three over-sized mechanical puppets—shanghaied a sleepy Shaw Street on Sunday with a cacophony of bells, yelps and cries, calling bystanders to join their migrating pageant.

It was intermission between acts one and two during a performance of The Pedaler’s Wager, a multi-site mobile play by the Cycling-Oriented Puppet Squad from Clay and Paper Theatre. The three-part play requires performers to pack their puppets, instruments and set decorations into blue wooden bike trailers and travel between makeshift stages in Dufferin Grove (#BCT), Fred Hamilton (#OSS) and Trinity Bellwoods (#WQW) parks.

“We were quite curious as to whether the audience would follow us,” said David Anderson, the theatre’s artistic director and co-author of the play, which debuted in mid-July. “Our performers are very brave people, and sometimes the audience isn’t quite as brave.”

At least 50 people—many of them curious pedestrians and idle park-dwellers drawn in by the spectacle—turned out for the three stationary acts, and a dedicated handful of cycling playgoers joined the parades between stages.

“I like this play a lot,” said Isaak North, a nine-year-old who, with a few friends, decided to tag along for the whole two-hour show when he caught the first act after his soccer practice. “It’s funny, it’s really entertaining and really creative.”

The play, a vaudevillian allegory about the evils of wealth and excess in the modern era, tells the simple story of a poor family—played in turns by small blue puppets and burlap-clad actors—forced from its farm by developers. The villains, Baron Boots and Lady Grabsome, are two enormous-headed, 10-foot-tall papier-mâché puppets perched on the shoulders of actors. Thirsty for oil and in need of workers, they greedily lure the family to the city with promises of glitz, leisure and cheap iPods.

“The theme is forced migration, which is endemic in this world,” said Anderson, adding that biking to different locations reinforces the idea and is “an attempt to illustrate how effective bicycles can be.” Anderson hopes the show will help lure more investment in the puppet squad, because its three-year federal funding deal is about to run out. Performances continue tonight until Aug. 14; check Clay and Paper Theatre’s website for schedule.

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Wongs Unite

Confused shouts in Mandarin, Cantonese and English rose from the crowds of sweating octogenarians on Saturday afternoon as teenaged guides led the seniors back onto school buses.

Minutes earlier the enthused elders had posed for the camera alongside their children and grandchildren as part of the 2011 Wongs’ National Convention. Over 500 people smiled under the arches of the Ontario legislature as they tried to break the record for the world’s largest family photo.

It was—with the exception of some confusion at the end—one of the highlights of the 2011 convention. The weekend-long event, held every three years in rotating cities, brings together thousands of Wongs from Canada and across the globe to celebrate the heritage of the world’s second most common surname.

“We have Russian Wongs, Jamaican Wongs—you might not be tied by blood, but you’re tied by heritage, ” said Henry Wong, one of the event planners, as performers in red Chinese lion costumes did a good-luck dance nearby.

The Wongs were among the pioneers of Chinese immigration to Canada, first arriving during the gold rush of the mid 1800s, then coming in droves to break their backs laying down the CN railway.

The Wong Association, which started in Vancouver in the early 1900s and quickly spread across the country, helped turn the family’s difficult start around. It became a kind of unofficial credit union, giving immigrants the cash they needed after spending their savings on the Chinese head tax.

Now the organization, which is mostly run by retirees elected as elders, works to preserve that history by concentrating on youth. Events like the family photo, cross-country trips and an annual dragon-boat race bring the oldest and youngest generations together.

But the family members assembled on Saturday didn’t even come close to breaking the world record for the largest family photo, set in 2009 by the Lilly clan of West Virginia. To do that, they would have needed a full 2,000 more Wongs.

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Brunch, with a side of the future

The smell of stale beer lingered from the previous night’s dance party in Clinton’s dimly lit back room.

“I don’t like working in a pub,” said dreadlocked palm-reader Melanie Ollenberg, as she examined a client’s outstretched hands on Sunday afternoon. “It’s the energy of the night before. But I do like the people—putting out positive energy is all I can do.”

Ollenberg was one of two clairvoyants working at the Psychic Brunch—a monthly metaphysical event at Clinton’s Tavern where hundreds of curious Torontonians have been coming to split the deck, lay out the cards and have their fortunes told—with eggs and toast on the side—since 2003.

Typically, the clients are middle-aged and female. “It’s a fun girl’s day out,” said Jayne Marie, a tarot card reader who sat at a small table across the room from Ollenberg.

Jayne Marie, who cites Swiss psychiatrist and tarot enthusiast Carl Jung as a major inspiration, uses the cards to answer her clients’ questions about health, finances, careers and relationships.

“I’m sort of brutal, I don’t always give good news,” she said. “If someone’s hours are going to be cut at work, I think they need to know.”

Even comforting news can result in surprising reactions. Juanita Morris came to Clinton’s with a clay cat’s paw she’d made from a mold of her recently deceased, 17-year-old cat Rupert. She walked away from her reading teary-eyed, and said: “Jayne Marie held the paw and got a reading—a feeling of comfort, that he was frolicking. So I’m feeling a little unsettled right now.”

Psychic Brunch participants also received an “intention candle” to take home with them—a prop meant to help them meditate in advance of important events—included with the $45 prix-fixe menu.

While Sunday was unusually slow, with only seven people signing up for readings, the professional psychics weren’t concerned.

“There’s periods in this business when things slow down a bit,” said Ralph Hamelmann, the event’s main organizer. He predicted Psychic Brunch attendance would pick up in January, when people start worrying about the year to come. “It’ll be gangbusters,” he said.

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From Sierra Leone to the world

Saa Andrew

Saa Andrew

He was forced out of his village in Africa because of diamond-fueled civil war. He moved to a crowded refugee camp in Gambia, where he slept on a tarp and survived on cornmeal. He, his father, step mother, and siblings made it to Canada thanks to the UN.

This is the story of Saa Andrew Gbongbor, a Sierra Leonean refugee, a Canadian citizen since July 1st, a student at STU, and a musician.

“It’s for fun, entertainment and also the message. … I’m dancing praises to the most high, praises for the people around me, the people singing and dancing.”

But it was a long journey to get to where he is today.

***

When Gbongbor was still a child in Sierra Leone, he saw members of his family murdered by rebels. Conditions were terrible and his family got a chance to leave; they had to take it.

“Everybody was terrified in the village. Even if you prepared your meal … (the rebels are) going to come and sit and say oh thank you lets come and eat together. And you have to smile. If you refuse, it’s bad for you.”

But his mother didn’t have the same chance to go. She was captured by the rebels; she’s is a nurse and they needed medical support. She managed to escape during a battle, but Gbongbor hasn’t seen her for 9 years. They’ve talked a few time, but phone service is unreliable where she’s living.

It was 1998 when Gbongbor arrived at the refugee camp. He was 15, and that’s where he got his inspiration to play music.

“When I was back in the refugee camp, what I listened to what a lot of reggae music and other music.

Every day I listen to this and get this radio inside me about life in the refugee camp. That was the only way I could survive day by day. That’s how I started liking music.”

So he started to play music. The Sierra Leonean national airline liked his stuff, and asked him to record a jingle. They loved it, and thought he could do something more. So they put him in a recording studio

“They say just go tell the people to send us the bill. I don’t know how they pay anything; I just go to studio ready to sing.”

***

Gbongbor calls himself a dance hall reggae and R&B musician. His music has distinct Afro-Caribbean roots, an easy flow, and an upbeat style that makes it hard not to dance.

Saa Andrew, performing for the SHOUT kickoff last year, at the Centre Communitaire du Saint Anne

Saa Andrew, performing for the SHOUT kickoff last year, at the Centre Communautaire Saint-Anne

“Even if you’re sad man, you want to dance.”

He’s played dozens of shows around Fredericton, and has travelled to Nova Scotia and Ottawa. He played a charity show at the Terry Fox Centre in Ottawa, and plays for charity as much as he can.

“I did a show to raise money for the homeless, for Samaria house at officer’s square, for the Fredericton Peace Coalition. … I’m an activist for peace.”

However, even when he’s playing music, Gbongbor says it can be difficult to forget what has happened in his past.

“I always think how my life was. And I think about the people I left behind. So I never stop thinking about where I come from.”

But he always wants to look forward.

“I want to do things that will impact the world in a positive way. I want to help my people back home. And not just my people, everywhere around that word that goes through trouble.”

He’s made quite an impact on people in Fredericton. Tyler Lombard is a friend of Gbongbor, and worked with him on his upcoming CD.

Lombard and Saa Andrew, performing at the SHOUT kickoff

Lombard and Saa Andrew, performing at the SHOUT kickoff

“I think he’s a great person. He’s one of the most genuine, nicest people that I know for sure. He really has compassion for everyone, and I just really couldn’t say enough about the guy.”

The two met years ago when they were both performing at Big Hearts for the Homeless, a fundraiser put on by the Fredericton Emergency shelter. Lombard has been impressed ever since.

“I remember this story, [Andrew] having to watch one of his fellow villagers being killed by rebels. I can’t imagine ever witnessing that and being able to be the same again. But he’s able to talk about it and he’s able to help people learn and educate people.”

***

In 2004, Gbongbor’s father got a phone call in the refugee camp. It was from a representative of the UN, who said the family would be moving to Fredericton. They had no idea where Fredericton was. They hadn’t even heard of Canada.

“I never thought of coming to Canada. The places I thought about were America, Germany, Russia. … But I was very excited when they said Canada is close to America, I knew it would be a good place,” Gbongbor said.

When his family arrived there was instant support. The multicultural association and people around town gave his family coats, a television and furniture. He told them he wanted to go to school, and they arranged an English language proficiency test. He passed (he already spoke English, Patwa, Kono and Krio), and was enrolled at STU in 2005.

The Multicultural Association also gave him his first gig, and then he did a concert for Canadian World Youth. His third concert was to raise money to help buy his mother a house. It’s finished now, and she’s living comfortably, thanks to her son.

Gbongbor’s hoping to release a CD/DVD combination soon, and he’s filming the music videos now.

Saa Andrew and Brendan Mittelholtz, one of his producers, editing their music video

Saa Andrew and Brendan Mittelholtz, one of his producers, editing their music video

The first video was a unique site in Fredericton. 8 dancers and three producers, Gbongbor and Lombard, were all over downtown. They moved from the Charlotte street arts center to the market and then to locations around the north side. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the filming, as Celtic dancers, in traditional African dress, moved to Afro-Caribbean beats.

“It was extremely fun.

The market was just packed; everybody wanted to see what was going on. … It was awesome.”

So Gbongbor will graduate soon, with a bachelor of arts in human rights and world history. Then he’ll release his CD/DVD bundle. Then, he hopes to tour the world.

“To play my music and promote a peaceful message. … To promote peace, to promote multiculturalism, to promote love and also forgiveness.

Should I be somebody very bad, to say okay I’m going to retaliate for what they’ve done to my people, to my friends all those things? No, I can’t. So my aim is to promote peace.”

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