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Being Patricia Cano

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Photograph of Patricia Cano by Nadya Kwandibens
Photograph of Patricia Cano by Nadya Kwandibens

There is an iconic quote from Horace that describes Patricia Cano perfectly: poeta nascitur, non fit – “the poet is born, not made”. It is true of remarkable people – from the great and all-but-forgotten cricketer Sir George Headley to… well… practicing poets such from Catullus to Cavafy, Okigbo, Dylan Thomas and others… to Yeats, Eliot and especially Pound. But one also suspects that Horace could also be describing those very special people who were born with a prodigy so all-encompassing that they could put their mind to doing great things no matter what the “thing” actually was, or is.

And Patricia Cano is such a person. She could become an actor in musical theatre and she did. She could become a musician and a vocalist – brilliant at both crafts – and she did. But then she took it all to the proverbial “next level” She is not only a prodigious stage and screen actor but, also a musician, the craft of which she has mastered to a degree that raised it to a rarefied realm. Best of all she is able to create music to perfection in five languages – English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Cree.

Artistic genius is something inexplicable; this is at the very heart of its defining physiognomy. Geniuses live with this internal enigma and are unable to reveal its mysteries and secrets. Miss Cano has, in all likelihood, never thought of her artistic life in this way. She is humbly and completely absorbed by these contradictions, ill at ease in a world of mundaneness, sometimes alarmed by their own uniqueness snow-blinded by a truth, which common mortals can only dimly perceive, and swept away by a primordial force that is so beyond them, geniuses play like children.

Patricia Cano
Patricia Cano

A genius and a gift to the world Miss Cano nevertheless view the world with the immensity of the child’s eye; creates and innovates as she was born to, for in her genius is an unbridled intellect that predominates over the will, which, in turn, allows the creation of artistic—even academic—works of pure contemplation, bereft of interest, specific or otherwise.

Of course, nothing happened to Miss Cano by accident. She grew up in a home brimming with culture in the Sudbury, Southern Ontario, Canada. The heritage of the city has been shaped not only by the culture of its indigenous inhabitants – the Ojibwe of the Algonquin group of people – but is also a prominent Franco-Ontarian region. The daughter of a Peruvian doctor Miss Cano remembers that the five hundred year old culture of the old country was always alive in all its glory at home in Sudbury.

But she was in a Franco-Ontarian town surrounded by a rich Indigenous heritage and it informed everything she did in school as well as in the University of Toronto, where she graduated with Honours in Theatre and Spanish Literature. It wasn’t long before she embraced the career as an artist and came to the attention of Tomson Highway, the Cree writer and composer. But Europe came calling and Miss Cano spent five years in Paris where she joined Le Théâtre du Soleil an internationally-celebrated theatre company. Already fluent in three languages – English, Spanish and French – it wasn’t long before Miss Cano made waves in France.

Patricia Cano and Tomson Highway
Patricia Cano and Tomson Highway

She found herself in Seoul, South Korea, where for three months she studied traditional South Korean folk singing and drumming. Meanwhile the lure of singing was becoming much too great to resist. She had already fallen prey to the charms of Portuguese music and soon an opportunity to travel to Brasil came knocking. Once there Miss Cano spent seven months in Rio de Janeiro drinking in the mesmerising music of Brazil and it wasn’t long before she “went native” playing, singing and feeling her way into Brasilian life and she was soon adopted into the Carioca music scene. It’s easy to see how Miss Cano might have “gone native” in Rio albeit in such a short span of time.

Miss Cano has the ability to not simply transform herself into the characters she sings about or plays on stage, but to “become” them so convincingly that she seems to shape-shift like some mythical Valkyrie as she traverses the cultural topography from North and South America to as far as Europe and even the Far East.

Surely this is what must have drawn the Cree musician, poet and playwright Tomson Highway to Miss Cano. In 2001, the playwright cast her in the lead role of Emily Dictionary in his play Rose. That was followed by title roles in The Incredible Adventures of Mary-Jane Mosquito the story of a whimsical and wise, wingless little mosquito from Manitoba. The play was commissioned by and staged at the prestigious Stratford Music Festival.

“I have always been deeply honoured,” Miss Cano says “that Tomson has trusted me with his incredible art. We’ve travelled all over the world with his beautiful work. I am in love with it all,” she adds, “from the cabaret Kisageetin. Like all his work this cabaret written and performed in Cree. We did that for the first time in Sudbury, at Le Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario. That was followed (in 2010) by performances at the Banff Centre for the Arts, as well as Toronto’s Canadian Stage Berkeley Theatre,” she say, proudly.

Patricia Cano sing songs from the (post) mistress - a one-woman musical
Patricia Cano sing songs from the (post) mistress – a one-woman musical

Of course the performance for which Miss Cano is best known is in the French National Arts Centre co-production, of Mr Highway’s one-woman musical The (Post) Mistress. She was cast in the (sole) role of the Franco-Ontarian postmistress named Marie-Louise Painchaud. If you missed the performance you can take some comfort in listening to the gorgeous songs that have been brought to life by Miss Cano on celebrated CD, which also features Mr Highway (playing piano on one song and providing vocal harmony on another and the saxophonist Marcus Ali also returns, playing saxophone and clarinet – both of which he played on the theatrical production).

Patricia Cano in The Post Mistress photographed by Cylla von Tiedemann
Patricia Cano in The Post Mistress photographed by Cylla von Tiedemann

The CD also features a constellation of Canadian musical stars such as Ted Quinlan on guitar, George Koller on contrabass, David Restivo on piano, Mark Kelso on drums, Gordon Sheard on piano and Luis Orbegoso on percussion. Despite the fact that (on CD, at least,) we miss the otherworldly effect of Teresa Przybylski’s post-office set Miss Cano as Marie-Louise Painchaud is breathtaking as disposes of her dizzying music with staggering panache as she adds lyricism, humour and melting beauty to the music. The lustre of her timbre and the grace of her execution are truly sensual and extraordinary.

Percussion colourist and producer Luis Orbegoso
Percussion colourist and producer Luis Orbegoso

The extraordinary percussion colourist Luis Orbegoso, along with the Brasilian-born composer and guitarist Carlos Bernardo helped Miss Cano form a powerful and enduring musical team. Together with the guitarist, Miss Cano has crafted some of her finest original music featured – so far – on her next two adventures, both of which also feature Mr Orbegoso who assisted in production too. The first of these – the vocalist’s debut as leader – was a gorgeous recording This is the New World. A title, as it turned out, that was even slightly prophetic for the repertoire it contained seemed to raise the curtain on a musical landscape that is literally owned by Miss Cano, one that she also shares with Mr Bernardo, of course, but also one in which she reigns supreme like a sort of musical Boadicea.

Patricia Cano - This is the New World
Patricia Cano – This is the New World

Right from the start one can discern that Miss Cano’s repertoire is a sort of palimpsest; the diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath its surface have been steeped like the brew of an ancient apothecary with the ingredients plucked from the proverbial magical forests of Brasil, Peru and other parts of Latin America, ancient North American Indigenous and Franco-Canadian cultures. The music traverses Latin America and while there are many notable performances on the disc, especially (several by) Mr Bernardo, Mr Orbegoso and by Stéphane Paquette it is Miss Cano who provides the disc’s highlights.

Patricia Cano with Carlos Bernardo
Patricia Cano with Carlos Bernardo

Throughout her sojourn Miss Cano’s vocals display her burnished tone and occasional Callas-like tension passionate expression and between elegant seductive mesmerism. Although she is the consummate storyteller right from “Solidão Nunca Mais” she is unsurpassed on “Amazonie”. And as Mr Bernardo creates shushed silences and soft tremolos Miss Cano uses the space for her vocal entries and colours. By the time you get to the iconic “Toro Mata” what emerges is an authentic interpretation of tradition that comes from a magical deep-dive into her own Afro-Peruvian heritage and, indeed, into all of South America; all of this as she serves up the most unique dressing on spectacular feast of music.

It would have been hard to imagine not simply a perfect debut, but also how Miss Cano could possibly top that performance. Then, in 2017 came Madre Amiga Hermana and a breathtaking repertoire of music. On the poetically-inspired “Caminando”, Miss Cano sings in phrases seeming to resemble series of sighs, the elegantly plucky guitar of Carlos Bernardo urging her ever onward. Hardly less beguiling are “Juana Guerrière” and “Carmela y Raúl” – dedicatory pieces for members of her family – in which she conveys not only reverence, but a mesmeric, youthful innocence enlivening the eternal vernal elegance of the former song with affective ornament, lightly articulated declamation and carefully controlled vibrato.

Patricia Cano - Madre Amiga Hermana
Patricia Cano – Madre Amiga Hermana

Tempos are justly chosen throughout and the appropriately resonant importance given to the complex, dancing traditional rhythmic forms of “Terre Mère” provides the icing on this most delicious cake. On “Morning Hymn” exquisite violin, viola and cello obbligato is a poignant supplication of fervent intensity where Miss Cano brings great tenderness and expressive depth to the music. The broad sweeping gestures of “Toi et Moi” call all the gracefulness of French song to mind while “La vie comme si” with Mr Bernardo’s subtle guitar obbligato is of consummate beauty.

In all of this, of course, one had also to reserve the highest praises of Mr Bernardo, composer and guitarist in the great tradition of Brasilian instrumentalists, and also a co-conspirator together with the ineffably brilliant Mr Orbegoso. To that list one has now to add the robust genius of Jeremy Ledbetter, a composer virtuoso pianist in his own right and who we must now acknowledge as a masterful arranger and orchestrator, and orchestral conductor as well. This magnificent surprise was served up on the 13th of October 2018 at a performance at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto.

The evening featured music from the new Patricia Cano Songbook – “A beautiful gift from Jeremy to me,” Miss Cano acknowledged. Mr Ledbetter’s brilliant orchestral interpretation of Miss Cano’s music was an ambitious one and was all the more impressive with the presence of the Canadian Sinfonietta, conducted by him (together with Miss Cano’s quartet that featured Mr Bernardo, Paco Luviano on basses, Mr Orbegoso on percussion and voice, and the quartet’s new member Juan Carlos Medrano also on percussion. Even if Mr Ledbetter’s approach to conducting may have dismayed some traditionalists, his own performance – certainly as orchestrator and his debut as conductor – absent of clichés, possessed an integrity and power commensurate with the music of Miss Cano and Mr Bernardo.

Patricia Cano
Patricia Cano

The music showed Miss Cano heading into the vivid countryside of her art, the dramatic and renowned elegance of her voice drew us in as we magically became part of its natural landscape that mixed beauty and danger, the sounds of children birds, trees and wise near mythic ancestors. It was beautifully evocative of warm nights and blazing days, each song taking us to some wild and beautiful place with a trusted and inspiring musical friendship that we had now forged thanks to a sublime artist who shared her experiences with such naked honesty and generosity.

The Canadian Sinfonietta was flawless and seemed to revel in the challenges of the Afro-Peruvian (and occasionally Brasilian) music. The strings were opulent and Aleksander Gajic’s star turn when he was called upon to solo with the quartet was voluptuous and sublime. Indeed the entire ensemble gave a characterful performance full of lagrima-filled laments and thrilling crescendos. It was a riveting evening, somewhat amusing at times, especially as the aria-like supremacy of Miss Cano’s vocals was often met with loud and unrestrained audience cheering; a vision of what brilliant opera by bel-canto singing sensations might have once elicited before the days stuffy opera etiquette.

Of course it was an evening to remember because Miss Cano, who had recently recovered from a touch of the flu, managed to absolutely soar into the night. Framed attentively, eloquently and imaginatively by Mr Ledbetter shepherding of the music played by the Quartet and the Sinfonietta Miss Cano was literally sublime. Her newly orchestrated version of “Juana Guerrière” was imperious, “Mi Maru”, the landó written for her son was absolutely beckoning and this (orchestral) version of “Toro Mata” was sans pareil. Throughout the evening one had a sense that despite her enormous previous achievements, somehow she had managed to surpass them all.

Miss Cano’s artistry is now in a rarefied realm. Her voice is now at once rich and at its opulent best as we heard from the whispered first bars of “Juana Guerrière” through the rousing savagely expressive crescendos of “Toro Mata” and beyond. She was giddy and girlish when the music called for it and seductively adult at other times. Indeed it was very much the kind of one-of-a-kind Patricia Cano show, one which gives and will surely reiterate the belief that few, if any, performers can reach the level of brilliance attained by an artist as unique to music and musical theatre as the incomparable Patricia Cano.

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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