Releasing my inner gladiator at the mic
Six years ago I was a newbie musician in YK. I was playing in various groups, learning a lot, and gradually merging my life with the music and arts community one way or another. For quite a while I was a sideman or session musician – helping out on stage with harmonica, keys, bass guitar, and vocals. But I wanted more. I wanted to do the solo singer/songwriter thing. As simple as that may look to some, it demands a whole lot of preparation and courage to carry off properly.
I needed a place to take those first few steps: to learn the basics, to deal with my nerves, to court possible disaster and humiliation; a place where I could hear my own unencumbered voice coming out of stage monitors and echoing off the walls, and feel what it’s like to stand naked – well, metaphorically speaking – in front of an audience.
When I heard about the Javaroma Jam, a free, open mic event that takes place every Saturday evening, it sounded like the perfect arena to challenge my fate (that’s arena, as in gladiators, slaves, lions – you get the picture).
Javaroma, located in downtown Yellowknife, is a cafe that does not serve alcohol and provides light meals all day, seven days a week. It’s a community-minded place with local art and photography on display, where non-profit groups can often be seen holding meetings in their makeshift ‘boardrooms,’ coffees and bagel sandwiches in hand. When the SPCA was raising money for the new animal shelter, Javaroma management even made room for computers and volunteers during a special fundraising event.
While I was still in surveillance mode at the open mic sessions, not yet daring to offer up my talent, I noticed the same open-door attitude on Saturday nights. Performers came into the cafe and requested stage time. The host kept a list and allowed each person or group a turn at the mic – usually proportional to the number of acts weighed against the time available until closing.
Although the term ‘open mic’ conjures up images of a musician-only occasion, that is not the case at Javaroma. Poets, storytellers, and comedians have performed there, and mimes are also welcome.
I recall my first solo appearance as being somewhere between awful and really, really bad. The difference between what goes down in the privacy of one’s home, (where anyone can become a legend in his or her own mind) and what happens in front of an audience, can be enormous. Although the audiences were not responding to my songs with thunderous applause and standing ovations, their body language telegraphed what could be interpreted as quiet appreciation – although tolerant patience may be closer to the truth. However, as the weeks went by and I did my two or three tunes at the mic, the delivery became smoother and my comfort level increased.
During this time, I was writing songs for my first CD and slowly putting together a repertoire of originals and cover tunes, so when the invitation came to actually host the jam, I was more-or-less ready. The challenge for the Javaroma host is to be able to fill the evening with songs, (something I could not do) which is necessary if musicians do not show up. So I furiously emailed every local musician, requesting (some would say ‘begging and pleading’) them to attend and play a few tunes. This got me through the first few hosting sessions, until I learned enough songs to do the whole gig solo, if it became necessary.
The Javaroma open mic is an incubator for new talent. It takes a lot of courage to stand in front of a room full of strangers and attempt to create music, recite poetry, and/or tell jokes. The good news is that the audiences are of the ‘no harsh attitude’ variety. A performer whose dry throat, cracking voice, and shaking limbs sabotage their delivery, can get appreciative applause simply because they made the effort and did their best.
The open mic is also a meeting place where rookies can mingle with, observe, and learn from seasoned performers. I have introduced three-year-olds who charmed the patrons with short songs about the alphabet in French; talented teenagers ripping through high-paced, original retro-punk tunes; seasoned professionals showing the artistry that comes with years of experience, and elders dipping far into the past to share love songs in their native language.
From one week to the next, there’s no telling who may appear or what energy they will bring to the room. Sometimes a group of fiddlers, in town for workshops or a show, will fill the place with jigs and reels, or serve as an impromptu backup band. I had such backing one night, and let me tell you, a bluegrass version of The Thrill Is Gone can be an exhilarating experience.
A young man – a singer with iPhone in hand for the lyrics and no backup music – charmed the room to absolute silence with an inspired version of Hey, Soul Sister. And there’s the unusual and exotic, best exemplified by a didgeridoo-playing Scot who transported us all far from a 35-below, stormy northern evening with the rhythmic, haunting, eerily beautiful and earth-drenched sounds that no other instrument can produce. I’ve heard American flute melodies that tinged the room with a mystical presence and a Newfoundland kitchen band that got the audience laughing and dancing. And for a contemporary touch, you could watch a musician with headphones, foot-operated controls, keyboard, computer, and guitar produce sounds best described as cosmic disco.
So if you’re looking for a place where you can relax in comfortable couches, bring your children, enjoy a nice tea or coffee and dessert, and be entertained by a totally impromptu lineup of entertainers, might I suggest you come to Javaroma on a Saturday night between 7-10 p.m. You may just discover Yellowknife’s next greatest performer. Or maybe you’ll be inspired to take a turn at the mic yourself. You never know, maybe someday you’ll even be hosting the event.
To learn more about Jonathan Churcher’s CD, “Acasta Island” and to hear some other tunes he has recorded, go to pelagicwordandsound.com and click on ‘music.’ You can also search for Jonathan Churcher on YouTube.