It’s old school meets new school, and it’ll be real cool. The Brandon University (BU) Big Band’s annual swing performance this weekend is known for high-energy interpretations of swing music from the 1920s through the 1940s, and this year will add a special guest to reinterpret things even more. Las Vegas poet, lyricist and MC Rasar Amani will join the students during what’s traditionally the biggest event of the Big Band calendar.
BU jazz professor Michael Cain, who coordinates the Big Band, is visibly excited by the opportunity to pair his students with Amani.
“The thing that amazed me about Rasar and his music is that all eras are present. He’s strongly influenced by everything from Cab Calloway to Duke Ellington to now,” Cain says. “Rasar is an amazing individual and he’s so aware of the history that exists. You look at how far back rapping goes as a tradition, and you look at swing music, those traditions go hand-in-hand.”
Amani, currently fronting a Las Vegas band called The Lique, is known as much for his positivity and social conscience as he is for his verbal dexterity.
“My mostly positive, political and socially conscious lyrics are definitely deliberate, but it flows naturally from the core of my being,” Amani says. “It’s important to balance social awareness with spiritual awareness, compassion, and deep levels of emotional intelligence. Going within leads to better outputs in my experience.”
After arriving in Canada this week for the first time, he admits that the cold weather is a challenge, but says he’s settling in and looking forward to embracing the energy of playing with a big band for the first time.
“I’m excited to see how they interpret my songs; the challenge is updating new collaborators on the nuanced changes that differ in the live versions, as opposed to the recordings they’ve studied. You find new sounds in that fresh outlook, though,” he says. “Students tend to be way more open-minded and that makes everything more fun. There’s truth to the notion that to become interesting, you must first be interested.”
For Cain, the Big Band’s annual dance is one of the highlights of his year, and always features raucous music that goes late into the evening. This year, no exception to that, he’s also anticipating how his students welcome Amani to the stage.
“We’ve been learning a bunch of The Lique tunes,” Cain says. “Rasar is used to being in a quintet, now he’s going to have horns, vocalists… our goal is to blow his mind!”
Big Band students say that they can’t wait.
“I’m looking forward to the energy and vitality that Rasar is going to bring. I don’t believe that Brandon University has ever brought an emcee/rapper in as a guest before, so this will shake things up a bit,” says third-year jazz piano student Dallas Nedotiafko. “Not only is it going to energize our band, but it’s an amazing opportunity to dabble in a world where we don’t have much experience. On top of this, Rasar is a great connection to have, especially considering that The Lique are on the cusp of making it big.”
Nedotiafko says although some of his bandmates were fans, this was the first time he’d heard of The Lique. He quickly fell in love with the possibilities of incorporating tunes from The Lique like “One Reason” or “Billie’s Holiday” into Big Band style.
“As an ensemble, we strive to maintain an eclectic repertoire, so I don’t think anything would be too much for us to handle, stylistically speaking. This keeps us very receptive to other genres,” Nedotiafko says. “I know a lot of us in the ensemble have an affinity for R&B and Hip-Hop, so we already have a spot in our hearts for The Lique’s music. While The Lique are Hip-Hop oriented, they are centered around the jazz sphere, which is a bonus for us, considering we are a jazz ensemble. Having Rasar can and will only improve us.”
Along with being a good style fit, just getting out of the classroom and hitting the stage is satisfying for students.
“There is only so much that can be honed in the classroom, and it is the ultimate test to put us in front of a live audience,” he says. “The adrenaline is hard to handle, although it typically just enhances and heightens the performance. For music students, these kinds of things are everything. The music industry revolves around audiences, so performing is integral.”
Nedotiafko adds that live performance is a chance to learn how to deal with setbacks, like illness or equipment malfunctions. An unusual issue that they’ve had to tackle this time around is the difficulty of preparing for a performance when your key collaborator is in another country. It’s a challenge he’s confident they have met.
“Music is somewhat of a universal language, so not having Rasar to rehearse with doesn’t necessarily pose many problems,” he explains. “We have a list of tunes, we learn them, he shows up, and we execute them. The music will be good to go upon his arrival, he’ll just be the connecting link and energy we were all waiting for.”
Perhaps keeping a little bit of anticipation, even suspense, in the mix could actually add to the thrill.
“Once you hit the stage, it’s show time, and a whole other side of yourself emerges,” he says. “All in all, most music today revolves around or involves dancing, and that is essentially what we are trying to invoke. For lack of better terminology, it’s going to be one big party, and I encourage all to attend as it will be one you won’t want to miss. I promise.”
BU School of Music Dean Greg Gatien says he’ll be there.
“I have known Michael Cain for more than 20 years, and he has consistently been one of the most inventive, creative, and thoughtful musicians and teachers that I’ve encountered and observed. It’s wonderful that our students get to work with him,” Gatien says. “In many ways, Michael is re-imagining the ways that jazz ensemble is taught. In others, however, he is simply connecting our students with a long and beautiful tradition of music-making. The Big Band dance is a great example of this — the primary purpose of big band music has been to play for dancers. I can’t wait to experience this ensemble with their brilliant guest artist, and encourage anyone who likes to dance to come hear the BU Big Band.”
Amani says he’s enthusiastic.
“I am deeply excited by the vibes of the big band,” he says. “These are talented cats who know music and Professor Cain is a great leader; that’s all I need.”
The BU Big Band annual dance takes place this Saturday, Feb. 4, at SUDS. Officially, it starts at 10 p.m., with another DJ warming up the crowd ahead of time, but Cain says the main event is likely to overflow both its venue and its schedule.
“We’re setting up in the Mingling Area outside, so there’s room to dance,” Cain proclaims. “And we’ll go as late as we can.”
Tickets are $15 and are available through the BU Music Students Council or at the door.
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