Five Questions With… Raha Javanfar
The Toronto-based creative renaissance woman hosts the Maple Blues Awards next month. Here she discusses her discovery of the blues, her bands Bad Luck Woman & Her Misfortunes and The Double Cuts, her other eclectic endeavours, and two things about the music industry she'd love to see change.
By Jason Schneider
The start of a new year always means the Maple Blues Awards are right around the corner, celebrating the best that Canada’s blues music community has to offer. The 2020 gala is set for Feb. 3 at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, with feature performances by Dawn Tyler Watson, Miss Emily, Big Dave McLean, and others.
Hosting the night will be Raha Javanfar, whose band Bad Luck Woman & Her Misfortunes has been a past nominee. However, her experience on stage encompasses much more than blues; Javanfar also plays fiddle in the Western Swing band The Double Cuts and she has performed with other artists such as Stars, Tom Wilson and Daniel Romano. In addition, Javanfar is a familiar presence within the Toronto theatre scene, having co-created and acted in several acclaimed productions, as well as doing lighting design for others.
Born in Iran and raised in Toronto, Javanfar has followed her artistic passions her entire life and is now passing that on to a new generation through teaching violin, piano and music theory at several Toronto institutions. We recently spoke with her to find out more, and you can get more details about the Maple Blues Awards at torontobluessociety.com.
Congratulations on hosting this year's Maple Blues Awards. What drew you into the Canadian blues scene?
Thank you! I grew up as a classically trained violinist, pretty unaware of the entire roots umbrella that covers so much of the music I now love. Through various circumstances, various happenstances—and great luck—I found myself at the Cameron House on a regular basis when I was playing fiddle in a rock band, about a decade ago. As one thing led to another, I became more familiar and fascinated with the immensely rich music scene that thrives in Toronto, and took the leap into trying my hand more at folk, swing, jazz, and other traditional styles of music. Eventually, I made my way into blues music and now find myself honoured to be embraced and welcomed by the blues scene.
You're involved in many other musical and artistic projects. Has that been the case most of your life?
Yes! My family immigrated to Canada when I was 8 and my Grade 3 teacher at the time recognized my artistic inclinations and pointed my parents in the direction of an arts school which I auditioned for and was enrolled in the following year. Despite my ESL fog and constant failure in gym class—the words “dodge” and “ball” in the same sentence still invoke so much anxiety in me—I managed to thrive in the arts, particularly in music and theatre.
I mentioned earlier my oblivion to non-classical music in my youth, well, this was what influenced me to choose to pursue theatre for a post-secondary education rather than music. I'm not sure if it's a complete lack of focus and long-term commitment or simply curiosity and passion for so many things that motivates me, but I really struggle to narrow down my artistic endeavours into just one, or even two or three,things. I love playing music, not just blues now, but also playing in my Western Swing band, the Double Cuts. I also have a very large soft spot for Baroque violin. In addition, I continue to do lighting and projection design for theatre productions, teach both music and lighting design, and occasionally act and perform in theatrical productions.
As a music teacher, what's your overall approach to getting kids to find their musical voices?
The biggest lesson I learned myself was this: I never would have ended up playing blues or other roots music if I hadn't heard any of it in the first place. It seems like such an obvious thing, but the sad truth is that, quite often, music lessons revolve solely around following the weekly lessons in a music book, and often don't put nearly enough emphasis on listening to music and discovering the styles of music, songs, and artists that kids actually like. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big advocate of technical advancement on an instrument and learning proper technique. But it's so important to also inspire kids to actually lik emusic and care about it and the ways to do that are to encourage them to experience it as much as possible... recorded and live.
What song in your catalogue means the most to you and why?
It's not one of mine, but the song Bad Luck Woman by Memphis Minnie was sort of the start of this whole blues thing for me. When I decided that I wanted to try singing, fronting a band, and playing bass, this was the first song I happened to learn. At the time, I was just finding my bearings and coming up for air after a dark and challenging period of my life. Various “bad luck” things had happened to me, big and small, from getting bedbugs, to a breakup, to an injury in an accident that could have easily killed me. It seemed an appropriate moniker at the time so I decided to name my band Bad Luck Woman & Her Misfortunes. I like to think of it as a reflection of my life at that time, but also an homage to Memphis Minnie, as well as the overall genre of the blues which is all about bad luck and misfortune. It's a constant reminder to me of where this music comes from and what it's all about. Now, however, I always tell people: I'm very lucky and privileged to have the life and career that I have!
If you could change anything about the music industry, what would it be?
Anything? Okay, two things: More women and people of marginalized communities please. Not just as the artists that get booked at festivals and various events, but also in all the other roles that make this music industry world go 'round. There is still so much inequality on all levels of the industry, and I don't mean to discredit those who are actively taking steps in the right direction to fix this. It's just that, like in many other aspects of society, the pendulum's swing has hovered for so long on one extreme and in order for it to eventually settle in the beautifully balanced centre where we might like it to live, it needs to swing hard in the opposite direction for a while. And this might mean that some of the people who have occupied those positions of power for so long need to kindly step aside and make room for others. I recognize that it's much easier said than done, very complicated, and I don't claim to have the answers. But it's something I strive to learn how to achieve and I really respect anyone who has any of it figured out.
Second is the worth of the music itself. Our industry has spun so out of control with everything surrounding the music being worth so much and so valued. Making a record costs so much money, and so little of it is for the music itself. Studios, engineering, graphic design, duplication, publicity, the list goes on. All of these sectors of the industry deserve to thrive and in many cases, the lovely professionals occupying these positions aren't receiving rates that are sensible for today's economy when you factor in inflation and cost of living either. But honestly, the artists and musicians themselves are really getting the shortest end of the stick, and that's not right.
I suppose the shift that I'd like to see isn't isolated to the industry itself, but rather encompassing our culture and society as a whole. People are so willing to pay outrageous prices for drinks, Ubers, food delivery, popcorn at the movies, but to put $5 in a band's PWYC jug can be like pulling teeth. Let me be clear: no one who's in the music industry is in it for the money, but at the end of the day, with prices like Toronto's, we still need to survive. We have to find a way to bring value and worth back to the arts so that artists aren't forced out of major city centres due to affordability. Because then, those cities won't be the vibrant cultural hubs that they boast to be anymore. Mind you, chances are the majority of people reading this are the music lovers whose support of music and the arts is what allows us to continue doing what we do, so thank you for being one of those people! They're definitely out there, we just need more.