Wednesday, 21 August 2013

(Poem) Eastside Requiem

Source: The Tyee
look into my eyes and
see the lost horizon
step across the line, your world to mine
and you'll wizen

under fading streetlights
winter chills and night frights
somewhere east of where you ceased to care
where the earth blights

and you don't shed a tear
while my friends disappear
without warning
one more dark winter's eve
one more lost life to grieve
in the morning

another daughter of the eastside
nothing but someone else's problem

yes you knew the story
knew we were the quarry
knew he was bad news, yet you would choose
to ignore me

in this urban blister
every stolen sister
had a tale to tell, she cried and fell
you dismissed her

who was she, you don't care
she was used, disrepaired
and foresaken
but the faces and names
and the loved ones remain
ere to waken

daughters standing in procession
one day to stand in vindication

(Vancouver, 2007)

This week the children of three women who were murdered by Robert Pickton filed lawsuits against the police and the serial killer, marking the first such cases involving women Pickton was convicted of killing. This brings the total number of cases filed since May in relation to the Pickton slayings to nine, alleging the RCMP failed to properly investigate their disappearances.

The families and loved ones of these missing women continue to fight for justice, even as this crime has now faded from public consciousness. This unspeakable crime against the city of Vancouver's most vulnerable and downtrodden residents, and the apathy that surrounded their plight until the horrible reality of the situation was revealed to all, must never be forgotten.

I wrote this poem over six years ago. The fact that any news story on this and similar stories involving murdered women on the fringes of society are either shut down to comments altogether or have close to half the comments blocked due to offensive content tells me that the bigger fight against the prevailing social attitudes that abetted this atrocity is far from over.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

10 Asian Bands You Should Know

When academics assert that the 21st century belongs to Asia, they're generally talking about economics - not rock 'n' roll. And yet, if the current global musical landscape is any indication, it would appear the same can be said about rock and pop music. Pity, though, that the western world has yet to really take note. The global phenomenon of Psy's 'Gangnam Style' last year launched South Korea onto the forefront western pop music, but as I noted in a post back in December, foreign-language hits in the Anglo-American world tend to be flashes in the pan - as indeed he is proving to be. While Park Jae-sang deserves much credit for raising the profile of Asian pop music in the west, there's only so much one tuxedo-clad Monty Python horse-riding Korean rapper can do.

Sadly, North America is a veritable Hermit Kingdom when it comes to popular music. K-Pop, J-Pop and all its other regional variants are old news in much of the world, especially within Asia, where language differences have proven to be of little barrier onslaught of Japanese, Korean and Chinese pop and rock acts across the continent at large, with growing numbers from other Asian countries adding new vectors to the continental music picture. Beyond East Asia, artists from Korea, Japan and elsewhere are making waves in countries as divergent as Turkey, Poland and Brazil, places where, unlike in Asian countries, cultural proximity can in no way be counted on to compensate for language gaps.

While most of the Asian pop music taking over the world's airwaves is of the candy-coated teen pop variety, this is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Virtually all of the continent's major cities abound with punk, funk, prog, metal and electronic music, much of which seems to possess a rawness and energy that seems to be lacking in the Anglo-American west. A major factor, no doubt, is the fact that most of these countries are relatively young democracies with deeply rooted socially conservative mores, where tattoos, wild hair and loud music still count as acts of rebellion. Whatever the case, Indonesia's skatepunks and Vietnam's headbangers could well teach their North American counterparts a lesson on how to rock 'n' roll.

A list of must-hear contemporary Asian bands could well run into the hundreds. Here is my own semi-educated top ten.

1. Galaxy Express

Origin: Seoul, South Korea
Style: Alt-Punk
Recommended for fans of: The Ramones, Manic Street Preachers, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon

Anyone who thinks the idea of Korean punk rock sounds absurd needs to better acquaint themselves with Korea. And punk rock. We're talking a hard-boiled country with a tumultuous modern history whose present-day economic prosperity (in the South, that is) has done nothing to soften its people's flinty temperament. It's a country where student protests are practically a national sport and parliamentary democracy is (literally) a bloodsport, with debates on national security occasionally degenerating into fisticuffs that would make Tie Domi blush. The language is gutteral, the profanity colourful, the food fiery and the road etiquette borderline homicidal. It don't get much more punk than this!

That said, South Korea's domestic rock scene hasn't always had it easy; as late as the 1980s the military government regularly censored various acts. But after a quarter century of democracy, K-Rock has truly come of age. And of the current crop of bands, indefatigable alt-punkers Galaxy Express are generating the most attention, with a Best Band award at the 2011 Korean Music Awards, three US tours and a major following in Japan. Since forming in 2006, the trio of guitarist/vocalist Park Jong-hyun, bassist/vocalist Lee Ju-hyun and drummer Kim Hee-kwon have built a reputation as one of the hardest working bands on the planet. Punk passion meets Confucian work ethic - that's the Galaxy Express trademark!

2. Dachambo

Origin: Yokohama, Japan
Style: Jam Rock, Psychedelia, Neo-Prog
Recommended for fans of: Phish, Juno Reactor, I Mother Earth, Hawkwind, Fela Kuti, early Santana

For a country with such strict drug laws, Japan has a remarkably enduring love affair with psychedelia and all things hippie. A straight-laced society on the surface, the country does indeed possess a strong granola-crunching, Gaia-worshipping streak, as is evident in the Lorax-on-acid visions of Hayao Miyazaki, the peace-love-dope lyrics of bands like dub reggae legends Audio Active and the hemp-clad denizens that congregate every year at festivals like the Fuji Rock Festival, Asagiri Jam and so on. It's also a country with a longstanding devotion to progressive rock, with some Tokyo record stores seeming to specialize in rare King Crimson and Magma bootlegs as well as those of J-Prog legends like Hikashu, Shingetsu and the Ruins.

Combining these two national predilictions is Dachambo, Japan's premiere psychedelic jam band. Dachambo burst onto the local scene in 2004 with their debut album Dr. Dachambo in Goonyara Island with their mesmerizing brand of classic jam and psychedelic rock, and have since been a fixture at the Fuji Rock Festival, Japan's biggest rock music festival. Combining Santana-inspired guitar riffs and Latin percussion, Hawkwind-style space rock synth patches, a heavy dose of Afrobeat (including a memorable cover of Fela Kuti's 'Zombie' on their debut album) and their trademark didgeridu, this Yokohama sextet manages to sound like the entire globe - if it were ground up, stuffed into a bong and then smoked. By Japanese hippies.

3. Matzka

Origin: Taidong, Taiwan
Style: Folk Rock, Reggae
Recommended for fans of: Michael Franti, Burning Spear, Shokichi Kina, Ry Cooder

Taiwan is a small island with a big, complicated personality. An independent nation state in all but official designation, it exists in political limbo while it continues to grapple with its legacy of Japanese colonialism, Cold War-era Guomindang authoritarianism and enduring friction between the 'native' Taiwanese (of Han Chinese descent), newer settlers from the mainland and the island's non-Chinese indigenous peoples. Add to that the influence of rapid economic growth and the wholesale urbanization of a once overwhelmingly agrarian society - coupled with political factionalism that, like in South Korea, occasionally results in parliamentary punch-ups, and you have a combustible culture ripe for artistic expression.

While Taiwan's aboriginal tribes represent only two percent of the island's population (and a significantly smaller portion of its economic pie), Taiwan's first people nevertheless occupy an outsized position in the country's contemporary music scene, producing international pop stars like A-mei, Difang, Samingad and Landy Wen. With an indigenous cultural resurgence now gaining strength, a growing number of aboriginal artists are loudly proclaiming their roots. Of this new generation, the most successful has been Song Weiyi (aka Matzka) and his quartet by the same name. Mixing reggae, folk rock and traditional vocals, in a combination of Mandarin and the Paiwan language, Matzka has proven to be a hit not only across the island but on the mainland as well.

 4. Radioactive Sago Project

Origin: Quezon City, Philippines
Style: Funk, Jazz-Rock, Punk, Ska, Spoken Word
Recommended for fans of: Soul Coughing, P-Funk, early Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

When it comes to absorbing western musical influences and making them their own, the Philippines have had an enviable head start over all their Asian neighbours. With 300 years of Spanish colonialism followed by a half-century under Stars and Stripes, the land of jeepneys and adobo chicken manages to be simultaneously Asian, Polynesian, Hispanic and Yankee without any apparent friction. Moreover, the presence of large overseas Filipino communities in virtually all parts of the world has helped the motherland remain on trend, which helps explain why Korean soap operas, European art films and American rap music compete for the attention of this forever easily distracted country.

The Philippines' abiding love for jazz dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when the US wrested control over the archipelago from Spain, blossoming in the swing era with ensembles like the Pete Aristorenas Orchestra, the Cesar Velasco Band, the Tirso Cruz Orchestra, the Mabuhay Band and the Mesio Regalado Orchestra. In recent years Pinoy jazz has seen a resurgence thanks to groups like Johnny Alegre Affinity, Akasha and its most outlandish practitioners, the Radioactive Sago Project. Founded in 1999 by journalist/gonzo poet Lourd De Veyra, RSP combines slam poetry on sex, drugs, corruption and life in Metro Manila with a fierce, punkified blend of funk, ska and trashy Pinoy pop with some of the capital region's top session players. Fantastic stuff!

5. Modern Dog

Origin: Bangkok, Thailand
Style: Alt-Rock, Shoegaze
Recommended for fans of: Belle & Sebastian, Placebo, Mojave 3, My Bloody Valentine

Thai rock music is one of Asia's best kept secrets. First introduced to the country by American GIs, rock 'n' roll was embraced by the Thais like few others, and more than anywhere else in the continent it has served as a protest vehicle. Most famous among Thailand's early rock rebels are the veteran folk-rock quartet Caravan, a group that emerged amid the 1973 democracy movement with their distinctive blend of rock and traditional folk music and more than anybody else established a uniquely Thai rock sound. But despite this and the countless other bands ranging from metal to shoegaze, Thai rock 'n' roll hasn't travelled very well - perhaps owing to the fact that Thai artists can't count on the kind of overseas diasporic support that their Filipino and Korean counterparts enjoy.

One of the few Thai bands to achieve success outside their homeland is Modern Dog. Established in Bangkok in 1992, this stripped down Brit-rock-influenced trio consisting of vocalist-rhythm guitarist Thanachai 'Pod' Ujjin, lead guitarist May-T Noijinda, drummer Pavin 'Pong' Suwannacheep and a rotating procession of bass players has been hailed as the leading lights of Thai indie-rock and have developed niche followings in Japan and the United States. While not an international household name, Modern Dog has earned the respect of many in the international musical community; their 2004 album That Song was produced by Tony Doogan (of Belle & Sebastian and Mogwai renown) and featured cameos by Sean Lennon and Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda.

6. Ngũ Cung

Origin: Hanoi, Vietnam
Style: Progressive Metal
Recommended for fans of: Tool, Queensrÿche, Porcupine Tree, Queens of the Stone Age, Rush

What is it exactly about the old Soviet Bloc and its near-universal prediliction for heavy metal? Is it the Soviet Brutalist architecture? The labour camp atmosphere? The bad fashion? Whatever the reason, from Minsk to the Mongolian steppe, Stalin's children have in vast numbers traded the hammer and sickle for the pentagram and collective farming for collective hair-thrashing. The land of Ho Chi Minh, it turns out, is no exception, although it took a bit longer for it to gain a foothold there. Vietnam's nascent 1960s rock scene, concentrated in wartime Saigon, was all but quashed by the communists following their victory over South Vietnam in 1975, and even with the Đổi Mới reforms of the 1980s it was slow to resurface.

The past decade, however, has seen Vietnamese rock music blossom like never before. And given that the country has all the requisite ingredients - a tortured past, a socialist present, a melancholy culture with a flair for melodrama and a language full of cool diacritical marks (Eat your heart out, Mötley Crüe!) - it was only a matter of time before Vietnam emerged as a metal powerhouse. Of this new generation of Vietnamese hard rockers, the most prodigious are the prog-metal quintet Ngũ Cung (lit. 'Pentatonic'). Made up of graduates from the Hanoi Conservatory of Music and led by operatic vocalist Hoang Hiep, Ngũ Cung first gained attention through a national talent show in 2007 and then drew international praise for their epic debut album 365000. Expect more from these guys!

7. Biuret

Origin: Seoul, South Korea
Style: Alt-Rock, Goth/Emo
Recommended for fans of: Evanescence, Flyleaf, Garbage, The Gossip, Muse

Sadly, Asian rock, like rock music everywhere else, remains a very male-dominated affair. All across the continent, female performers have tended to be relegated to the bubblegum pop/male eye-candy category, wherein performers are judged more on their looks than their musical ability and tend to fade from the public eye after a brief halcyon period. While a few countries produced their own equivalent to the early 1990s Riot Grrl scene, with the exception of Japan (where female-led alt-rock units like Buffalo Daughter, Shonen Knife and Cibo Matto achieved substantial success), female-driven punk and alternative rock has largely remained underground, and information on such bands (in English at least) is hard to come by.

There are, of course, a few welcome exceptions. Of the current crop of hard-hitting Korean band taking Asia (and to a lesser extent North America and Australia) by storm, among the most incendiary is goth-punk outfit Biuret, led by charismatic frontwoman Won Moon-hye (who also maintains a double-life as a musical theatre performer). Established in Seoul in 2002, the band first gained prominence by opening for Oasis in the Korean capital and in 2009 shot to the top echelons of Asian rock by winning the Sutasi Pan-Asian Music Award, followed by festival appearances in Australia and the UK. With their gothic intensity and manga-esque style, Biuret have become helped elevate the stature of Korean rock abroad while combatting gender clichés at home.

8. Tengger Cavalry

Origin: Beijing, China
Style: Black Metal, Folk/Pagan Metal
Recommended for fans of: Turisas, Burzum, Hellthrone etc.

It should surprise no one that the tough denizens of the nation founded by Genghis Khan have developed a profound love for heavy metal. Metal bands began emerging in Mongolia almost immediately after the fall of the communist regime in 1990, led by acts like Hurd, Kharanga and Niciton. Veteran Mongol metalheads Hurd ('Speed'), with their trademark wolf pelts and portraits of the Great Khan, heralded the emergence of an eastern equivalent to Scandinavia's viking metal, and in doing so provoked a modicum of panic in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where in 2004 the authorities cancelled a Hurd gig on fears of ethnic unrest and riot police were forced to disperse a crowd of 2,000 irate fans.

Ironically, the most extreme of the Mongol Horde-inspired metal bands originates from the other side of the Great Wall in the city that Genghis conquered and made the centrepiece of his Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty. Named after the chief deity in traditional Mongol shamanism (Zh: 铁骑), Tengger Cavalry was originally formed as a one-man project by a multi-instrumentalist known as Nature Zhang, and has since grown into a six-piece behemoth, incorporating Tibetan/Mongolian throat singing and traditional North Asian instruments into Scandinavian-style doom metal - to terrifying effect. While the band has yet to tour outside China, they have begun attracting significant overseas attention, opening for Finnish pagan metal Turisas in Beijing this spring.

Fans of this genre should also check out the Kazakhstani band Aldaspan, who, like Tengger Cavalry, have married metal with the traditional sounds of the steppe to make music that will make you want to loot and pillage your way along the Silk Road.

9. Billfold

Origin: Bandung, Indonesia
Style: Hardcore/Skatepunk, Riot Grrl
Recommended for fans of: L7, Suicidal Tendencies, Bad Religion, Fugazi, Rancid

It's worth noting that in the vast majority of Asian countries, being a punk rocker (or any other breed of rocker for that matter) is considerably easier today than it was a generation ago. Of the artists profiled here, all but two hail from electoral democracies, and the two countries that aren't are nonetheless much more socially and culturally permissive now than they were 20 years ago. That said, socio-political challenges remain. In Indonesia the past decade-plus of uninterrupted democracy has also seen a rising tide of Islamism, which is making life increasingly difficult for the country's famously passionate hardcore/skatepunk community. In Medan in Islamist-dominated Aceh Province, 65 punks were arrested over a year ago and sent to re-education camps, and even in the liberal capital Jakarta religiously motivated crackdowns on punk venues have occurred.

In spite of rising religiosity, punk continues to thrive in the world's largest Muslim country, aided in no small part by the country's wholesale embrace of social media. (Jakarta alone produces 2.4 percent of the world's tweets.) Among the latest crop of Indo punk acts, one of the most compelling is Billfold. Founded in 2010 in the hardcore hotbed of Bandung, West Java, Billfold is everything the local Islamists love to hate - a female-fronted social media-savvy skatepunk outfit. While information on the band in English is hard to come by, the writhing masses of punked-up youth prostrating at the feet of frontwoman Gania Alianda and their 31,000-plus Twitter following (nearly half of Rancid's tally and nearly 20 percent of Henry Rollins') suggests these kids are on to something. Allah be praised; punk is not dead!

10. MIDIval PunditZ

Origin: Delhi, India
Style: Electronic, Trip-Hop, Jungle, Drum 'n' Bass
Recommended for fans of: Massive Attack, Daft Punk, Gorillaz, Lamb, Talvin Singh, Leftfield

For a country that has long been placed on a pedastal by western artists, India's ascendency as a legit force in contemporary popular music was a long time coming. With the notable exception of prodigal son Farrokh Bulsara (better known to the world as Freddie Mercury), Indian artists have long chafed under western preconception of uncoolness, either lumped in with classicists like Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain or with the cheesy morass of Bollywood. This finally began to change in the 1990s with the emergence of diasporic artists like Talvin Singh, Sam Zaman/State of Bengal and Asian Dub Foundation in the UK and Karsh Kale and Monica Dogra in the US, whose varied crossover projects heralded a 21st century 'Cool India' renaissance.

In the meantime, social change and rapid economic growth have transformed the motherland's music almost beyond recognition in the past decade. In the late 1990s, Delhi boys Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj founded the electronic crossover combo MIDIval PunditZ at a time when the Indian capital still barely had any nightclubs. Today live music venues abound in India's major cities, and the scene that Raina and Raj helped establish has created a powerful bridge between the diaspora and homegrown artists. With five studio albums under their belt, numerous overseas festival appearances and an impressive list of collaborators, including Karsh Kale, Anoushka Shankar, Monica Dogra and Assamese folk rocker Angaraag 'Papon' Mahanta, Indian music has never looked more enticing.

And one honourable mention

One country notably absent from this list is, not surprisingly, North Korea. I did so try to find a North Korean band to include here, but alas I came up empty-handed. The People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam may still be one-party authoritarian states, but the fact that bands like Tengger Cavalry and Ngũ Cung can not only operate openly but also perform overseas attests to their countries' increasing openness and social liberalization. Sadly, musicians inside the People's Democratic Republic of Korea enjoy no such freedom, and while closet punks, headbangers, emo kids and ravers may exist, there's little likelihood of any North Korean bands reaching western audiences anytime soon.

The video below was the best I could do. Given that official party functions are about the only gig to be had in this country, this type of thing is the closest thing to a rock concert any North Korean is likely to attend. I have no idea who these musicians are or even the significance behind this particular rally (possibly a missile launch, if the film footage a behind the band is any indication), but at the very least these ladies have a chance to make some music. And the pyrotechnics on display here are vaguely reminiscent of Kiss. That aside, the only silver lining is that China was just as despotic as present-day North Korea under Mao Zedong. Hopefully in a decade's time I'll be able to write about a rock renaissance in Pyongyang. In the meantime, though, you'll have to content yourselves with this.

Happy listening!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

BREAK SOMETHING EDMONTON (A Punk DIY Approach to Civic Discourse)

Happy Heritage Weekend, everyone! For those of you not from here, the Heritage Day long weekend is the apogee of Edmonton's glorious but cruelly short summer, that time of the year when Edmontonians are at their happiest and energetic, each one trying to outdo one another in having a "Really Good Time." As such, I couldn't think of a better time to launch my own grassroots campaign aimed at kicking civic discourse in this city up a notch. Here we go.

For those new to this blog, I've been an Edmonton resident since November of 2008 and I've somewhat grudgingly come to love the place. I say 'grudgingly' not because of any ill feeling towards the city, but because I really never had any intention of ending up here. Having grown up Victoria, B.C. I always identified myself as a west coast kid, and certainly never imagined I'd end up building a life here in central Alberta. And yet here I am, far away from granola-munchin', dope-smokin', pipeline-protestin' Van Isle with a career stretched ahead of me here. I'm an Edmontonian now. Curse you Edmonton!

But that said, I really do like my adopted hometown. As Canada's fastest-growing urban centre at the heart of Canada's biggest growth engine, there's an energy here that you don't see in many places. There's a palpable sense of optimism that big things are possible. The city's political culture is complex, defying normal left/right characterizations, and above all else pragmatic. And the arts scene here trumps experienced anywhere else in the country. The grassroots support for the arts is phenomenal, and unlike in larger centres like New York, Montreal and Vancouver, artists here actually seem to help each other rather than stick to their own factions. And as for the climate, well, it's a great place to be a creative person. As a modern dance colleague of mine aptly put it, "In winter we huddle indoors and create projects, and in summer we bring them out for the festivals." Makes perfect sense to me.

Todd Babiak, Edmonton man-crush #1
As a professional communicator in the city, I've found the PR/marketing/communications community here in Edmonton to be genuinely warm and supportive, and I've succeeded in making many friends within it, within a very short period. And this same sort of collaborative energy is very apparent within this professional community as well. The "Make Something Edmonton" campaign is a clear example of this. The campaign, for those of you unfamiliar with it, was launched by author, bad-boy journalist and quintessential Edmontonian Todd Babiak who sought to supplant the city's parade of underwhelming slogans like "City of Champions" and "Gateway to the North" with something more genuine. He coined the phrase "Make Something Edmonton," citing the city's enduring creativity and can-do spirit.

"People who are from here love the city but have a hard time explaining why," said Babiak at the IABC Edmonton "Dare To Lead" conference in May of this year. "And everyone else thinks it's a shithole." He then went on to explain that this is a city populated largely by people like me, people who never really intended to be here but ended up carving out a beguiling life in this deceptively pretty and enchanting city on the U-bend of the North Saskatchewan River. I consider that I've accomplished more professionally in my four and a half years here than I have in all of my professional career, and I very much credit the energy, openness and connectivity of the people in the Edmonton communications community who have supported me. I still dearly miss the coast, but I'm not about to move back there anytime soon.

But that doesn't mean I'm going to give Edmonton a free pass. After all, civil society, with which Edmonton is replete, is all for naught if you don't try to tackle a community's warts. And in homage to Todd Babiak and the Make Something Edmonton campaign, I would like to take this opportunity to launch my own corollary campaign entitled "Break Something Edmonton."

Now before you start sending me hate mail for inciting vandalism and wanton property damage, when I say "Break Something Edmonton" I of course don't mean that literally. The name is merely meant as a cheeky slogan that hearkens to the old punk DIY spirit as a means of breaking through a community's Gordian knots with radical, outside-the-box solutions. Everybody living anywhere has their own big pet peeves about their community, things they would desperately like to change. We all have our own personal axes to grind, be it institutionalized sexism, racism, poverty, anti-intellectualism, rampant bureaucracy, cultural elitism, potholes, dangerous driving etc. #BreakSomethingYEG is intended as a forum for such discussion as well as a space for formulating creative, DIY solutions that can help alleviate these problems.

There are only two rules to the #BreakSomethingYEG campaign. Firstly, you have to bring forward an existing problem and explain how it hinders civic live here in this city. And secondly, you have to propose a solution achievable both through lobbying and through individual actions. This is about grassroots solutions to complicated problems, so please don't bitch for its own sake without offering solutions. We're all good at complaining, but usually not as good at offering alternatives.

The river valley is very pretty. If you can get to it, that is.
With that, I'll start with my own personal Edmonton peeve, which is public transportation. To preface, this is not intended as a criticism of the Edmonton Transit System (ETS); in fact I've found the buses here to be remarkably punctual and the drivers extremely courteous. But as a system, ETS is woefully inadequate for a city of over 1 million people spread over a geographical area larger than Toronto. Unless you work in Edmonton's downtown core and live along either the very limited north-south axis of the LRT system or in the vicinity of West Edmonton Mall, with access to express buses, public transit is a time-consuming and frustrating way to get to and from work, especially in roughly 13-month period of the year when you're huddled in an unheated bus shelter in approximately 16 layers of clothing, shuffling from one foot to the other while your breath freezes and shatters at your feet.

But in actual fact my bone to pick with transit in Edmonton isn't just about inadequate service, it's about the overall public attitude towards it. In Edmonton people talk about improving public transit, but when it comes down to it it's not a priority for most, or at least among the economically privileged adults whose voices tend to dominate civic conversations. I'll never forget attending a talk by Dr. Ted Morton, who at the time was running for leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, and hearing him talk about public transit in Edmonton. "We need to make sure we provide good transit service for those students and young people who don't have cars." To me this entirely missed the point. A "good" transit system is one that everybody uses, from 21-year-old interns to 60-year-old company directors. What about trying to actually get people out of their cars?

I'll readily admit I'm part of the problem. In my four-plus years as a working professional in Edmonton, I've mostly used public transit to commute to and from work. When I worked at Native Counselling Services on 124 Street it was pretty straightforward, but significantly less so at Merit Contractors Association out in the city's northern industrial asteroid belt. And now working at Edmonton International Airport, getting to and from work has become such a production, involving a combination of transit buses and the Edmonton Skyshuttle service (free for staff, which is nice) that I finally broke down and opted for a second car for our two-person household. So now I'm among the ranks of Edmonton's single-occupancy car army, after swearing I never would be, clogging the roads and burning fossil fuel, because the alternative is spending an hour and a half commuting to work each day in a crowded shuttle.

Every problem has a solution. (source:
To give you an idea of the problem, imagine you live in Edmonton's relatively low-income northeast and are contemplating taking a job in one of the new developments in the west of the city, say in the new Acheson Industrial Area in Parkland County, outside Edmonton's western boundary. By car the trip would take you about 20 minutes. By bus? Try over two hours, if you can even are get a bus connection. Not only is this a colossal obstacle for low-income people who can't afford a vehicle, but it's also a hindrance to business development on the city's energetic periphery. How much more commercial activity would you have if, for example, people had easy access to these areas from the city, and felt inclined to go for drinks in local pubs after work knowing they could stumble onto a comfortable bus thereafter? The area around Southgate Mall has boomed since the lengthening of the LRT line and the creation of a Japanese-style station/mall agglomeration there. You could have a dozen such developments around the city.

So why does the city of Edmonton, a city with one of the highest GDPs on the planet, continue to put up with a public transit system that many developing world cities would be embarrassed by? My feeling has always been that most Edmontonians don't think about it because they've never experienced what it's like to have a really good system. Many people in this city have visited London, Paris or Tokyo as tourists, but very few have actually lived and worked jobs in these places. I lived and worked in Tokyo for four and a half years, first as student and then  as a communications professional, and in all that time the thought of buying a car never even occurred to me. Mind you, Tokyo's daunting traffic and exorbitant parking fees were a factor, but the quality and quantity of subways and overground commuter trains made it totally unnecessary. And in Tokyo, everybody rides the train.

Public transit is often characterized as a liberal, left-wing issue, but pro-business fiscal conservatives also need to be concerned about Edmonton's sub-par transit system and low 11-percent rider rate (compared to 20 percent in Ottawa and 16 percent in Calgary). Already there are signs that the city's lack of user-friendly public transit is having a negative economic impact. In a recent conversation with Tom Koep, Manager of Economic Development and Tourism for Parkland County, he cited the Edmonton region's sub-par transit system as a major threat to economic growth in the city's currently thriving periphery by making it difficult for such areas to attract low-income workers.

“We need a regional transit plan,” says Koep. “So far we’ve seen a scotch tape approach, with St. Albert, Strathcona County, Leduc and Spruce Grove all developing their own systems. There are real transportation issues that need to be addressed. They're talking about building an overpass here which would cost three quarters of a billion dollars. That would pay for a hell of a lot of buses.”

TransMilenio BRT system in Bogota, Colombia (source:
To its credit, Edmonton's municipal government under the leadership of outgoing mayor Stephen Mandel has truly walked the talk when it comes to public transit, with LRT expansion not just on the books but under construction. But there's much more that could be done in the city to encourage transit use, and at significantly lower cost than building expensive rapid transit lines. What about a Bus Rapid Transit system like that originally developed in the Brazilian city of Curitiba and now ubiquitous across South America and many other developing world cities like Istanbul, Jakarta and Ahmedabad, India? Articulated buses running on dedicated lanes along major arteries like St. Albert Trail, the Anthony Henday Highway, Stony Plain Road and so on would provide the same level of efficient service as a train system at a fraction of the cost. Ottawa has this system, with Saskatoon now set to introduce BRTs.

An even more straightforward answer would be a regional carpooling program. Why do we not have dedicated carpool lanes on the QEII and St. Albert Trail, like they do in cities like Vancouver? Carpool lanes coupled with a social media-driven carpooling program could, if done properly, significantly reduce the number of single-occupancy cars on the road. How about a social networking site dedicated to carpooling, giving Edmontonians the opportunity to both save a bit of money and do some good for the environment but also make new acquaintances and forge new business partnerships (and have good conversations) to and from work? It would strike me as fairly easy: you sign up, plug in your commute route, and meet up with people who live in your area and commute to roughly the same area you do. Besides, us grown ups are often complaining about how hard it is to meet new people. Why not do this?

Various carpooling apps, primarily aimed at parents driving kids to school, already exist, and most of which are free.The Carpool School Edition allows you to find out who lives near you and invite them to form a carpool group. You can add members of your group manually or import them from your contacts. The app allows you to manually create a schedule or generate one automatically based on your preferences. If you have a note or update for the group, you can add it in and everyone will be notified. How handy would it be to have an Edmonton-centred carpooling app designed around the needs of working professionals, drawing on your Facebook or LinkedIn contacts? Drop off your kids at school or your dog at the local Stay-n-Play, pick up a colleague at a designated point along the way, and voilà: one less car on the road.

How hard would this be? (source:
So this is my #BreakSomethingYEG challenge: get out of your damn car, or find a carpooling partner. I realize this is easier said than done, but it takes a decisive shift to change deep-seeded attitudes. I will start with a call-out to anybody living in Edmonton's west end who commutes to the Nisku area near the airport. Want a carpooling buddy? I'm your man. And to anybody reading this post, I challenge you to do three things. Firstly, try taking the bus to work at least once a week. Secondly, try finding a carpooling counterpart, thereby making your trip to work (at least occasionally) a two-occupancy car deal. And thirdly, with a municipal election in Edmonton coming up shortly, press Councillors Leibovici, Iveson and Diotte on these issues - and remind them that this is not simply an issue for the city's students and "young people who don't have cars."

We may live in an oil and gas-rich region, but we all know we can't live like this forever, both for the sake of the planet and our regional economy. Let's put that #MakeSomethingYEG can-do ethos to the test and really start prioritizing public transportation, and reducing our enslavement to the single-occupancy car. We have tremendous civic energy here, as well as access to our leaders, especially now in the era of social media. If anybody can do it, it's us.

So what's your beef about this city, and your proposed remedy? Every problem has a solution, so let's hear yours!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

6 PR Copywriting Lessons From Religious Pamphlets

I have a confession to make: I quite enjoy receiving leaflets from religious organizations. As a child growing up in an essentially secular family, I devoured faith-based pamphlets anytime they were dropped off at our house by the Watchtower Society or on the rare occasion I went to church, not really believing in it but bewitched by the clarity and audacity of the claims made therein. My fascination with sectarian propaganda turned into a master's thesis on religious racketeering in 1930s Japan, and my time as a researcher in Japan included zealous collecting of handouts from every two-bit religious sect I could find.

Today as a PR professional, my fascination with religious pamphlets still abides, and while I no longer physically collect them, I always read them from beginning to end when they arrive in the mailbox. Furthermore, in my new professional capacity I have a new-found respect for the people who write these things. Love them or hate them, we could all learn a thing or two about content creation and key messages from the Watchtower people and other religious pamphleteers, and they serve as a great model for students of public relations.

Religion is without a doubt humankind's first attempt at public relations, and all of history's prophetic figures have been PR people of one sort or another. What were Moses' tablets but a Bronze-Age PowerPoint presentation of ten key messages? The Prophet Muhammad, prior to his revelations, was well known for his negotiation and peace-making skills between warring tribes, leading one Muslim PR blogger to describe him as the best PR man who ever lived. And Jesus of Nazareth, if you look past the conjuring tricks and questionable claims, was no less than the greatest ever spokesman for not being a dick.

I don't intend on getting into a Christopher Hitchens-type debate over whether religion is a force of good or evil in the world. Compelling arguments could (and regularly are) made for both, and in any case I don't know how useful a debate this is anyway. But what I think can't be argued is that the communications model that the forces of organized religion have developed and fine-tuned over the course of 5,000 years is nothing short of brilliant, and that anybody planning on a career in communications would be well recommended to take a serious look at the world's religious sects, and specifically their messaging.

And as for those Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlets that occasionally appear at your door, at times presented to you in person, don't turn them down and don't put them straight into the recycling bin. Read them. In addition to being remarkably well written much of the time, they embody many important lessons for today's PR professional. Here are a few takeaways from Watchtower Society collateral.

1. State their mission clearly right off the bat.

As I type I'm staring at a JW brochure that was dropped off at our house the other day. The opening salvo: "Would you like to know the truth?" OK, we're talking about deep, universal truths, and even if the truth they propose turns out to be outlandish and doesn't ring true, it's still an appealing sales pitch. I mean, who doesn't want to know the truth? Granted, we all blanket ourselves in convenient self-deceptive untruths now and then, but at our more calm and meditative moments, we all want to know the truth. And with this as a lead, you're immediately drawn in with the anticipation of some sort of 'eureka' moment.

2. Use clear, simple language.

It goes without saying that religious copywriters write with one purpose in mind: to be understood by as wide a range of people as possible. Mind you, religious leaders can be terribly ambiguous and confusing much of the time, but on a basic level religious propagandists want to convince you that their worldview is the best one out there and you should join them. The pamphlet in front of me moves on to a series of bullets which succinctly capture the big questions that every human being at one point or another has contemplated.

  • Does God really care about us?
  • Will war and suffering ever end?
  • What happens to us when we die?
  • Is there any hope for the dead?
  • How can I pray and be heard by God?
  • How can I find happiness in life?

Writing doesn't get much more crystal-clear than this. It's virtually perfect, and any corporate copywriter producing materials for their employer would be well off taking a page out of the Jehovah's Witnesses' book of message crafting.

3. Know your audience.

When I pick up a religious pamphlet, it's generally not because I'm looking for deep truths about life, the universe and everything. (I'm much more likely to pick up Douglas Adams for this.) However, it's probably safe to say that people like me aren't the intended reader of religious leaflets. The successful public relations campaign attempts to sway the targeted public in one direction or another by appealing to that group's specific needs and circumstances, like promising "more flights to more places" or to "support the growth of open shop construction." Or the promise of eternal life in the presence of a loving God for those who embrace His message.

4. It's all about those key messages.

In a recent TED lecture entitled 'Atheism 2.0' philosopher Alain de Botton noted that while in the secular world we tend to assume people need to hear something once and we've got it, whereas religious leaders recognize that message need to be repeated in order for them to sink in. In public relations we call the former school of thought the "Magic Bullet Theory" and everybody with any experience in the industry knows this never works. The central tenant of the Christian faith, namely that all can be saved through Jesus Christ, punctuates every single piece of literature the church has ever produced, from the New Testament onward, hence why the message has stuck.

5. Provide ample supportive 'evidence'.

I know I'm going to get crucified (put intended) by the Nu-Atheists out there for characterizing scriptural passages as 'evidence', but if your conversational context is indeed religion, then your storehouse of facts and figures is by definition going to be religious scripture. And religious pamphlets always provide an ample volume of this, with every supposition backed up by Biblical, Qur'anic or Sutric passages. Ask a rhetorical question, give the reader and answer and back it up with a quote from the Holy Book. It's the same formula one uses in a business case, except substitute the New Testament for the latest data from Abacus or Statistics Canada.

6. Always end with a call to action... and contact info.

In the end, the purpose of public relations is to persuade people to do something, be that buy a product, use a service, vote for a candidate or protest against something. And for this reason, a PR campaign is useless unless it contains a clearly stated call to action, a "Here's what you can do" section. And on this too, PR pros would be well-advised to look at religious leaflets. Ultimately the purpose of these brochures is to put butts in pews or on prayer mats by giving people a compelling reason to attend church/mosque/whatever, and then giving them info on how to find one near them.

These days, religious pamphlets invariably direct the reader to online resources. The Watchtower Society has - it should be noted - a truly amazing website, one of the best I've ever seen. It's available in virtually every language in existence, from Acholi to Zapoteca, and will locate the nearest JW congregation to you wherever you live (unless you live somewhere like North Korea where their church is banned). I still have no intention of joining their ranks, but I have to hand it to the JW's for being extremely skilled PR people. Their teachings on the cosmos and on blood transfusions may be wacky as hell, but they could all teach us a thing or two about effective communication.