Monday, April 17, 2006

“Every culture has its way of passing on wisdom of its mature women,” says Maria Kasstan, right, host of an open mike at The Lakeview Lunch, on Dundas St. W., every Thursday. She’s joined by poet Fran McCann, who will also perform at Mamapalooza. Photo by KEITH BEATY / TORONTO STAR


Baby, they rock

Moms who make the truth about life worthy of song put it all together for Mamapalooza on Mother's Day

Apr. 15, 2006. 10:10 AM

I broke in my shoes on the mommy-track
Bein' everything to everyone.
I've been a doctor, a teacher, accountant and a chef
Psychiatrist and super-mom!
-- "Nothin' in the World (That This Old Girl Can't Do)" by Debbie Fleming

Debbie Fleming knows all about being "everything to everyone." After all, she is a mother. But she forgot to mention one other role when she wrote that song — professional musician. Because while Fleming was a single mom raising two kids in Toronto, she was also eking out a living singing advertising jingles (Diet Pepsi, Pizza Nova, Suzy Shier), writing songs, and performing rock, jazz, country and R'n'B, not to mention being in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

"I wasn't one of those mothers who got down on the floor and coloured with them or baked cookies," says Fleming, now a 62-year-old grandmother who still writes, records and performs. Instead, she became living proof that the juggling act of motherhood is fertile ground for the creative musical mind.

Listen carefully and you can hear a growing chorus of mothers out there. Melodies, harmonies, poetry. Strumming guitars, plucking banjos, stomping a beat. Crooning ballads and belting out rock tunes. They do country and punk and jazz and choral. They go solo, sing in garage bands, or a capella.

And this year on Mother's Day, you can listen to them for a whole afternoon as women join forces to celebrate motherhood and music at Canada's first Mamapalooza festival. The event, presented by promoter Gary Topp, will be held at Lula Lounge in downtown Toronto on May 14.

"It's an opportunity en masse to say to people, `Here we are, we have great music, come listen!'" says Mary Ellen Moore, who sings with Fleming in the bluegrass trio Choir Girlz, which is among the 31 Canadian performers on the roster.

Remember Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" from 1972? Well at Mamapalooza it'll be "Militant Mom." And "The Tooth Fairy Forgot," "The Vacuum Cleaner Tango" and "The Bad Parent's Song."

Mamapalooza, which began four years ago in New York City and spread across the U.S., is coming to Canada largely because of Lynda Kraar, who grew up in Toronto and is now a suburban mom and rock chick living in New Jersey.

She performed in the New York festival last year and was sure that if it came to Canada, "moms who rock" would come out of the woodwork. They have.

Kraar says it's a great way for mama musicians to support each other, get to know each other and encourage all those other ones strumming away at their kitchen tables to get out and make some noise.

"My daughters' jaws dropped to the floor to see older women doing this amazing thing and being really great at this. It's a real shock to the kids," she explains on the phone between interruptions to co-ordinate picking up her teenager from drama and razzing the 12-year-old for not eating her lunch.

Mamapalooza was founded by Joy Rose, who, with her six-mom group Housewives on Prozac, sings such songs as "Pee Alone" and "Fuzzy Slippers." In Britain, punk bands like The Mothers wail out tunes like "The Nit Song" (yes, it's a lesson on why your kids shouldn't trade baseball caps).

Many of the performers at the Canadian show seem to take a more subtle approach, with acoustic guitars and more of a folksy pop sound.

Like Toronto singer-songwriter Lynn Harrison. The 42-year-old mother of two school-age kids was a "closet musician" from the age of 12 and eventually became a television writer. Then, something about being a mother inspired her to go public.

The day Harrison's eldest started JK in 1998, she wrote the poignant "First Day of School." The next day she grabbed her guitar, marched into a café in her Riverdale neighbourhood and announced, "I'd like to do a gig." After she played for the owner, she recalls, "he said, `I really like your music but do you have anything that isn't about kids?'"

Harrison laughs. Almost eight years, three CDs and countless gigs later, sure, she sings about all kinds of things. But it's often her songs about everyday life, her kids and her house that people most appreciate.

She's sharing her story around a table of other Mamapalooza performers during an open stage night at a Toronto restaurant.

Some musicians, like Sandi Marie Porter, keep blazing on through childrearing. Porter, now 52, used to drag her kids off to every festival they were allowed to attend. "I recorded with babies on my hip."

Laura Fernandez, 45, had written music since childhood but put it on the shelf for a career as an illustrator. After a decade, it came bursting out, shaped and matured by motherhood, she says. She's been performing and recording ever since. "It was like I had lost myself for a long time and then I found myself."

Ilana Waldston, 43, of Toronto had done some musical theatre before her two kids were born. Two years ago, someone asked her, "What's the one thing you've always wanted to do that you've never done?"

She thought about it. Then she hired a voice coach, took a course on the art of cabaret and worked on her patter. Now she has regular gigs singing "comedic cabaret with a jazz sensibility." To Maria Kasstan, a veteran performer who sang protest songs and did the Yorkville coffee houses before life got overtaken by raising four kids, the Mamapalooza movement celebrates something fundamental.

"Every culture has its way of passing on wisdom of its mature women," says Kasstan, 56, who has three grandkids. Her husband of 25 years died 18 months ago and returning to the music scene was a way to get through her grief. "I think it's actually the only reason I'm still alive." Kasstan is small and gentle. But she plays a mean guitar and has an edge in her voice when she belts out "The Bad Parent's Song."

"I think a lot of people try to live up to an unrealistic ideal with their kids, and some of us never did figure that out," she says of the song's origins.

Being identified as mothers can be a mixed blessing. Especially when you're a musician in your own right. Because who needs to be pigeon-holed?

"Does anybody care how many kids Mick Jagger has?" quips Kasstan. Adds Waldston, "Does anybody even know?"

Never mind the whole ageism thing that permeates the mainstream music industry. "Nobody says you're too old, but it's there," says Marianne Girard of Newmarket, who put her music on hold while she raised three kids on her own. "It doesn't matter that I sing better and I write better than I ever have."

She says events like Mamapalooza are important to the many other women out there who need inspiration. "We're soldiers. We really have to blaze the trail."

As Harrison points out: "Just because you're not famous doesn't mean you're not good."

For more information about Mamapalooza on May 14, visit or call 416-588-0307. Tickets $15, $5 for kids under 10. Doors open at noon, show starts at 1 p.m.

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