The Final Journey

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Like most Canadians, I awoke on October 18 to the news that Gord Downie (the front man for Canadian music icons The Tragically Hip) had passed away from brain cancer.  Shortly after announcing his diagnosis, Downie and the Hip embarked on a 2016 farewell tour of Canada that featured sold-out concerts and an outpouring of emotion.  The final concert, in my hometown of Kingston, was an especially monumental event and was broadcast live on national television.

Many thousands of words have already been written about Downie in the days since his passing.  Rather than add to that total, I have decided to write about something else that also happened on October 18:  I attended Johnny Clegg’s concert at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.   Sadly, there is a tragic  parallel between Clegg and Downie.

I first wrote about Johnny Clegg in this post from late 2014.  He is one of South Africa’s greatest musicians and played an important role in the fight against Apartheid.   His songs were generally sung in both English and Zulu, he fully embraced Zulu culture, and he had racially integrated bands at a time when racial segregation was the law.

View from the back of Koerner Hall, prior to the concert

I wrote about Clegg again in the spring of 2016, when he unexpectedly performed a concert in Kingston.  At the time, nobody knew that he had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

After his most recent course of chemotherapy earlier this year, Clegg announced that he was in remission and wanted to embark on one final tour called “The Final Journey”.  This brief and highly selective tour would take him to some of the places that had strongly supported him through his career.  In Canada, one of his biggest markets, concerts were scheduled in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City.

Attending Clegg’s concert gave me an idea of what it must have been like to see The Tragically Hip on their final tour.  Knowing that this was his final tour added exceptional poignancy to the entire evening.  That feeling intensified when Clegg dedicated a song to Downie.  It became almost intolerable when Clegg sang songs such as Osiyeza (The Crossing).

Clegg wrote Osiyeza after the premature 1992 death of bandmate Mntowaziwaio Ndlovu.  it was extremely moving to hear Clegg sing it on this tour, as the lyrics comment on how a person can affect others even after that person is no longer alive.  During this song, as with several others, the woman seated beside me was wiping away tears.

View from my seat at Koerner Hall. No zoom lens – I had a great seat!

Another poignant moment was when Clegg performed Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World.  Clegg wrote this song in the late 1980s for his then-newborn son Jesse.  Jesse, who is also a musician and has had six Top Ten hits of his own in South Africa, was the opening act at this concert and joined his father onstage for a couple of songs.  It must now be hard for Jesse to hear lyrics such as “One day when you wake up, I will have to say goodbye”.

It certainly wasn’t all sad, though.  You could hear a pin drop when Clegg talked about the anthropological inspiration for Scatterlings of Africa:  as always, his stories were fascinating and didn’t insult the intelligence of his audience.  How many other musicians refer to mitochondria during their concerts?  And songs like Dela, always a live favourite, exploded with joy and excitement.

Clegg put a lot of energy into the concert.  It may have been energy that he didn’t really have.  I considered waiting around, as I had met him at the previous three concerts I had attended.  However, I then overheard that his post-show energy level made it unlikely that he would appear for a meet and greet.  At that point, I decided to leave the concert hall.  I reasoned that Johnny Clegg had already given enough.

O siyeza, o siyeza, sizofika webaba noma
O siyeza, o siyeza, siyagudla lomhlaba
Siyawela laphesheya lulezontaba ezimnyama
Lapha sobheka phansi konke ukuhlupheka

(From “Osiyeza (The Crossing)“, by Johnny Clegg)

Pembroke’s Hidden Treasures

(Pembroke, Ontario, Canada)

From the Château Montebello, it would have been a fairly easy drive back home to Kingston.  However, we were looking forward to seeing some old friends near Pembroke before returning home…so we took a long drive on the north side of the Ottawa River.   After passing through Thurso (birthplace of Guy Lafleur!), our progress became quite slow.  We didn’t want to go on the Autoroute, but construction and congestion were the order of the day.  Finally, some distance west of Ottawa, the road opened up.

Downtown Shawville, Quebec

This seemed like a somewhat forgotten corner of Québec.  There were few towns and I don’t recall seeing a stop sign or traffic light until we reached Shawville.  Although Shawville was clearly the largest town around, even it was very quiet.   After stocking up on some Québec-only provisions, we crossed the mighty Ottawa River back to Ontario.

Wildlife in downtown Pembroke

Our first impressions of Pembroke were lacklustre.  The skies were grey and the main street was under considerable construction:  perhaps because of this, there were also some vacant storefronts.  Just over a block away from the main street, we saw a fox relaxing on a pile of gravel!  We weren’t expecting this in a city of 16,000 people, especially at the beginning of rush hour.

The Nook Creperie in Pembroke, Ontario

However, our concern soon dissipated.  We walked by the waterfront campus of Algonquin College (see photo at the top of this post) and saw signs of life.  Then, returning to the main street, we saw a lot of locals entering a restaurant called “The Nook Crêperie”.  We were assured by a couple of patrons that this would be a great place for dinner.

One of the crepes at The Nook

They were absolutely correct.  Our crêpes were appealing inside and outside; the soup and dessert were both also excellent.  We never would have found this place if we had followed our initial instincts to avoid the downtown construction zone.   We then found our B&B:  just a few blocks from downtown, it was a charming Victorian red brick home in an equally charming neighbourhood.

Our B&B in Pembroke

We met our friends the next morning…and made only a small dent in the huge amount of spruce beer (biére d’épinette) that we had each stockpiled in anticipation of this day.   The strange obsession with spruce beer is a long story.  It has its roots in a long-ago Ottawa River canoe trip from my friend’s house to a general store in nearby Fort-Coulonge, Québec.  I don’t think either one of us particularly likes it, but the tradition has taken on a life of its own.  If you ever want a soft drink that is ridiculously high in calories, cloyingly sweet, and redolent of Pine-Sol, then spruce beer is the beverage for you.

Biére d’épinette: available in name brands AND store brands!

And that seems like a fitting way to end our summer vacation.  We saw a lot of Québec, enjoyed a lot of sports, and ate very well…or at least had fun with our food.  How can you not have fun with pizzaghetti?

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a special report on a very special event!