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John & Waleed meshes Western, Eastern themes in surprising ways

John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid's new show, John & Waleed, is both a showcase for their songs and a celebration of their friendship.

Michael Cooper

3 out of 4 stars

Title
John & Waleed
Written by
John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid
Directed by
Marjorie Chan
Actors
John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid
Venue
Theatre Passe Muraille
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, March 05, 2017

Where some bluster about building walls, others are busy quietly breaking them down.

You imagine there must have been some barriers between veteran musicians John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid. Millard, of Scottish heritage, was born and bred in Southern Ontario, calls himself a "non-believer" and plays music in the Western folk tradition. Abdulhamid, originally from Sudan, is a practising Muslim who draws on Islamic devotional music and African pop.

Yet the two men have overcome those differences by emphasizing what they share – from immigrant backgrounds to a love of music – while melding their styles into an intricate but pleasing hybrid. Their delightful show John & Waleed, now playing at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille, is both a showcase for their songs and a celebration of their friendship.

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Over the course of 90 minutes, the duo play some 16 tunes, sung in Arabic and English, and tell stories in between. They kick things off with Abdulhamid's Daawir Baina Fil Sudan, a lilting ode to his homeland. Millard then counters with Breeze in the Cottonwood, his lazy evocation of an Ontario summer. But The Bee, a thrumming number sung by Millard that at first seems to be a corollary to his previous song, is in fact inspired by a verse from the Koran.

And so it goes, Western and Eastern themes and genres continually entwining, often in surprising ways. Even their musical instruments speak to the hybrid. There's an intriguing stringed one propped up at stage left. When Abdulhamid picks it up and plays it, it becomes the traditional African banjar. Later, when Millard plucks away at it, we recognize it as the banjar's African-American descendant, the banjo.

Millard, a Gordon Lightfoot sound-alike (with a fondness for occasional forays into falsetto), is a master on the electric banjo and wood banjo. The sweet-voiced Abdulhamid provides fluid bass, African percussion and, at one point, favours us with a performance on his souped-up electric version of the tanbura, a lyre-like Sudanese folk instrument.

The two men met a few years ago, as resident artists at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, where they were planning a cabaret, and have been developing their act since 2012. It hasn't always gone smoothly. When Millard announced that he was from Kitchener, Ont., Abdulhamid pointed out that the city is named after the British general who slaughtered his ancestors during the Anglo-Egyptian invasion of Sudan. Oops.

Their only real falling out, however, has been over music. As Millard confesses during a tea break midway through the show, he once walked out of a rehearsal in frustration, unable to reconcile his Western musical training with the idiosyncratic melody his colleague wanted him to play. But then, Abdulhamid explains, playing Sudanese music is like living in Sudan itself – you learn to improvise.

As you might imagine, there's some political content to the act, particularly in Abdulhamid's songs, which are helpfully translated into English on a lyric sheet that comes with the theatre program. (Although surtitles would also be welcome.) These include Al-Esian Al-Madani, supporting civil disobedience in Sudan, and Baladi, which decries his country's vast gap between rich and poor. When not singing, Abdulhamid expresses his anger over U.S. President Donald Trump's ban on Syrian refugees entering the United States and describes his own experiences with racial profiling at Canadian airports.

Under the dramaturgy of Cahoots Theatre's Marjorie Chan (who has also directed the show) and TPM's Andy McKim, the two musicians also share some longer stories that connect them in unexpected ways. Millard tells of how his Scottish grandmother, arriving in Canada after the Second World War, was determined to rid herself of her thick accent by taking elocution lessons. Abdulhamid, who came to this country in 1992, recalls how he improved his shaky English with instructional tapes, provided by a helpful Toronto librarian.

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Abdulhamid's shout-out to that librarian is one of the more touching moments in the show, which concludes with Samra, a warm-and-fuzzy (if slightly wry) song welcoming new immigrants to Toronto: "Not what I would call a paradise … it's a practical place to be."

The immigrant theme is pursued in Chan's staging, which has the duo performing on the TPM Mainspace in front of a backdrop designed by Joanna Yu that resembles both an old parchment map and a ship's sail. On it are projected inky images, created by Kaitlin Hickey, as well as a video by Lily Ross-Millard – a dizzying drive through Ontario's industrial landscapes to accompany Millard's gritty ballad Slag Heap Love.

I left the theatre with my ear satisfied but my mind still hungry to know more, especially about Abdulhamid's early life in Sudan. As John & Waleed affirms, it's the stories we tell about ourselves that break down those imagined walls and reveal how much our similarities outweigh our differences.

John & Waleed continues to March 5.

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