If you asked Canadian composers to tell you about the first film they ever scored, few could start their story with, “it takes place in North Korea.” Andrew Yong Hoon Lee can. The Korean-Canadian composer has created the music for Closing the Gap: Hockey in North Korea, a new documentary offering a rare window into North Korean society, as it follows a team of hockey players competing in an international tournament in New Zealand.

“They play hockey in North Korea?” That was Lee’s reaction when he was first asked by the film’s director Nigel Edwards to score the project. “Like most Canadians, my concepts of North Korea are predicated on, essentially, propaganda,” he says, on the phone from New York State, where he’s completing his Master of Fine Arts at Bard College. “Before I committed to the project, I wanted to make sure that this film wasn’t going to be salacious or fear-mongering. But when I watched Nigel’s early footage, I got the sense that he was respectful of the North Korean people, and wanted to bring to the forefront their human stories.”

Lee grew up in Vancouver, where his father conducted a church choir, and played classical music and opera in the family home. He started his first (Nirvana-inspired) rock band in Grade Five, went on to study classical music and visual art, and had an epiphany when he first heard the experimental electronic music of Montreal’s Tim Hecker. “Growing up, I had a distrust of machines making music, as opposed to, you know, playing it live,” he says. “Tim Hecker was kind of my gateway. He made it OK for me to seriously consider musicians who were using computers as their primary instrument.”

The music in Closing the Gap is minimal and atmospheric. The quiet yet expressive score is not unlike the electronic music Lee has previously released under the name Holy Hum, or composed for various audio-visual and sound installation projects exhibited across North America and Europe. For his first score for a narrative feature, he was tasked with a new challenge: a cast of characters that lacked, shall we say, character. Like many raised under the North Korean regime, the hockey players featured in the documentary downplayed their individuality as they competed for the glory of their leader, Kim Jong Un. As a result, Lee and Edwards used music to try to draw out the personalities on screen.

“I had two objectives for the score,” says Lee. “I wanted the music to have a psychological register, you could say. To work on a subconscious level, revealing possibly psychological aspects of the characters. And I wanted it to sound how North Korea looks. When you see the architecture, it has aspirations of the future, but somehow still looks dated. So I wanted the score to sound futuristic, but having a patina of something retro.”

As if creating music for on a film shot in North Korea wasn’t a unique enough assignment, Lee also experienced a rather rare working relationship with the director. He and Edwards spent close to a year on the project, including 10 days together in Lee’s studio in New York. “A lot of the editing choices were actually dictated by this score, which I don’t think is that common,” Lee explains. “Nigel was actually sitting behind me editing the film and I was working on the score. I might suggest extending a certain shot so that it would allow a certain note to be extended, and he was able to make those edits. It’s not the most cost-effective way to work, but we allowed ourselves to experiment.”

 Closing the Gap premiered at the Whistler Film Festival in December of 2019. Lee plans to release the full score this spring across digital platforms, and on vinyl through his independent label, Heavy Lark.

Backed by a solid team, the winner of the 2017 edition of La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice TV singing competition) has landed exactly where we expected him to, with a second album as pulsating as the neon at the top of the poster.

On 2, Ludovick Bourgeois proves he can stand on his own two feet, and run toward the irresistible affection of the masses. With the help of producer Fred St-Gelais, Bourgeois, now 27, co-wrote nine of the 11 songs on the project. The pop singer was propelled to centre stage, but you’d be remiss to think that he’d turn his back on his fans by becoming a songwriter.

“This album is doubly important for me, and I’ve no intention of leaving my heritage behind [he’s the son of the late Patrick Bourgeois of Les BB fame], or to deny that I was launched by a TV show, but I want people to know I make music for the right reasons,” says Bourgeois. “The music comes first. The first song I ever wrote [among the three that appeared on his 2017 eponymous album] is a hymn to freedom titled ‘Desert Song.’ It was a pretty big hit. That boosts your confidence.” But to him, the real proof of success is when crowds sing along to every word. “We can play the first riff, and stop playing right away, and people just carry on; it’s incredible.”

To avoid such daily distractions as the dog barking, or the phone ringing, Bourgeois and St-Gelais decided to hit the road and head West, between the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park, to create a closed environment for their songwriting.

“We started from scratch, with just our guitars and Fred’s laptop, and a tiny MIDI keyboard,” says Bourgeois. “Right there in our hotel rooms, we created demos that were good enough to play on the radio, quality-wise! Fred is one hard-working guy. He was up at 8:00 every morning. I’m sloppier, I get up around noon… He made sure our work schedule was just as tight as our leisure schedule. Fred trusted my ideas when it came to melodies that touch people. Within that framework, I could just go and have fun.”

“Grief is the beginning of a lot of things”

The return of Nelson Minville (“Bonsoir Solitude,” “Sans Repos”) and Ingrid St-Pierre – on “Le saut de l’ange,” a song about grief that serves as a follow-up to “Sur ton épaule,” on the first album – and their respective talents as lyricists, was clearly beneficial.

“Ingrid doesn’t really know me, yet she managed to put the best words on the situation with this line: Ton départ/ Le saut de l’ange/ Je brille plus fort/ Par ton absence (Your departure / The leap of an angel / I shine brighter / Because of your absence). It’s like Patrick leaving us made everyone shine brighter,” says Bourgeois. “Her phrasing and melodies, when she sends me a piano-voice demo, are just perfect. She is unbelievably soft-spoken, and I’m the complete opposite. Ours is an improbable meeting that works out.”

The contribution of Steve Marin (2Frères), who wrote “L’Écho,” also comes to life in this unifying universe. “We invited him to the studio to listen to our songs, and he liked that one,” says Bourgeois. “Steve is a storyteller, and he’s spot-on when he says that ‘every day is a new life.’ Grief is the beginning of a lot of things.”

The album hosts more than one potential hit, chiefl among them (thanks to an irresistible melody) “Je le ferai,” a message of hope co-written with Marc Dupré and St-Gelais. “We sang it as a duet,” says Bourgeois, “because I really liked the song so much, and it shows how generous he is to appear on the album of an emerging artist, and this song will touch everyone! I always try to bring a silver lining to a sad story, and it’s even more fun because Marc and I aren’t from the same generation.”

One of Bourgeois’ favourites on 2 is “Figé dans le temps,” which was written by Jeffrey Piton and Québécois duo Kingdom Street. “It’s often when you didn’t write a song that you like it most,” says Bourgeois. “The lyrics are powerful. It’s incredibly good!” As for “Que sera ma vie,” the video of which was launched in September 2019, it was written in an hour, says the artist.

Bourgeois does high-level pop with killer choruses – just like his dad before him. What about that BB medley he plays on stage? “I’ve inherited those hits, in a way,” he says. “I have to make them live on. I’m not saying no one else can play them, but it’s only logical that I play them.”

Drew Gonsalves may have won the lottery.

When the multi-hyphenate, Trinidadian-Canadian songwriter/musician/academic first wrote the song “Abatina,” that appeared on his group Kobo Town’s 2006 album, Independence, he had no idea it where it would lead. It was a huge compliment when the revered “Mother of Calypso,” Calypso Rose, covered the track on her 2016 album, Far From Home (that Gonsalves co-wrote and co-produced with French global music star Manu Chao). But he may have hit the jackpot when he learned in the summer of 2019 that Carlos Santana would also be recording a version of the song (calling it “Breaking Down the Door”) on his latest release, Africa Speaks.

When Gonsalves first wrote the song, he’d found inspiration from a riff in one of the “old-time traditional pieces that come from very, very early in the music. You know, traditional chants that were sung in the street,” that he’d heard over his years of studying calypso’s roots. “I had taken that and had written a whole story and a song around it,” says Gonsalves. Ten years went by before Calypso Rose (the acclaimed “Mother of Calypso” who, last year at 78, became the oldest performer ever to appear at Coachella), heard and loved the song, and decided to cover it. “It spoke to her personal experiences,” he says. It was her version of the track that caught Santana’s attention. “I’m not 100 percent sure how the song got into Santana’s hands,” Gonsalves says. “I do know that it was the Calypso Rose version of the song that he heard. Our manager Derek [Andrews] got an e-mail from Santana’s manager out of the blue.”

“Our manager got an e-mail from Santana’s manager out of the blue.”

And it turned out that Santana wasn’t the only one whose interest was piqued by the song. Not long after the Calypso Rose version was released (and appeared on a movie soundtrack), Gonsalves recalls that, “I got a letter from the Roaring Lion estate.” Unbeknownst to Gonsalves at the time, the calypso superstar had written and recorded the song back in the 1930s.

“My response was a long, gushing letter back about the Roaring Lion,” says Gonsalves. “It was his son that had written me. His father was one of the most lyrically and musically inventive calypso men whose music I’d loved for a long, long time, so I wrote about that.” Laughing, he adds, “After that I was communicating with lawyers. There was no animosity. I’m sure this kind of thing happens all the time… I was very happy to give credit where it was due. We came to an arrangement that made everybody happy.” Roaring Lion’s real name, Rafael de Leon, is now listed as one of the song’s writers.

See for yourself!

Want to compare all three versions of the song?

* Kobo Town’s “Abatina”
* Calypso Rose’s “Abatina”
* Santana’s “Breaking Down the Door”

While the three versions of the song – Kobo Town’s “Abatina”, Calypso Rose’s “Abatina,” and Santana’s “Breaking Down the Door” – all come from the same source, their styles and arrangements couldn’t be more different. That’s perfectly in keeping with the tradition of topicality and diversity in the sounds and subject matter of calypso music. From its inception, calypso played an important role as a means of political expression. According to Wikipedia, the music emerged when, “slaves, brought to toil on sugar plantations, were stripped of all connections to their homeland and family and not allowed to talk to each other. They used calypso to mock the slave masters and to communicate with each other.”

The original, Kobo Town version is lyrically longer and much darker, sonically, than the other two. It’s about a young and beautiful woman from the lower classes who, to the consternation of her neighbours, marries a wealthy, older man. The people think that she’s lucky and has a wonderful life, but in truth she finds herself in an abusive, loveless marriage that, in the end, turns lethal. Both of the cover versions, though different from each other, are more upbeat, have fewer verses, but still share the same somber subject matter. Gonsalves explains, “For the subject matter, it seems more appropriate to have something brooding and heavy and dark, that captures the sadness of the story more, but taking things that are very sad and serious and making upbeat songs and melodies out of them is totally part of the Caribbean, and especially calypso, tradition.”

As for what impact the good news from Santana’s camp has had on Gonsalves’ career (not to mention his bank account), other than many congratulatory calls from global music peers, he says it’s too early to tell. “It takes a couple of quarters before it shows up in your SOCAN royalties,” he says. “It’s like a scratch-and-win lottery ticket. I’m still scratching.”