Family Values: Lawnya Vawnya reviewed
ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND’S LAWNYA VAWNYA FESTIVAL INVITES EVERYONE HOME
By: Tom Beedham | Art and photos by: Tom Beedham
“My mother taught me to love the sea, for water is the beginning and end of life on this earth.”
-Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
We’re three bands deep into the five-band punk matinee at Lawnya Vawnya, and Tunnel Vision is pummeling the all-ages audience in the Eastern Edge Gallery garage. The handful of teens that just arrived are already drenched in sweat, having brought the mosh pit in with them off the street. Wedged into a lineup of emo, pop punk, and alternative rock from Montréal’s Barnacle and Sunforger as well as fellow St. John’s acts like Needle Crafts and Mild Manors, the hardcore act was the only band on the bill without any online presence, but the punks hung on the guitar feedback that announced every song like a serve ready to be spiked.
Ducking out to the parking lot between sets, the location of the free public throwdown feels pointed. This being my first time on the Atlantic, I’ve padded out my stay in St. John’s by tracing Newfoundland’s eastern coast and soaking in natural wonders along well-kept trails of tourist destinations like Signal Hill and Cape Spear. For meals, I’ve found myself at home in fest-friendly cat-themed coffee bars and brewpubs on Duckworth Street. I’ll later recognize the faces that bring me breakfast sandwiches behind mics and guitars on the festival stages, hinting at the role Lawnya Vawnya plays in the community. If you’re not looking for it, it’s easy to miss, but across the street from St. John’s Harbour, I repeatedly catch myself studying a landscape I assume has played an important part in sparking the opposition that fueled the local scene: fishing boat masts and towering cargo ships in the foreground, the Irving family’s giant gas tanks dotting the hills—monuments to extractive ideology.
The indulgence of irony and hipster desire feels out of place in the city’s rugged, industrial surroundings, but it isn’t uncommon to see elder locals wandering in the doors and mixing with arty types at coffee bars or long communal tables, either. Elsewhere, this soft modernism would warn of looming gentrification, but in a city hemorrhaging youth while its workforce ages, it feels as much an adaptive reflex as a gentle effort to hold on to friends and family itching to get out of Dodge. It makes sense the city is host to a young and dedicated crop of bands on the punk and emo spectrum.
Up the hill at the Masonic Temple, Swimming reports on the toll capitalist realism has had on the local imagination at another all-ages event, and the crowd is full of familiar faces from the afternoon. Their 2021 debut That’s OK is populated with characters challenging an infectious resignation to perceived socio-economic limitations and friends moving west to larger Canadian cities. The implied relationship to St. John’s is one that is at once deeply identified with it and without roots.
Within seconds of hitting the stage, it’s clear Swimming has struck a chord locally, audience members instantly singing along with set opener “Sometimes Things Change” and hollering whenever Liam Ryan finger-taps a mathy guitar breakdown. The show marks the beginning of a tour in support of That’s OK (eventually cancelled after one of the members sustains an injury in Halifax), and it feels like the festival is partially designed to send them off, Ryan swinging the mic stand to the crowd so members of Mild Manors and Tunnel Vision can put some gang vocals on “Blackhorse Brigade.”
He ends the set urging locals to start a band—to make the city a place they want to stay—and when Swimming shares Instagram story tags (there are a lot) after the show, they’re lovingly captioned with personal endorsements: “I love Swimming”; “I miss hearing you in my basement”; “this song makes me cry every time.”
Like the hipster cafes and brewpubs on Duckworth, it’s clear Swimming’s shows have created a third place for a city displaced by its own negative mythologies, a place where community is reconnecting and growing up through the cracks.
At a Friday panel discussion on the project of decolonizing the arts, panelist Megan Samms stressed that the experiences of geopolitical abandonment are further compounded for the area’s Indigenous communities and youth living outside the capital.
“There’s a lot of food issues in Newfoundland and Labrador. There are not a lot of opportunities for youth in rural spaces, and there’s a lot of encouragement to just leave. That really kills the community,” Samms said.
A Mi’kmaq handweaver and natural dyer based in their traditional home and territory, Katalisk, Ktaqmkuk (to settlers, Codroy Valley, Newfoundland), Samms has been resolute in opting out of settler work contexts. They suggest that for Indigenous communities, decolonization can just mean honouring each other’s needs and building critical mass accordingly.
“We did it for thousands of years before colonialism. We can just keep doing it for each other and the rest falls into place.”
The showcase at the Masonic Temple further broaches that community emphasis with Status/Non-Status‘s Adam Sturgeon (Sturgeon was originally meant to speak on the decolonizing the arts panel but had to drop off after the band’s first flight was cancelled) exorcising the geopolitical abandonment and generational trauma he feels as an Anishinaabe man in London, Ontario with towering waves of distortion, while Wape’k Muin, a men’s pow-wow drum group with a focus on Mi’kmaq songs opened the night by rooting it in the area’s ancestral traditions.
Sharpened attention to continuity means themes in Lawnya Vawnya’s programming routinely engage each other on telescopic scales. Before the call home at the Masonic Lodge that galvanizes audiences around local issues, another showcase at the Rock House digs into global sounds to close the gap of diaspora and express global solidarity.
When local speed-folk band Kubasonics packs the crowd into the club early on Friday night, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Cherwick makes a dramatic entry, rousing the audience in a shaggy white coat before finding his place behind a tsymbaly (the Ukrainian version of a hammered dulcimer).
Leading the band—which also consists of his children Maria and Jacob on violin and drums respectively (Jacob also plays in Swimming), as well as guitarist Darren Browne and bassist Matt Hender—into some frenzied, spellbinding collisions of traditional local sounds and Ukrainian folkways, Cherwick’s energy frequently spills into the crowd, sometimes treating the nearby bar like it’s an extension of the stage, elsewhere teaching the audience some Ukrainian so they can chant and cheer on the band’s compatriots fighting the war in Ukraine.
When Toronto kulintang ensemble Pantayo takes the stage to play songs from the self-titled debut they released at the start of the pandemic, they’re as polished as ever. Packing the stage with their assortment of gongs and electronics, they have the crowd jostling for a view as they trade off vocal duties and styles. Having originated as a workshop project, the band remains dedicated to teaching the audience the names of the different gongs and offering an explanation for their use of Indigenous instruments of the southern Philippines as a means of connecting with their culture (Pantayo would later host an instructional kulintang workshop at the S.P.A.C.E. for anyone seeking a more formal familiarity with the instruments). Channeling ancestry and origin through old and new sounds, their music makes present a reality that might otherwise be experienced through psychophysical dimensions of distance.
Far from the country’s metropolis strongholds, Lawnya Vawnya’s programming is refreshingly forward-thinking. Though I do catch myself running to the Rock House to cram in sets from Knitting and Nap Eyes after the dusky stillness of a Myriam Gendron performance at The Ship, for the most part the concert schedule is carefully spread out to avoid too much overlap and augmented with thematically complementary panels, readings and workshops that slow things down and encourage audiences, performers, and programmers to meet each other on the same wavelength and examine their relationships on a critical level.
At the S.P.A.C.E., local guzheng player Jing Xia imagines a post-rock context for the traditional Chinese zither, while Montréal’s Markus Floats offers a new path for the jazz continuum, nimbly seizing chords from John Coltrane and rendering them into impossible arrangements, poetry from cultural theorist Fred Moten’s 2016 book The Service Porch floating over it all. Free for audiences to screen and ease themselves into the festival wherever or whenever they chose on Wednesday, the Celeste Bell/Ruth Negga co-directed Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché documentary offers a soft transition into festival mode, and most of the shows are all-ages, so parents can participate in the daytime activities without worrying about childcare, toddlers weaving through legs along the stops of the Downtown Music Crawl that literally gets audiences in the doors of local record stores and skincare shops. At a discussion about the landscape of releasing music in the 2020s, I am delighted when an audience question on the possibilities of NFTs eludes a moderator and the panel can stick to qualitative discussions exploring community systems of value without getting tied up in debates about market speculation and carbon offsets.
Railing against the domestic chauvinism of the global right and its antifeminist attacks on legal abortion, back at the Rock House, Lido Pimienta exposes a fundamental paradox in capitalism’s logic: as much as it has a stake in defending traditional family domesticity (just as it benefits from separating the interdependent spheres of society, dividing its labour supply into households and smaller living units carries out this goal to a further extreme), it also attacks it from multiple angles, chewing it up and spitting it out.
Planned Parenthood has been tabling by the entrance all night, and drag host \garbage file takes the occasion as a cue to remind the crowd that’s “because love and community means what? Harm reduction!”
Later in the set, Pimienta will invite the host back onstage to mime along to a bit about the extremes of heteropatriarchal kinship that will eventually introduce the defiant cumbia of “Nada,” \garbagefile’s tentacled head whipping around in mock dismay as Pimienta underlines the absurd hypocrisy the patriarchy relies on when it polices the bodies of people with uteruses.
“We want to take a moment of silence, a solemn moment of silence—everybody, this is serious—for all the trillions and trillions of babies we have lost into a sock, into a pillow. The babies that we have lost at a random sink at a random McDonald’s,” Pimienta announces, mock solemnity becoming mock hysteria on a dime. “What about the babies?!”
By connecting the risks and struggles around bodily autonomy in Canada, Colombia, and the United States, Pimienta creates a space to interrogate our related geopolitical shortcomings and celebrate our shared accomplishments. It isn’t just a concert, but a place to feel the strength of a network of bodies united in a shared political project. Lawnya Vawnya reaches well beyond the momentary rebellion of the carnivalesque, connecting audiences with organizing streams they can follow well beyond the festival.
Asking audiences again and again to examine the branches of their relations and follow them to the connective canopies of larger networks, the kind of change Lawnya Vawnya asked for in this year’s programming would amount to a psychic, socioeconomic revolution of staggering heights. But the idea of refusing to fight for a collectivist future feels more impossible—like giving up on the future itself. And here on land forged by tectonic collisions, weathered by the Atlantic’s winters and winds, it feels within reach.
Watching Signal Hill disappear in the rear view the day after the festival, I know I’m carrying a piece of the island with me, lines Lido Pimienta sang in an encore a capella flowing through my mind: “Love is a beautiful mountain. And you can climb the mountain. And you can lick the mountain. And you can kiss the mountain. Don’t be afraid of the mountain. Because you are the mountain.”