october 2008

(from left) Duhks Tania Elizabeth, Sarah Dugas and Leonard Podolak take flight on stage: 'It's not this mission we're on to blend styles,' Leonard says. 'It just sort of happens.'

The Duhks Take On the World

'Imagine if there wasn't actually a border. Imagine if we celebrated our cultural differences instead of defining all the obstacles we've created for ourselves to live happily, with respect and dignity. Unbelievable!'

by David McGee

Consider the headline on this piece: The Duhks Take On the World. Now, this can be read two ways: The Duhks Take On the World. Or, The Duhks Take On the World. Either interpretation is correct. And both are correct, too. Because in their mesmerizing new album, Fast Paced World, the Duhks deploy their aggressive progressive worldbeat bluegrass-call it pancultural bluegrass, if you prefer-in service of a message, or a news bulletin, announcing a humanistic platform for making a better habitat of this planet, and admitting to very human struggles with issues of intimacy and love. The rich may be different, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the Duhks, whose riches are of a spiritual rather than monetary nature, really are different—Canadians unafraid of criticizing U.S. foreign policy because they believe what happens here affects their country as well; politically conscious young people who, in essence, take John Lennon's "Imagine" as a battle cry for social activism in pursuit of a secure, egalitarian society; and environmentalists who practice what they preach-from drinking tap water, not bottled; to eating organic, not processed, foods; to running their van on biodiesel.


All of what makes the Duhks different, and special, was on display at a mid-September stop at Joe's Pub in New York City. In a typically brief Joe's set (the venue, one of the best in the city, is known for being adamant about artists going on and coming off stage precisely at their appointed hours), the quintet, making its first appearance in the city since brother and sister Christan and Sarah Dugas supplanted Scott Senior and Jessica Havey in the lineup, dispensed with the softer numbers in its repertoire and rocked the joint. Starting with the Afro-American spiritual that kicks off Fast Paced World, "A Might Storm" (raising a topic that was much in the news with Hurricane Ike ravaging the Texas Gulf and the devastation of Katrina still in the news), the set careened through a medley of rousing Irish reels; some evocative gypsy jazz; a stomping hoedown workout on Donna the Buffalo's "Down the River," complete with a lively sparring session between fiddler Tania Elizabeth and guitarist Jordan McConnell ahead of Elizabeth and group founder/banjoist Leonard Podolak trading electrifying solo runs; and eased into the socially conscious material brought to the Duhks' party at the moment the band was ready to raise the stakes of what it had to offer the public. "Eased into" is the best way to describe how they introduced these songs, since the first, "Toujours Vouloir," is in French. But the striking Ms. Dugas, in setting up the number, urged the audience to sing along with the chorus, which she translated, in part, as, "For one day love to reign/and money to lose its meaning." Not only did she inspire a singalong, but in the back of the room, in front of the bar, several young ladies were dancing so fast and furious as to shake the floor. Near the end of the set, Ms. Dugas set the stage for the new album's title track, "Fast Paced World," by explaining that she set the lyrics to "a song of struggle" by the late Nigerian father of Afrobeat and dedicated human rights activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti (the recording takes its multicultural dressing a step further by incorporating velvety Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66-style choral interludes at two junctures). Dressed in her hip proletariat garb—a plaid, thigh-high shift over black stockings—sleepy eyed and sultry, Sarah Dugas commanded the audience's attention as she began, over the insistent, primal beat, "We've forgotten what is sacred/We've forgotten what is sacred/Not love, not culture, not famly or nature," and expands on these ideas as the song decries the invocation of God's name to advance political agendas, invoking a pattern Americans have come to know well since 9/11 ("Time after time His name has been misued/Manipulation through fear/To get you to adhere/Empty threats without proof will only lead to paranoia..."), and scores the malling of the land ("With cookie cutter houses, cars and jobs/We'll all be the same, we won't have to think anymore..."). In the back of the room, a small temblor was reported.

The Duhks departed the stage to sustained roars, then quickly returned for an encore of a Balfour Brothers song that incorporated some Sly Stone "I want to take you higher" riffing before suddenly and inexplicably morphing into a zydeco version of Zep's "Whole Lotta Love," which sustained, ascending intensity, elicited whoops and hollers from the audience as Sarah found places in the song even Robert Plant hasn't visited, singing in a throaty, earthy voice Plant surely would have admired for its heated, loins-targeted bluesiness.

Then they were gone, leaving behind a limp crowd with a thirst for more that would go unquenched. The band had not even performed two of its most affecting love songs, their friend Dan Frechette's deceptively bouncy pop-blues lament, "You Don't See It," and fiddler Tania Elizabeth's ethereal, gently yearning confessional, "I see You." The next act was getting ready to come on. Later, Leonard Podolak would say, "It was unclear about how long they wanted us to play, so we put together a set we thought would work for the time we had."

In the business this is what is known as a gross understatement.

Self-professed hippie and Duhks founder Leonard Podolak: 'I want us to continue to grow musically, I want us to expand the journey, expand the ideas, and keep rockin'.'


In its medleys of Irish and Scottish reels and covers of Afro-American spirituals, the Duhks' music seeks to elevate the spirit, even as it engages the heart and the mind in songs, original and borrowed, that speak both to personal issues of commitment and conflict and to the cultural and political tenor of the times. And as folks at Joe's Pub saw, they've got a good beat and you can dance to 'em.

Pose this notion to Leonard Podolak, who founded the band and whose vision and sensibility is all over its music, and his response is nothing short of awesome, taking in not only the band's modus operandi but how his own personal journey is inseparable from the Duhks'. In the end, both are one, and it's a global event. To wit:

"I think that's a great way of describing it," he says. "The tendency is for people to say, 'Oh, they're merging genres.' But really what we're doing—we all come from different places and we all seek to extract as much of the heart and soul we have in the music we love. And because we're a collective of musicians that have different musical backgrounds and tastes, you know, the genres that get touched on are a result of that. It's not this mission we're on to blend styles; it just sort of happens. We travel around a lot; we meet tons of different people that come from all walks of life and walks of music, too. Right now we're staying with a family, the Watson family of Black Mountain, North Carolina. We met them five years ago when they billeted us when we played at the local pub in Asheville. It was an instant connection and they've become our parents away from home. Now it's five years later and we have four days off on this crazy trip and we drove out of our way. We were in Pittsburgh and we're going to Asheville. I mean, it isn't too far out of the way but it's the perfect place to spend the time. It's just like a spiritual refill, because it's hard work.

"So these are the kinds of experiences that give us a lot of inspiration. The circle of vibe that goes between the audience, and the experience, and the journey, and the music—and the music is a result—everything's all connected. The way you described it captures the feel of it, and the motivation of it.

"It's been a very interesting journey, getting a record deal, experiencing all that, making videos, getting a manager, replacing our friendly neighborhood manager with a New York manager and then that not working out and getting someone who's in L.A., and that whole journey, as opposed to, say, if we'd stayed an independent band and what kind of journey that would have been and what the differences would be and what the trade-offs are.

"Jordan and I were talking about this the other day: the money comes and the money goes but the pay is the trip. The pay is what we get to do. I just got married two weeks ago in Denmark, to a gal I met out there, and now she's on the road with me. That was at a festival where she came from in a town called Tonder. It's a festival I've heard about since I was a little kid, because my dad ran the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and it was the same kind of community, and a legendary festival. I played there with my old band, I played there with this band, and it was a really important festival to me and in the foundation of the Duhks. That festival was one of the first places to commit to hiring us before we even had a record, on the basis of a crappy little demo, six years ago. By the time we got there we had a record, and it was one of the things that gave us fuel to start, get out of the gates. So it's been a really special place to me for me. And not only that, but it really lets me go nuts on the Irish and Scottish side of my musical taste. They have American stuff; they have blues, they hire Tim O'Brien every year, last year was Foghorn, a string band. There's always some old time music, some Cajun, some zydeco, some gospel.

"So I came back there and my wife and I, we got married there, and the festival celebrated it. That's what's been taking up space in my heart the last few months. Of course that's what happens when you get married, right? But also, it was just such a show of love from the community I'm a part of, because everybody got into it. They had a bachelor party for me, all the musicians were there, the Oyster Band sang to me. It was over the top. So on a personal level it made me realize I'm in the right place. Any doubt that I've ever had about being in a band for seven years, barreling down the highway like a tornado, flopping out at whatever gig or festival, playing our tunes, getting back in the car, doing it all again. The Duhks are doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing. And I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. And life is beautiful.

"So long story short, you're absolutely right with the way you put that."

Thank you, I think.


Sarah Dugas, onstage, October 2007, with Jordan McConnell on guitar: Her unapologetically topical songs articulate the Duhks' conscience and worldview. 'When I recruited Sarah to join the band I had no idea what a songwriter she was turning out to be,' Leonard Podolak recalls. After hearing the songs she brought to the Fast Paced World sessions, 'I'm like, man, she's a Socialist, but she might not know it.'

The Duhks are Canadians, four of the five hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba, with fiddler Tania Elizabeth a native of Vancouver, British Columbia. The foundation of the band is in a group called Scruj MacDuhk, assembled by Podolak in the early '90s as a "fun, weekend band" with some of his friends, who came and went (15 or 20 musicians in all, Podolak says) over a six-year span (1995 - 2001); towards the end Podolak had what he calls "an actual touring unit, and we tried to make a go of it."

duhksepScruj MacDuhk did indeed make a go of it, playing Canada's top venues and "starting to make inroads into the States." The band's drummer was 16-year-old Christian Dugas, whose father Norman is a well-known and highly regarded songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer and producer. When Scruj MacDuhk made its only recording, it did so at Norman Dugas's backyard studio. Hanging around the studio, because "she was cool and knew how to hang," was one of Christian's three sisters, 14-year-old Sarah, who would go on to be one-half of a gospel duo with Adrinna Turenne, with whom she followed into an all-female, world music-centered group called Madragaia; when invited to join the Duhks, she was replaced by her sister Annick, by which time the Madragaia lineup had broken up, and reformed, with Annick, as the fascinating Chic Gamine (www.chicgamine.com). Scruj MacDuhk played a fateful gig on Salt Sea Island and met a 14-year-old fiddler from Vancouver, British Columbia, Tania Elizabeth, who, Podolak recalls, "brought her fiddle to the gig on Salt Spring Island and said, 'I can play this stuff.' She showed us what to do; it was incredible. So she was this character in the back of my mind." Guitarist Jordan McConnell did a six-month stint in Scruj MacDuhk after the band's original guitarist, Jeremy Walsh, departed. And-

"I had to fire Jordan from that band because he wanted to play with somebody else. That was so frustrating because I so love playing with Jordan."

Scruj MacDuhk barely survived its lone EP, The Road to Canso. Following gigs at the Strawberry and Tonder festivals, the band was history, but the Duhks were on the horizon. Christian was on to other things, but Podolak's friend Rodrigo Munoz, a Chilean refugee who fled the country when it was under the brutal, iron rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet, signed on as a percussion player; six months later (and after he had played conga and cajon on the Duhks' first album, Your Daughters and Your Sons, which was engineered by Norman Dugas, who also contributed vocals and played spoons), he begged off the road but introduced Podolak to his protégé, Scotty Senior. Jessica Havey, the Duhks' original singer, is the daughter of family friends of the Podolaks who had served as volunteers at and board members of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. "I've know Jesse her entire life, ever since she was a baby," Leonard notes. Tania Elizabeth, that "character" in the back of Podolak's mind, was invited to be a Duhk, and accepted. Jordan McConnell returned from exile to join his friend in the new band. And the Duhks rolled.


Signed to Sugar Hill, the Duhks made their U.S. debut in 2005 with a self-titled album that Podolak refers to as "Duhks Duhks." Progressive bluegrass pioneer Bela Fleck was hired to produce, and he brought his fellow Flecktones Edgar Meyer and Victor Wooten to play upright and fretless basses, respectively, along with Abigail Washburn, another artist who has a pancultural bluegrass bent, to add harmony vocals. The musicians, fatefully, met a new engineer, Gary Paczosa, who has a long and admirable history of working with progressive, roots-oriented, and largely acoustic, artists, and would go on to become a key contributor to the Duhks' creative process. The timing was right: Nickel Creek was winding down, but on his solo recordings Chris Thile was demonstrating an inspiring musical curiosity and a rapidly developing compositional skill in pushing the always expansive boundaries of progressive bluegrass. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones were still the standard by which the young progressives measured themselves, and in their wake had arisen a new generation of similarly inclined broad-minded acoustic music enthusiasts, from the Yonder Mountain String Band to Donna the Buffalo to the Mammals, and a host of others who broke down the arbitrary boundaries separating musical genres. On their Duhks Duhks album, the Winnipeg quintet fit right into the emerging migratory pattern of the progressive wing with the clutch of traditional Celtic reels that comprised "Gene's Machine," a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows," a pair of traditional spirituals ("Death Came a-Knockin'" and "True Religion"), and the occasional Latin backdrop provided by Scott Senior. It was a pattern the Duhks adhere to today, crafting subtle variations and adding depth to it over time. 2006's Migrations ranged far and wide to a greater degree. Produced by Tim O'Brien and Gary Paczosa, it sounded like anything but bluegrass, but a lot like zydeco, ragtime, old-time gospel, traditional rock 'n' roll, and also ventured boldly into political territory with a cover of Dan Frechette's evocation of the legacy of Irish patriot Michael Collins in "Who Will Take My Place."

Each producer left his mark on the Duhks. According to Podolak, "Bela brought a lot of 'hey guys, slow down, listen to the tone of your instruments, listen to the groove. You're speeding up!' And he brought some good songs, he brought his music, he brought his hospitality and he shared everything he had with us. It was really great. Tim was very cool, too. He brought lots of arrangement ideas, brought a couple of songs. He was a lot more of a vibe guy, and ultimately Gary Paczosa—especially on Migrations—had a much bigger role in how the album sounded. Tim was really great at picking performances, but Gary is the one that really made that record, Migrations."

But, as it will, life is what happens while you're doing other things, and so it was that the Duhks' post-Migrations flight was bumpy. And when they landed, the band was reconfigured with two new members. Gone were Jessica Havey and Scott Senior, the Dugas siblings in their place when recording of Fast Paced World commenced with producer Jay Joyce.

"So five and a half years on the road is difficult. It's a lot of hard work," Podolak explains as a prelude to explaining Havey's and Senior's amicable departures. "You know Jess decided she couldn't do it anymore with us. It's tough, man. And honestly, it wasn't the greatest in the last year. So she called me up and said she wanted to leave, and that was in the spring of '07. Instead of fighting with her, I just said, 'All right,' y'know. And then I gave Sarah a call. Whatta ya gonna do? The Duhks are gonna roll. The Duhks are gonna fly. So I called up Sarah and I said, 'We're leaving in two weeks. How would you like to be the singer of the Duhks?'

"So Sarah left Madrigaia, the band changed, she agreed to come on the tour for three months and see how it was gonna go. She joined our band after the summer tour.

"Then in the fall, Scott's partner got pregnant for the second time and he decided that the right thing for him to do was to be at home to raise his two children. It's a very respectable position to take, an honest and realistic way of looking at his life. Because we're digging—I mean, we're succeeding and we're climbing and we're building and we're getting more and more fans. But, you know, he had to go home. So it just worked out that Christian was in a place that he could come with us and be in a band with his sister. And be a Duhk, kind of come back around, with he and I being reunited. Because the two of us never had any beef in the old band, but the band had to break up, and that's how it had to be. It was, on a personal level, because Christian and I were always so close on the road, we just get each other. When he joined Scruj MacDuhk, he joined because he just showed up, and he just kept showing up. 'Oh, you're having rehearsal? Can I jam with you guys?' And we were like, 'Man, this guy sounds good! He's only 15? Oh, he's 16 now! Come on!' Now he's 27 and it's eleven years later since we first started together, there's been a six year gap and a lot has happened in both of our lives. And in the old band I was like, 'Okay, you have to play a percussion kit. I don't want a straight drum kit." And now I've experienced what I've experienced in the past six years, so I said, 'You know what, dude? I want you in the band. You can play whatever the hell you want.' He says, 'I play kit.' And I said, 'Okay. Rock out, brother.' And it's totally expanded the sonic range that we can achieve from quiet to loud. Not only that, he's such a tasty player. He's not your typical drummer. Right now I think I got the best band I could possibly be in. I love these guys. I love playing with them. They sound fantastic. They're great on their instruments."


The Duhks: (from left) Jordan McConnell, Leonard Podolak, Christian Dugas, Tania Elizabeth, Sarah Dugas: 'The Duhks are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing,' says Leonard Podolak. 'And I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. And life is beautiful.'

The stage was set for the Fast Paced World sessions, with one exception: the producer. Podolak, feeling the production team concept had run its course, appealed to Paczosa to produce it himself. Paczosa demurred, saying it was time for the Duhks to find a new flight path, so to speak. "Let's get someone who's got some rock 'n' roll sensibility," he told Podolak. "Someone who's not an acoustic guy but who's smart enough to let you guys teach him something too." He mentioned Jay Joyce, who then sent Podolak a disc of music, "some Nashville kind of roots Americana stuff," Podolak recalls. "I thought, None of this is really turning my crank, honestly." And he went back to Paczosa, making a final petition for him to do the honors behind the board. Paczosa's response: "No, Leonard. Trust me, man."

"So we meet with Jay Joyce, and he's this cool, dude, got a hoodie on, looks like a skateboarder, like an old-time punk rocker guy, he's smoking cigarettes, he's not like your happy, folkie guy. But the vibe was right there. And what we did with Jay is, we would work one song at a time, at his studio. And the thing about his studio is, the walls are lined with guitars. He's got every kind of amp, compressor and pre-amp you need. He's got every kind of pedal you want; all kinds of effects. Whatever we wanted to do we could do at that joint. It isn't like we went all off on that. That wasn't what it was about. It was about getting someone who could really work with all these instruments, and hear what we were trying to do, hear when we really weren't succeeding and bring in his ideas on how we could make these songs succeed. I mean we really had our shit together going in on this album. It is the best record. For me, for what I've done in my life, it's the most interesting record."

Even more of an X factor, though, because it was so unexpected, was Sarah Dugas and her unapologetically topical songs. Without knowing it in advance, Podolak, in hiring Sarah, furthered the evolution of the Duhks in a logical but dramatic way, raising the stakes. "We were starting to explore some political themes on Migrations. The thing was when I recruited Sarah to join the band I had no idea what a songwriter she was turning out to be. She kept saying, 'I got this song, but I don't know if it'll work.' Well, bring it on. And there we were, 'My God, that's awesome!' It just kept happening, like four times-hit, hit, hit, hit. I'm like, man, she's a Socialist, but she might not know it. When I listen to the words of 'Fast Paced World,' it's like, you hit the nail on the head, darlin'. Listen to 'Who Will Take My Place,' it's an anti-war song and here we are—the war was going on then, it's still going on now and it ain't gettin' better. And in fact we're starting to see that it's really sinking us. We're Canadians, but we spend a lot of time down here and what happens down here certainly affects what happens in Canada. But the basic theme in our band is that we're all the same. Imagine if there wasn't actually a border. Imagine if we celebrated the differences we have culturally instead of defining all the obstacles we've created for ourselves to live happily, with respect and dignity. Unbelievable! It's important."

Thus, a mission for the Duhks, the perfect band for what New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman calls "the flat world." Their music speaks not to their native land, or to America, but to a global consciousness, a world without borders, at a moment in history when the savviest politicians recognize the interconnectedness of our economies, cultures and, indeed, ways of life. Artists across every discipline have been promoting this idea for several decades now, but it's never seemed closer to a breakout moment than it is during a year when the candidacies of Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have spurred an ongoing focus on matters of race, gender, religious orientation, culture and diversity. The Duhks have heard the call, and they've enlisted their live audiences as co-conspirators, however unwittingly on the part of the latter.

"We didn't back off," Podolak says of the topical songs on the album. "On Sarah's French song she gets the audience to sing along with her every night, 'Mais, un jour que l'amour règne/et que l'argent perde sa valeur,' one sentence at a time, and they repeat it. And then she says, 'You just sang, 'One day for love to reign/and for money to lose its meaning.'' People hear 'to lose its value' and go silent. Silence! Like, 'Oh, no, we don't agree with that at all.' But what we're trying to say is that one day we're not going to be working just to survive and living to survive, but actually working for society, and contributing, and loving life. And being able to live our lives to the fullest. That's the meaning of the song. Which I guess is a very big political statement.

"And saying stuff like, in 'Fast Paced World,' 'with God as our leader/I'll feed you all kinds of lies/And you'll believe me/'Cause even God has lost his name with time.' I don't think that's anti-religion; it's anti-mixing the state and religion and using it as propaganda to get people to follow along with bullshit. That's what that's about. And being able to modify and mold the thinking patterns of society with Hitler-era propaganda techniques of simplicity and repetition. To get people not to think for themselves. When Sarah came up with the words to that song, I couldn't believe it! I could not believe it! Yeah! I'm gonna sing that! And then we came up with some great music for it. She said, 'I hear this like an Afrobeat song,' and we put it to the music of struggle! Afro-beat music from Nigeria by Fela. He pioneered that music, and what that music was was a vehicle for him to protest. He used to play all night to all morning. Sarah was such a genius to think to put that to Afro-beat, because that's music of struggle. That's what that song's about—the struggle of people to have a fair and decent and dignified society."

Not the least of the Duhks' efforts to create "a fair and decent and dignified society" is their commitment to improving the environment, a "green" initiative they're promoting on their website (www.duhks.com) and every day on the road when they disdain plastic water bottles and propel their van with biodiesel, itself a flawed answer but a cleaner alternative to gasoline and a step in a new American war for independence, this time from foreign oil.

"This is about our journey towards being green," Podolak explains. "We're not totally green yet. But within the resources that we have and the connections we've made at this time, this is what we're able to do. The website is going to become a tool for networking with other green organizations and hooking in with the tour and also a vehicle for other people trying to spread the word about sustainability. We're trying to run greener in the fuel, local foods on the rider; not a bunch of pre-processed rotisserie crap. Buy organic foods. It's just gonna grow as we get more established."

And long-term for the Duhks? Listen to what they're saying now, because there's more to come. Putting it all in perspective, Podolak sees the future clearly, and a purpose inherent in the message the band wants to propogate.

"I'm really proud of our three records," he opines. "I got to make three extremely folky records and we've sold 70,000 combined. For what kind of music it is, I think it's very good. I know we wish we would have sold more records; everybody wishes we would have sold more records, but you know, I love these records. They're great pieces of art and I can't believe I got to be a part of that. Honestly, I want us to become widely known but I want us to continue to grow musically, I want us to expand the journey, expand the ideas and keep rockin'. It'd be nice if we could get a little bit more famous—it'd make things a bit easier!—but I also think it's important to say the things we're saying. I grew up in a very political household and I don't want to proselytize, but I do want to expand that aspect of it."

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
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