The Canadian electronic music scene is relatively little-known internationally, not least its radical activist elements. But LAL, the Toronto-based electronic duo, never sought widespread international recognition. Instead, the self-identified ‘semi-anarchist’ couple – singer-songwriter/manager Rosina Kazi, and producer-instrumentalist Nicholas Murray – have embraced their position outside the mainstream by fostering a literal and metaphorical space for alternative musicians and poets. They produce their own unique sounds, inspired by both European electronic and fusion bands. They’re also influenced by both the Canadian, and the global socio-political landscapes. I sat down with Rosina in a downtown Toronto coffee shop to discuss the band’s history, potential move to Europe, and their community performance space, Unit 2.
Formed in 1996, LAL released their first record – with a bigger line-up – in 2002, which proved popular in its Toronto-wide sales. ‘We were really influenced by music coming from the UK – Massive Attack, Asian Underground – as well as the hip-hop scene coming out of New York at that time,’ Rosina reflects. ‘Our first record did really well locally because we were [some of] the first to release a record that brought together what Toronto was about, not London or New York. We had West Indian and South Asian influences; it was based on our experiences of the city. Our albums were a reflection of our communities – both local and global.’
How did this manifest musically? I ask. ‘We use music to capture people’s fears, use nature as a metaphor for what humanity is doing…environment, gendered violence…We had all sorts of instruments – veena [South Indian instrument], tabla – which no one was really playing with at that time. So even though we sucked, people could see what we were trying to do.’
But because in Canada there isn’t a lot of support for racialised artists – unless they’re doing mainstream stuff, and even then it’s difficult – I burnt out.’
‘…What happened with us I think happens with many musicians – you gain some notoriety or support, and slowly shift into making a career. But because in Canada there isn’t a lot of support for racialised artists – unless they’re doing mainstream stuff, and even then it’s difficult – I burnt out.’
That’s when the band opened Unit 2 – twelve years ago, in a warehouse owned by their friends. ‘I was just tired,’ Rosina explains. ‘[I thought]: ‘I’m tired of trying to break into that glass ceiling, let’s just create our own world…and it’s for and by the people that need that support, because we didn’t have that. I realised I’d spent more time trying to make it than with community.’
Is it primarily a musical endeavour? ‘It’s music-heavy…from punk, to electronic music, to dance parties. But we’re also moving towards having more workshops and community-based dinners.’
It must have been nice to break away from the pressures and expectations of record labels, I say. Rosina agrees: LAL were definitely able to exercise more freedom. ‘[Earlier] trying to become corporate was a struggle. We couldn’t get past the often white, cis men gatekeepers.’
But juggling one’s own career and supporting other artists can be a challenge: ‘The problem is – I don’t get deep enough into my practice because I’m too busy helping. So now it’s about rebalancing… figuring out how to balance that with community [work].’
Whilst derived as an alternative to the mainstream music industry, Unit 2 also stemmed from Rosina’s personal experiences as the child of Bangladeshi immigrants, in a community which ‘did the exact thing we’re doing, house concerts and community arts – not as a living, but just for survival in Canada.’ Unit 2 has a similarly inspiring function: ‘…as a space for the close community, if people need a place to stay, or are dealing with mental health, or other kinds of issues.’
We have ties to the Brazilian community, Latin American and Caribbean communities…we recognise that we all need to come together to fight this system. And white folks tend to have a lot more time.
Is Unit 2 mainly for certain demographics? ‘We try to focus on BIPOC, but we say “with friends”…we’re open to anybody as long as their intentions are okay. We have ties to the Brazilian community, Latin American and Caribbean communities…we recognise that we all need to come together to fight this system. And white folks tend to have a lot more time.
‘Racial tensions are more subtle than in New York or London, but the issues are very similar. And we get folks from the US, as well as local Toronto artists.
Unit 2 also has a strong queer and indigenous focus: ‘We’re very queer and trans, two-spirit/indigiqueer, feminist indigenous folks… there’s been a big shift in the last 10 years to acknowledge indigenous folks [in Canadian activism], but there’s still a disconnect between theory and action. We helped start ‘Bricks and Glitter’, an alternative [local] Pride – many people were tired of the corporatisation of Pride.’ But they are careful not to take a dogmatic political approach. ‘We have open conversations…[learning from] how indigenous communities have worked on this territory.
‘We’re one of the few spaces that really bring in multiple communities. Most of the DIY spaces in this city have been shut down.’
I ask about LAL’s future plans – will they stick it out in Canada or take their sound elsewhere? Rosina sees a temporary shift across the pond on the cards – for the sake of both art and artist.
I love mixing my ethnicity and culture with stuff, but I won’t do it to market myself.
‘Electronic music in Europe is like a folk music. It doesn’t have that history in the US and Canada, [so] Canada isn’t a supportive environment…there isn’t really a space for it here. We got pushed into doing other styles…a weird racialised thing. I love mixing my ethnicity and culture with stuff, but I won’t do it to market myself.
‘We’re trying to spend next summer in Europe. We’re thinking Manchester or Lisbon – applying for a bunch of festivals. It just seems more open to what we do – we’re weirdos, we’re political, really arty…we’re semi-anarchists. In Canada there’s this box they want people of colour to be in – and we don’t fit that box.’
Unit 2 is currently run by Brock Hessel and Maxhole (Max Zimmerman) alongside LAL and has previously been supported and run by Toyin Coker, Ange Loft, Melisse Watson, Kevin Jones, Cherish Violet Blood and Daniel Mach. LAL’s music can be found on their website here.
Featured image by Max Zimmerman
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