By Troy Hasselman, April 5 2019 —
Halifax-based folk artist Ben Caplan is touring songs from his critically acclaimed album Old Stock across Canada. The album is based on Caplan’s musical theatre production Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, made in collaboration with Christian Barry and playwright Hannah Moscovitch. The play has toured around the world to massive critical acclaim and accolades, including awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and nominations at New York’s Drama Desk Awards.
The play and the album are based on a true story of two Romanian-Jewish refugees who travelled to Canada in 1908 and focuses on themes of immigration, racism and anti-Semitism — all currently relevant issues. Caplan notes there is a strong similarity between the cultural atmosphere surrounding immigration and refugees in 1908 and today.
“There isn’t one non-Indigenous Canadian who doesn’t have an ancestor who at one point wasn’t welcomed,” Caplan says. “Irish, Italians and Ukranians were not considered to be welcome additions to the Canadian cultural mosaic upon arrival. What is the difference between those White Europeans who became fully Canadian and the wave of migration that we have right now? I’d say the difference is largely racism. It’s us and them and it’s the feeling that we need to be afraid of the other. I think that in the same way that Italians, Irish and Jewish migrants and other people have been welcomed into the fabric of Canadian society. That’s possible for all of the people arriving today the difference is whether or not we allow them to be Canadian and whether we include them in our national project or not. I think that’s going to be the test in whether or not we’re successful in creating a unified culture.”
The album includes the songs from the album re-arranged into versions that are suitable for the five-piece band setting that Caplan uses on tour. He notes that the songs on the album have informed the creative process behind the musical, with Caplan planning the album as a means of giving the songs a life outside of the play.
“During the creation process for the musical, we wanted to make an album as well. That was part of the ethos from the get-go of the project. The other part of the consideration is that we didn’t want to make the kind of musical where suddenly a character starts singing for no discernable reason,” Caplan says. “From the outset, we were trying to write songs that could work outside of the context of a play. I think that certain songs from the album work better as stand-alones than others and we wanted to capture everything that we made regardless of if it fit perfectly in a rock–and–roll context better than a musical. After that it was kind of about letting go of the creative choices we’ve made arrangement-wise to solve the problem of the musical and to really crack the songs back open again when we into the studio to think about, ‘What’s the best version of this song?’ ”
The title comes from a comment made by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a debate in the 2015 federal election. Caplan sees the current cultural landscape in 2019 as similar to 2015.
“It’s not like we’ve had a massive, radical cultural shift. I think the same elements that were present in Canadian society that allowed Stephen Harper to calculate that wasn’t a terrible thing to say are still with us, I think those are challenges that we have to face as a society,” Caplan says. “I think at this moment there isn’t room to be complacent about these issues because there are still a great many people in our society who feel there are different kinds of Canadians that are more or less Canadian or more authentically Canadian than another person and I think that is a very problematic thing.”
After touring the work abroad and due to the strong reception it has received, Caplan is excited to tour the work in Canada again. While noting the universality of the story, Caplan also sees the work to be uniquely Canadian.
“The songs are filled with Canadian issues and the story is obviously very Canadian,” Caplan says. “It’s been incredible how well it’s been received abroad and I think there are a lot of resonances in the national conversations in other places, but the work is quintessentially Canadian. It’s really lovely to bring it back home and share it with those audiences.”
Caplan does not see the success and acclaim the work has received as something that will affect his creative process going forward.
“I think what’s really at the core of the success of this work, aside from having really fabulous collaborators in Hannah Moscovitch and Christian Barry, is we’ve been true to our own voices,” says Caplan. “I’ve trusted my artistic instincts and leaned on the experiences and influences I’ve had. As I continue to make new work, my goal continues to be to honour my own muses and craft to my own taste.”
The piece includes elements of Eastern-European folk genres such as Klezmer, which Caplan sees as fitting into the aesthetic of the work and informing its themes.
“I love the sound of that music, I love the sound of acoustic instruments playing virtuosically. To me there’s nothing like the sound of an acoustic instrument being played by a studied musician and I think those kinds of sounds can be lost in a synthesizer world,” says Caplan. “I think that music evokes a feeling of a deep past and a deep cultural legacy. For me it was great music and great instrumentation to use to give a sense of time and place and participating in a conversation that happens over centuries rather than a conversation that happens over financial quarters.”
Old Stock also deals with the contrast between joy and sorrow, with tracks such as “Old Yishama,” which is based on a Jewish wedding song that deals with the importance of remembering sorrow in moments of joy. Caplan notes the relationship between the two.
“There’s a reason why we cry when we’re happy and why we cry when we’re sad,” Caplan says. “We can’t truly experience joy unless we’re open to sorrow and we can’t really overcome our sorrow unless we’re open to the possibility of joy. They’re deeply connected and I think when one has a sense of history, one sees how our great triumphs evoke the losses of the past and if there’s room to reflect on our losses there’s room to reflect on our victories as well.”
Caplan performed at Festival Hall in Calgary on April 3 as part of the a cross-country tour behind his album Old Stock. His album is available on all streaming platforms and can be purchased through his website.