On theatre, moving hearts, and rock’n’roll
By Alexia Bréard-Anderson
I sink into a velvet-lined seat in the centre of the audience, holding my breath as the overhead lights dim at Soulpepper Theatre. The air around us is thick with anticipation as silhouetted musicians step onstage to take their place among a myriad of scattered instrument stands, a grand piano, and tangled microphone cables. We hear a whispered one-two-three and BAM! We’re hit with a thunderous explosion of power chords, a relentless jumpstart into a spectacular theatrical journey of the Devil throughout music history.
Adorned in sequined pants and a feathered jacket, Raha Javanfar embodies the rebellious spirit of rock’n’roll, slamming her guitar in the opening medley of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ alongside the striking Juno-nominated vocalist SATE and a stellar crew of bandmates whose creative synergy casts an otherworldly glow on the stage.
With intricate compositions of the Baroque era to headbanging heavy metal riffs and everything in between, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ plunges us into a realm of art and darkness, an exhilarating musical tribute to the eternal allure of the Devil.
Born in Iran and based in Toronto, the brilliant multi-instrumentalist, artist, and theatre designer takes us backstage to discuss her creative process, background, and influences.
Alexia: Your creative practice is so incredibly diverse. You’re an artist, you play multiple instruments, and you’ve performed, written, and designed many theatre plays. Tell us about your journey: where did it all begin? How does it all connect?
Raha: I grew up with classical music training that taught me a lot early on in life: practice, discipline, rigor. But it wasn’t all for me during my youth, particularly my teenage years. I craved anarchy and something messier… so I gravitated towards theatre. That’s not to say that discipline and rigor don’t exist in theatre, of course they do. But my young mind perceived more ‘play’ in making plays than music at the time. I ended up pursuing a post-secondary education in theatre production, which is how I became a lighting designer. But I’ve always been restless in my art and eager to widen my horizons and extend my practice in all directions.
I brought music back into my life through playing in rock and country bands and eventually started to make a place for myself in the Toronto music scene. Because I was so connected to both music and theatre, many theatre artists began extending invitations for me to participate in their projects as a musician. Anyway, on and on it went, and I’m lucky to have collaborated with so many genius artists throughout the years, all of whom I have learned more from than I could ever quantify.
Time and time again, we witness the pressure placed on artists to be ‘coherent’ and easily ‘categorizable’… to follow a predetermined path towards success or recognition that prioritizes profit over soul. One glance at Raha’s multiple bands – from playing the fiddle in the Western Swing Band The Double Cuts to being the front-woman bassist and vocalist of Maple Blues Award nominee blues/R&B band Bad Luck Woman & Her Misfortunes – reveals a nonchalant resistance to this – and how often the antidote to this is to be in community with others, to create and witness artistic expression together.
I was absolutely blown away by ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ which you created and directed the music for. Can you talk about how it came to fruition? Did the Devil come to you in a dream?
‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is not quite your usual ‘concert’ in the traditional sense and not quite a play. We call them docu-concerts at Soulpepper, which is a format that was started by long-time Soulpepper Slaight Music Director, Mike Ross. I’ve had the honour of performing in several of these concerts and it was a thrill to create one of my own. To be honest, the idea was a seed that was planted years ago, and I barely remember how I came up with it. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Paganini being accused of having sold his soul to the devil to be the greatest violinist. And of course, there is Robert Johnson too. Those two stories, along with my love for the Devil Went Down to Georgia were enough to catapult me into the creation of this entire show.
‘Sympathy for the Devil’ has a unique energy that echoes an impromptu, late-night jam session with friends. The chemistry fostered by everyone in the cast was infectious. As Music Director, what was the process of bringing these performers together, and how has it differed from past plays you’ve participated in?
If there’s one thing I did truly right on this project, it’s the people I picked to work with. The musicians in the band are extremely gifted and more importantly, generous with their art and creativity. I spent a lot of time in advance arranging the numbers. We had a workshop last summer with some of the same (but also some different) musicians during which time I had the opportunity to try out some of the arrangements and finesse them. It’s lovely to hear that it gives the energy of a late-night jam session because, to be honest, the process was anything but! Unfortunately, the rehearsal schedule for these shows leaves very little room for collaboration or ‘jamming.’ I had to arrive with a very specific plan in mind. But of course, there were many moments in which something was missing, or something didn’t feel quite right, and the band contributed their musicality to filling some of those gaps.
‘Sympathy for the Devil’ presents a stellar cast of performers including Brooke Blackburn, Rebecca Hennessy, SATE, Jenie Thai, Neil Brathwaite, Naghmeh Farahmand, Michelle Josef, and Royce Rich: whose rendition of Giuseppe Tartini’s ‘The Devil’s Trill’ was the most goosebump-inducing solo violin performance I’ve ever witnessed.
In addition to your kaleidoscope of artistic pursuits, you’re also an educator. You teach violin, piano, and music theory both privately and in different schools, as well as lighting design at Toronto Metropolitan University. What drew you to teaching, and what’s your favourite part about passing on the knowledge?
I love teaching. This year, I had to pass on the TMU teaching position because I was too busy with this show. But I feel like I always gain so much from any opportunity to educate others on the arts. Perhaps it sounds selfish, but the truth is that I learn so much from teaching that it’s always worth pursuing it for my own betterment and development. Kids, especially, are so open-minded and open-hearted. It is so fulfilling to see them absorb everything and send it forward.
We’re in such a pivotal moment in time. Amidst so much destruction, rage, and despair… we’re witnessing movements for peace and justice across the globe that remind us how much everything is truly connected. For you, what role does music play within it all?
Not just music, but the arts in general, are the only way I know how to wrap my head around anything. I’m not a religious or spiritual person, and sometimes when there’s so much darkness, it’s hard knowing where to find light. For me, it’s always in books, poetry, music, and art. A single piece of art can help express all the complicated feelings that so many of us have about the world. At the same time, it can bring people together. It can remind us about the humanity that exists in each one of us. It can challenge us to think in different ways. In a world where we’re all so divided, I know it’s impossible for a piece of music or theatre to change anybody’s mind. But it’s definitely possible for it to move their hearts, and sometimes that’s enough.
What’s on your radar? What spaces, people, and projects are blowing your mind?
The incredible Toronto music scene. There are so many gems in this city… Drom Taberna and the Cameron House have lots of great stuff bubbling out of both every night of the week. So many music venues have done a great job surviving the pandemic and continuing to provide opportunities to Toronto musicians. The Drom Artists Collective is a group of extremely talented and wonderful people, who are putting out all sorts of cool stuff. And I know it sounds super biased, but I’m very excited about all that Soulpepper Theatre continues to do, particularly the docu-concert series!
What’s on the horizon for you once ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ closes?
I’ll be turning my attention back to my band, Bad Luck Woman & Her Misfortunes. I’m also performing in the next Soulpepper concert, On A Night Like This, as well as co-creating a concert called Ladies of the Canyon that will be premiering at Soulpepper this spring.