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‘I don’t compromise’; how Fiona Black has made a 25-year success story out of the Cap Global Roots Series

It was 25 years ago that Fiona Black got herself a job at what was then Capilano College in North Vancouver. We met on a sunny early October afternoon at the bustling Calabria Cafe in the heart of East Vancouver’s Italian District so she could tell me the story of what’s happened since.

Fiona’s a native of Newfoundland with strong family roots in Scotland – specifically the Shetland Islands. She’s tremendously sociable and is richly blessed with the gift of the gab. She wasted no time in wading into the story, fuelled by industrial strength espresso.

“In 1997, I wasn’t hired to be the director of programming. I just was hired to help out with setting up systems for the theatre. I was also involved with the arts and entertainment management program. I was helping with curriculum development for that. I thought, ‘We got this beautiful brand new theatre. Let’s do some shows!’ I’ve always been a fan of folk roots music. I went to the Rogue Folk Club, and I knew Steve Edge. I kind of just reached out to Steve and let the Rogue know that it’d be nice to do some shows together. He wanted to present Dervish, and he was using a hall at the time which was a little small for them. They were a bigger band who would attract a bigger audience. I remember that he was nervous as to whether people would cross the bridge over to North Vancouver to come to the show. And they certainly did! We had over 300 people for Dervish, so our first presentation together went really well.”

The theatre in question (then called Capilano College Performing Arts Theatre) was built in support of the performing arts programs. It’s a 372-seat venue that provides a performance space that nurtures and showcases student performers. It’s now called Capilano University BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts, and for a quarter of a century has been the location for a brilliantly programmed folk roots, world music and jazz series – which is Fiona’s brainchild. Locally, the theatre is known by the affectionate nickname of ‘Cap.’ So, having got off to a flying start by co-promoting a show featuring one of Ireland’s premier bands with Vancouver’s long-standing and esteemed Rogue Folk Club, artistic director Fiona kept her foot firmly on the gas pedal.

‘I started wanting to put my own stamp on it’

“I started wanting to put my own stamp on it, rather than always partnering with the Rogue. I think we’ve maintained a really nice association over 25years, but as I started going to conferences and getting more exposure to world music, that’s what I gravitated towards, and I really wanted to do a truly diverse series – getting world music artists on stage, bringing them in from far-flung places. I renamed the series from the Folk and Roots Series to the Global Roots Series. I went to Womex starting in 2006, and that really helped my development and my knowledge and increased my networking in the world music scene. I saw these really high quality world music showcases, and I think it just set the bar higher and higher for me. I found I had this big passion to bring these very special artists from all over the globe to our stage.”

Sometimes it takes a while for an audience to get on to the same wavelength as a presenter, so I was curious to know if that was the case here. Did the audience immediately get it or did it take a while to build the numbers and the loyalty?

“It can be hit and miss,” Fiona said. “I think there’s no predicting it right? But overall, I think I’ve gotten to trust my audience – that they’ll take a risk with me.”

That leads us to the question of which artists have been the most successful in terms of audience reaction.

“What comes to mind right away is Fatoumata Diawara, a great African artist from Mali,” Fiona said. “She just had everybody up dancing in the theatre, and that’s no small feat! I remember it sold out for Habib,” she continued, referring to Habib Koité, another top Malian musician, singer, songwriter and griot. “He had been through Vancouver before, but I was very pleased to see such a strong turnout. And I’ve had some Portuguese artists – I’ve traveled in Portugal and fell in love with this mysterious Fado music. And I wasn’t sure how it would translate here, whether we’d get enough of the Portuguese community to make it work or enough of my regular audience that would just like to experience it. So António Zambujo and Camané, two big stars from Portugal, made a big impression on me and our audience. We had Buffy Sainte Marie – she did two nights at Cap that certainly exploded our profile. Somehow we managed to get J.J. Cale at the end of his career for one of his last shows he ever did. He just wanted to play nice small theatres.”

‘a few key artists’

There are a few key artists who have provided the backbone of the Global Roots Series’ 25 years, people who’ve become regulars and who’ve really drawn the crowds and helped build the reputation of the concert series.

“Steve Dawson has been a regular performer and collaborator with me,” Fiona said. “We do the iconic album shows together. That whole thing started with the Mississippi Sheiks Big Show for the Winter Olympics.”

That show spawned a live DVD, The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert – Live in Vancouver, and was part of the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad. The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute House Band featured a stellar line-up including Jim Byrnes, Geoff Muldaur, Christy McWilson, Van Dyke Parks, Bob Brozman, Jeff Dawson, Dave Alvin, Robin Holcomb, Alvin Youngblood Hart, John Hammond, The Sojourners, Colin James and the aforementioned Steve Dawson.

“Of course there’s Ruthie Foster, who has been a mainstay artist for us.,” said Fiona. “She always did well. Kelly Joe Phelps – we had him many, many times. He was very quirky and quiet. But people just came to ‘pray at the altar.’ He was such a brilliant artist! He would have turned 63 today, but he passed away this year. So I’ve been thinking about him today. We had Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir a number of times. I also like that we’ve had emerging artists that I have discovered on their way up, so we’re able to still have a good show at Cap, with a good turnout without needing the big fee.”

As the concert series has progressed and an increasingly diverse selection of artists has been presented, the need for alternative venues has arisen. Venues as different as the civilized Kay Meek Theatre in well-heeled West Vancouver, the scruffy and exciting Rickshaw on Vancouver’s notorious Downtown East Side, the elegant and rather posh Chan Centre on the University of B.C.’s campus and the St. James Community Hall in the popular and trendy beachside neighbourhood of Kitsilano have all been pressed into service.

“I try to match the venue with the artist,” Fiona said. “Arlo Guthrie—there’s another big name! His manager contacted me out of the blue for a date around 2000. I was like, ‘Wow, I’d love to present Arlo Guthrie, but I don’t think our theatre would be big enough.’ I said, ‘Well let me contact the Chan Centre. I think that would be probably a better fit.’ So I contacted them and said, ‘Why don’t we present it together?’ So we did. So now I have this model where I don’t necessarily just have to say, ‘No. Sorry,’ if the date’s not available at Cap, or the artist is too big for our venue or too small for the venue.”

COVID hits

It’s nigh on impossible to talk to anyone in the performing arts these days and not reflect on the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and so it’s no surprise when the talk turns to that gnarly subject.

“March of 2020, we had The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio booked, and the university theatre department was doing a big show of A Chorus Line,” Fiona recounted. “And it was like, ‘We’re going to have to cancel, and it was still all kind of a bit surreal. It all happened so fast, right? The students were sobbing their hearts out. They knew all their lines, their dance moves, and the costumes were ready, programs were printed, and it was just this crashing train wreck. By June or July, we were all getting the message like, ‘Oh, my God. This is not going away fast.’ And I remember being really scared for myself, for artists and for our whole sector. It made us contemplate what will we do with our lives if the performing arts industry is gone? Like, just blew up overnight? Like it’s gone because of stupid COVID? I had a period where I didn’t know what the hell to do. Everyone was starting to do virtual programming.”

That got Fiona thinking she would need to join that bandwagon sooner or later, not without some reluctance.

“I thought, ‘We’ll do this, but I want to do something that’s unique,'” she said. “I don’t want to just do live streams like everyone else is doing. There were some that were dreadful. There were some that were well done. And the main thing was the marketplace was saturated with it. It was too much. We needed something distinct. So all these local artists that I consider friends, that I’ve built a relationship with, I’m worried about them. I want to reach out to them. I want to do an interview, like, ‘Let’s go on a little trip down memory lane and tell some backstage stories. Also to check in about how are you doing during Covid.’ And it went really well. We did it on the Cap stage and also got them to perform a tune at the end, like it was a TV show. I became a kind of TV host where I had to learn the skills of a good interviewer. My marketing person is really good at editing video. So I’d send her all this footage, and she put in photos and video footage and she made it documentary style. So that was the Backstage at CapU series, which was a success! We did Jeopardy editions to have some fun. The first one was Drum Jeopardy with three drummers, and so all the questions were about drums. I got them to do a jam together. Then we did Sax Jeopardy and Bass Jeopardy. So those were really fun. We had a big Jeopardy board. We needed some levity. We needed to just have some fun. So something good came out of Covid: we invested in live streaming equipment, which is going to carry on, because there’s other uses for it at the university. Thankfully they’ve always been super supportive. They’ve been there every step of the way.”

Backstage at CapU

Readers who want to watch some of the Backstage at CapU series can find it on YouTube, and it’s well worth checking out.

Changing the subject a bit, I asked what it’s been like being a woman in an area of the music business that’s dominated by men.

“It’s definitely a real thing!” Fiona said. “Especially in my early years, there were times that I felt that I wasn’t taken too seriously by agents. Like, they just assumed that I didn’t know anything about music or artists and that I hadn’t done my homework. They would steer me towards more commercial choices. I felt like they were judging me and assuming I wouldn’t have the depth of knowledge to make those kinds of choices. But I think, as the years roll by, things have gotten better, and I’ve certainly aligned with many strong women in positions like programmers and executive directors. It’s grown, and the landscape has changed a lot. I think there’s still a lot of guys for sure. But I think that they’re realizing that there are a lot of women in this business that know what they’re doing and are making a huge difference, and our programming from the female angle works.”

I’m curious to know what qualities Fiona feels she has that have allowed her to take the germ of an idea to do a few live shows at Cap and turn it into this quarter-century-long success story.

“I feel like I’m a really good networker,” she told me. “I genuinely like building relationships with people. I’ve got relationships going back 25 years with artists, agents, managers. And I’ve done a really good job of keeping good relationships by doing a good job with presenting artists. They felt supported because I put on successful shows for them. They come back to me time and time again. If they’re going to do a show in Vancouver, I’m their first call. I’m pretty committed when we book an artist. I know I’m nurturing and can be quite maternal, and when artists come, I want to make sure they’re OK. Like, ‘Did you sleep well last night? What do you need? Are you finding the right food for yourself?’ I don’t really rest until they’re off on their plane to where they’re going to next.”

What’s coming up for the 25th anniversary?

So now a big milestone approaches with the 25-year anniversary celebrations happening very soon. Fiona described what’s coming up for that with characteristic enthusiasm and excitement.

“We got Colin James to be part of the celebrations, and it’s nice to have a headliner like Colin because he’s been part of our program over the years, and we’ve got a nice history with him,” she said. “We’re trying to represent as best we can the whole 25 years. There’s a lot of jazz because jazz has been quite prominent. In the folk and roots and world genre, I was thinking about, ‘What’s the most memorable show we ever did?’ And I have to say it was the Mississippi Sheiks tribute show during the 2010 Olympics. You know we’d never done anything that big before, and I felt that for the 25th anniversary, we can go again. So it made sense to do a little revisit of the Mississippi Sheiks. Obviously we’re just doing a segment. We’re doing like five tunes out of it. Steve Dawson is back as musical director. We have Jim Byrnes, Daniel Lapp, The Sojourners, Suzie Ungerleider and the 20-piece women’s choir Maddalena’s Descant. We’ve got a nice house band put together.”

After that show, Fiona gets a tiny break before steaming straight into the iconic album show for The Grateful Dead’s classic American Beauty. The cast for that one includes Jim Byrnes, Joachim Cooder, Roy Forbes, Rich Hope, Khari Wendell McClelland, Ruth Moody, Samantha Parton, Krystle dos Santos and Maya De Vitry. That’s plenty to look forward to!

“After 25 years, I can honestly say that I’m still excited every single season,” Fiona said. “I still love discovering new artists and meeting new contacts. It’s still a pleasure, and it always feels brand new to me every year because I have always loved meeting new people. And I’m really happy to be back to traveling and going to conferences where I do make these great discoveries. That never gets old. It never gets predictable. And I’m always amazed by the up-and-coming talent in the non-commercial music world. I like to make that distinction, that I’m not presenting commercial music. Non-commercial acoustic music is primarily what I present, whether it be folk roots, jazz, or world music. That music is always deserving of a wider audience.”

We can say with some confidence, that if anyone has put in more than her fair share of work to make that happen, it is Fiona Black. Finally before we finish I have to ask what, in a nutshell, is her secret for success? Fiona doesn’t hesitate for one heartbeat with her answer.

“I don’t compromise,” she said. “If I don’t feel this passion, and that an artist is special, then why would my audience feel that they’re special? I feel like my audience has been educated to have a really high standard, very discerning tastes, and I feel like I’m the same way.”

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