Goodbye Ohbijou: Notes on music, labour, and the impossibilities of satisfying multicultural ideals in Canada. By Casey Mecija
For the last eight years I have defined myself, in part, as front woman for the band Ohbijou. After some commercial and critical success, extensive touring and hundreds of live shows, our band has decided to go on “hiatus”. Though humbled, warmed and inspired by those who listen to the music we make and create an audience for our craft, we are tired. As our farewell show nears, I have been spending time sorting through an archive of experiences with the band and our audiences. I am sorting through many feelings, mostly feeling sentimental but also interrogative. My relationship to Ohbijou’s reception is also one of ambivalence. I have been met with complicated responses from critics and larger audiences due to my race, gender and sexuality. I can’t help but feel sadness for the ways my body been inscribed as a performer. I can’t help but feel tired by the ways that my brown, performing body comes into contact with the multicultural sensibilities of Canadian audiences. I am frustrated by the ways that my Asian-ness and my sexuality have been at times hidden and at times showcased to support notions of an “inclusive” Canadian multiculturalism.
Despite a passion for writing and performing, it feels impossible to continue to create music in the form of Ohbijou. Despite adoration for my bandmates and the sweet fans and listeners who support this project, we must stop now. When we formed, we were a group of friends enjoying learning new instruments and sounds together in my basement. It is difficult to locate all of the reasons why I feel resent for a relationship that I have invested so much time, money and emotion in. I am disheartened by the years of unquantifiable work that have resulted in growing anxieties over how to create a sustainable future. Our initial intention, and one we continue to hold dearly to, was to produce social change through music. It has always been important to us to support local initiatives that aim to take care of the city in which we live. In our own ways, we will continue to do so. There is a larger conversation to be had about the labour of producing music and the changing patterns of consumption in the contemporary moment. Outside of the safety of commercial success, as the internet changes our interactions with music and consumptive patterns, it is a difficult existence. It is difficult to support and tour with such a large band.
There have been many moments where our band has been sutured to notions of multiculturalism. The media has often referred to Ohbijou as “multicultural”. In an article written for a college weekly the author describes us as: “multicultural in both influence and membership.” We have also been introduced on the radio as the “multi-culti” band. This association is a polite way of saying that not all of us are white, which is the usual configuration of bands in Canada. Attendant to this proclamation is often a conflation between our bodies and the sound of our music: our music becomes a multicultural sound, or is referenced to as “world music”, which is a slippage of reading raced bodies. In a newspaper article our band was also described as “a Toronto pop orchestra of mixed race”.” Why was it important to describe us as a band of “mixed race?” We were “exotic” when compared to the normal configurations of Canadian bands. Our cultural and gendered make-up has become intrinsically important to how some media makes sense of us. This is tiring.
An ambivalence surfaces when moments of pride in our work and its reception collide with well-intentioned but racist consumptions of our music. Ohbijou has been fortunate to tour through out North America, Asia and Europe. We were lucky to book a show in a beautiful botanical garden in Brussels, Belgium. After playing our music set to an attentive audience, I was confronted by two young Belgians:
“You played a really great set tonight.”
“Thank you so much, we really appreciate you being here.”
“We could really hear the Asian influence in your music.”
I was surprised and confused by this response.How did our performance, our ‘sound’, communicate Asianess? We were an orchestral pop band that played pop songs. In the novel What We All Long For Dionne Brand writes:
“People stand and sit with the magnetic film of their life wrapped around them. They think they’re safe, but they know they’re not.
Any minute you can crash into someone else’s life…”
Brand captures why it is necessary to think with transnational trajectories, as we seek to understand our encounters with strangers. How have constructions of otherness confined my work as a musician to a single narrative? I played Asian influenced music because my body was read as Asian, not because of the sound, or the melody or the instruments. My Filipino body was collapsed into a particular sound and mode of expression.
As a band we have felt the generosity of strangers and have traveled to many beautiful cities and towns. We remain committed to the political power of art and the messy moments when only art can respond to devastation, to difference. To make music, as a racialized person in multicultural Canada, is a difficult project. I am not giving up on the potential of such a project to alter the ways that people think and feel about queer life and the histories of colonialism out of which Canada was born. But, as a band, we are tired and we are broke. We say a sweet goodbye to each other and to our audiences and I hope that my words and Ohbijou’s music, in some small way, effect change.