Calgary's music scene, and how it shapes us

As Juno Week in Calgary kicks into full swing, Drew Anderson muses on the music of our lives: how we form community, express identity and understand ourselves though music.

'We can communicate by music alone'

As famed cultural critic George Steiner put it, there is no community on this planet which does not have music: music being far more universal than language. (Michael Tan)

Editor's note: As Juno Week kicks into full swing in Calgary, we asked CBC Calgary's Drew Anderson, who has a long history in our city's music scene, what music says about us as Calgarians. CBC's The Homestretch will be at the Ironwood Stage and Grill starting at 3 p.m. Thursday for some tunes — and of course you're invited. It's a chance to share something — and to be with people for whom sound and song are a collective experience. 

Some speculate that music is the reason humans are what humans are.

That the sounds of voice and eventually instrument over the millennia helped form the communities that became the societies, that allowed us to grow into the dominant species on the planet.

As famed cultural critic George Steiner put it, there is no community on this planet that does not have music — music being far more universal than language.

Our people

Music shapes community. It shapes cultural (and counter-cultural) identities within societies. It is tribal. It helps us to find "our people" and shape our world view.

From the snarky guy at the record store to the acclaimed pianist taking the stage at the Jack Singer; from the keen all-ages promoter hyped up on the local music scene to the guy putting up posters along 17th Avenue — music and the social scenes that develop around it mean more than just beats and bleeps and bangs.

When I was in high school and regularly going to all-ages punk shows, my dad would often ask in that concerned parental way what I had in common with my friends. The answer was almost always music. That didn't make much sense to him.

Calgary's family friendly Folk Music Festival is one of the most successful folk festivals in Canada. (Michael Tan)

But it's more than sound.

There are the politics of a given genre, even if those politics are a sort of detached nihilism. An outsider genre like punk will attract the outsiders. A pop clique will form around the latest chart toppers. Maybe tripping out was your thing and listening to the jam bands in a garage with your friends was the connection point.

It's also about the places the music takes us, not only emotionally and psychologically, but physically.

Our community

Rummaging through Recordland's vast collection, meeting friends at The Palomino, jams and off-the-books shows in basements of houses, the all-ages show at a community hall, the organized and the chaotic performances bring us together.

These physical locations, and the people within them, become extensions of an identity — they are identity and allegiance.

Staff at Recordland, with one of Canada's largest collections of vinyl on hand, have their fingers on the pulse of Calgary's evolving music scene. (Erin Collins/CBC)

While music can be isolating — in some cases lead to a dangerous rejection of the larger society — it can also physically and psychologically attach you to a larger world.

Think of the young gay man in a small town some years ago listening to David Bowie. Think of the teenager in North Korea listening to K-Pop over a smuggled radio. And, yes, think of the white supremacist listening to hate rock and seething. Music can be empowerment, freedom and even hate.

Even the local scenes, which often have sounds and customs unique to a city, can lead to a bigger connection with the world; tracing the influences and the sounds of the local and connecting it to the larger global jukebox.

Our sounds

We can create new friendships through a shared love of music or a conversation about the bands we cherish. We can create new friendships by strapping on instruments and making music. We can communicate by music alone.

When we're born, we learn to communicate through the singsong coos we exchange with our parents  — what some experts think is the true origin of music.

Lab Coast performs at Flames Central during Calgary's Sled Island Music Festival which is set to enter its tenth year in the city. (Allison Sleto)

It's the first community bond that we form and it comes to us through sound. And at the end of our lives, we're taken "out" with community gathered to remember us and music helping to send us on our way. It is ritual. It is a joining. It is how we mark the greatest of events.

Yet while we live, it is the simplest of ways to form endless connections. From noticing the other person in the coffee shop tapping away to a radio tune and sharing a smile to volunteering at the folk fest, year after year after year, music will always find a way to bring us together.

Calgary's Folk Music Festival prides itself on providing an edgier lineup than many other folk festivals. (Sebastian Hanlon)

And while meeting friends at shows, sharing music online or discussing the finer points of a given genre might not sound like much, especially in light of the rise of humanity through early coos and rhythmic grunts, music and the connections it brings is still a vital glue in contemporary society, helping to bridge gaps, spread ideas and offer a darn fine excuse for a fun night out or a soothing soundtrack to heartache.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.


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