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Thursday December 23, 2010

Musician 'more Indian than any Indian'

To reflect Montreal's diversity, she created a meeting place for instrumentalists from the East and West and later, Africa

Special to The Globe and Mail

MONTREAL -- Musician Catherine Potter was born in Canada but dedicated her career to an ancient Indian flute. Sitting cross-legged on stage, she would play the bansuri and bring out playful soft sounds from the long bamboo woodwind. She first picked up the instrument in 1983 and immersed herself in Indian culture, eventually perfecting the technique and playing in numerous concerts, as well as recording two CDs and preparing for a third that was to be recorded.

Beginning in 1986, she began studying under India's undisputed master of the bansuri, Hariprasad Chaurasia, a relationship of guru and shishya (teacher and student) that would grow ever closer over the next 24 years.

She herself would eventually master the bansuri and play second flute to Chaurasia during several of his shows, a rarity for a woman, let alone one originally from Southern Ontario with no Indian heritage.

She would spend months at a time in India, studying and gigging with some of the best Indian musicians in the world. Back in Montreal, Indian art and cooking would fill her home; she would don Indian clothing and jewellery for her concerts.

"There were times in her life that she had felt more at home in India and closer to Indian culture than her own roots in Canada," said friend, Elaine Lafond.

Her Indian music would eventually get a good steeping in non-Indian influences, such as her jazz training at Concordia University and her many collaborations with African musicians. In 2002, she formed the Duniya Project, which became a meeting place for East and West, where those playing bansuri and tabla made music with others on upright bass, guitar and drums, and later the African cora. The genre reflected the diversity she saw in Montreal, as she eschewed the word "fusion," preferring to simply call it all "contemporary Canadian music."

In 2008, she brought her music to India on a 32-day concert tour she organized that also included some Canadian and European dates. Indians delighted in this Canadian masala, with audiences enraptured and the press all over her.

Potter, who died on Dec. 3 in Montreal from breast cancer at the age of 52, was respected for her contribution to Montreal's world music scene and admired for the hours of dedication she put into learning the bansuri, which requires precise fingering on its eight holes, which the player sometimes has to cover to various degrees. "It takes years to master it. But she did," said Subir Dev, who played tabla on her last CD and who has a track on his latest album featuring her bansuri.

But mastering the bansuri was not enough to persuade Canadian concertgoers and promoters to buy into what they saw as a more marginal genre of music. Gigs such as the Montreal International Jazz festival were a rarity, with small cultural centres and Indian associations being the norm.

Drummer Thom Gossage, who toured with the Duniya Project in India, believes Potter had more than just unfamiliarity with the music stopping her from landing more Canadian bookings. World-beat audiences in the West generally like their musicians to be born in the country where their music originated. "Exoticism sells," he said, adding that there were Indian-born musicians who may have been less talented but were seen as more authentic.

Paradoxically, it was in India where Potter's authenticity was widely recognized. Bangalore's Deccan Herald called Potter "more Indian than any Indian." There were numerous write-ups during the tour that embraced the woman who had eventually found a unique style that offered up a large amount of Hindustani, with flashes of flamenco, North African and Haitian music, supported by frequent improvisation and jazz grooves.

Catherine Potter and her twin sister, Carole-Anne, were born Dec. 25, 1957, in Guelph, Ont., the second and third children of William Alexander and Gwendolyn (née Dougherty) Potter. Their parents and then two-year-old brother Murray were away from their home in Windsor, Ont., on a Christmas visit to their mother's mother, when the girls arrived six weeks before their due date.

Her childhood musical influences included a grandfather who sang in a barbershop quartet and a father who liked to play for his kids the handful of songs he knew on the piano. Her grandmother, who had a grand piano that Catherine used to plunk around on, exchanged it for an upright one on which the twins would take their piano lessons that she paid for. Catherine and her young friends formed fantasy Beatles bands, in which she was Ringo, banging on pots and pans, and she and her sister sang in church and school choirs. In elementary school, she learned the recorder and, at nine, bought herself a fife at Expo 67.

As a teen she learned guitar, to play tunes from favourite singers such as Cat Stevens, Neil Young and Georges Moustaki and later became enamoured with Québécois music, especially the progressive folk-rock group Harmonium, whose music may have played a part in her buying a silver flute.

In her early 20s, she travelled for six months in Europe, and came back to study at the University of Guelph, feeling a lack of book knowledge for all the history, art, religion and politics she began to discover. But her wanderlust came back strong, first with travels around Canada and then, in 1980, on a trip to Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Burma and, two years into the trip, India, where she discovered the bansuri.

Within a month of arriving in the ancient holy city of Varanasi, she began weekly bansuri lessons. Living in a room that overlooked the Ganges River, she immersed herself in music. Walking through the city, she would hear slokas, or hymns, coming from speakers, calls to prayer from the mosques, chanting from temples, Bollywood tunes from car radios and music blaring from the cassette markets. She would attend and take part in all-night concerts from Indian masters.

"On the morning of my 25th birthday, I went to sit on the river's edge to watch the sun rise after one such all-night concert. I felt such a depth of happiness that I knew that I was sealing my fate with this music for life," she wrote in a short autobiography.

With her teacher off to Spain, she decided to return to Canada. It was on a stopover in Holland where she heard that Hariprasad Chaurasia, the Indian bansuri master, was playing in a local church. After the concert, she met him and asked if he knew someone in Canada who could continue teaching her the bansuri.

He said he could teach her and he did. In an e-mail, Chaurasia said that he will remember Potter as a devoted student of music, with a great faith and belief in Indian art and culture.

"A Canadian citizen learning Indian music and spreading it across the globe is a proud feeling for all Indians," he said.

Catherine Potter leaves her parents, William Alexander and Gwendolyn, brothers Murray and David and sister, Carole-Anne. A memorial will be held in January.

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