Stories From Home - Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell

Every week, we ask a different local artist to provide their unique perspective on the pandemic experience from a musician’s point of view. Through words, video and music, each musician will share their story, along with an audio or video sample of a recent project, and a link to purchase their music so that you can support their work.

This week, a cappella duo FreePlay (featuring singers, composers, educators, Artistic Directors and life partners Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell) talk about the power of optimism, keeping creativity flowing, and seeking out (virtual) international opportunities.

"As with most musicians, all of our travel and tour plans were decimated during the pandemic. In fact, rewind to March 2020, when we were in beautiful Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on vacation. At the outset, we thought we might wait out the pandemic for a while longer in this beautiful location and extend our trip, until we heard Trudeau was closing Canada’s borders. We dealt with this stress in the best way we know how: creating a parody of Tom Jobim’s One Note Samba that we dubbed the “Get Home Samba”, that we sang at the airport in Rio with these fresh lyrics:

This is just a little samba, about FreePlay in Brazil,
From São Paulo down to Rio, well it really was a thrill,
But for reasons we all know about, now it’s time to hurry home,
So we log into Air Canada, and this is how it goes:

'We’re sorry...your booking was made by Expedia. Please contact them.'
'We’re sorry... your booking is now controlled by Air Canada. Please contact them.'
'We’re sorry...you can’t access your booking online. Please call us.'
'We’re sorry. We can’t even put you on hold. Please call back later.'

Your call is important to us, but we wait and wait and get a dial tone, a freakin’ dial tone.
Call on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday just to get a dial tone. How will we get home?

Now Trudeau is closing borders, flights are cancelled far and near,
All the toilet-paper hoarders, you can stick it up your rear,
So we buy a brand new ticket, YYZ from SDU,
After weeks of isolation, we’ll be back to sing for you!

During our two-week quarantine upon arrival in Toronto, we thought about how we could pivot and how we could make the most of a dire situation. Presenters were cancelling left, right and centre. We are eternally optimistic people and so we thought, how can we look at this as a gift? Where is the silver lining? Time. We decided to make use of the stay-at-home orders in creative ways. We embraced being at home (difficult for those of us with serious wanderlust), learning more about our neighbourhood, a daily practice regimen, daily walks even through the winter, and we proudly rocked our kitchen with home cooking and baking (and continue to do so!).

From a professional standpoint, everything moved online that could move online: teaching in the jazz department at Humber College; Suba’s City Choir pivoted to online rehearsals through both Zoom and Jamulus platforms; and workshops and concerts moved to livestream formats. We spent a good deal of time figuring out how we could capitalize on the fact that our a cappella, live-looping duo is “bubbled” together. We created a livestream concert experience called “FreePlay Fridays at 4!” that began in April 2020 and went until April 2021 with 44 episodes featuring a new program every week. We upped our game by buying some cameras and proper lighting, so it evolved over time to become a 3-camera, hifi audio and visual experience. We have learned new video capture and editing skills, new livestream skills and innovative ways of connecting and communicating through technology.

We’ve been extremely fortunate to receive continued support throughout the pandemic, including grants for our livestream concert series. The “FreePlay Replay” of all of these episodes is available on our youtube channel: www.youtube.com/c/freeplayduo.

We’ve performed at a number of international, online festivals including Vocal Mania (NYC), Black Forest Voices (Germany), Vocal Asia (Taiwan), Aarhus A Cappella Vocal Festival (Denmark), Vocal Leadership (Netherlands) and Sibelius Academy (Finland). We were also part of an initiative called Curbside Concerts that allowed us to do a few outdoor performances with a limited audience. It was a joy, and also very overwhelming, to be able to connect with other human beings and perform for them. Socializing is so different now. Presentation of live music necessarily requires a new way of thinking.

In terms of new projects, as mentioned, we created a weekly livestream concert series called “FreePlay Fridays at 4!” As we never repeated a program, we carved out the time to create new and often complex arrangements and compositions that will certainly become the content for our next album. We were a part of several events through Confluence Concerts where Suba is an artistic associate. FreePlay has also created many bespoke concerts, workshops, a short documentary film called “On Music and Marriage,” and more creative offerings. We are the co-artistic directors (and now de facto technical directors and video editors!) of SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival, and we are producing our second all-virtual, 11-day festival, May 27-June 6, 2021. (More information on SING! is available at www.singtoronto.com).

Suba is co-sound designer and co-composer for an upcoming production at Shaw Festival, and both Suba and Dylan are part of the live band for that show, which is rescheduled for 2023; Autorickshaw (the Indo-fusion trio featuring Suba, Dylan and Ed Hanley) will be collaborating with VIVA Singers (with multiple choirs) in May 2022. Meanwhile, in 2013, Dylan co-wrote an authoritative textbook on a cappella arranging, published by Hal Leonard, and plans to create a companion textbook continuing where the first one left off. Once vaccinated and when we feel the time is right, we look forward to performing and connecting with our friends around the world."

Support Suban ad Dylan by purchasing FreePlay music here: music.freeplayduo.com.

Here's one of FreePlay's most recent live-looping a cappella arrangements, created especially for Janis Siegel (Manhattan Transfer) and Lauren Kinhan (New York Voices) for their Vocal Gumbo online event - their take on Joni Mitchell’s "River":