Charting new territory

Justin Brake
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Dr. Zoo embarks on tour with music from two homes

When Randal Arsenault embarks on an extensive cross-country tour this week, he will be offering something to Canadians perhaps no Newfoundlander ever has - a blend of traditional music and African sounds, or "Afro-Celtic Rock" as he calls it, coupled with extensive storytelling from his "two homes."

Arsenault, or "Dr. Zoo" as he's known musically, and his band kicked off the tour at Bianca's on Water Street Saturday night with a release party for "Southern African Field Studies," a six-track effort of re-worked songs from his successful sophomore album "42."

Dr. Zoo

When Randal Arsenault embarks on an extensive cross-country tour this week, he will be offering something to Canadians perhaps no Newfoundlander ever has - a blend of traditional music and African sounds, or "Afro-Celtic Rock" as he calls it, coupled with extensive storytelling from his "two homes."

Arsenault, or "Dr. Zoo" as he's known musically, and his band kicked off the tour at Bianca's on Water Street Saturday night with a release party for "Southern African Field Studies," a six-track effort of re-worked songs from his successful sophomore album "42."

Since 2003, Arsenault has been steadily carving out a niche for himself in the local and Southern African music communities. He earned nominations for a Music NL Award in 2003, a SOCAN Songwriting Award in 2006, and achieved finalist status in the 2003 Canadian National Songwriting Competition.

Now, after more than a decade of splitting his time between Newfoundland and Southern African countries like Swaziland, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and entertaining audiences in both continents, he's done more than charter new territory as a musician.

The Dr. Zoo moniker reveals another side of the worldly Newfoundland troubadour. Arsenault is also a zoologist and studies wild African herbivores like wildebeest, impala, and rhinoceros when overseas.

In fact, the title of the album is named after a field school he is in the process of starting in Swaziland, where he hopes to help students who share his passion for African wildlife achieve their dreams.

After earning a PhD in wildlife ecology from a university in Johannesburg, Arsenault says he achieved his "second dream."

His first was to make music for a living. "I thought, 'Jeez man, if I can (achieve) my second-biggest dream, I'm sure I can get the first dream.' So I went to producers in Johannesburg and brought them demo tapes and got the interest of the top producer in South Africa to record my first CD."

Fast forward five years and Arsenault is still basking in a lifestyle that allows him to simultaneously pursue his dual passions.

"The act of doing something fearful, in a way ... breaking down those fear barriers, it was a huge life change for me," he says, explaining the "just go for it" mentality he used to put everything on hold and make his way to Africa for grad school. "A lot of the themes I deal with in my songs are actually about that, challenging ourselves and what society expects of us."

The evolution of his music reflects his growing relationship with Africa. The songs from "Southern African Field Studies" feature his African band backing him and a fuller African embodiment in the music.

During his Saturday night showcase of the newly "Africanized" versions of his songs were the enchanting moments of innocence and naivete of a Newfoundlander exploring lands and culture so distant from home, at the same time searching for the "meaning of life."

During the anthemic "Welcome to Africa" Arsenault had the Bianca's crowd singing in various Southern African languages. Equally captivating were songs like "Come to Newfoundland and Labrador" and "Rub A Dub Dub," both possessing local relevance and the latter which Arsenault's father, a songwriter himself, penned decades ago. A re-writing of the song, which originally portrayed a Newfoundlander sailing around the island in his bathtub, now depicts a boy sailing around the world and witnessing the coastlines of places like Spain, Africa and Ireland.

"Let Me Go" most successfully epitomized the Afro-Celtic character of the music while covers of "Under African Skies" and "Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes," both from Paul Simon's "Graceland," revealed an obvious inspiration to Arsenault's music.

Already shortlisted for a 2009 Maritime theatre tour, Arsenault's "Southern African Field Studies" should be warmly received by listeners. And, considering the timing of its release, don't be surprised if his name surfaces when the East Coast Music Award nominees are announced.

Organizations: African Field Studies, Maritime theatre

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Swaziland, South Africa Africa Water Street Johannesburg Mozambique Zimbabwe Spain Ireland

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