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L.A. Beat

Happiness is Sonis McAllister and the re-opening of the SAAG

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While you need a B.S. detector set at maximum sensitivity when talking to  Sonis McAllister, about Sonis McAllister and the Barracuda Orchestre, one thing he is honestly excited about is performing for the grand -re-opening of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG), Sept. 17.

He’s the type of cat who makes you wish you could read minds, just to see what is going on in his head. So who are Sonis McAllister and the Barracuda Orchestre?

Sonis McAllister hums a line for violinist Kelsey Jespersen to pick up on. Photo by Richard Amery
“We’re just a bunch of musicians who like to play music on home made instruments,” McAllister says.

The Barracuda Orchestre are his eight person performance art, jazz influenced, percussion powered, spoken word group/ religious/ agriculture cult who may or may not include former members of the Polyphonic Spree and who may or may not have just received a letter of support and a new amplifier from actor Morgan Freeman, who Holden calls their prophet.

Right now their numbers include Jana MacKenzie from the Allied Arts Council and local artists Dan Wong and Mary-Ann-McTrowe among others.

They are gathered together on a rainy, dreary, Sunday evening, in the depths of Lethbridge’s desolate Chinatown, actually in McTrowe’s and Wong’s cluttered art studio, rehearsing for the grand opening. They hope to brighten up the night —  after all, happiness is the theme of  their upcoming show.

To illustrate that point, they begin their rehearsal with a perfectly timed 20 seconds of belly laughter.

“We’re all numbers 1-8. I’m number 8,” says McAllister  leading his group, all dressed in white, through rehearsals of seven new poems/ songs all related to the emotion of happiness. But first he has the members recite what he calls the four uncontrollables — smile, heart, laughter and emotion.

“We’re restructuring out DNA to be more joyful, he says before humming a line for fiddle player Kelsey Jespersen to pick up on, which the others follow and he sings “If you go around with a  droopy frown…”  and it carries on through there.

He pauses to write how the song will go on a big white board in an erasable marker
While Wong taps out the melody on an xylophone,  McTrowe raps out percussion on a variety of instruments including several iron bars, an old piece of tin, a small washboard strapped across her chest and a hand full of nut shells.

“We’re happy for a lot of reasons, but mostly we’re happy because of the SAAG’s grand re-opening. We’re playing for a member’s only party with Hippodrome and the lovely Erica Hunt. And a lot of the girls have a crush on Brad Brouwer,” McAllister laughs as Jana MacKenzie arrives, changes into her whites and picks up a pair of cymbals.

 The group played several unusual shows featuring McAllister’s beatnik style poetry/ performance art earlier this year at the SAAG and last year at Henotic, however this show will be all new material revolving around the theme of happiness.

“We’re hoping a lot of people will come and see what we’re about, or at least come and look through the fence. Actually it’s probably not a good idea to advertise that,” he continued, while waiting for the remaining two members to arrive. He thinks that’s a good time to get his group to recite the “renunciation”

“I renounce not ever being involved with the Polyphonic Spree and not ever being involved with (Polyphonic Spree leader) Tim DeLaughter,” he gets them to say.

“I also promise that around Brad Brouwer, I will control myself,” he gets the girls to say.

 “ I just love being happy,” he concludes.

Sonis McAllister. Photo by Richard Amery
The opening party is just one of several activities to be associated with the SAAG grand opening.

“There will be a whole slew of things happening including workshops, exhibitions, a pancake breakfast, prizes and more,” said Southern Alberta Art Gallery public relations manager Christina Cuthbertson, adding  there will be free admission  for everybody throughout the weekend which begins Friday with the official ribbon cutting ceremony at 9 a.m..
 Local artists will be on hand to discuss their works and local musicians will be performing.
In addition, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery opens their latest exhibition — “On Your Marks.”

“It’s a collaborative exhibition featuring 17 southern Alberta artists working  in collaborative duos and trios to create new works specifically for this exhibition,” she said.

“They’re collaborating with each other on about six or seven new works they did just for this exhibition,” she continued adding the opening reception for this exhibition is Friday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. with Hippodrome and Sonis McAllister and the Barracuda Orchestre.

 The following morning there will be a pancake breakfast at 9 a.m., plus they will be having a draw for a trip to Paris at 4 p.m. on Saturday. All SAAG members are automatically entered and more is available on the Southern Alberta Art Gallery website:

“We’re really excited about how the renovation turned out,” Cuthbertson said adding the first thing people will notice is  the light that floods the new open concept, which leads to the new library and classroom, both of which have excellent views of the park.

“Most of these spaces were something else before. Our classroom used to be a loading dock that we cleared out and our library was a storage space that got cleaned out. And you had to enter through the gift shop. Now the new rooms are the spaces we designated them to be. The library is supposed to be a library and the classroom is supposed to be a classroom,” she continued adding she is looking forward to people seeing the new, renovated SAAG.
“The main gallery has beautiful arched windows and beautiful hardwood floors,” Cuthbertson enthused.

Another highlight of the project is improved accessibility throughout the gallery.

“We‘re really excited about it. Everything is on the main floor. We’re more accessible now. We now have an elevator which takes you to the upper gallery on the second floor which gives you a great view of the park. This space occupies the original Carnegie Library and retains some of the original features of the building including the brick facade and beautiful arched windows. And we have a new loading dock and a multi-purpose video gallery. The biggest thing is we’ll be better able to serve the needs of the community. The air quality and accessibility have improved,” she continued. Other features include a new loading dock, kitchen and multi-purpose video gallery.

“The main thing is admission is free both days and the exhibition opening is the biggest thing,” she continued adding administration will stay at their temporary location until Sept. 5 and officially move the the renovated location, Sept. 17.
“Construction is still happening, but we will be done on time. It will be ready for the grand opening,” Cuthbertson said.

— By Richard Amery, L.A. Beat Editor
A version of this article also appears in the Fall edition of Downtown Magazine
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