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Urbana hits the city

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Cameras and phones of all makes are hoisted high above the sea of alternative hairstyles: partially shaved heads, candy-coloured dye jobs, and more dreadlocks than you’re likely to see outside of a Rastafari reasoning session. Every lens is pointed at the patio outside ChuChai, a vegetarian Thai restaurant on St. Denis, where an Australian beatbox specialist in a patchy newsboy cap is producing a symphony’s worth (or at least a very expensive synthesizer’s worth) of noises from his mouth, a microphone, and a couple of effects pedals. The patio itself is worth mention as well: it’s painted with a riot of black and white swirls of graffiti and cartoon–influenced psychedelia, courtesy of local art collaborative En Masse. Ladies and gentlemen, the Urbana Festival has landed. Well, it’s launched a scouting party, at least.

Nothing could explain Urbana better than its own amusingly capitalized press release: “Urbana is a Collaborative Urban Arts project founded by Ari Tietolman and David Lee in April 2012. The overall mission is to explore and promote Urban Culture through the transformation of Cityscapes into canvasses and stages, showcasing and supporting today’s Artists and Creators of all Media; enriching the City’s vitality and character and ultimately fascinating the public at large.” While it only takes up an afternoon and part of a city block at the moment, Tietolman and Lee have bigger ambitions for next year. They want a full-scale festival, on the level of the International Jazz Festival. There is even a mention of roping in Banksy.

Long-term celebrity recruitment goals aside, the present seems to be going just fine. The aforementioned Australian is YouTube star and frequent busker DubFX, known on legal documents as Benjamin Stanford. He beatboxes, raps in two different voices, sings in about four, and strays into dancehall toasting. Occasionally, he produces a guttural, growling didgeridoo noise to create a “Wall of Sound” effect in the background of a beat. Somehow, he still finds time to banter flirtatiously with similarly talented fellow performer, label mate, and fiancée, Flower Fairy. He genre hops: reggae, dub, hip hop, dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass, jazz, and dancehall are all name-checked from the stage, and many others are given fleeting sonic quotes. His music is almost completely improvised within the structure of each song, and while original lyrics can occasionally stray toward the trite (“Joined at the soul with a pair of headphones”), the overall effect is something close to stupefying. How does one guy do all of that?

While it’s impossible to tell whether those lofty full-on festival goals can be achieved at the moment, the project’s more immediate mission – to bring mainstream visibility to street culture – seems to be a success. It’s safe to say that when they arrived, most members of the crowd (especially the people your mother would be happier to see you hanging out with: preppy university students, young families, and plenty of curious passers-by from the neighbourhood) weren’t aware of DubFX’s tiny British record label, the “organically grown, conscious-minded collective of soulful independent artists,” Convoy Unlimited. But between the circulating DVD vendors and Dub’s semi-frequent plugs for his Canadian tour, it’s certain that won’t be the case by the end. Everything gets a festival of its own these days, so why not these scrappy, talented idealists? Here’s wishing them good luck for next year.