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Strange magic

Toronto's Danny Michel has something to Belize in after leaving his comfort zone to write, record new album

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FOR his new album, Toronto rocker Danny Michel decided to do something completely different from anything he'd done before.

His new eight-song disc, Black Birds are Dancing Over Me, recorded last winter in Belize, features Michel performing with musicians from the Garifuna Collective. The recording sessions took place over several months but the actual concept for the album started percolating in Michel's subconscious many years before.

"I first went to Belize over 10 years ago on a trip, loved it, and I've gone back every year since," he says. "I got more and more involved in the community and started working with a school there and always kept thinking it would be great to make a record there.

"The music and the vibe has been slowly sneaking into my music over the last few records and this time I thought 'let's do it right' and do the whole album there."

Hanging out on Caye Caulker, a small island off the north coast of Belize, Michel listened to a lot of local Garifuna punta music, including records by Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective produced at Ivan Duran's Stonetree Studios.

"They do all these records and I thought, 'Why don't I just ask these people if they'd be interested in doing a record with me?'" says Michel.

The Canadian musician contacted producer Duran by email and sent along a link to a video of what he'd worked on previously. Duran liked what he saw and invited Michel to his studio.

Stonetree, based in Benque Viejo del Carmen, inland near the Guatemalan border, is on the opposite side of the country from where Michel was staying. Travelling back and forth to record the album, he now knows Belize like the back of his hand.

"It's been a big, long adventure," he says. "We talked about doing it in the summer of 2011 and I said, 'OK, I will come down for November, December and January and hang out and we'll work then.'

"I came down with no songs, no guitar, nothing and just walked into a room with complete strangers. I just wanted to get outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself."

Michel was used to writing and recording quite differently from Duran and the Stonetree musicians, but they figured out a collaborative process that would work for everybody.

"We just started recording sections," says Michel. "We didn't even know each other. We just looked at each other and went, 'OK here we go.' We would sit around playing ideas and grooves and stuff. (Duran) was like, 'That's really cool -- let's record that.' We would record a groove for a little while and these things would turn into songs, which is the exact opposite of how I would ever write a song.

"The most interesting part was all the equipment, the gear. We're so spoiled here. We have so much fancy equipment and they don't have access to that. It was a real eye-opener for me to record on guitars that... I don't want to say they're bad but they're not up to North American-standard instruments. You get handed a guitar and it's missing a string. It's got five strings. And then the answer to that was: 'Learn how to play your song with five strings. Deal with it.'

"It actually changed my whole perspective of guitars. I came home to nice guitars and I look at them and go, 'Hmm, I'm not interested in you anymore.' I'm looking for all these weird, half-working interesting guitars now."

The album was recorded over a three-month period last winter with Michel returning to Canada over Christmas. Everybody in the band (who go by the name the Benque Players for the project) is a master stylist with guitarists Sam Harris and Al Ovando, percussionist Rolando "Chichiman" Sosa, and vocalist Desiree Diego all adding their respective talents to the percussion-heavy mix.

"They were incredible," says Michel. "I learned a lesson, too, about playing with heart. They may not have the best gear but they play better because of that. They were just so welcoming and so fun, so relaxed and so great to me. It was beautiful and I don't even think I realized it until it was all over."

-- Postmedia News

Concert Preview

Danny Michel

óè West End Cultural Centre

óè Nov. 13, 8 p.m.

óè Tickets $23 at the WECC, Ticketmaster

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2012 C6

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