LADEEZ QUIRE as part of I Want To Go To Africa (And Other Tales Of High Adventure), at XPace (303 Augusta), Saturday (December 17), $5-$7, festival pass $20. Doors 7:30 pm, show starts at 8 pm sharp. 416-849-2864, www.xpace.info.
Nirmala Basnayake isn't a trained singer; she just plays one onstage. More specifically, she plays one while bathed in stylish red lights, backed by the slick bass lines, crackling guitars and groin-shaking drums of her boys in controller.controller.
Before she had a band as her safety net, the sultry singer struggled with massive performance-anxiety attacks. So it's even more incredible that on Saturday (December 18), Basnayake's ditching the comfort of her band and leaping into the totally improvised Ladeez Quire that's part of Sook-Yin Lee's I Want To Go To Africa extravaganza.
"I've never done improv singing or acting, so our first rehearsal was terrifying," admits Basnayake, who's just returned from a spin through New York with controller. "One person started singing something, and everyone else just jumped in. I was like, 'Could we start off with a real song?'
"It's all about confidence for me, but Sook-Yin's really fearless and brave, and I'll be surrounded by all these other ladies [sound poet Naila Keleta Mae, singer/songwriter Elisha Lim and Christine Duncan -- to name a few] with great, vibrant voices. It's a brilliant cacophony."
Lee claims Basnayake's terror was the response she was aiming for.
"I've challenged the artists in this project to do something they've never done before, so their fear is palpable. Pushing people beyond their security zones is hugely important."
Part of Lee's intent in I Want To Go To Africa (And Other Tales Of High Adventure), which was inspired by her experience travelling through Senegal and Gambia -- her field recordings, photos and stories form a cornerstone of the event -- was to replicate the alienation and wonderment she felt in Africa.
"It was amazing to negotiate survival in a new place, after walking away from known commodities," she explains.
Lee's pulled together polar-opposite artists: kids' storyteller Robert Munsch (of Love You Forever fame) performs alongside guerrilla doc filmmaker Velcrow Ripper and homo go-go boy John Caffery (Kids on TV) gets busy with Filipino Elvis -- Lee's friend's father in Graceland drag. Lee's possibly the only person who could pull this off, and if she does, it could be mindblowing.
If you, like me, cringe at the tinge of colonialist "othering" suggested by the title -- I Want To Go To Africa is Lee's part; the other artists offer their own Tales Of High Adventure -- Lee is quick to answer.
"Sometimes we're encumbered by politically correct thoughts that prevent us from actually doing things. I'm not Gambian and I'm not Senegalese -- I'm a yellow trash person, and this project is firmly based on my perceptions.
"Other Tales Of High Adventure are my friends' stories about their travels," she continues. "Those could be walking around their neighbourhood or falling down a flight of stairs. I wanted to evoke my favourite children's stories, like Pippi Goes To The South Seas, or Around The World In 80 Days. I love the image of taking off in a hot-air balloon."