LAL at Harbourfront Centre's Brigantine Room (235 Queen's Quay West), Friday (August 17), 11 pm, as part of Masala! Mehndi! Masti! Free. 416-973-3000. www.harbourfront.on.ca
there's a volatile chemistry be-tween the two founders of Toronto downtempo crew LAL that holds the group together and threatens to blow them apart at the same time.Sit at a table and listen to Rosina Kazi and her partner Nick Murray talk about anything from hot sauce to the state of hiphop and you'll get one long, fractured thought, with the two finishing each other's sentences and playfully sparring on numerous points of contention.
That tight bond perfectly matches the hushed, intimate recordings LAL build around Murray's clattering beats and Kazi's haunting vocals. It's also become crucial to the success of the decidedly open-ended project, one arising from two musicians with complementary tastes but entirely different personalities and backgrounds.
Producer Murray is also known as Murr, one-third of Toronto hiphop production crew Da Grassroots. He's a shy perfectionist who talks constantly about creating "the perfect song" and who'd much rather be at home, h4unched over his sampler piecing together beats, than talking about his album.
On the other side is Kazi, the chatty, extroverted vocalist, who's more concerned with social change than with breaking big in the music biz, and who seems utterly unfazed that LAL's dreamy Corners disc has made it onto British tastemaker Gilles Peterson's top-10 chart.
Both Kazi and Murray admit that bringing the two elements together took some work. That the two are romantic partners as well as bandmates makes the mix even more explosive.
"We fight all the time," Kazi laughs over Ting and oxtail. "When we're making music it's a battleground, then a compromise, then a battleground, and then it's done.
"I always want to talk about something different rather than writing a good song, and he's happy just to put out great music."
"Rose will get caught up in the words, and I just focus on the melody and try to make a timeless piece of music," Murray continues. "Usually, there's a clash in there somewhere."
"We're actually fighting right now!" Kazi laughs. Murray simply grimaces and returns to his rice and peas.
In fact, Kazi had to battle just to get her cut chemist partner to make tracks with her. Just because you live with someone doesn't mean he'll want to share his beats with you.
"I'd always wanted to do something with him, but he wasn't into it at first," Kazi explains. "It took some time to manipulate him. I ultimately had to start doing the tracks myself, and then he'd finally come in and do his thing."
"She bugged me for a full year for tracks, and I wouldn't do anything," Murray confirms. "My whole thing was hiphop, strictly MCs and DJs. After a while, I started listening to other sounds and getting into experimenting with breakbeats.
"Hiphop is all about staying within one sound that works and capitalizing on it. As soon as you change your sound, you're basically non-existent. I just got sick of that mentality, and I think a lot of other people have as well. No one wants to do hiphop any more because it's so stagnant. This is a project that takes us both outside of ourselves and what we were used to doing."
What LAL have hit on takes the best of several styles, including hiphop. Corners is a stripped-down, moody record built around minimalist breakbeats, subtle percussive orchestration and ambient washes, with Kazi's voice darting in and out of the mix.
It's a massive step sideways for Murray, but also for Kazi, who initially made her mark in the city's underground techno scene. Here, she brings an almost cabaret feeling to lounge-hop tracks like 2 See Love and White Cloud Intellect.
It's hardly a slick production -- and Murray admits that some tracks on the album "aren't even finished" -- but that's part of the charm here.
"The whole LAL project is just doing whatever we want," Murray admits. "That, for me, is the fun of this."
"In Toronto, we all grew up listening to different things, so it makes sense that you push out a bit and explore," Kazi interjects. "Right now you're seeing people like K-OS merging hiphop with the pop sounds we grew up on, and I think that's the Toronto sound. Eclectic and adventurous, and mixing everything we know. I'm just not sure if things like the music industry are ready for that."
As LAL have begun to define themselves more, their scope of music has grown even wider.
What was once just a project based in Murray and Kazi's cramped home studio has grown into a full-blown live band including guitar, bass, harmonium, veena, tabla and percussion, with Murray conducting things behind his turntables and sampler.
The bigger stage set-up has bolstered the sound and also allowed the Bangladesh-born Kazi to introduce more of her South Asian musical heritage into the music. It's an element hinted at on cuts like Projaproti, with its wandering veena solo, though Kazi insists LAL are not the Canadian contingent of the Asian Underground.
"The veena is so characteristically South Asian that the band has shaped itself around that," Kazi explains. "At the same time, though, there's this heavy dub vibe to the live sound."
"It's not just one or two vibes, though," Murray interrupts. "For the next record, I want to take things even further out and bring in heavy, distorted guitars. I'm just now discovering the Clash and the early Cure, stuff I'd never really listened to before. That stuff is hot and isn't that far away from what we're doing."
"We're a product of the East and the West," Kazi nods. "You can't get any more Toronto than that."
south asian sensations
Friday, August 17
masala! mehndi! masti! with toronto tabla ensemble and desi dynamite dj collective 8 pm and lal 11 pm, Harbourfront Centre (free-$20). 416-973-3000/4000.
Saturday, August 18
masala! mehndi! masti! with alms for shanti 2 pm, rashtravani 3:30 pm, kolaripattu 3:30 & 7 pm, bageshree vaze 6 pm, bollywood bonanza 8 pm, sukalyan bhattacharjee 9:30 pm, usra leedham 10 pm and tasa and bageshree vaze 11 pm, Harbourfront Centre, free. 416-973-3000.
Harbourfront's Masala! Mehndi! Masti! celebrates old and new South Asian culture. The three-day festival includes everything from dance, visual art and food to cricket lessons, but it's the hefty slate of traditional and contemporary music that stands out the most. Full details and schedules are available at www.harbourfront.on.ca. Here are some highlights.
TORONTO TABLA ENSEMBLE Norigen Stage, Friday (August 17), 8 pm. Toronto rhythm kings mix tradition with new beats at this Pier Party, jamming with South Asian soundsystem the Desi Dynamite DJ Collective. $20.
ALMS FOR SHANTI Norigen Stage, Saturday (August 18), 2 pm. Uday Benegal and Jayesh Gandhi, the ex-singer and guitarist of India's biggest rock band, Indus Creed, used to play for 40,000 people in Bombay. The New York-based Alms for Shanti is a more international rock assault. Free.
BOLLYWOOD BONANZA Norigen Stage, Saturday (August 18), 8 pm. A run through the remarkable dance styles of Bollywood films, complete with shifty eyes and suggestive hips. Free.
TASA Lakeside Terrace, Saturday (August 18), 11 pm. Tabla terror Ravi Naimpally's global beatbox reaches from India and the Middle East all the way around the planet to Brazil. Funky for you. Free.