Director’s Thoughts: John & Waleed

Azzeddine Soufiane

Khaled Belkacemi

Aboubaker Thabti

Mamadou Tanou Barry

Ibrahima Barry

Abdelkrim Hassane

When a director sits down to write the program notes for a play, the question that they try to answer for the audience is, why this piece? Why now? As I began my notes, the only answer I could conjure were those names above – the names of the men who were killed at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec on Sunday, January 29, 2017 in an act fuelled by hate. How can there be such hate in our country? We want to answer, “This is not my Canada.” But sadly, it is.

John & Waleed’s first performances with Cahoots were in February 2015 at our venue partner, the charming Music Gallery. Since then, we have refined both the experience and the design, circling an ocean of themes whilst navigating around the uncomfortable parts of this conversation: colonialism, religion, privilege, race.

For example, the set consists primarily of a large sail, like one might find on a sea-faring vessel of yore. For me, the sail speaks of our journeys from afar, and the global migration of people. Living on the shores of Lake Ontario, on the land of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Haudenosaunee, and the Huron Wendat, makes many of us immigrants. Whether driven by economics, or war, or some other reason to search for a better life, we have made Canada our home. Connected by a colonial rope that binds us, we have been thrust together, in spite of our different beliefs, traditions and experiences.

For John & Waleed, they too are a part of this collective history of migration. Their geographic origins have shaped the belief-systems, which they, and their music evolved from. Waleed, first came to music in the Sufi centres of the Sudan, and growing up in Southern Ontario, John’s father was an ordained minister. Indeed, John’s hometown, the city of Kitchener, is named after the British General who invaded Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city. Even their instruments are linked. The modern banjo, most associated with the American folk traditions, originated in Africa, as the banjar. Made with gourds and animal skins, the instrument was recreated by those indentured and forcibly transported to the American south from Africa. Today, when John accompanies an African children’s song, on an instrument drawn from this colonial narrative, it is unexpected, yet also utterly right.


Photo of Waleed Abdulhamid & John Millard by Dahlia Katz

Their own music follows this migratory tale, from the traditional, to their own compositions. Our shared colonial history is such that John & Waleed are in a time and place that, in spite of their different backgrounds, they can not only be friends, but also musical collaborators. The unique glory that is their music, is compounded by the fact that they perform it seemingly with ease. And yet, their virtuosity disguises the complexity and difficulty of melding their respective diverse musical approaches. It is through their hard work, and determination that our musical experience will be so harmonious. For me, it speaks to the respect and love that these two friends have for each other and their craft. As with any relationship that is important, it takes effort, empathy, and good will for success.

John & Waleed is more than just a show with music and storytelling about two friends. It can inspire and represent a way forward in tumultuous times. We not only identify with their camaraderie, and their friendship but we also desire to similarly act with respect for others that share our space. We aspire for peace for ourselves, our families, and our communities. In the cold, inky nights of Canadian winters, John & Waleed’s music can be a beacon to light the way.

It makes us want to affirm, “This is my Canada.”

So, welcome.

Marjorie Chan
Director, John & Waleed
Toronto, February 2017

(My note during the previous workshop performance of John & Waleed.)

John & Waleed is produced by Theatre Passe Muraille in association with Cahoots Theatre, onstage February 16 – March 5. 



John & Waleed: A Note

JohnWaleed-WEB-2283The simplicity of the show, John & Waleed (which could be seen merely as a show about two men and their music), belies the virtuosity and artistry of these two musicians. Ostensibly, this show is about John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid’s own lives (variously growing up in Southern Ontario and the Sudan), and their progression towards music, happiness, and, for lack of a better term, their ‘bromance’.

However, the deeper narrative thread is what I call the ‘colonialism’ thread, represented by the migration of people, and their music. Some of the connections are more overt. For example, the city of Kitchener (where John spent some of his childhood), is named after the British General who invaded Khartoum (the capital of Sudan). A funny coincidence, considering the two men onstage and their kinship. As well, the banjo was originally an African instrument, which travelled to America via the slave trade. Eventually, it was absorbed into minstrel shows, and now is clearly an instrument connected to the folk music of the American South. And yet, John on banjo supporting an African children’s song taught to him by Waleed, is both unexpected, and utterly right.


In many ways, the piece presents our shared colonialism without judgement; it simply was. In Canada, we all, whether we like it or not, are also a product of our collective histories. Both John and Waleed, through migration (though John’s family was from a little further back) brought them to Canada, then Ontario and eventually to Toronto. The same could be said of the music they carry with them, from the traditional, to their own compositions, the songs tell a migratory tale of their own. All that history conspires to bring John & Waleed to a time and place where they are able to engage in each other’s music and luckily for us, share it with us through our show. I hope you get a chance to experience the magic of their friendship with us.

Cahoots season-3983(400x400)

All photos of John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid by Dahlia Katz Photography.