Alex Abahmed 0:06
Hello, I'm Alex Abahmed. With Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, we are joined by Dalannah Gail Bowen, a longtime musician, arts organizer, activist, and a fixture in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside community. Dalannah joins Am Johal to talk about her career in music and a legacy of making space for community arts and connection in the neighbourhood. I hope you enjoy.
Am Johal 0:34
Hi there, welcome to Below the Radar, really excited to have a long-time collaborator with our office, our friend, mentor, grandmother, Dalannah Gail Bowen, welcome Dalannah.
Dalannah Gail Bowen 0:49
Hi. Am. Thank you, thank you so much for hosting me. Appreciate it.
Am Johal 0:55
Dalannah You're such a pillar in the neighbourhood in terms of all of the things that you do in the neighbourhood, from community activism, to involvement in arts and culture, and in so many sort of personal, everyday ways here in the neighbourhood. I'm wondering if we can just begin by you introducing yourself a little bit.
Dalannah Gail Bowen 1:16
Okay. My name is Dalannah Gail Bowen. My traditional name is Wimbli Macpya Wia, which means eagle sky woman. I am also Red Stone Woman, named by Robert Mahaney, the elder from Squamish nation. I am a musician, longtime musician. I've been singing since I was 20, and I am now 75. I have also written a play, and I started an organization in the Downtown Eastside called the Downtown Eastside Centre for the Arts. And it was a place where people could come unconditionally, and participate in arts programs, and we did very well actually. I retired in January, to focus more on my music. So, I released a new CD called Looking Back, which is a commentary on the state of the world, if you will. My evolution from traumatic childhood, which led me to addiction and homelessness, has given me a perspective that includes that experience, as well as being, well, so. I work to share myself to support programs and initiatives that I believe in, and people and walk compassionately as much as possible.
Am Johal 2:51
So you've recently retired from the Downtown Eastside Center for the Arts. Just wondering if you can talk a little about the different types of programming that you were doing in the space, it was a very well loved and well used space, and the kind of different activities that you had going on there?
Dalannah Gail Bowen 3:09
Well, it is true that we set a standard because it was a no barrier program, all our programs were no barrier. So you could come in, talk to an elder if you needed to, participate in weaving and quilt making, beading, basket weaving, so a number of various kinds of programs. And I would like to share a story. So we created a quilt program where people were invited to come and participate in quilt making. And there was a young woman who was heavy into her addiction. And so it took her three or four weeks just to pick fabric. And she would come periodically, not regularly because of where she was at in her addiction. On the opening night, all the participants were invited, as well as the community. I don't think this would happen anywhere else. There was a woman from North Van, a very wealthy woman who had been coming to the workshops. And there was this young woman heavy in her addiction. And when she saw her two squares, integrated into the quilt that was hanging in the exhibit, she started crying. And the woman from North Van was sitting in the corner. And so this young woman went and sat beside her. And they started talking. And it turns out both their mothers were quilters. And so they had a conversation, the whole time of the reception. And the young woman walked out of there and said thank you over and over again, because she had made that connection. And I think that... that is what art is, to me. It is a gentle tool that allows people to connect with themselves. And hopefully the environment is such that there's no expectations or no conditions. And they are free to connect with themselves. Yeah. So, I love that story, because it just symbolizes what it can do, you know.
Am Johal 5:36
A long time ago, I remember going to the Firehall Art Center, I believe it was around 2007--but I'm getting older too. So the years kind of... line up, but I believe it was the time when Miloon Kothari the former UN housing rapporteur was here. And he met you one of the public hearings, and he visited a few protests. And you invited him to come, and he had a really busy schedule, I was sort of being his local contact, as he travelled around with groups and said, I really, really want to go to that. And so he came there, and I was in the audience as well, and I know that that project is being reprised today at the Heart of The City festival, but wondering if you can talk a little bit about that as an example of one of the arts projects you've been involved with.
Dalannah Gail Bowen 6:27
Yes. So this is my play, called The Returning Journey. It is my personal journey story of my traumatic childhood, moving into a midpoint of my life into addiction and homelessness. And the reason that it's so relevant with The Heart of The City festival is when Vancouver Moving Theatre first started, they started with a community play. And they had heard that I was a singer, and invited me. And at that time, I was heavy in my addiction and not singing very much. Anyway, they invited me to audition for a part. And I got it. And I think the play ran for five days or something like that. And so I had to pay attention, and I also had to be cognizant that other people were depending on me, for my part in the play, because there was a huge cast. After the play was over, it was apparent to me that I couldn't live that way anymore, and I wanted to get out of my addiction. It may work for some people, but I don't believe in rehab. It really has to come from you--that healing journey. And so I just went on a spin where I didn't do any drugs, I prayed and prayed and prayed. And I had a stroke, a major stroke, and was in the hospital. Of course, I didn't have a phone at home. So I couldn't call an ambulance, I finally got the strength after three days to get up out of the bed and crawled to the Women's Centre, because I was only a block away. And they called an ambulance and then I slipped into a coma. Anyway, after that, I started writing poems. I used to write poems when I was very young, because again, art is an outlet for your experience, whatever that may be. And some of the poems turned into songs. And I had, you know, really connected with Carrie and Savannah. And I told them about this play that I'm was exploring--the story that I was exploring, anyway. So they said go to Donna Spencer at The Firehall. And so I did, and she was all excited, which was much of a surprise to me. But it, you know, it's raw, and it doesn't hide the pain and what you go through when you're living in the addiction. So, we ran for I think 10 days or something like that. And we did it. You know? So I was very honoured that Carrie and Savannah asked me to revive it for this year's festival, because the theme is "what gives us strength." And so I was very honoured about that. And it shows tonight at seven o'clock so if you go to the in The Heart of The City Festival website, you can click onto it, and the plays first. And then I do music performance with my band too after that. Yeah,
Am Johal 9:59
Now you've continued to do a number of music projects. I know you're doing something related to East Van Morrison, I think it was called, you guys had a wonderful performance at Woodwards, you're performing at various blues venues in the city, when there's not a pandemic. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how your music has evolved in the past few years and the types of collaborations that you're involved with.
Dalannah Gail Bowen 10:27
Interesting question. I think that music reflects where you are in your journey, the music that we as individuals create, reflect where we are on a journey. And so at this time in my life, I'm content. And so it allows me to share my perspective about external things, rather than the internal things. And, you know, Lord knows, we need all the help we can get right now with everything with the environment with the racism. And I feel like there are some of us that are messengers for the causes that we believe in. And it is true that, you know, there is an awakening in the world, in the population of people from different cultures, and people who had mindsets, that might have been let's say, judgmental, or unkind, let's say. And that's why I think the synchronicity of COVID--although I wouldn't wish COVID on any, I'm not saying that it's a good thing. But it is a necessary thing at this time, for all of us to really check ourselves and what do we believe in. What do we stand for? Who are we in relation to Mother Earth and how we walk? And how are our relationships with other people? Do they come from a place of compassion? And kindness? Or are they judgmental? And attitude? No. Because if we don't work together, we're really in trouble. You know? So yeah, Look Ahead, is a lot about the environment, I do a song called What the Hell Is That--it's about the pimping of music, in relation to, you know, when the first time I heard an advertisement, and it used one of the anthems from back in the 60s, I was shocked, you know, but now it's commonplace. But that's not what those anthems were for. So it's kind of ironic.
Am Johal 12:58
What got you into, say, Van Morrison and other music that you play?
Dalannah Gail Bowen 13:04
Oh, you mean the styles that I like? I just like good music. Duke Ellington said that there's only good and bad music. It's not by category. And you don't separate it into country or jazz or whatever. It's either good or not good. So that's kind of my approach to music--I like all kinds of music. I didn't appreciate country, until I really listened to it--when I was in my addiction, ironically, because there's a lot of heart there, you know?
Am Johal 13:42
Now you're an activist for a long time in the neighbourhood--you're marching every year during the Women's Memorial March, you've done a lot of work with The Circle of Grandmothers, and... wondering if you can talk a little bit about the community work you're involved with now, and kind of how you see some of the challenges that relate to particularly this pandemic context, which has really created a new crisis on top of earlier, crises that were already here.
Dalannah Gail Bowen 14:15
Oh, boy, that's a big one. [laughs] Well, first of all, I want to say that people that have experienced trauma of any kind as a child growing up will, ideally a lot of them eventually do--you can't help but care. You can't help but care. So, I mean, I remember marching against... anti-apartheid. Way, way back when, and I was you know, in the early late mid 70s, 80s, 90s. I was very active in the music community here, which was flourishing. It was very, very good. Lots of clubs, you know, six clubs in four blocks in Gastown, for example. And all that sort of thing. The first event that I was ever involved in was a show called Ladies and Lights at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. And it was a benefit for the Lions Club. And we raised a lot of money, and I got introduced to nonprofit societies, et cetera. And it struck me that I had met with a number of people to talk about what just what the concept was, and nonprofits were created to be an alternative to the lack of government policy. And so I went, "I'm in," right? So I went to Simon Fraser and took nonprofit management, and learned about the policies, and/or lack of, in communities, because even back then, there was starting to be a desperate separation and between those who have and those who have not. So eventually, after I graduated from SFU, I went... work for the food bank for a number of years as director of development, work with the National Film Board, coordinating the Invisible Colours, Women In Film Festival, things like that. So my perspective on nonprofits is I don't agree with corporate nonprofits--and that's what a lot of nonprofits have become. There was never the idea that an executive director would make $300,000 a year when the money should be going to the programs, and the lack of monitoring... I mean, I've written the government many, many times when I left the Vancouver Food Bank, to say, there should be guidelines, about salaries, you know, all those things that make up a nonprofit, but there never was. And so we have extreme situations where nonprofits have a million dollars in salaries a year--and it just appalls me. And not that it's not hard work--you know, I know how hard it is. But that wasn't the point of creating the nonprofit sector. The other thing is that, you know, I'm sorry, Mr. Mulrooney, but when he cancelled the cooperative housing, I think it was? What it did was eradicate housing for people who don't make those high salaries. And so this is the consequence, we have all this lack of housing now. And so it's really, it makes me very sad. I mean, now there's everybody from young people to seniors on the street.
Am Johal 18:22
Dalannah, you've encountered so many interesting collaborators and leaders in your time. I can remember just a few years ago, where you did a really interesting conversation with Germaine Tremmel, who had spent
Dalannah Gail Bowen 18:36
Jerry Trammell, yeah.
Am Johal 18:37
From Standing Rock, you'd mentioned a few times wanting to do an event with Jack O'Dell, which we weren't able to do during The Heart of The City Festival, but there was a screening of his film that happened at SFU at the World Art Centre. I mean, he's such a giant of a man, I think he passed away, maybe three, four, or five months after that screening, but... so articulate so plain-spoken with his language in terms of somebody who came out of social justice movements and in his 90s could still stand in a room and filled the role, such as solidarity and wondering if you can speak about Jerry Trammell, Jack O'Dell and, and others that you've encountered along the way in your own journey?
Dalannah Gail Bowen 19:25
Well, the first thing I would say is, what a privilege to have met and talked and learnt from these people who are leaders, true leaders, you know? The other thing that I would say is, you know, when I wrote somebody this morning, who the... a couple of the men who had been sent to jail from the Tiny House Warriors, and they're kind of discouraged right now... those people in a time way before, there was people that followed and/or agreed with their thinking, and their actions, were committed to make a difference and be examples of possibilities. And so the actions that they took at that time, I mean, Jerry Tremmel, did amazing work as a lawyer fighting for Indigenous rights all over the states when that country, you know, well... I won't get all negative but [laughs] but that country, even acknowledging Indigenous rights, it's a major challenge. And so, it always inspires me when I see people who take a stand, because they have the belief in what is right, and think it's important to stand up for what is right. And the other thing is, you know, I call this the time of the awakening as well, because people are becoming aware of injustices around the world. It's not just here in North America, it's everywhere that it's happening. So the awakening is changing people's concept of compassionate rights, and making a dutiful effort to get behind those beliefs, and walk that way. You know? And it's really important, because, I mean, look, colonialism, oppressive colonialism has been here for centuries. And it's deeply ingrained in every system. But that system is cracking, now. And the more people that live what they believe, it will make a difference, so that the next gen--two generations will be able to stand on that. You know?
Am Johal 22:15
Dalannah, we're literally a few days away from the American election, as we're recording this. This episode will come out after it's out, but there's obviously... when you have the kind of racism and populism that's been unleashed under the American President, it's also caused rupture of all of the issues that exist here, because it's not just an American thing--there is racism here as well. There are significant problems with policing, particularly with Black and Indigenous communities. And you see the eruption in the summer with, like protests, over 10,000 people, just amazing organizing of young people, and also lots of great organizing going on with Hogan's Alley. And as someone doing a lot of work in the Black community for a long time, how do you read the current political moment from your experience in time in these issues and communities?
Dalannah Gail Bowen 23:19
Well, I mean, on the one hand, I say it's about time that this was exposed. And quite frankly, I think that was Trump's purpose--his sole purpose, mind you--but his purpose is to expose how deeply the racism issue goes, not only in the United States, but in Canada. Just because it's not talked about as much here, although now it is. But for years, it wasn't a thing that was discussed, because people got by. However, this is the time for this. And this coincides with COVID as well. Because those things, and you know, as much as I hate technology, and because I'm... [laughs] I have a difficult time because of my age and my three strokes in my cognitive area, the technology is been a gift for us. So all these things that are coming together at this time, serve the purpose of moving us forward in challenging the status quo in challenging the way we think about each other in our relationship to Mother Earth, and also challenging ourselves to be better.
Am Johal 24:45
We're in stroke solidarity, Dalannah, because I had my stroke two years ago just prior to brain surgery, and I really appreciate you dropping by to check on me over at 312 Main and telling me to slow down.
Dalannah Gail Bowen 25:02
[laughs] We're driven, what can we say?
Am Johal 25:08
I'm wondering if you'd be willing to share any music with us.
Dalannah Gail Bowen 25:16
Okay. Let me see. This is a song called The Heart Knows. And I'm not gonna play my drum because I'm just getting over bronchitis.
Dalannah Gail Bowen 25:31
[singing] I understand how you feel when everyone has had their day
Where nothing makes sense
And you want to run away.
Oh, that I, congenitally, all that can say, listen to your heart.
Your heart will guide you on your way.
And you're using leads, oh.
As the wind blows through your heart, smile, your heart knows where to be
Your heart, no way thing
People they're given face, sometimes tell you what to do
No one knows how you're feeling, no one knows
But you know, that I can tell you
All that I can say
Listen to your heart
Your heart will guide you on your way
And you hear the leaves, oh, the wind blow
Feel your heart smile
Your heart knows where to be
Your heart knows where you've been
Life is full of ups and downs
Fill a job, full pay
We slip we fall
We fall, we rise
To begin another day
We have to crawl sometimes
We have to hurt to break free
Of all of these illusions that bind us
To this make-believe
And all that I can tell you
All that I can say
Listen to your heart
Your heart will guide you on your way
And you hear the leaves fall, as the wind blows
Through your heart's smile
Your heart knows where you've been
Your heart knows when you've been
Dalannah Gail Bowen 28:37
[speaking] There you go!
Am Johal 28:39
Wow. Dalannah: thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.
Dalannah Gail Bowen 28:47
You're welcome. You're welcome. Thank you for having me here.
Alex Abahmed 28:55
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast produced by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thank you for tuning in to hear our conversation with Dalannah Gail Bowen, check the episode notes for links to her work. Subscribe to Below the Radar in your podcast app of choice to never miss an episode. Thanks again and we'll see you next time on Below the Radar.