Pancouver-Logo

Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Christopher Suen finds musical inspiration through the banjo and Gregorian chants

Christopher Suen
Christopher Suen belongs to the Fugitives, who will perform Over the Ridge with contemporary dancers at New Westminster's Massey Theatre on April 13.

There are many sides to Vancouver musician Christopher Suen. On the one hand, he teaches Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony at choral workshops. But that’s only part of the story. Suen is also a former “Deadhead wannabe” who plays the banjo with the acoustic folk-roots group the Fugitives.

After Suen bought his first banjo, a friend taught him how to play the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” on the bus ride home from the store. His passion for Grateful Dead music emerged in university after the death of the band’s leader, Jerry Garcia, in 1995.

“I don’t think I would be as good a banjo player if I didn’t pay as much attention as I do as a choral musician—and vice-versa,” Suen tells Pancouver over Zoom.

When he’s not playing banjo, Suen is director of music at Holy Family Catholic Parish, where services are offered in Latin. The Principal Choir sings music by Giovanni Pierlugi da Palestrina, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and other Renaissance composers.

“My personal favourite is a lesser-known Spanish composer called Francisco Guerrero,” Suen says. “Josquin des Prez would be another one.”

The Fugitives are known for their vocal harmonies, which might be considered as one connection to Renaissance polyphony. These harmonies will be on display in the world premiere of the Fugitives’ interdisciplinary production of Over the Ridge. It will include four dancers interpreting the band’s music in two performances at New Westminster’s Massey Theatre on April 13.

The show arose out of the band’s 2020 musical-storytelling film, Ridge, which focused on experiences of Canadian soldiers in the First World War Battle of Vimy Ridge. That film, in turn, led to the band’s JUNO-nominated Trench Songs album.

The Fugitives Suen
The Fugitives have recorded five albums. Photo by Kevin Clark.

Suen excited by interdisciplinary collaboration

In the past, the Fugitives have adapted the film version to the stage at the Evergreen Theatre in Coquitlam. They’ve also performed it at other venues in Western Canada and Ontario, but never with a dance troupe.

Glynn is the music diretor and McLeod is the writer of Over the Ridge. Julia Course is directing the production, which includes Jacob Williams’s choreography and dance performances by Sophia Makarenko and Ballet BC emerging artists Briana Del Mundo and Pei Lun Lai.

For Suen, the most exciting aspect is the interdisciplinary collaboration.

“I play banjo and fiddle for dancers, but I’m not much of a dancer myself,” he quips.

The Fugitives are headed chief songwriters Adrian Glynn and Brendan McLeod. Suen joined the band when the original banjo player, Steve Charles, decided that he wanted to spend less time touring and more time on other musical projects.

“He recommended me as a banjo player to the band,” Suen says. “So, they invited me onboard. I went and had a little session with them. We got along and the rest is history.”

Suen has also played fiddle with the Fugitives, who’ve recorded five albums. But now, he says there’s a “real violinist”, Carly Frey, so he doesn’t need to do this anymore. In addition to playing banjo, Suen sings vocal harmonies and arranges some of the music.

“It’s an iterative creative process,” he explains “Different people are bringing different things to the group all the time.”

It’s been quite the musical and scholarly journey for Suen to reach a point where he’s equally comfortable playing banjo on tour and directing Gregorian chants in church. His parents decided to immigrate to Ottawa from Hong Kong following 1967 riots in which Chinese Communist Party sympathizers set off bombs. Both of Suen’s parents enrolled in the Carleton University journalism program and they remained in Ottawa until he was five years old.

Watch the trailer for Over the Ridge.

A self-taught banjo player

The family moved to Winnipeg when his dad, an Agriculture Canada employee, was transferred to the Canadian Wheat Board.

“Both my parents were musicians, so my sister and me plunked around on the piano when we were kids,” Suen says. “That was a daily part of life, so we played a lot by ear.”

They also took lessons. Suen picked up the guitar in university and taught himself to play banjo.

So where did his love for Gregorian chants and traditional Roman Catholic music emerge?

“I had come to religion when I was in my teenage years,” Suen reveals. “When I went to university, I wanted to study all the things that interested me, which were Classical Latin, Classical Greek, Biblical Hebrew, and ancient and medieval music.”

He enrolled at UBC, majoring in religious studies because it offered him the flexibility to pursue these passions. He used to joke that he wouldn’t be able to do anything with his degree apart from line a birdcage, but he didn’t regret it because he learned so much.

Suen later spent a year in a seminary in the United States and then went to a monastery in Ireland because he was considering about becoming a monk. But his mother became ill, so he decided to return to Canada a year later.

“I needed to work and a lady in my church was just retiring,” Suen says. “She had been leading pilgrimages to Israel-Palestine for about 30 years.”

The Fugitives perform “If I Could Turn the Clock Back” in rehearsal.

Suen speaks several languages

She asked Suen if he would like to take over her portfolio. And that was the impetus for Suen to try to learn Arabic, which is the mother tongue of most Christians in that part of the world.

“I really fell in love with Arab culture and wanted to learn more about it,” he states. “The food, of course, is amazing, and I was just wanting to be able to communicate with people on the ground.”

Suen has a passion for languages. In addition to modern standard Arabic, he studied the Levantine dialect. He also speaks fluent Cantonese and French.

“Between the Latin and the French, it’s really easy to unlock Spanish and Italian for me,” Suen adds.

With the help of phrasebooks, he can also navigate his way through German so that he can travel in Germany without major problems. He also knows some Japanese and Mandarin.

Suen points out that polyphonic music began in medieval times and continues to the present day within fairly set musical rules and idioms. He’s endlessly fascinated by how the most creative and expressive composers have created musical masterpieces in this structure.

“So, to me, it’s some of the height of vocal arts in all of human history.”

The Massey Theatre will present the world premiere of Over the Ridge at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday (April 13). Tickets are available at TicketsNW.ca or by calling 604-521-5050. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

 

Take Action Now

Pancouver fuels creativity and promotes a more inclusive society. You can contribute to support our mission of shining a spotlight on diverse artists. Donations from within Canada qualify for a tax receipt.

Share this article

Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

Subscribe

Tags

Related Articles

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

© 2023 The Society of We Are Canadians Too Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.