Tough road to democracy in Afganistan

Afghanis will soon go back to the polls in a runoff ballot to choose between the two leading presidential candidates following July’s contentious election: the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. But one questions if the results will even matter in a nation plagued by corruption, decentralized authority, and dependence on foreign powers for protection.

One of the reasons NATO took on the war in Afghanistan seven years ago was to create a working democracy with a framework of human rights in a formerly theocratic and totalitarian state. There is a lot of work yet to be done.

The runoff follows an election that was marred with corruption from the beginning. Beyond the election results, the process was dubious. Hamid Karzai had already twice delayed the date of the vote, citing security and logistical problems, which effectively extended his term in office past its end date set by the constitution.

When the election finally happened, it was marked by extensive corruption and fraud. A BBC report exposed voter cards being sold openly in Kabul markets, and large amounts of money being exchanged between tribal elders and political candidates. On top of this, voter turnout was low, 30 to 35 per cent—partially because of threats by the Taliban, but also partly because of voter apathy.

But Afghanistan’s election woes stem from before the recent election. Perhaps NATO was grabbing the wrong end the stick when its member nations decided to start by focusing on democracy. Instead, they should have concentrated on making Afghanistan independent through its security forces, and bolstering the newly-formed government’s legitimacy among the Afghan people.

Since the fall of the Taliban as an official ruling power, the American army has taken a major role in outfitting and training the Afghan army, and President Obama has pledged to triple the number of soldiers in uniform. However, the nascent Afghan army has been plagued by corruption, low motivation, widespread desertion, and overall lack of discipline. It simply cannot be expected to keep the peace any time soon.

Regardless of outcome, the winner of the upcoming runoff will be completely dependent upon the armies of NATO for security. Not only will this do little to improve the winner’s legitimacy as leader—it will serve to make him unpopular with his own people.

Furthermore, the government of Afghanistan has little sway over most of the country due to ethnic differences and the ubiquitous power of local warlords, both factors that only exacerbate the natural divisions caused by the country’s mountainous geography. The leader of the government, whether fairly chosen or appointed by corrupt means, will be powerless to enforce laws or oversee development far outside the outskirts of Kabul without the goodwill of local warlords or foreign armies.

The questionable legitimacy of the Afghan political system points to a much deeper failure in our mission in that country. After seven years of occupation by NATO, millions of dollars of aid, and over a hundred Canadian army casualties, the establishment of a stable and viable democracy continues to elude us.

Blues hand Concordia a stinging defeat

The Concordia Stingers limped into Saturday night’s contest against the Varsity Blues, carrying the baggage of a 0-5 start to the season.

To say that confidence is in short supply for the Stingers is an understatement. You could smell it in their game as a lack of offensive flair, indecision with the puck in the attacking zone, and mediocre goaltending led to a 5-2 setback against the Blues (who are 3-3) at Varsity Arena on Saturday.

For a Toronto team smarting after blowing a two-goal lead against Carleton the night before, Concordia proved to be the salve that soothed the Blues’ soul.

“That is a team that is struggling right now, so I think their confidence is shaken a little bit,” said Toronto head coach Darren Lowe. “When a team doesn’t have confidence everything seems to go poorly.”

The Blues opened the scoring at 1:24 of the first period, when Rob Kay collected a bounce off the end boards and roofed a shot that beat Stingers goalie Maxime Joyal to the short side.

The Blues took two consecutive minors following the goal but had the best chance to score. Toronto isn’t the most offensively gifted team, but this chance was a tap in, literally.

Sean Fontyn took a Joel Lenius pass and went in alone on Joyal. Fontyn sent him to the deck with a slick forehand move, went to his backhand and, from the top of the crease, lifted the puck over the glass. Instead of celebrating a goal, Fontyn looked to the rafters in frustration.

The Blues upped the lead to two at 2:56 of the second when Bryden Teich took a pass in the slot from Brent McGrail and one-timed a shot that whizzed Joyal’s glove for his second goal.

David Mooney got the eventual game-winner at 6:15 of the second when he took a feed from Byron Elliott to beat Joyal low to the glove side.

“[Mooney] seems to be making the right plays right now,” Lowe said. “He’s really been a surprise and I hope that he keeps getting better.”

A goal from Eddie Snetsinger just over four minutes later appeared to have the home five on cruise control.

Inconsistency is becoming the trademark of the Stingers, even early in the season. A brief letdown, with less than six minutes remaining in the second, changed the Concordia attitude from hopeless to hopeful.

Stingers right winger Marc-Andre Element converted a Cory McGillis pass and 13 seconds later Kyle Kelly hit pay dirt on a rebound for his fourth of the season.

“I’m not too sure exactly what happened [on both goals],” said Blues defenceman Brendan Sherrard. “From talking to the guys in the room it was poor face-offs to begin with and poor slot coverage, so two breakdowns in two shifts and two goals for Concordia.”

The Stingers went on the offensive but couldn’t capitalize before the period ended.

Toronto goalie Russ Brownell, in his first start since Oct. 16, wasn’t severely tested late in the second but made a few solid stops and looked confident doing it.

“He played a strong game,” said Lowe. Brownell stopped 30 shots for his first win of the year.

The Blues came out in the third and re-established the formula from the first period, giving them a four-goal lead.

“We just had to get back to what we were doing in the first period,” Lowe said. “Just getting the puck in deep and playing smart hockey and showing poise. Sometimes it’s just a case of bringing the guys back to a place they were successful.”

Kay put the game on ice with his second of the night at 5:31 of the third. He battled two Concordia defencemen in the crease for positioning and redirected an Elliott pass into the empty net.

“That’s the kind of effort we need from everyone at all times,” Sherrard said. “That goal really put them away.”

“It was a great second effort,” Lowe said.

Elliott ended the night with three assists and now has a least one point in each game.

“[Elliott’s] probably our best natural goal scorer,” said Sherrard. “He can see the ice really well and he can make the pass.”

Haunted hardcore

“Our first Halloween gig was at Wavelength six years ago,” explains Jonah Falco, the drummer for the bloody, hardcore, emotionally-charged, and Polaris Prize–winning band Fucked Up. “We didn’t think that we’d go over very well and just decided to be as ridiculous as possible. So we spent some time on my parents’ porch, carving pumpkins to put on our heads—we all had this kind of Ichabod Crane thing going on. And instead of indie-rockers just staring back dumbfounded at these five morons with pumpkins on their heads, this brigade of our friends stormed in. The pumpkins got smashed, and we had one of the best shows to date.”

The band started Fucked Up Weekend as a tribute to this performance, and as a way to keep performing and make live shows more energetic, involved, and ridiculous. This year, the live act notorious for performances riddled with blood, temper tantrums, and gratuitous male nudity—and for smashing up MTV Live two years in a row—will perform at Kathedral and Sneaky Dee’s over Halloween weekend. The year has already included some major successes for the band: they’re coming straight off a Polaris win, which made the band’s heads “fat, but not too fat,” and a world tour that had the band in a castle, opening for Korn in front of a screaming crowd of 10,000 and in a tiny bar smeared with filth in China. Fucked Up truly seems to be on a rampage of the hardcore scene.

“It’s a way to focus on ourselves that doesn’t seem so egotistical. It’s just a great excuse to push the limit and make our own shows bigger and better,” Falco explains. When asked what the audience has to look forward to, he responds with a string of cryptic phrases: “Unity of imagery, bit of a mess, airborne, war zone hat, slam skank, omega excessive enforcers, burning spirits, and a happy Halloween.”

“When the unveiling happens, I’m sure you’ll be slapping your knees and falling over,” he adds with a smirk.

Clean-cut and smelling of after-shave, with a black scarf and a latte in front of him, Falco doesn’t look like he could be a member of the controversial band that once had to rush lead singer Damian Abraham to a hospital after smashing a pint glass into his head. This is the same Fucked Up whose guitarist once stormed offstage because Abraham crushed a fluorescent light bulb into him. Surprisingly articulate and down-to-earth, Falco seems to approach his work with the band with equal degrees of self-deprecating irony and fierce pride.

“There’s kind of this folklore about Fucked Up, that everybody is a huge prick, emotionally unstable, and genuinely just a terribly mean person who hates puppies and all small animals. And that on weekends we go to the park and shoot pellets at ducks. But, I mean, I love puppies,” he says.

At the same time, Falco mocks the idea of a perfect band, imitating a loving song-writing process in a high register like a dreamy-eyed schoolgirl recounting her summer love. He stops.

“No, it’s not like that at all. […] Beers and tears go into our hit singles. Straight up, there are a lot of tears at our rehearsals.”

“Almost all of the most ridiculous things to happen onstage revolve around one person,” he continues. “All the crazy stuff revolves around the singer.”

Falco continues to recount Abraham’s legendary exploits: performing a grotesque and over-the-top striptease to the audience, tucking himself between the legs, and turning around to reveal himself to the audience sans genitalia.

“And see, I always [see] this [from] behind,” Falco says with a sort of bemused bafflement. “So I’m getting the full, reverse, nudity, and I just kind of try to look away. It’s difficult to concentrate. The most ridiculous times are, of course, when it falls apart. It’ll all be going according to plan until Damian whips around to the audience, and I just have this naked, vulnerable guy staring at me.”

“A live show is all about confrontation,” he explains. “We’re a band that’s had a lot of tense moments, and we thrive on conflict, so there’s a lot of tension on stage.”

As for this year’s Fucked Up Weekend, what does Falco recommend seeing?

“Check out The Bitters and Little Girls on Thursday, go see the Cro-Mags, or if you want something a little bit less aggressive, check out Red Bass. And my God, do not miss D.S.B., even if you don’t go, just say you were there. First Japanese hardcore band to play in North America. Go to the after-parties, leave your inhibitions at the door. Oh, and you should probably go see Fucked Up, too.”

Fucked Up Weekend runs today through Oct. 31. For more information, visit

This Vampire requires major assistance

In The Vampire’s Assistant, Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia), is just a regular adolescent until he attends a freak show at an old, abandoned theatre with his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson). One thing leads to another, and suddenly Willem Dafoe is popping up for cameos, Darren’s been turned into a half-vampire (prompting his discovery of hair gel), and an epic battle arises between the Vampires and the Vampaneze (evil vampires who—gasp—actually kill their victims). Manipulating all this is the ironically obese Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris). who is changing a book with his mind. The plot just gets more twisted from there.

Talented actors such as Orlando Jones appear all of a sudden and disappear from the film just as quickly. Subplots run wild, from Larten Crepsley’s (John C. Reilly) love for bearded lady Madame Truska (Salma Hayek) to a convoluted storyline involving DNA. If the movie hadn’t been structured around a battle between good and evil, it would have spun itself into incoherence.

The animated opening sequence was definitely the scariest, and, unfortunately, the best part of this film. The beginning got me all excited, but then the real movie started. The flashbacks and special effects feel as inauthentic as the film’s tap-dancing vampires, who fight with their fingernails and knock out mere mortals with their breath. The movie does point out that these habits are really no more ridiculous than believing that vampires are blood addicts, afraid of the cross, or able to turn into bats.

The bigger problem is that ˚ can’t seem to figure out what genre it belongs to. It starts off as a horror comedy, only to become a fantasy, and then morphs into an action film with a great big moral pasted on at the end, as if the director wasn’t really sure how to conclude the thing. The film really could have worked as a horror comedy, seeing that the humorous scenes were the most enjoyable and given director Paul Weitz’s past work on American Pie and About a Boy. Having John C. Reilly in one of the main roles also should have brought the humour to the forefront, though he did an excellent job given the wooden dialogue he had to work with. (It was also great watching Reilly battle Ray Stevenson, as if he was fighting Titus Pullo from HBO’s Rome.)

With so many vampire movies these days taking themselves too seriously, it would have been refreshing to see one that tried to be fun instead. But Vampire Assistant’s attempts at depth, including metaphors comparing puberty to vampire (sorry, half-vampire) transformation, are uninspired. At the same time, it was hard to take this movie seriously when Darren lies in his coffin, calmly playing games on his cell phone and aware that his family is mourning him just above.

On the whole, The Vampire’s Assistant might be a nice way to ease kids into the vampire genre on the way to Twilight or The Lost Boys. It will also resonate with fans of the books of the same name, which I myself read as a kid. But though the film has its laugh-out-loud moments, it probably isn’t worth a spare afternoon.

The Vampire’s Assistant is now in theatres.

Strokes of imagination: Mark Kingwell

Louis Armstrong’s crooning voice quietly drifts from behind philosopher, author, and professor Mark Kingwell’s paper-laden desk, echoing across a meticulously organized and half-empty corner office, like the ghostly strains of a party that’s happening down the street. The hushed quiet of the clean-cut space seems almost incomplete in Kingwell’s absence. A pair of tortoise shell Elwood wayfarers perches atop a pile of notes and next to an uncapped pen, static in the silence.

Kingwell enters the office with the confidence of a graduating high school senior. Sombre, but self-assured, he manages to wear an ironic philosophical T-shirt and jeans—without looking like a douche-bag. He picks up his pen and fiddles with his computer,

“So, what can I do for you?” he asks quietly.

In the introduction to Kingwell’s latest book, a meditation and interpretation of the life of Glenn Gould, John Ralston Saul calls Kingwell “a philosopher of our times and of our attempts to reinvent our existence.” And indeed, Kingwell explains with a sheepish smile, the presence and thought of Gould is evident on every page of the book, though Gould certainly isn’t mentioned on every page.

“A reader said something about the book that I really liked,” Kingwell says. “Gould is less the subject of the book, than the muse behind it.”

Saul approached Kingwell to contribute to the “Extraordinary Canadians” series two years ago. The series pairs an interesting and prominent living Canadian with the works and life of an interesting and prominent dead Canadian.

“Unlike some other cases, he didn’t actually have someone in mind for me,” Kingwell explains, “I was prepared to do Robertson Davies, but it seemed less interesting than one of these pairings might be. I just had a flash one morning that maybe nobody had taken Gould.”

He continues to explain that in his opinion, the importance of the series isn’t the facts of a narrative life, but the interaction between the author and their chosen subject.

“I had a sense that Gould was an interesting thinker about music,” he says, “I didn’t realize just how interesting he would be until I started doing my research. […] I didn’t have the intellectual wherewithal to convince them fully at the beginning that the combination of a philosopher and a musician was a good idea. I’m not a musician. But the whole point of the series is to take a famous dead Canadian and a live one, slam them together, and see what happens. The most productive combinations are going to be the ones that are a little bit off. There was just no point in writing a shorter version of a comprehensive biography.”

Instead of a comprehensive biography, the book is structured as an almost kaleidoscopic series of 21 “takes” on Gould’s life. Each chapter presents a reinterpretation and altogether different version of the life and the driving purposes behind it. Approached with Kingwell’s signature second-person style, the book seeks to understand the persona behind Gould’s actions and recordings, and appeals to the reader to understand the torrid mindset and almost frantic search for reinvention and identity that drove the prolific, neurotic, enigmatic figure. Somewhat rambling, and tip-toeing around the edge of being altogether random, Kingwell presents a meditation on the thoughts and ideas of a musician the way he perceived them, placing the book’s emphasis on the fruits of pairing a more disciplined and philosophical thinker with a talented and tortured musician.

“Gould’s’ music is the audible tip of the iceberg,” he says, “It’s the part you hear, hiding the part you don’t hear. You can appreciate it for its clarity and its beauty, but it’s only one-eighth of what’s going on. The rest of it is only partly revealed in his written work, and that’s a part of the enduring fascination with Gould.”

Kingwell took an abstract approach to getting inside Gould’s head. In a period of four months, he spent every day with Gould’s music and his written work. He listened to a comprehensive set of Gould recordings on repeat, and tortured his close friends with stories of the musician’s life and accounts of abstract issues of consciousness and identity.

“In that fairly short period, you’re dominated by your subject’s concerns, and you’re trying to grapple with them from your own perspective. It does drive you a little bit crazy,” he says, “If you spend a lot of time in his company, in a sense, you get a real vibe of that lack of resolution of identity. It’s almost like the picture of himself couldn’t come into focus. […] And that, in my opinion, is his single most contribution to 20th-century culture.”

In Glenn Gould, Kingwell approaches the tragedy and pain of his subject with an intrigued sensitivity, using peculiarities and eccentricities to explain a larger philosophical schema. In person, Kingwell communicates the extent of pain and passion, which were a part of getting inside of Gould’s head with an almost fervent tone breaking into his steadily calm articulation. He describes Gould as a fractured thinker, someone for whom the tension of day-to-day life was peppered with the burden of extraordinary talent. He speaks of Gould almost as an acquaintance, rather than a subject; a brother rather than a case study. But, after all, they did spend four months together.

“It’s funny, because intellectual life is supposed to be programmatic—you’re supposed to arrive at conclusions through rational reflections,” Kingwell explains about his approach to the book, “But these strokes of imagination are much more important. […] You have to start the performance, and see if you can pull it off.”

Mark Kingwell is participating in the IFOA’s Extraordinary Canadians panel at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 31 at the Harbourfront Centre’s Brigantine Room. Tickets are free for students.
For more information, visit

Atlas unplugged

Well into the evening last Saturday night, Lee’s Palace was far from capacity. The large line-up that routinely circles the wall of the venue was nonexistent, and people wandered in sparingly, casually flashing their ticket stubs and thrusting their wrists out to receive a token “Lee’s” stamp at the door. The lack of loyal fans that usually greet a 10 p.m. set time was somewhat disconcerting. Inside though, there was a relaxed atmosphere about the few people around—a tacit understanding that what was to come would be remarkable.

Like other indie enthusiasts, I have loyally followed Bradford Cox’s more renowned band, Deerhunter, and seen their shows a handful of times. The atmosphere at Lee’s Palace, though, told me that his solo incarnation would be very different. Fellow Atlantans The Selmanaires opened the show with an abundance of instruments, wheezy vocals, and a psychedelic tone. Yet despite all their experimental glory, there was something fundamentally off about this four-person outfit, resulting in shoegaze-wannabe status at best. When they announced their last song, the audience erupted into an ambiguous cheer of support and relief.

Sure enough, come 11 p.m., the venue had become an overcrowded zoo, accompanied by the zealousness I once doubted. There was no calculated tardiness or boring introduction: Cox walked onstage without a minute to spare, grabbed his acoustic guitar, mouthed an eerie “hello” into the mic, and launched into his set. Though he’s been known to wear anything from maids’ dresses to fishnets on stage, he sported corduroys and a knit sweater. His tall and skinny frame loomed over the crowd and his voice and presence were simply ethereal.

His songs, though leisurely and basic, were far from boring. Electronic loops and overlapping guitar riffs were otherworldly and hypnotic. Already, his live performance was far greater than my spaced-out imagination could fathom. Five songs in came the much-anticipated (thank you, Pitchfork) Noah Lennox duet “Walkabout.” The familiar, sweet-sounding hook of the intro was the catalyst to make the otherwise head-bobbing crowd start boogying.

There were a few show casualties, including an onstage police announcement asking for two gentlemen to report to the doors immediately. “Screw you guys,” Cox sarcastically exclaimed. “Thanks for ruining the effing show.”

The peak of the set was when Cox calmly announced he’d like to play a new song, to which the crowd responded with eager applause. He strapped his acoustic guitar back on, and began a gentle instrumental with quiet bass and percussion complementing him in the background. It was then that he finally broached the famed looping technique that Atlas Sound is so well known for. Allowing several chords to loop over each other electronically, he left his guitar to stroll to the back of the stage and make use of an abandoned drum set. Suddenly, the four band members perked up again—the bass, percussion and tambourine all coming into play—and the room was lit up by the hauntingly beautiful orchestra.

Cox’s performance was awe-inspiring and gorgeous, and I left at midnight having made sense of what I was so unsure of only hours prior. I was hooked. After eight years in the spotlight, with two years of solo glory as Atlas Sound, Cox has achieved the sort of cult audience that won’t slow down anytime soon.


Persisting Like a Racehorse, the second album by Idle Tigers, combines the sounds of Stereolab, Syd Barrett, and Tiny Tim into one seriously unique mix. Like on his first album, last year’s The Spirit Salon, Idle Tigers (a.k.a. Ross Hawkins) experiments with electronic sound against mandolin music and witty verse.

On Persisting, Hawkins retraces his roots to Northern England, meshing historical, contemporary, and imaginary tales to illustrate a rural countryside on mushrooms. On stand-out tracks “Silk on My Knee,” “The Adoration of the Magi,” and “Kitchen Sink,” Hawkins turns traditional stories upside down, commenting on the absurdity of modern life and sympathizing with those disappointed with their lot.

Ultimately, the lyrics are what take the spotlight in all of Hawkins’ songs. Even referring to them as “songs” is a little misleading, as this would imply some sort of melody or musical touch. The tracks are better described as a showcase of electronic sounds paired with decorative recitation of poetry.

Listened to passively, the album doesn’t really work, and delivers the same effect as a haunted house soundtrack. (This is not only a warning, but a suggestion. Halloween is just around the corner, after all.) But if you’ve got time to devote to it, Persisting Like a Racehorse is worth listening to at least once. Even beyond appreciating the cleverly crafted lyrics, it will make for a unique, albeit creepy listening experience.

Skule Nite gears up for Toronto Sketch Fest

What happens when you cram tons of highly intelligent, enthusiastic, hardworking students into one place and try to transform them through four years of rigour and sleep deprivation into successful engineers?

Even non-engineers should know that such a person requires some sort of outlet, and for the cast of Skule Nite, it’s a musical comedy revue. Logic should follow that overloading these diligent students with even more classes and depriving them of even more sleep can turn them into a world famous musical sketch comedy revue. At least, that is what Skule Nite hopes will happen when they compete in this year’s Toronto Sketch Comedy festival.

Ever since their first variety show performance at Massey Hall in 1921, Skule Nite has been dazzling audiences with their witty scenes and zany musical numbers. Featured every March at Hart House, the group’s annual show has become a mainstay of the university’s theatre scene and plays to packed houses every year. According to group member Jonathan Sun, Skule Nite’s brand of comedy “is made up of short scenes touching on a variety of different subjects that don’t necessarily have to do with one another. Just think Saturday Night Live.”

He adds that unlike many other comedy groups, Skule Nite members do not generate their material through improvisation, but plan and write it ahead of time. “Since we’re associated with the Faculty of Engineering, we do include some engineering jokes in our routines, but we try to make sure that they are suitable for a general audience.”

Group member Hasan Alkabeer adds, “At least 70 per cent of our material has to do with other topics: politics, pop culture, anything really. We want to be accessible to everyone.” For example, one of last year’s sketches featured “Four Years to Save the World,” a song that parodied Barack Obama using the Madonna hit “Four Minutes.”

Engineering students find themselves joining Skule Nite through a variety of paths. Elissa Caccavella, a fourth-year chemical engineering student and assistant director of this year’s March show, recounts, “In my first year here I went to see the show and could not pass up the chance to audition. I’ve always been a dancer, so I appreciated the incorporation of musical theatre elements into the show. It’s a good way to meet new people and engage with the wider community. It’s also a nice break from school.”

Not all Skule Nite members are engineering students. A friend introduced Gete Berhe, who studies human biology, to the group. “I auditioned because a friend who studies engineering needed someone to audition with. I got in, and since then, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Skule Nite,” she said.

Nina Mason, who recently graduated from U of T’s Drama department and is now training to become a Montessori teacher, appreciates the laid-back atmosphere of the group. “This is much less formal than the kind of work I’m used to,” she says. “It’s more casual and participants have a more direct impact on the creative process. In the drama department I did various kinds of classical and contemporary theatre and I liked that. However, with Skule Nite I get to do something completely different.”

Building on the success that they have enjoyed over the years, Skule Nite members decided to expand their scope by entering Sketch Fest, an annual competition for sketch comedy groups from across Canada and the United States. According to group member Peter Raimondo, “Of about 120 entries from across Canada and the U.S., 48—including Skule Nite—were selected. We are very excited about this.” Sketch Fest will allow Skule Nite to perform alongside such well-established professional groups as Toronto Second City. Prizes include a range of cash awards, free workshops, and further performance opportunities.

One of the many hilarious sketches to be featured in the performances is entitled “Coming Soon,” and tells the story of three roommates, one of whom has recently started a job doing voice-overs for film previews. Perhaps overzealous in his career, he has begun to narrate all aspects of his daily life as voice-overs, and his omniscient insight into his surroundings soon leads him to reveal his two roommates’ dirtiest secrets, to his own advantage.

This year’s festival features three other groups that have attended U of T: Statutory Jape, The Boom, and Shoeless. But let’s see how far Skule Nite can go while they continue to spend their days in class.

The Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival runs November 10 to 15 at The Second City and other venues. For more information, visit