High Performance Rodeo: DJ, producer Kid Koala's Storyville Mosquito plays like a graphic novel come to life

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In 2008, Eric San went down to New Orleans to perform at the world-famous Preservation Hall.

While flattering, the DJ and turntablist known by his stage name, Kid Koala, initially wasn’t sure he was a good fit. He had been shocked when the hall’s creative director, Ben Jaffe, contacted him. Jaffe, who also plays tuba in the Preservation Jazz Hall Band, had seen the animated video for San’s version of the Dixieland classic Basin Street Blues and he wanted Kid Koala to play at the iconic venue.

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Growing up in Vancouver, San’s father was a big jazz fan who would play Sweet Emma Barrett and Louis Armstrong records in the house and tell his son about an eye-opening college trip he took to the Big Easy. At his father’s urging, San eventually travelled to New Orleans in the early 2000s and soaked up jazz in various venues, including Preservation Hall. It was what initially inspired him to make his.”weird, turntable interpretation” of Basin Street Blues, which he produced for his 2003 sophomore album, Some of My Best Friends are DJs.

So, yes, New Orleans jazz was certainly a part of his life and development as a musician, but he was still floored that Jaffe wanted him to perform.

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“I said ‘What?!’ ” says San with a laugh, in an interview with Postmedia from his home in Montreal. “I was like ‘But you’re Preservation Hall, traditional New Orleans jazz, what’s that got to do with turntables?’ ”

Jaffe said he saw it as an opportunity for a multi-generational, multi-genre summit between Kid Koala and the older musicians who made up the Preservation Jazz Hall Band.

By that point in his career, San had played various arenas and famous venues. In 2001, for instance, he played with Radiohead at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 people. But he admits performing Basin Street Blues with a world-famous jazz band was one of the most daunting, and rewarding, experiences of his life.

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“I’ve never been as nervous as I was playing Preservation Hall,” San says. “It came back down to the first jazz I had ever heard, which was Sweet Emma at Preservation Hall. My dad would play it on his record player. Here I was in this tiny room with no amplification and 80 people and it was just this paradigm-shifting moment for me. They started the set by screening (my video) of Basin Street Blues and then the band started playing over it. As my version ended, they just lifted it up and it floated off the earth. I was literally in tears, just being there.”

Kid Koala
From Kid Koala’s Storyville Mosquito. Photo by A.J. Korkidakis cal

This memory was an inspiration for Kid Koala’s Storyville Mosquito, the ambitious multimedia show he will bring to the Bella Concert Hall starting Jan. 17 as part of the High Performance Rodeo. San first began drawing versions of the main character — a country mosquito who takes off to the big city in hopes of landing a gig as a clarinetist for a world-famous jazz band at Sid Villa’s Music Hall.

“Suffice to say, there are some things that are related to my personal life,” he says. “It’s a story about finding your voice. It’s a classic country mouse/city mouse story about making friends and finding a musical connection.”

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This is not to say there is a lot of New Orleans jazz being played during Storyville Mosquito. Memories of the trip provided more of a narrative thread than a direct musical one for the production, which San and a team of more than a dozen performers debuted in Montreal in 2020. San, alternating between piano and turntable, performs the soundtrack alongside a string trio and he describes the music as “more of a scored Chaplin film, more piano and string based.”

Audiences basically get to see a graphic novel come to life in real-time. Among the on-stage talent are cinematographers, stage managers and puppeteers, who perform the story on numerous miniature sets and project that action onto a screen. Storyville Mosquito is San’s follow-up to Nufonia Must Fall, another multi-disciplinary, multi-performer show that was adapted from San’s graphic novel of the same name.

While growing up in Vancouver, San graduated from classical piano to DJing, having discovered the latter in his early teens. He began his career as a scratch DJ in 1994 and quickly attracted an international cult following for his inventive sound sculpting that mashed elements of hip-hop, ambient music, contemporary classical, blues and the occasional dash of traditional jazz. Since then, he has also established himself as a film composer — he contributed to the scores for The Great Gatsby, Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Shaun of the Dead, among others — and published the graphic novels Nufonia Must Fall and Space Cadet.

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But San says his main philosophy as a creator was forged during those early years in the scratch DJ scene and he sees a thread through the varying elements of his career. Coming from the strict and formal world of classical piano, he found the DJ scene to be immediately liberating and full of potential.

“Here’s this instrument where the whole concept was that you were supposed to be a chameleon,” San says. “You can do everything from subtle, atmospheric layers to very rhythmic, punky percussive sounds to melodic, harmonic beautiful sounds. I loved that it had that range.

“Some hardcore scratch DJs have seen some of these productions recently and they have talked to me after. They’ve known me for years and said it requires the same attention to detail or co-ordination or choreography or whatever you call it to make this show happen. It’s the same thing as having your whole show balanced on three turntables and you are going to chop things up and layer it and create a new story out of it. They see a relationship with this in terms of execution and in terms of how focused you have to be on stage to pull off. It requires that precision. That hasn’t changed. I like getting on stage with this crew knowing that everybody has 800 things that have to remember during this show. When it’s synchronized and happening, there’s no better feeling.”

Kid Koala’s The Storyville Mosquito will be performed Jan. 17, 18 and 19 at The Bella Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Kid Koala will also perform Kid Koala’s Robot Dance Party on Jan. 20 at the Grand’s Flanagan Theatre at 2 p.m., and Kid Koala And Friends, a DJ show that will also feature DJ Cosm and Adira Amran & The Experiences, on Jan. 20 at 8 p.m. at The Grand’s Flanagan Theatre.

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