Class act

Shambhala School teacher Mal Kazi started a music program to support young talent.

Shambhala guru Mal Kazi is a rock safety net for Halifax teens. photo Julé Malet-Veale

After her classmates had filed out of their grade nine and 10 music class in an adolescent ruckus, Shannon O'Toole poked her head back into Mal Kazi's classroom. With her head down and hair in her eyes, she darted in, handing Kazi a well-folded piece of paper. He began to unfold it, but O'Toole scolded him, "Not while I'm here," before scurrying out of the classroom.

Written on the folded loose-leaf are lyrics. O'Toole is just one of the many students the Shambhala School music teacher is helping develop into artists.

Along with giving eager students free after-school lessons, Kazi's started a music program to harness and develop young musicians. He's put together a recording studio in his classroom and holds all-ages shows at the Shambhala School's gym, including a Christmas metal show on December 15.

"We've got an industry with nothing feeding into it. Just people haphazardly running into it and getting screwed over," says Kazi. "I have just complete frustration and vitriolic rage that there is no support for young musicians. There is no incubator. That's what I want to create."

To call Kazi's music room a classroom doesn't do it justice. With a drum set, keyboards, TV, mixing boards, microphones, a PA system, instruments and amps galore, Kazi's classroom is a young musician's dream.

"It can't be crap. I wanted for us to be able to produce an album as good quality as you can get."

Kazi has put together the room through his own funds, donations and fundraising. Last fall, when he was just teaching lessons to students, he donated his salary to the program. It was when he was hired as the school's full-time music teacher last spring that he started to seriously think about creating the program. He was sick of seeing students get ripped off at professional studios, and wanted one all-ages venue that wouldn't shut down.

"It's sad that a lot of young bands hit a snag and fall apart. Maybe if they have someone who cares enough to help with recording, preparing, getting a website or getting shows, they'd learn to be self-sufficient indie artists that can keep going."

Kazi's smile and intensity is infectious when he talks about his dream. But it contrasts his self-proclaimed loserdom. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, music was the only thing Kazi could rely on. His family life, compounded with severe ADD, made school a nightmare, so he played guitar instead.

He taught guitar lessons for almost 20 years before his wife told him to "stop being a bum." While getting his degrees he became director at Rock Camp and director of music at the Halifax Conservatory. Not only did he teach musical technique, Kazi pushed his students to develop their songwriting.

"Mal's quite amazing. He could teach Latin to a sit-on-the-couch-sideways grungy rocker," says Dave Moore, who runs the promotions side of the program. "He has this way...of teaching kids that takes them from one level and takes them 10 times higher."

One bright artistic fire Kazi has been stoking is Morgan Kenny—a 17-year-old recovering alcoholic lesbian who's attempted suicide and writes songs with a tenderness like Elliott Smith and Cat Power.

Although she doesn't attend Shambhala School, Kenny is often at the school practicing, recording and playing at shows in the gym. Kazi's been teaching her guitar for six years and Kenny says she can't imagine being a musician without his help. "If I didn't have a place like here, I wouldn't know where to go or how to write," says Kenny. "I think it would be nearly impossible and I would just give up."

And without kids like Kenny, O'Toole or the five-year-old who sang an original song at one gym show, Kazi says he'd give up, too. Regardless of his doubts and worries, everyday he wakes up looks at a heartfelt thank-you letter Kenny wrote tacked to his wall and knows he has to make this work.

"There's a new paradigm here, different from traditional musical experience," says Kazi. "If a kid comes in to work with me in here, they have the potential from that point of going to a fully developed artist. And that's cool. That's really cool."

Christmas Metal Show w/Defective Perception, A Sight for Sewn Eyes, Demiurgus, Bad Lieutenant and Dream State, Sat. Dec. 15 at Shambhala School, 5450 Russell, 7:30pm, $6.

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