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Guitar Hero

Jowi Taylor tours with unique instrument composed of 64 symbols of Canadian culture

This past summer, Jowi Taylor (BA 1990 Woodsworth) and George Rizsanyi completed the Six String Nation guitar, comprising 64 symbols of Canadian culture – including wood from the third Maid of the Mist tour boat in Niagara Falls; the childhood skis of Olympic gold-medallist Nancy Greene; and a snippet of walrus tusk.

The guitar is at the centre of the Six String Nation project, which is a movement to connect people from all regions of Canada through music and shared stories. Performers throughout the country play the guitar, and people in the audience touch it, ask questions about it, and relate their own stories and community histories in response to it. The idea blossomed from a chance meeting between Taylor and Canadian guitar-maker Rizsanyi, who was participating in a fair at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Rizsanyi told Taylor how Canadian woods were undervalued in Canada, but prized in places such as Spain, and make extraordinary guitars. It was the eve of the 1995 Quebec Referendum, and Taylor saw that a guitar made from bits and pieces of Canada could help draw the nation together – and broaden the definition of Canadian identity in all its diversity.

Taylor, the host of the CBC Radio program Global-Village, has a history of meshing obscure elements to form one cohesive whole. “I treated the university as a universe,” he says. “My major was linguistics, but I enrolled in courses in physics, Japanese storytelling, mineralogy, playwriting. I also took computer science, but I only got 13 per cent in it.”

At this year’s Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, singer/songwriter Stephen Fearing played Taylor’s guitar in its inaugural performance. Now it’s being passed from musician to musician – including Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith, Ariane Moffatt and an ever-growing list of Canadian talent. After performances, audiences linger behind for a close-up look at the unique guitar. They often want to touch the piece from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle, and are intrigued by the gold polka-dot from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, says Taylor. And they always want to know more about the wood on the face of the guitar, which is from the felled Golden Spruce in British Columbia – the 300-year-old tree revered by the Haida.

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