Randal Arsenault Fall 2014

Article by Ryan Belbin

Dr. Randal Arsenault’s CV includes Biology Curriculum Coordinator and Director of the Southern African Field School at the University of Alberta.
It doesn’t mention that the Newfoundland native loved Paul Simon’s Graceland as a teenager and has recorded a number of albums in South Africa. Arsenault’s latest EP, Dr. Zoo’s Last Dance, is indicative of his Afro-Celtic-Reggae style. That alone should tell you this is one of the most unique sounds to be nominated for World Recording of the Year at this year’s East Coast Music Awards.

As a biology student playing the St. John’s pub circuit in the 90s, Arsenault remembers dreaming about the lions and elephants of Africa. That desire led to him embarking on a 6-month backpacking trip, followed by a return to complete a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of the Witwatersrand a few years later.
He loved fieldwork, but always wanted to be a musician. “As soon as I got to South Africa, I said, ‘If I can get my second dream, I should do my first dream of music as well!’”

He enlisted producer Brian O’Shea in Johannesburg, and divided his time between studying and recording his debut album. The birth of Dr. Zoo coincided with him being named as a finalist in the 2003 Canadian Songwriting Competition, but it was only after that album’s release that Arsenault’s sound started integrating African fusion. “Right away, I started changing,” he laughs. “More groove, reggae—and so when we were playing live, we didn’t actually represent that first album at all. There’s a song that I recorded on my second album called ‘40 Days and 40 Nights.’ That song always resonated with me … [it] kind of drove where we were going musically, kind of in a Police vein, with a bit of the Clash in there. I was learning as I went, but the difference between me was that I did it in the public, whereas a lot of people do it in the basement until they figure it out.”

A decade later, audiences have caught on. He assembled a band of musicians versed in an African vibe, so that Dr. Zoo’s second release, 42, brought a folk audience to exciting, unfamiliar places. The scope of that sonic journey is evident on Dr. Zoo’s Last Dance: “On Safari” features a laid back rhythm and a Zulu choir, while the kitchen party energy of “Doghouse” blends seamlessly with the crisp, reggae-tinged electric guitar.

He’s already hard at work on an upcoming release that represents a further refinement, and the retirement of the stage name Dr. Zoo (hence the “last dance”). He describes it as folk with World influences—expect the return of the Zulu choir and the flourishes gleaned from recording in South Africa, in the context of an accessible folk album. “It’s not in-your-face Afro-Celtic. Our joke is the new stuff is smatterings of Africa, smatterings of Celtic,” he says, alluding to Johnny Clegg’s “Scaterlings of Africa.”

Field school brings him back to Swaziland, South Africa, and Mozambique for some 8 months of the year, with Newfoundland a convenient stopover on the way. This month is a special opportunity to reconnect with the people and sounds of this part of the world.

“I’m looking forward to the ECMAs,” he said. “Just coming down to check out all the good music that’s happening, and getting to know again what’s happening—it’s not that long ago [that I was at the ECMAs], but it’s amazing how quick things change. All the new acts coming out—it’s really fun!”

For more information on Dr. Zoo, visit www.drzoomusic.com, and to check out Southern African Field School, visit www.science.ualberta.ca/africa.