The Showman

Singing has become the route back for Dominique Show
after a car accident in the Ivory Coast left him paralyzed

Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, August 22, 2002 -テつ*Pageテつ*R3

TORONTO -- When you phone Dominique Show to set up an appointment, you'll likely hear the startlingly beautiful sound of him singing as he wheels away to check his schedule. He sings constantly, "to change my mood" as he describes it when I arrive for the interview, the remote-controlled door of his apartment in Toronto's Scarborough district swinging open so he doesn't have to struggle with doorknobs and latches.

His performing name is Show Do Man, a play on his own name and a reference to the origins of his music -- the soukous, which came of age in 1970s Zaire and splashed across international stages a decade later with flashy Parisian-based stars such as Kanda Bongo Man.

Show Do Man's voice, a beatific high tenor, made him one of the most successful African-Canadian musicians in this country in the early 1990s -- that plus his single-minded drive to succeed partnered with a dynamic, sensual stage presence. As a boy growing up in Kinshasa, his pure, sweet voice literally turned heads. And his voice is one of the reasons he is thriving today.

In 1998, he made his first collaborative recording with internationally famous artists Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba. That recording, Entente Cordial, provided the perfect opportunity to push for recognition beyond Canada. In 1999, he spent months in Africa, travelling the continent, making connections, doing promotion.

Then, in the Ivory Coast, it all came to a halt.

When he tells the story his face -- handsome with an impish sparkle -- becomes drawn, as if visibly aging through resignation to the necessary evil of reliving the accident by describing it one more time. He reduces it to its simplest story line: "I went to sign a contract for my band in one hotel. Coming back to the hotel where I was staying, another taxi was coming the wrong way. So we collided. I broke my neck, got paralyzed on the spot. That's it."

But a smile flickers across his face again when he recounts the scene that followed -- how people came to the hospital and pleaded with the surgeons to save his voice.

"They did not cut here," his hand delicately gestures to his throat. "They did everything from the back. My spinal cord is partially injured, it's not complete. I felt I could sing again. But at first I was in too much pain."

After three months in an Ivory Coast hospital, he was flown back to Canada, where he spent the better part of a year in Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital. For a man who was "always on the go, never sick," a man who was en route to promote his new recording in Japan, who had landed a contract with EMI Music in Africa, it was devastating. And it was just the beginning of many problems.

"It was like, I have this one problem, and here's another problem coming, you know social problems, marital problems. It was like something crushing me." At one point he "almost lost it," stopped eating and lost so much weight he was beginning to slip away. His family's constant contact helped. And the ability to sing. "The song, the song, the song is my . . . thank God for giving me this gift."

As he lay in his hospital bed he began to compose, keeping songs in his "elephant brain." (Now he is able, through one-finger hunt-and-peck, to use a computer keyboard, and writes his songs with music software.) Many of the songs he wrote in hospital wound up on his recently released independent recording, Alpha Omega. His video of one of them, Jerusalem, premieres on television on Friday, two days before a performance at Festival Bana Y'Afrique in Toronto. Regular appearances at gospel churches have helped prepare him for performing again, and he's been rehearsing his old 10-piece band for Sunday's show. Of course, it's not the same.

"Performing now is . . . a little bit tiring. The energy I had, all that is cut in half." He pauses, then adds briskly: "But performing is performing. You have to find a technique. I'm getting the technique that is sufficient for me to be in the chair and have a good strong voice, so now I think I'm actually ready." He demonstrates, angling his upper body forward, the near-daily physiotherapy and his own willpower paying off.

He attributes much of that will to his religious beliefs. Always a Catholic, his faith has deepened. "I believe in God more profoundly because I've seen so many things I can call miracles. First of all for me, being alive."

His sense of musical purpose has similarly intensified.

"Before it was just the love of music, performing and all that. I was not thinking in music you can make a statement, you can change the way people think. But now I'm careful with my lyrics." He adds, grinning and without an apparent trace of bitterness: "I go over them all the time, now that I have a lot of time on my hands."

The compositions are lined up waiting to be recorded. Alpha Omega is an inconsistent recording -- understandably enough, given it is his postaccident debut -- but its strengths are an indication of future possibilities. So far, however, he says he has not landed the arts grants he needs to make his planned recordings.

Frustration creeps into his voice as he talks about the daunting aspects of his chosen profession in the face of his new daily reality. "The day-by-day routine is the biggest struggle. Sometimes you wake up tired, sometimes you wake up strong. And depending on people -- that's something I hate. I hate it. Because I used to do everything myself, even when I was running my band I was managing, doing promotion. . . . In time it's coming back, being independent and doing stuff for myself." He stops, then repeats in a fierce whisper. "It's coming back."

Dominique Show also hopes his ability to walk will one day return. There is reason to hope. "The sensation in my whole body is back. It's just left to move my legs," he says. And in the meantime, he knows how to remain positive.

"I have the music -- I can sing again." His voice lilts upward in delight. "So I start singing and I forget about the thing. That's what's keeping me going -- singing."

The video Jerusalem premieres on Bravo! on Friday. Dominique Show performs Sunday at Toronto's Festival Bana Y'Afrique.