Howlin’ Circus

When I was thinking about the idea of starting an art project that captured the stories of indie-minded musicians born in and/or living in Toronto and their relationship with the city, Jafar Sandouk and Howlin’ Circus was at the top of my list to feature first.  

A London UK-born Iraqi, Jafar came to Toronto in 2016 amidst the turmoil and political upheaval of Brexit.  While many people he grew up with in his Iraqi community of Wembley, UK aspired to be doctors and lawyers, Jafar found inspiration and support from his father who had always wanted to be a musician back in Baghdad.  But Jafar’s father often had to sneak out to perform to avoid his own family’s disapproval and was never able to live that dream.  One day as a bored teenager, Jafar picked up his sister’s discarded guitar from storage, went on his dial-up Internet, found some guitar chord websites, taught himself to play and never looked back.   His father, who was living in Morocco at the time, would eventually schedule his visits to London whenever Jafar was performing. 

Howlin’ Circus has oscillated between being a solo acoustic to having a rotating cast of band members with raucous guitars, thumping bass and energetic drums, but it has always remained a travelling circus going through towns writing music “for the outcasts [who have] been pushed aside, gaslit and had [their] futures sold to protect a dying ruling class.”  His first full-length album, Run the Wrong Way, was released in March 2019 and was “a moment to reflect on the horror, the beauty, and the sadness of breaking up with your country”.

Jafar at the Dakota Tavern

Since coming to Toronto, the competition has forced Jafar to get better at his craft, but being part of the community hasn’t been easy.  One of the first places he felt a real sense of belonging was Communist’s Daughter at Dundas and Ossington (which is why we conducted our interview there).   Communist’s Daughter ran a “Decide on the B-side” night where people could bring in their own vinyl, the DJ would select an album to play, and at the end of the A-side, the bartender would tell everyone to shut up and vote on whether or not to play the B-side or play a new album.   Not only was it a great place to indulge in music with other musicians and music lovers, but it was also the first place Jafar was able to get the test pressing of his record played (as he had not even listened to it yet).  He was able to revel in the night with the vocal patrons while secretly watching people’s reactions to the music as they had no idea it was his record.  Jafar said this is the Toronto he would love to see more of – funny, candid, open to new things.

Another special moment where he felt a spirit of generosity and community was a show he was playing at the Smiling BuddhaTafari Anthony was playing downstairs and was bringing in so many people for his show.  While Tafari’s fans kept accidentally walking into the Howlin’ Circus show, Tafari himself was quite humble about it, talking to Jafar after the show about Howlin’ Circus and his own familiarity with their music.  Tafari went home and bought the Howlin’ Circus album off of bandcamp afterwards as a show of support, invited Jafar out for a drink to talk about the music industry and even helped book him for another show.

While these moments have been rarer for Jafar than he had hoped for, he still believes there is an opportunity for the live music scene to come together more as a community.  Currently, many interactions between bands revolve around sharing gear, or sharing costs on a designer or a photographer for a show.  But now that we need to rebuild the live music industry in this city, it would be great for musicians to be there for each other, go to each other’s shows and just generally show up however possible.

One such thing that Jafar is doing for the community is curating a “Discover Toronto” Spotify playlist, which he updates regularly with unsigned or indie label bands.  It has helped him get to know other local artists as well and hopefully drive some streaming numbers their way.  

These days, with a lack of live shows, Jafar has relied on his email list and creating his own social media content to keep fan engagement up.   As you can see from the photo below, he even personally dropped off a signed copy of his debut album for the vinyl collection I have been building for my niece. 

Howlin’ Circus are playing this Saturday at the Horseshoe Tavern with the Mooks and another show coming up in Oshawa with Cigar Club on September 4th.  Check out their latest single, “Only For a Night” or grab tickets to one of their shows at  #supportlocal 

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