Sports games, dance recitals, math homework, birthday parties and playdates. These activities may not seem like much to the uninitiated, but children are some of the busiest people on the planet and parents are often in charge of their scheduling.
Now throw in being a member of a daily rehearsing band with eight members of the family all playing and performing together and you have the Canji family, also known by their band name, Lightning Ant.
In the basement of a duplex in north Calgary, the Canji family is able to squeeze themselves into their suite with instruments, amplifiers and a tiny drum kit fitted for their youngest bandmate, Lucas.
On the wall hangs a white board with a list of some rock and roll classics; “Iron Man”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Song 2” and “Toxicity.” These songs round out the bands growing setlist. On every surface, papers of music notes and transcriptions pile up alongside guitars and microphone cables.
Altogether, the band incorporates five children: Lucas Canji (drums/vocals), seven years old; Isabella Canji (guitar/vocals), nine years old; Elliott Sieben and Ezra Canji (guitars), both eight years old; and Jude Canji (cello), 11 years old, along with three adults: Phil Canji (lead guitar), who instructs and conducts the band, his wife Nubia Canji (bass) and his brother Pavle Canji (guitar).
Despite being a rock band that plays relatively loud music, Phil says there has been no complaints from their neighbours. “We share a wall with [them], but they have been really supportive for this whole thing. Whenever I am having a late rehearsal or something, I run it by them and they are always okay with it.”
“My teaching and practicing style is kind of militant,” explains Phil with a smile on his face, “when it is time to practice, it is time to practice. I don’t care if there are dishes on the table, or if the house is a mess. Once the clock hits 6:30, it is time to get into the basement and practice.”
Phil, the father of Lucas and Isabella, acts as the mastermind behind the whole operation. Thanks to his knowledge of music — which is aided by his degree in classical guitar along with over a decade of experience teaching music — he is able to coordinate the group quite well, but music wasn’t always a passion that he wanted to share with his family.
Teaching music between 1993 and 2004, Phil eventually lost interest for it. “I gave up playing altogether. The stress of it and not making enough money just drove me away and I stopped playing for almost 10 years.”
It wasn’t until 2013 when Phil started to change his tune about music playing. “I was talking to [Pavle’s father-in-law] who was also a musician, and he was just asking me why I decided to give up playing, and he said ‘Well, Phil, it is not about you. It is about your kids.’ And that was one of the conversations that I had that really opened up my eyes to [starting a family band].”
“I stuck Lucas behind the drums [a year and a half later] when he was four, so I contemplated for about a year and a half before getting the ball rolling,” says Phil.
That year, the Canji family was able to have their first performance.
“It was my mom’s 70th birthday that year so we decided to put together a little performance playing happy birthday and a couple other songs. I bought Lucas a little Toys “R” Us toy drum kit, and for about six months we practised in secrecy leading up to the birthday.”
Since then, the entire family has gone gung-ho in learning their instruments. Besides band rehearsals, which take up a few hours of the week, each band member spends between 15 minutes to a half hour everyday learning their instrument, while also managing the responsibilities and activities of being a young kid.
“There’s the core four that are here that have the benefit of spending time with Phil and practicing with him,” says Pavle, referring to Phil, Nubia, Lucas and Isabella, “But the rest of us do spend as much time as we can outside of practice working on our parts.”
“I usually wake up at around 6:30 to practice my classical stuff,” says Jude, the cello player of the group, “… and once in while there comes a day where I go ‘Okay, I have a deadline’ because I have a concert coming up, and then I have a whole day for the band where I have to figure out a song and stuff. I’d say I practice a good amount of time a week.”
“It doesn’t end,” jokes Pavle about the ongoing schedule. Each of the kids are involved in their own outside events, including soccer, Kung Fu, swimming, and capoeira — a Brazilian martial art.
Capoeira also helped form the band’s name. “In capoeira, Lucas and Isabella have capoeira names,” explains Phil. “For Isabella, hers is ‘Little Ant’ and Lucas’ is ‘Lightning’, so we decided just to mash those names together, and we thought it sounded pretty cool.”
Lightning Ant has performed three shows outside of the family birthday party. Their first was put on by Leroux Music, while the other two by The Major Minor Music Project, which included a showcase at Broken City on March 25, 2018 and at Flying Squirrel Trampoline Park on April 7, 2018.
“I came across an ad on Facebook for The Major Minor Music Project, and I went to the website and it said that it was a mandate to fund an all ages venue in Calgary, and when I saw I thought this was exactly what we needed,” says Phil, “Half the band is between six and 10 years of age so I just thought this was exactly what we needed.”
“I shot [Graham Mackenzie] a message and went to [see] a gig at a bowling alley and just thought it was amazing,” says Phil, “Kids were bowling, we had live music … it was just unreal.”
Graham Mackenzie, the executive director of The Major Minor Music Project, helps fosters an environment where young musicians like the members of Lightning Ant can grow and experiment with music.
“We believe that creating more opportunities for families, youth and newcomers to our city will inspire and motivate the future growth of our music scene furthering our collaborative positive community,” Mackenzie said.
As for the future, Lightning Ant hopes to be an example for other families.
“Family is everything to us,” says Nubia, “It would be neat to inspire other families to bond together on a whole other level … I hope Lightning Ant will continue to strengthen our bond as a family.”
“I agree with my wife,” says Phil, “Family is so important to us. Lightning Ant has allowed us to build a strong relationship within, not only [for] the four of us, but the cousins and nephews as well.
“I would love to see this connection continue for as long as it can. I want Lightning Ant to give these kids the musical tools to be able to take this forward for the rest of their lives … The ironic thing is, I fully expect to be the first band member to be kicked out of the band when it is no longer cool to jam with Papa, which is why I presently enjoy and cherish every moment of this journey with the kids.”
Editor's Note: The author is currently working with Major Minor Music Project.
- By Will Cowan