Wu_Man_1.jpgThe historic trade routes collectively referred to as the Silk Road, an interconnected web of maritime and overland pathways,  have, for centuries, served as sites for cultural, economic, educational, religious – and purely musical – exchanges. In that light, “silk roads” can be seen as a significant factor in the development of the ever-evolving hybridities that have shaped the face of the modern musical world.

In 1998 the Grammy Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma proposed “Silkroad” as the name of his new non-profit organisation. That project, inspired by his global curiosity and eagerness to forge connections across cultures, disciplines and generations, has grown several branches, the first of which was the successful music performing group, Silk Road Ensemble (SRE). It has played to sold-out houses at Roy Thomson Hall in 2003 and 2009 and will return to perform at Massey Hall on September 15. (Serendipitously, Toronto audiences will have another opportunity to see the SRE up close this September. Morgan Neville’s feature-length documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble graces TIFF’s red carpet, enjoying its world premiere.)

Wu Man’s view from the pipa. Chinese-born Grammy Award nominee Wu Man, widely hailed as the world’s premier pipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso, has a unique perspective on the SRE’s career. An educator, composer and an ambassador of Chinese music, she has a prolific discography of 40 albums and counting. She was among the first musicians to get the call from Yo-Yo Ma to help in founding SRE.


To quote the chorus of a 1980s song, Up Where We Belong,“Love lifts us up where we belong/Where the eagles cry on a mountain high.” Substitute the word “Spring” for “Love” and I’m singing along at this season with its onset of new green growth, and with its promise of renewal. All it takes is the first stretch of warm weather to melt even this crusty scribe’s professorial attitude. So seasonally activated, my mind wanders easily far beyond my concrete condo to the wilds of the mountain high, to the sound of the soaring eagle’s cry – the song’s haunting metaphor for human love surmounting obstacles.

Though those lyrics seem to evoke a geo-spiritual alpine terrain far removed from our urban landscape, yet the two-metre wingspans and the morning cries of the majestic bald eagle are making a regional Ontario comeback. Along the vast stretches of the northern shores of the Great Lakes, hundreds of confirmed breeding pairs have been reported in the past decade. It’s a heartening sign that efforts to rehabilitate our near-urban local environment appear to be bearing fruit. Mind you, I don’t feel compelled to personally witness those high-flying raptors in action; even the thought of their living presence nearby is enough to make this confirmed urban Torontonian’s heart soar.

World_1.jpgAbida Parveen, “My audience is my God”: This season is full of human music too. May 15 the voice of Abida Parveen, unequivocally described by The Guardian as “the greatest female Sufi singer in history” – an opinion shared by many others by the way – will echo in the cavernous aerie of Roy Thomson Hall, her voice expressing the various colours of our species’ yearning for union with the divine.

The Pakistani singer is an acclaimed Sufiana kalaam (Sufi music) exponent. Her primary mode of expression is through two poetic song genres, ghazal and kafi (a solo genre accompanied by drums and harmonium that uses a repertoire of songs by Sufi poets in Urdu, Sindhi, Saraiki, Punjabi and Persian). Taught by her father, Ustad Ghulam Haider, and by Ustad Salaamat Ali Khan, she has amassed legions of fans in her four-decade international career. The Icelandic diva Björk, a shrewd judge of both extreme vocalism and passion,  counts herself among them.

Co-presented by the Aga Khan Museum and Roy Thomson Hall, this concert is undoubtedly a special one. RTH’s director of programming and marketing, Chris Lorway, has dubbed it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Toronto.” In his comments prepared for this column, Lorway emphasized its inter-institutional dimensions. “The chance to present an international icon like Abida Parveen is a thrill for us, and we could not have done it without the partnership with Amir and his team at the Aga Khan.”

Lorway also underscored the importance of reaching out to the diverse enthic, national and faith-based communities in the city. “As we strive to make our venues more reflective of the city of Toronto, these collaborative initiatives are the only way forward. They allow us to combine our collective audiences of music lovers and the culturally curious in a way that has long-term benefits for both organizations.”

For his part Amirali Alibhai, head of performing arts at the Aga Khan Museum, noted that Abida Parveen “has taken the kafi form of musically rendering the poetry of great mystics to new heights, which is quite significant for a practice that is traditionally dominated by men. Performing in several languages, Parveen’s interpretations cross barriers of understanding through her passionate and possessed vocal expression.” Making a bold comparative leap across cultural boundaries, Alibhai aptly observes that “she is to Sufi music what Aretha Franklin is to soul.”

In addition he makes a well-observed case for the important role concert venues can play, “to bring such presentations out of less-than-ideal stadium and make-do venues into respectful spaces, bespoken for art and possessing exceptional acoustics, as is fitting for esteemed artists such as Abida Parveen.”

A respectful space is what Parveen’s spiritually motivated performance deserves. “My culture – our culture – is rich in spirituality and love,” she told The Guardian reporter Nosheen Iqbal in 2013. “Sufism is not a switch, the music isn’t a show – it’s all of life, it is religion. If I want to be recognized for anything, if we should be recognized for anything, it’s the journey of the voice. And that voice is God’s.” Parveen has been known to enter an altered consciousness while deep in performance. As The Guardian article observed, “she regularly sends her audiences in Pakistan and India into swaying raptures, swooning and fainting being quite standard reactions.”

And her fans admire and adore her as much as they do her fellow compatriot singers, the late Mehdi Hassan (1927-2012) and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997). She freely returns that love. “Poor people, rich people – we are all God’s servants…I’m lucky. My audience is my God.”

World_2.jpgLulaworld: From June 1 to 11 is the annual Lulaworld festival, presented by and at the Lula Music and Arts Centre. Now in its 11th year, Lulaworld is a showcase for Toronto’s world, jazz, blues and Latin musicians, providing them a welcoming stage to present their latest work to local audiences, and encouraging collaboration, this year with more than a dozen celebrated international guests. The goal of the festival is to highlight “the incredible breadth and calibre of the Toronto world and Latin music scenes.”

In addition, the festival will also include a day of free outdoor programming as part of Dundas West Fest on June 11, plus family workshops and a Brazilian parade that anyone can participate in. As in years past there’s just too much going on during the festival to weigh in on every concert, so I’ll just have to be satisfied with providing a little colour swatch of the entire 11-day tapestry.

Kicking things off June 1 is “Lulaworld: Opening Night Party,” a night chock-a-block with Latin, jazz, pop, blues and world music, co-presented with the Toronto Blues Society. Added bonus: arrive before 8pm and you’re joining the party for free. Headliners include Cuban-born, Toronto bassist, Yoser Rodriguez, whose debut album, Pollen, employs the talents of some of Toronto’s finest Latin jazz players. Rodriguez has been touted as “the next generation of genre-defying Cuban singer-songwriters.” Taking the stage next is Hamilton-based Laura Cole, her soulful and bluesy voice reflected in her debut album, Dirty Cheat. The album was crafted by Grammy-winning producers Steve Bigas (Taj Mahal), and longtime multiple top-tier album producer Daniel Lanois.

Rounding out the night is the guitarist, singer-songwriter Cécile Doo-Kingué. While her parents were from Cameroon, she was born and raised in NYC. Now based in Montreal, she blends blues, soul and jazz with her African roots with a sure hand, having shared the stage with the Blind Boys of Alabama and opened for Angélique Kidjo and Youssou N’Dour.

June 3 the Gabriel Palatchi Trio and Charangón del Norte take over the Lula Music and Arts Centre. Led by Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist Wilver Pedrozo, his 13-piece ensemble Charangón del Norte fuses Eastern Cuban changüí with other Caribbean music-dance genres including merengue, calypso, soca and Latin jazz. The group boasts a distinctive triple trombone section reflecting bandleader Pedrozo’s upbringing in Southeastern Cuba where influences from Colombia, Mexico and Jamaica are part of the region’s everyday musical fabric.

Evergreen: Whenever it comes to writing about concerts by the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, Canada’s pioneer ensemble exploring common grounds between world and avant-garde musics, I mention, in the interests of full disclosure, my career-long involvement with the ensemble. There. Just did it again.

That being said, May 19 ECCG celebrates its latest CD, Higgs Ocean: New Music for Gamelan and String Quartet, in performance at the Music Gallery. The concert highlights its artistic director and soloist, Blair Mackay, plus its guest the Accordes String Quartet. Ten years in the making, ECCG’s CD is surely among the first albums dedicated to the striking combination of ECCG’s tuned percussion-rich gamelan degung indigenous to West Java Indonesia, and the string quartet indigenous to central Europe. The album contains Canadian composer Michael Oesterle’s powerful Higgs Ocean (2008) for that instrumentation. Innovative works by Mark Duggan, Ana Sokolović, Peter Klanac and Linda Catlin Smith round out this all-Canadian album by the Toronto ensemble. Audiences will hear samples of that repertoire.

In addition, the ECCG has commissioned a new work for this exciting transcultural sound combination: Canadian composer Linda Bouchard’s as yet untitled piece will receive its world premiere at the concert. A work for gamelan soloist and electronics by another Canadian composer Ronald Bruce Smith is also on the premiere docket.

World Fiddle Day: May 21 is the fourth annual World Fiddle Day Toronto, the second held at Toronto’s Fort York National Historic Site, at the Blue Barracks. Last year’s event hosted 96 players in the Around-the-World Jam – WFD’s signature concert featuring music from at least 25 cultures – accompanied by a top-level house band led by violinist, ethnomusicologist and WFD artistic director Anne Lederman.

Aiming to present a global musical perspective, last year’s “Fiddles at the Fort” featured both workshops and a concert with South Indian violinist Subhadra Vijaykumar and The Metis Fiddler Quartet, among others. The young violin students of Sistema Parkdale and Rosedale Heights School of the Arts participated in the workshops. This year’s roster includes fiddlers Rosalyn Dennett (Appalachia), Dan MacDonald (Cape Breton), Mark Marczyk (Ukraine) and Yosvani Castañeda (Latin America), each representing their own cultural practice as it has evolved in Toronto today. Dozens of fiddlers of all stripes have been practising tunes from around the world for the Around-the-World Jam, some for as long as three months. I expect moments of the jam will take some listeners soaring well beyond the confines of Fort York’s Blue Barracks.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

 


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This month I have two tales to tell of musical diversity in this city:  a tale of two presenters. One is of beginnings and continuity, while the other of (perhaps temporary) endings. Each story has a different focus, yet they run parallel in their organizers’ mission of service to our city’s heterogeneous communities of musicians sounding the music of the world’s peoples and in their sincere dedication to serve globally curious listeners.

One door closes: The first story began early in March 2016 when I read Donald Quan’s post on his “Musideum Performers & Supporters” Facebook group page. I’ve often written about what happens at Musideum - A World of Musical Instruments in these pages. Quan opened its doors in late 2007. He summed  up his retail music store enterprise as a “look at music through the eyes of [ethnically diverse] musical instruments.” He explained the name is an amalgam of three concepts: museum, music and deum. Inspired by his own challenging life journey over the past six years, he then morphed the Musideum into a special live concert room, inspired by an inclusive vision in which “everyone, regardless of their beliefs, religion, age or what part of the world they are from, can truly love one another and coexist in peace simply by speaking the magical language of music.” And he’s kept the place buzzing until today.

For those unfamiliar with its activities, Musideum has been a unique fixture in Toronto’s music scene. It serves as a retail world-music instrument store by day. By night, starting about five years ago, it’s been the venue for a very dense schedule of concerts in its intimate living room-like space - that’s if your living room was chock-a-block with working instruments from around the world.

It’s also the only store I can recall where John Cage’s seminal score 4’33” was on prominent display, not as a prop but as a potent symbol of musical diversity – and merchandise.

John Terauds put his fingers on the special mojo of Musideum in a May 24, 2008, article The Star. “One customer was so inspired by the movie Kill Bill that he had to go out and get himself a Chinese bamboo flute. Until now, finding an ethnic folk instrument from a culture not one’s own […was quite problematic]. But the mix of world cultures in Toronto has finally reached a point where an enterprising local musician thinks it worthwhile to open a store that offers musical instruments from several cultures from around the globe.”

Quan’s recent Facebook announcement, however, signalled a fundamental change in direction: “As I am extending my personal hiatus until late 2016, I am sad to announce that Musideum will be closing its doors as a store and venue at 401 Richmond on April 2, 2016. The Musideum name will live on and will be parked until a new opportunity arises. It will reawaken when the time is right.”

The Toronto-born Quan, a musician and multiple award-winning composer of hundreds of television, film, radio and multimedia productions, stated that he needed to “take a well-deserved break, travel to see family, rest [his] weary brain and formulate some new and exciting projects for perhaps late in the year.” He continued that although the impetus for this “change was mostly for health reasons, it is also [because of] the need to watch my kids grow up and to spend more time with family and friends. I also need a few months dedicated to practising to get my playing up to where I was before the [2007] stroke.”

Musideum will be sorely missed. From the earliest days, Quan has thrown its doors open across numerous musical genres that thread through the city. I counted over 20 active Facebook pages he set up with straightforward names like “Musideum Invites Indigenous Music.” (Long a contributor to the Canadian Aboriginal music scene, Quan was honoured in 2007 with the Music Industry Award at the Ninth Annual Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards.)

Other communities were encouraged to participate too on their own Facebook pages. “Musideum Invites Indian, South Asian Music,” “Musideum Invites Experimental/Improvised/New Music,” “Musideum Invites Singer-Songwriters” and “Musideum Invites World” are just a few examples of his global embrace. These pages collectively garnered thousands of “likes.”

Within a week of his announcement to close, Quan reached out to community musicians, again on social media, to help in programming six concerts during the second half of March. Or as he put it, “to squeeze some final concerts in before Musideum closes up shop.” True to form, each show had a different genre focus. I was invited too, and that’s how I found myself on the pocket-sized stage playing Indonesian suling (bamboo ring flute) with Iranian drummer Naghmeh Farahmand and cavaquinho player Nuno Cristo on the designated World Music night, Thursday, March 17. About 14 other Toronto musicians took their turns too, including flutist Ron Korb, recently nominated for Best New Age Album at the 2016 Grammy Awards.

Fittingly, Quan served as MC. He spoke passionately about his dream space where he had tirelessly programmed well over 1,600 concerts in the last five-or-so years. Given that pace, and the fact that Musideum has been a hands-on manifestation of one man’s passion, it’s no wonder he needs an extended break.

Though closing his store/venue was “one of the most difficult decisions in my life to make,” Quan nevertheless views it as a “decision that heralds a new positive, healthful, personal and creative direction for me.” As a parting gift to the larger Musideum community of musicians and store customers, he has announced a “special inventory sale” for performers on April 3 and for the public on April 4.

I already miss Musideum. I, for one, will treat Quan’s wish to “awaken [the space] when the time is right” as a promise, not just a hope.

Another door opens: From April 6 to May 29, in some 14 staged concerts and many more events at several venues across the GTA,  Small World Music presents its 14th Asian Music Series, with the financial support of the TD Bank and in partnership with an array of other presenters. Fittingly, this year the series marks Asian and South Asian Heritage Month.

This year’s AMS program features “a strong female presence, with two of the most significant artists in South Asian music - Anoushka Shankar and Abida Parveen - performing.” As well as Indian and hybrid Indian music on stage, GTA audiences will also have the opportunity to witness leading performers of Japanese, Chinese, Pakistani and Iranian music, along with Latin, ethnic chaos and “telematic music.” The latter is described on the Small World Music website as “live performance via the internet by musicians in different geographic locations, celebrating the notion of a smaller world.”

In a bid to reach core audiences, AMS concerts take place at venues big and small, in and out of town. Roy Thomson Hall and Koerner Hall alternate with the Flato Markham Theatre, Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, Aga Khan Museum Auditorium and Lula Lounge. The charming, intimate Small World Music Centre holds down home base.

New this year, Small World Music Society executive director Alan Davis and his team have cooked up an intriguing way to bundle concerts for audiences. These curated concert sets are conveniently tagged City, Fusion, Soul, Global, Classical and Legends. Those buying into a set of concerts also receive additional coupons for South-Asian themed self-improvement activities such as yoga, tabla or bansuri lessons, in addition to more typical bundle benefits of a coupon (e.g. admission to the Royal Ontario Museum) and of course discounted prices. It’s an interesting way to systematically extend the tools of partnership, a presentational and marketing skill that Davis and Small World has honed to a keen edge over the years. It is perhaps a key ingredient in the company’s success, a success which in turn enriches our entire community. It echoes a central aspect of Small World’s mission: “to promote understanding between cultures.”

Equitably reflecting such a sprawling mosaic of concerts is certainly beyond my means here. Probably the best tack is to put the spotlight on a select few April AMS concerts, leaving the later May shows to the next issue of The WholeNote.

April 6 AMS launches with a Koerner Hall presentation of the reigning diva of the world music sitar, Anoushka Shankar. About eight years ago, I reviewed her last appearance there with her late father, Ravi Shankar, for readers of this magazine. She has emerged since with increasing assurance not only as a sitar player, but also as as a composer in her own right, and as a collaborator with djs, dancers, flamenco musicians and singers and with Western orchestras. In her commercially successful albums, she has explored the interstices between Hindustani music and other genres, plus paying musical tribute to her father’s vast legacy. Her fourth album, Land of Gold, is slated to be released just days before the concert, so I have no details to share of it yet. I am, however, sure that the audience will hear Shankar and her accompanists featuring music from the new album.

The next day on April 7 the venue switches to the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre which presents a concert titled “Tsumugu.” Featuring Japanese musicians, Keita Kanazashi, Anna Sato and Chie Hanawa, it’s a mixed program: folk songs from Amami Island along with  “bluesy” Tsugaru shamisen of Aomori prefecture, and coming to a thunderous climax with taiko drumming aimed to evoke the Japanese spirit.

Saturday April 9 Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet take the stage of the Flato Markham Theatre, just north of Highway 7. That’s unfortunately well beyond the reach of the TTC for those who love “The Better Way,” but judging from pipa virtuosa Wu Man’s moving performance last year with the Silk Road Ensemble at Massey Hall, it’s a journey this downtown music lover will want to make. Presented in association with Flato Markham Theatre, the concert headlines Wu Man; abundantly gifted as a musician she has been called a “force of nature” by Gramophone magazine. Dusted magazine also praised her performance, describing it as deftly combining “earthly energy and celestial delight.” Her masterful musicianship has also inspired several composers, including Terry Riley and Tan Dun. The Shanghai Quartet, among today’s leading string quartets, will join Wu Man in a program of music composed or arranged by Chinese musicians called “A Night in Ancient and New China.” Perhaps I’ll see you there.

Our last peek into the Asian Music Series this issue: Indian master sitarist Shujaat Khan and Toronto vocalist Ramneek Singh take us deep into North Indian cultural poetics and centuries-old mystical traditions. Presented by Aga Khan Museum on April 29, the double bill concert, titled “Reflections on Kabir and Khusrau,” is presented in the museum’s Great Poets Series. Kabir was an important fifteenth-century Indian mystic, poet and saint. Amīr Khusrau (or Khusraw, CE 1253–1325) of Delhi was a Sufi musician and is often regarded as the father of Qawwali. His contributions to the advancement of poetry and music were immense and place him at the heart of the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent. In music, Khusraw is credited with the introduction of Persian, Arabic and Turkish elements into Hindustani classical music, as well as with originating khayal and tarana forms, features still central to the music today. It’s a pretty safe bet we will hear vivid performances in both forms by Shujaat Khan and Ramneek Singh.

From Anoushka Shankar, one of the newest and most syncretistic voices in Hindustani music today, we get to sonically travel to one of the tradition’s oldest innovators, represented by Khusraw - all in the space of one Toronto festival!

Like Donald Quan’s Musideum, that’s some story too!

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com


I’ve weighed in on numerous occasions, in this column and in my WholeNote album reviews and blogs, about the vast scope of world music as a topic: its misty origins; the limits and problems associated with continued use of what was originally an academic idea, and then became a marketing term. It’s a notion that’s so hard to pin down with any precision, that some would argue not to bother.

Undaunted, I’ve endeavoured to chart its multifaceted presence at key regional venues and among presenters such as the Music Gallery, Small World Music, Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall and at the Lula Music and Arts Centre, as performed by its practitioners, and enjoyed – some might use the word consumed – by its myriad audiences. On a couple of occasions I have highlighted stories about its educational role at our regional institutions of higher learning. For instance, my column in the April 2014 issue of The WholeNote featured the flourishing Balinese Gamelan ensemble course offered at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo.

For some mysterious reason, perhaps Freudian or Jungian, however, I have so far neglected to explore world music’s abiding 47-year presence at my alma mater, York University’s Music Department. Luckily this March arms me with several reasons to fill that lacuna: ten back-to-back upcoming concerts; two recent conversations; and the retirement of one of York’s key world music animators, Trichy Sankaran.

2106-World_1.pngThe first conversation: I turned first to world music's prime initiator at York, the man with the plan, York U. professor emeritus R. Sterling Beckwith. He’s the person I credit with introducing world music ensembles in Canadian universities as continuing credit courses. As York U. Music Department’s founding chair surely he could shed light on its fundamentals. He didn’t disappoint; his trenchant views and passion on the topic were as keen as ever.

“World music along with jazz has now been taken up by many American and Canadian universities; they have become fixtures there,” he began. “Long gone are the days when they considered it beneath their interest,” he added.

“Well before I arrived at York, I took [pioneering] ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood’s Javanese gamelan class at Harvard. I also spent time with the retired senior musicologist Charles Seeger. Among other things, he praised the American Carnatic singer and ethnomusicologist Jon Higgins whose bi-musical [a term coined by ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood] reputation preceded him.” Even though Higgins was still at the very start of a remarkable career, he had already concertized, broadcast and recorded a Carnatic music LP with renowned musicians in India. (Spoiler alert: Higgins became a teacher and a mentor of mine at York.)

There is a back story here which Beckwith helpfully sketched for me. Mantle Hood’s groundbreaking ethnomusicology program at UCLA, established in 1960, came complete with performing ensembles, and produced Robert Brown the person who in turn kick-started the World Music program at Wesleyan University. Through Brown, we can trace the teacher-student lineage to Higgins. Brown served as Higgins’ PhD thesis advisor at Wesleyan. “I consider other American university ethnomusicology programs such as those at Washington University also direct descendants of Hood’s groundbreaking efforts at UCLA,” Beckwith added.

“Yet another defining pre-York U. experience was the discussion I had with the late Ravi Shankar about introducing applied Indian music studies at York. He was intrigued and recommended his sitar disciple Shambhu Das, who as it turned out, was already living in Toronto. All of that was in my head when I arrived here in 1969.”

Beckwith continued, “I was determined to implement the paradigm-altering gamelan experiences I had with Hood and the inspiring conversations I had with Seeger, as well as doing what I could to bring Higgins to York. As events would have it, my last official act as Music Department chair was to be able to hire Jon Higgins, which made it possible in turn to hire the gifted percussionist Trichy Sankaran a little later.”

2106-World_2.pngTrichy Sankaran: One of Beckwith’s first world music hires, in 1971 – and significantly also one of the longest serving – was a mridangam and kanjira player with an international career, Trichy Sankaran. Sankaran passed a significant milestone last fall, retiring from York in September 2015 after an illustrious career spanning 44 years as a professor of music, researcher and textbook author. As well as serving as a co-founding director of its Indian music studies, one of Canada’s first university-based world music performance programs, he also developed hybrid Carnatic and Western pedagogical practices. Certainly one of Sankaran’s most significant contributions at York was his marked influence on a couple of generations of students, many of whom have gone on to become established musicians, composers and educators. His outstanding achievements as an educator were recognized with the OCUFA Award, given by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations for teaching excellence.

Along with Beckwith, I and many other Sankaran friends, colleagues and students were present at York’s Tribute Communities Recital Hall last September. Few there doubted that the event marked the closing of a long and important first chapter in the music department’s grand – and continuing – adventure in world music education.

The occasion was celebrated in style with a formal concert in which Sankaran was joined on stage by his vocalist daughter Suba Sankaran, leader of the JUNO-nominated Indo-jazz-funk fusion ensemble Autorickshaw, and her bandmates, bass guitarist and singer Dylan Bell, and tabla player Ed Hanley. The musicians gave authoritative performances of solo and ensemble works, the repertoire including original compositions by the senior Sankaran. As well as signalling the passing on of an intergenerational musical torch, it additionally asserted (at least my awareness of) the emergence of a specific family-centered kind of Indo-Canadian hybrid music-making, echoing the venerable Indian tradition of guru-shishya parampara. As for the continuity of Carnatic music education at York pioneered by Sankaran, that subject appears to be moot.

The second conversation: Throughout its first three decades, York’s world music ensemble courses remained relatively constant and few. It was only around the very early 2000s that I became aware of a dramatic increase in the number of world music ensembles. The trend only crossed my personal radar after, in 1999, I was hired, by Michael Coughlan, the incoming Music Department chair, as the founding course director of the Javanese Gamelan (ensemble) course. During the years I taught the course, the number and range of music ensembles seemed to grow almost exponentially, and the students attracted to them likewise swelled.

What’s the current state of the university’s world music ensemble program? I spoke to the ethnomusicologist, singer and instrumentalist Irene Markoff, whose research and performing activities centre on the musical traditions of Bulgaria, Turkey and the Balkans. “I began to teach there in 2001,” she told me. “At one point I taught global musicianship to music majors. Placed in the context of performance rather than listening to recorded musical examples, my approach was well received by the students.” Her ensemble courses however also include non-music major students. Markoff gave an example, “I currently have a number of students of Chinese heritage in my ensemble who can sing complex metrical parts, despite being non-music majors. They sometimes outstrip music majors in mastering some of these [perceived difficult] performing skills.”

While generally bullish on York’s music course offerings, she did express a wish: “That our music students would be required to take a world music ensemble.” Why? “For the simple reason that we live in a multicultural society and I believe such study will broaden students’ musical horizons. Also with musical hybridities [being a regular fact of musicians’ lives today], it’s important for learners to be exposed to the broad spectrum of metres, multi-part singing styles and tonal modes,” all benefits afforded by learning music outside of the Western mainstream.

I asked Markoff about the future of the world music ensembles. “I have proposed the production of ensemble music videos hosted on the department’s website as a means of attracting future students. As for their relevance, I believe these ensemble courses will continue to well serve music students, exposing them to ‘other’ musical practices and to increase their appreciation and understanding of peoples.”

In a nutshell, Markoff believes such educational ensembles, which allow students to experience the musical diversity of cultures, tend to “build bridges rather than erecting walls between cultures.”

York University’s World Music Festival runs March 17, 18 and 21 at various venues, all in the Accolade East Building.

Mar 17 the World Music Festival kicks off with the Cuban Ensemble conducted by Rick Lazar and Anthony Michell, followed by West African Drumming, Ghana, led by Kwasi Dunyo. That afternoon Lazar’s Escola de Samba rules the Sterling Beckwith Studio, followed by West African Mande, Anna Melnikoff, conductor.

Mar 18 Irene Markoff conducts the Balkan Music Ensemble at 7:30pm at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall. Earlier that day performances by the Celtic Ensemble conducted by Sherry Johnson, Chinese Classical Orchestra directed by Kim Chow-Morris, Caribbean Ensemble conducted by Lindy Burgess and Charles Hong’s Korean Drum Ensemble will echo in various Accolade East Building halls.

It’s a World Music Festival wrap Mar 21 with the World Music Chorus conducted by Judith Cohen, a course I greatly enjoyed a few years ago when I returned (yet again!) to my music studies at York. Please consult The WholeNote listings for times and venue details.

University of Toronto Faculty of Music: York University is certainly not the only world music game in town. Apr 7 the U of T Faculty of Music presents its World Music Ensembles in concert at Walter Hall. Featured are the African Drumming and Dancing Ensemble, Latin-American Percussion Ensemble and Steel Pan Ensemble. I’ve been attending these concerts since their inception and have never failed to be inspired by the enthusiasm and musical skill demonstrated.

Quick Picks

Mar 2 the COC’s noon-hour World Music Series presents Avataar. Directed by saxophonist and composer Sundar Viswanathan the all-star Toronto group often includes Michael Occhipinti (guitar), Justin Gray (bass), Felicity Williams (voice), Ravi Naimpally (tabla) and Giampaolo Scatozza (drum set). They’ll be playing selections from their recently released album Petal. Arrive early.

BRASH: It is just the sort of weather, however unseasonable, for “BRASH! A Badass Brass Festival,” presented by Lemon Bucket Orkestra (LBO) and Small World Music, on Mar 11 and 12 at the Opera House on Queen St. E. LBO with its high hipster street cred needs no further introduction in these pages. Ratcheting up the badass quotient a notch will be Toronto’s Rambunctious and Montreal’s Gypsy Kumbia Brass Band.

Mar 11, 12 and 13 at the Betty Oliphant Theatre the Raging Asian Women (RAW) Taiko Drummers perform an evening of stories from the drummers’ lives, in collaboration with Asian Canadian performers Teiya Kasahara (voice) and Heidi Chan (percussion and flute). "Crooked Lines: Stories in Between" involves video vignettes along with the taiko drummers' trademark ferocity and spirit.

Mar 26 the Small World Music Centre presents a smaller, more intimate and reflective musical experience, though in no way any less passionate: the Dilan Ensemble directed by Shahriyar Jamshidi, a kamancheh (bowed lute) player, composer and vocalist, now settled in Canada. "In the Shadow of the Fatherland" is a cross section of the repertoire the Iranian Kurdistan native has devoted his career to preserving and transmitting. Jamshidi is joined by local cellist Raphael Weinroth-Brown.

Apr 2 and 3 The Aga Khan Museum continues its impressively inclusive concert programming, partnering with the venerable presenter Raag-Mala Music Society of Toronto in two concerts titled Raags of the Gharana Tradition. Apr 2, Maihar gharana (musical school, lineage) sitarist Anupama Bhagwat and Agra gharana singer Waseem Ahmed Khan render a selected few of the vast set of Hindustani evening raags. Apr 3 at 3pm it’s time for a much rarer section of afternoon raags; many “classical” ragas/raags are associated with four three-hour timeframes and for maximum effect are performed at those prescribed times. Sarangi player Ramesh Mishra, a disciple of Ravi Shankar (of the Maihar gharana), shares the concert with the vocalist Devaki Pandit who has studied with gurus of both Jaipur and Agra gharanas.

Also on Apr 2 Nagata Shachu, with Kiyoshi Nagata as its music director, joins one of the city’s leading percussion ensembles TorQ in concert at the Brigantine Room, Harbourfront Centre. Expect an engaging, polished Japanese, Western and world percussion music mix. 

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.


2105-World.jpgIt’s February. It’s still dark before you arise, and cold, with nary a sign of green outside. February is also Black History Month and all over Toronto politicians, schools and cultural organizations are marking it in various ways.

On its events page, the Music Gallery’s David Dacks writes that from its earliest days the MG “has welcomed adventurous Afro-diasporic sounds [such] as free jazz, the science fact/fiction of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the advanced musical theories of George Lewis. This commitment has intensified over the past several years with events with saxophone titan Matana Roberts, jazz elder Henry Grimes, mbira innovator Evelyn Mukwedeya, and ‘world music 2.0’ theorist DJ/rupture.”

For Black History Month 2016, the MG presents a two-part event which pushes these explorations further.

Val-Inc: body and spirit: the first of these starts at 5pm Saturday, February 20, with a free panel discussion called “The New Black: Challenging Musical Tropes” with Val-Inc and Witch Prophet, two “Black artists who create stereotype-challenging music” on the panel, along with  moderator Alanna Stuart (Bonjay, CBC), Garvia Bailey (JazzFM) and Amanda Parris (CBC). They plan to delve into ways in which awareness can be raised around “under-represented facets of Afro-diasporic cultural expression, specifically within Black Canadian culture.”

Putting these concerns to the musical test that same evening at 8pm, will be a concert titled “Val-Inc + Witch Prophet.” Val-Inc is Val Jeanty, once a member of Norah Jones’ band. Her music was described by the New York Times as blending “traditional-sounding music from Haiti with synthesized sounds and instruments to develop a genre she calls ‘Afro-Electronica.’” Her audiovisual installations have been showcased at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art and in European galleries.

Val-Inc’s own characterization of her music is more inclusive; she describes it as evoking “the musical esoteric realms of the creative subconscious by incorporating African Haitian musical traditions into the present and beyond, combining acoustics with electronics and the archaic with the postmodern.”

Just how does she do that? I called her in New York City to find out.

I asked first about the accuracy of a media depiction I had read of her music as “Big Apple Vodou.” “I grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti,” she responded, “attending Catholic schools as well as practising Vodou within my family, learning to drum [in that context] when I was five years of age.”

So how does this joint spiritual and musical practice influence how she sees the relationship between sound, music and spirituality? “In Vodou there’s no separation between sound, sounds and prayers to the ancestors, as in the case of Guédé, in the spiritual realm,” she explains. [Fête Guédé, the Festival of the Dead, is celebrated on November 2, All Souls’ Day]. “It’s something that has to be experienced. I practise it to sustain life … not in order to produce a commercial music product.”

And her drumming practice since childhood and its echoes in her electronics? “There’s not a conscious connection between Vodou drum patterns and my electronics, but [rather a path I find] through improv. I trust the spirit to help me via the looper [digital looping station].”

In one track I listened to (“V-iPod #222” on Soundcloud) it’s hard to tell if the track features a machine or an acoustic tabla. “Whatever it is, it sounds convincing,” I say to her. “I played that on the Roland HandSonic HPD-20, a kind of drumpad, a digital hand percussion device. With practice (and understanding of hand drumming) you can transfer your personal energy into the machine. In the end such tools are just tools, carrying the spirit. Bypass skin colour, distance, language and what you’re left with is spirit,” she concludes.

“[The spiritual in music] … is speaking to the soul … feeding the soul … I’m not trying to connect the spirit to music – but rather it’s trying to do me – it’s doing the work! [Let’s not forget that] everyone around the world has a spirit.”

In our chat, Val-Inc’s all-embracing universalist vision came clearly into focus for me: spirit transcending perceived human distinctions such as skin colour, race, geographical origin, religious affiliation and other potentially divisive cultural factors. Makes sense to me.

Pura Fé highlights African-Native American music: Jim Merod, in his 1995 essay Jazz as a Cultural Archive, proposed that jazz is not only a reflection of North American culture but also serves as an archive of that culture. The work of singer, guitarist, songwriter, activist and teacher Pura Fé extends that notion to other vernacular music genres, presenting a rich fabric woven of many cultural strands and colours, so that it is near-impossible to unravel them all: namely the role of indigenous peoples in African-Native American contact, cohabitation, cultural sharing and performance practice.

It is something which occurred in multiple intimate and sometimes complicated and layered ways, arising from shared histories over several hundred years and reflected in various features of the music their descendants created and make today.

I spoke to Fé via Skype, one frigid January afternoon (she now makes Northern Saskatchewan her home), to discuss her upcoming Friday, February 26, concert at the Music Gallery. Long active in transcultural music making and touring in Europe, her album Follow Your Heart’s Desire won the 2006 l’Académie Charles-Cros Award for Best World Album.

During the course of our conversation Fé’s expansive knowledge and passion about indigenous influences on the blues, jazz, country, rock, gospel and other vernacular American musics was infectious. It’s an intensely personal subject for her. She traces the roots of her family and personal musical culture to indigenous North Carolina Tuscarora, Tutelo, as well as Corsican ancestors, the latter via Puerto Rico. (Her name given by her father means “Pure Faith” in Spanish.)

“On my mother’s side we’ve got eight generations of Tuscarora singers. While my mother was a gifted Wagnerian soprano it was difficult to make a career as a woman of colour in classical music in her generation. She also performed in several of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts and my grandmother sang gospel.” Growing up in New York City, sampling her parents’ Native music record collection and participation in Pow Wows gave her the sense of identity she sought as a teen. “I found myself the day I was able to reconnect with my indigenous roots.

“People generally aren’t very aware of it yet, but Native peoples have played a major role in the development of American music, whether it’s jazz, blues or rock ‘n’ roll,” observes . “This includes a typical blues rhythm, the shuffle, a rhythmic feel which is much like certain Native drumming.”

In Fé’s own intense bluesy and other times jazzy singing, she makes an eloquent case for the close and productive relationship between the African and indigenous people of the American South, a union that gave birth to a rich new culture blending religion, dance, food and music. “Many of their grandchildren became influential musicians,” she says, “like Charley Patton (Choctaw) and Scrapper Blackwell (Cherokee). We can continue the roll call with Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Don Cherry, Miles Davis, Jim Pepper and Don Pullen in jazz. Let’s add Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Tina Turner, Link Wray and Jesse Ed Davis for good measure.”

Early in her career singing with rock bands in NYC, her role models - in addition to her mother and grandmother - were the leading female singers of the previous generation: Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Aretha Franklin. Fé was “drawn by their spirit and style.”

All this is the rich hybrid motherlode extensively mined by Fé. Aiming to explore the bluesy voice of Native Americans as well as their self-determination, in 1987 she formed the singing trio Ulali with Soni Moreno and Jennifer Kreisberg, a project which continues as a quartet. Seven albums followed. Her latest, Sacred Seed (2015) for Nueva Onda Records, captures those multi-faceted influences, featuring her multi-tracked voice with a backup studio band consisting of guitar, banjo, piano, percussion and cello. The tracks resound with references to the Tuscarora Nation whose musical traditions she carries with indelible ardour.

At her February 26 Music Gallery concert, however, Fé will present her music more intimately with just her voice, accompanying herself “with guitar, drum and a loop station which gives me the choral background I crave.” Her repertoire will focus on her Sacred Seed set list: her own songs like “Idle No More,” plus jazz classics like Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Roots blues legend Taj Mahal glowingly summed up Fé’s music: “With her voice soaring, foot stomping, this beautiful songbird transcends time and brings the message of our Ancestors who have sown this beautiful seed [through her] powerful music.” 

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com

 


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