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.

This year’s summer weather has drifted gracefully on right to the end of September. While some 2,500 years ago the Greek physicist-philosopher Parmenides argued that “nature abhors a vacuum,” it also surely needs a rest. Or is September slowly becoming another August in our corner of the concert world?

Whether or not it’s because the seasons themselves are shifting and smearing established concert-going cycles, the warm September we have just experienced was oddly reminiscent of the rest of the summer music break. Several series of concerts with a world music component, and a hint of summer to them, are commencing in late September or even October. These include the Small World Music Festival, Music Gallery’s X Avant Festival, and concerts at Massey Hall, the Aga Khan Museum and the always well-attended noon-hour shows at the COC’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. And Kingston, Ontario’s new jewel of a venue, the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, launches the premiere concert of its Global Salon Series this month. Welcome aboard!

Ukrainian BanduristUkrainian Bandurist Chorus: Before I touch on a few of those concerts however, and departing from my usual chronological presentation, I would like to explore the fascinating story of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus. On October 24 it is presenting “Celebrating the Bandura: Past, Present and Future” at Massey Hall with Ruslana, its Ukrainian guest star. The UBC is an American-Canadian group with a history spanning two continents, but it also has a strong local membership.

Ukrainian Canadians are a significant presence in this country. They are the ninth-largest ethnic group, representing the world’s third-largest Ukrainian population after that of Ukraine and Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent state in 1991. Canada swiftly recognized it, the first country to do so. Strong bilateral ties, as many readers will know,  have characterized the relationship ever since. Fewer, however, may realize that the first of these cultural links was forged generations ago.

The Detroit-based Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus’ website states that the “first professional bandurist chorus was formed in Kyiv in 1918 during the height of the country’s brief period of independence.” It was during the subsequent 1920s, a transformative period of Ukrainian national awakening, that language, culture, and specifically the UBC, “developed into a professional touring troupe,” among the most prominent of its kind.

By the next decade, however, the UBC narrative quickly turns very dark. Under Soviet leader “Joseph Stalin’s rule, artists and intellectuals were arrested, exiled or executed in an attempt to eradicate every remnant of Ukrainian culture,” states the website. “Many conductors, chorus members and blind bandurist-minstrels were accused of enticing the populace to nationalism and were executed ... their songs banned throughout the Soviet Union.”

But perhaps I’ve gotten ahead of myself here. What is a bandura, and how does its Ukrainian history tie into the group that will perform in October at Massey Hall? Ray (Roman) Beley and Orest Sklierenko, both veteran Toronto members of the UBC, helped me understand a few key notions. We spoke via a conference call on September 14.

The bandura, a kind of large-bellied lute with features of a zither, is a “multi-string plucked instrument, the voice and soul of Ukraine,” noted Beley. From all I’ve heard and read, the bandura is much more than a mere musical instrument; it symbolically embodies Ukrainian national identity, its songs reflecting the turbulent history of the Ukrainian people.

Pre-20th-century folk banduras usually had fewer than two dozen strings in diatonic tunings. Typically handmade by the musicians, no two banduras were exactly the same. The oral tradition bandurist (a.k.a. kobzar) was a troubadour who sang a wide-ranging repertoire of para-liturgical chants (kanty), psalms, social dances and epics (dumy) accompanying himself on the bandura. On the other hand the more recent Kyiv or Kharkiv style bandura, played in ensembles today, is a grander affair. It possesses 65 or more strings, some with levers enabling the bandurist to change keys during the performance. (There’s a strong GTA connection here too. I was intrigued to learn that among the leading contemporary bandura designers and makers is the Oshawa native Bill Vetzal.)

Beley picks up the story. “After years of exploitation and persecution under Soviet and Nazi regimes, in 1949 some 17 members of the all-male Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus immigrated to the United States.” Many established a home base in Detroit and Cleveland, where they continued to perform the UBC repertoire of four-part songs – tenor I, tenor II, baritone, bass – accompanied by banduras in several ranges.

“In North America, the UBC carried the torch for songs with lyrics that were banned under Soviet rule,” continued Sklierenko. “We carried on Ukrainian historical and religious traditions free of the censorship that made it impossible in the homeland at the time.” An active member of UBC since 1990 when he was just 13, Sklierenko pointed out that Canadians of Ukrainian descent have played key and very early roles in the group, “perhaps ever since the Chorus’ first Toronto performance on October 22, 1949.”

The UBC “has performed in Massey Hall several times since the 1950s,” added Sklierenko, so the upcoming 97th anniversary concert on October 24 is somewhat of a homecoming – with a special twist. Joining the Chorus on stage will be Ruslana, the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest and World Music Awards winner, an artist who can boast the best selling Ukrainian album ever, the 2003 Dyki Tantsi (Wild Dances). This remarkable singer, songwriter, producer, musical conductor and dancer also served as a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament and is an internationally recognized social activist. In 2013 and 2014 she played a prominent role in the pro-EU Euromaidan movement. Beley, a current bass bandura player with UBC, told me that Ruslana “will perform her pop hits at Massey Hall before joining forces with us in Ukrainian songs in our repertoire.”

In previous columns I’ve written about several other Toronto ensembles with proud Ukrainian roots. The activist community-minded women’s Kosa Kolektiv, and the self-proclaimed “Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band” Lemon Bucket Orkestra, presently winding up its international tour, come readily to mind. Sklierenko knows them well. “Playing a core role in community building and also on an official international level, the UBC represents the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and in the U.S.A. In addition we are eager to reach out to both bandurist and non-bandurist groups like Kosa and Lemon Bucket. I see great potential for synergy here.”

I asked why the bandurist choruses are all male. Were they consciously modelling themselves on the practices of the earlier, exclusively male, kobzar troubadours? “Interest among Ukrainian women in taking part in the bandurist tradition has been steadily building,” noted Sklierenko. “In fact there’s an all-women’s North American bandurist chorus being formed right now.”

As co-chair of the UBC’s 2018 centennial anniversary celebrations, Sklierenko laid out the group’s ambitious three-part plan to reconnect with the homeland and to ensure the continuation of the bandurist legacy. These include “a Ukrainian tour, a fund to fuel R&D and to pass on the craft of bandura building, and an educational component including workshops.” The latter category also includes support for UBC’s summer camps in Pennsylvania, since 1979 the central site for passing on bandurist traditions and recruiting new talent. Partly reflecting the success of the camps, today the majority of UBC members are second and third generation Americans and Canadians, all of them volunteering their time to further the mission of the ensemble.

The evidence of the UBC’s plans, and of the passion and commitment to pursue them, all points to the bandurist performance legacy, sparked nearly a century ago in Ukraine, surviving well-rooted in the diaspora. The legacy also appears well-positioned to be passed on to future generations of performers in both North Americans as well as in its threatened land of origin.

Small World Music Festival: The 14th annual iteration of Small World’s signature fall Music Festival runs until October 4 this year. Its ambition is no less than to “capture the world in a ten-day festival.” This year it brings international and Canadian performers representing music from Mali, Korea, Cuba, Ethiopia, Palestine, Spain and Estonia to Toronto stages.

October 1 at Revival Bar, Vieux Farka Touré and his band makes a return Toronto visit presented in association with Batuki Music Society. Touré is best known for his virtuoso guitar style blending African guitar techniques with Western blues and rock, and an easygoing onstage charm. There’s a family touring connection to this town. I well recall seeing his Malian father Ali Farka Touré lay down seamless guitar grooves and plangent vocals accompanied by a lone gourd drummer one summer in a small open room at the Harbourfront Centre.

October 2 the emerging Estonian singer and violinist Maarja Nuut appears at the Small World Music Centre. She repurposes old Estonian village songs, dance tunes and stories, often to live looped fiddle accompaniment and solo improv melodies. Nuut’s music cumulatively builds with a minimalist texture, one which can support emotional intensity, yet never losing sight of what the composer calls a peaceful, yet “lively relaxed state which … makes you want to prolong being in the moment and concentrate.”

Krar CollectiveOctober 4 the Krar Collective will rock Lula Lounge, the trio armed with a krar (six-stringed bowl-shaped Ethiopian lyre), kebero (drums) and impressive vocals. Judging from their videos, they’re purveyors of sold grooves, expressive melismatic melodies and a huge sound. Bandleader Temesgen Zeleke uses an octave pedal as well as wah-wah on his electric krar but also plays an acoustic five-string model that is quieter and plucked rather than strummed, to support his eloquent vocals. The Krar Collective is a musically compelling, neo-traditional band taking traditional instruments, songs and genres, combining them into a new mode of delivery for their audiences. NB: for full enjoyment, come ready to dance.

End of an era, and passing it on: On October 1, the York University Department of Music presents “Faculty Concert Series: Rhythms of India” featuring Trichy Sankaran with the Autorickshaw trio at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall. After 44 years of service at York, where he has taught generations of students, me included, Professor Sankaran has recently retired – from teaching at York, not from performing or teaching elsewhere. This concert is his parting gift to the institution he served so long. He will share the stage with the next generation, including his daughter, vocalist Suba Sankaran, co-leader of the JUNO-nominated Indo-jazz-funk fusion ensemble Autorickshaw and her bandmates, bass guitarist Dylan Bell and tabla player Ed Hanley, Sankaran students all. The musicians will perform solo and ensemble works by the master percussionist and composer. I invite all whose life has been touched by this outstanding musician – and there have been many from around the world – to attend this once-in-a-lifetime celebration. 

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

Music in the summer: the very notion evokes a field of pleasant images. I’m thinking of concerts in a green and flower-filled public park or a more intimate garden setting, touring groups appearing on festival stages throughout our province, as well as Harbourfront Centre’s lakeside venues teeming with casual, lightly clad crowds out for a good time. People generally appear more relaxed and good-humoured in the summer than in other seasons; smiles seem more common. The other seasons are meant for music encounters indoors. The few months of kind summer weather we are allotted make it an ideal time to cross paths – and share outdoor musical discoveries – with families from around the world.

World-Gonsalves.jpgLuminato: The first major Toronto summer series featuring global music is the Luminato Festival, this year running from June 19 to June 28. In order to get a sense of the direction of the programming of interest to you, dear reader, I spoke with veteran music curator Derek Andrews over the phone. He pointed out that there will be changes this year to the venues, compared to recent Luminatos held at David Pecaut Square. “The big stage is gone at The Hub – which has a landscaped backyard garden theme this year. We now will have The Festival Shed, an indoor venue of around 200, plus an expansive outdoor venue with a much larger audience capacity called The Garden Stage (which the TSO will use on June 28). It will also host the 35 acts in my program.”

With numerous individual shows and several themed concert series spread over the ten days, Luminato has much to offer listeners out to explore world music. Many have “Americas” themes, pre-echoing the Pan Am games about to take over Toronto in July. To my regret, I can’t pretend to cover more than some part of the vast scope of this subsection of the festival. June 20, during the first weekend fete at Luminato, begins with the launch of “The North-South Project,” billed as “a collective work of storytelling authored by 12 celebrated writers working the breadth of the Americas, from the Canadian Arctic to Argentina.” It’s co-curated by Andrews and literary and ideas curator Noah Richler. The readings by the authors are accompanied by several singers articulating lyrics of dissent. Singer-songwriters Amai Kuda n’ Y Josephine, Drew Gonsalves and Quique Escamilla will also bring their own unique pan-American music to the festival stage.

Among the lineup is Ani Cordero, a founding member and drummer of the Mexican rock band Pistolera and other groups. Recordar, her latest solo album, is a tribute to the voices of dissent via reinterpretations of Latin American protest songs. Another participating artist, La Yegros, has been a powerful presence on the Buenos Aires underground music scene for years. Her signature voice and commanding stage presence is imbued with South American flair, but she also brings with it a globally aware mindset, drawing equally on deep regional folk traditions and cutting edge beats.

On June 21 the solstice, National Aboriginal Day and Father’s Day all fall on the same day. (As a dad, I’m hoping for a lavish BBQ dinner hosted by my sons as per family tradition.) Why not celebrate them all at The Hub with performances by four aboriginal women? Leela Gilday, a member of the Dene nation, transports the listener through her northern stories sung in a gutsy voice and open stage presence. Martha Redbone’s music blends Native American elements with her deep roots in Appalachian folk and Piedmont blues, plus soul and funk.  On the same day, the “New Canadian Music Series” features two emerging aboriginal musicians, cellist Cris Derksen and singer-songwriter Binaeshee-Quae. Derksen’s music braids the “traditional and contemporary in multiple dimensions,” weaving her classical music training and features embedded in her aboriginal ancestry “with new school electronics, creating genre-defying music.” Her 2010 debut album The Cusp was nominated for a Western Canadian Music Award and won the 2011 Canadian Aboriginal Music Award for Instrumental Album of the Year. Binaeshee-Quae, from Pic River First Nation, describes her musical style as “jazzy-alterna-folk mix.” She delivers her songs in a full-throated, sometimes quirky yet articulate mezzo.

Music curator Andrews has waggishly dubbed Luminato’s June 22 tribute to Mexico, “Distrito Federal Chilango Power Ska Punk meets Chiapas Mexico Message Music.” It is a mouthful, but it also serves as an accurate genre-inclusive tag. Headliners include the Toronto-based troubadour Quique Escamilla, the 2015 Juno Award-winning multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter and producer. Active on the Canadian music scene since 2007, his powerful voice and passionate performances fuse Mexican genres such as ranchera and huapango with rock, reggae, ska, pop, jazz, cumbia, bolero and other Latin American forms. His incisive song lyrics are often keenly socially and politically engaged.

Los de Abajo from Mexico City is another politically committed group (they’re supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation). Over a 23-year career, it has constructed a distinctive fusion of regional Mexican musics. A champion early on was David Byrne, in 1999 signing Los de Abajo to his Luaka Bop label. The group has gone from strength to strength, touring extensively and including yet more influences in its diverse palette: ska, reggae, hip-hop and even echoes of Balkan music.

Skipping to June 25, “Caribbean Calypso” is billed as a musical “exploration of coastal Caribbean Garifuna culture and Trinidadian Roots Reggae Calypso.” Taking centre stage will be the Canadian group Kobo Town. Named after the Port-of-Spain neighbourhood where calypso was born it was founded by Trinidadian-Canadian songwriter Drew Gonsalves. The group mixes Caribbean calypso and reggae using acoustic instrumentation along with innovative production, social commentary and an indie rock attitude. Independence, its debut album, won the International Folk Alliance Award. Another headliner is Aurelio Martinez. He is not only a star Honduran musician, but also a passionate politician and cultural ambassador for the coastal Garifuna people as well. Known by his first name alone, Aurelio possesses a gritty expressive voice with which he performs a compelling musical blend of received Afro-Caribbean cumbia fused with Latin rhythms.

The Luminato Festival celebrates in style June 27 with a “Brazilian Block Party,” billed as a “fun family event featuring day-long animation by strolling artists, craft-making workshops and irresistible food!” Luminato programmers aim to capture the Brazilian tradition of festive gatherings at this all-day public party with food, drink, music and dance, all elements embracing “a beloved part of the Brazilian cultural landscape.”

The Festival Hub’s Block Party is curated by Toronto’s own Uma Nota Culture, programming a “carnival of active cultural jamming.” That includes an invitation to connect with fellow Torontonians by dancing to live music – to irresistible forró music from the Northeast of Brazil, the martial arts-inspired capoeira and the ever-popular samba.

Among the notable acts taking the stage is the Quebec City-based Flávia Nascimento and her Smallest Big Band. Hailing from Recife, Pernambuco, Mundo Livre S/A is a genre-defining manguebeat band formed in 1984. Mundo Livre’s founding notion was to connect the culture of the mangues (mangroves) of Recife with a network of global pop genres. It has released three albums, the last of which was included in many best-of-the-year lists. Aline Morales has built a solid reputation in Canada as a percussionist and bandleader. Her Juno-nominated Flores, Tambores e Amores also showcased her interpretative, vocal and composer chops. With her project Forró Nite, Morales taps deeply into her forró music roots.

Among the newest Brazilian drum troupes in town, Tdot Batu is a diverse, youthful group performing samba reggae, but spun with their own edge. (Samba reggae became a hit in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil in the 1980s when the group Afro-Blocos mashed Bahian rhythms like ijexa and samba with Caribbean musical influences.) It sounds like quite the lively party.

World-Brebach.jpgSunfest ’15, London, Ontario: Now to a festival decidedly outside of Toronto and sporting a pedigree older than most: TD Sunfest ’15. From July 9 to 12, downtown London’s Victoria Park is transformed into a culturally diverse playground where over three dozen world music and jazz groups entertain audiences on five stages scattered throughout the park. “Canada’s Premier Celebration of World Cultures” is its byline and all events are free.

Headliners this year include the venerable Afro-Cuban All Stars, and the new generation Scottish folk five-piece Breabach. It has been described as “the new face of Scottish Traditional music.” Paulo Flores, the distinguished Angolan singer-songwriter and author who performs in the semba genre, also takes the Sunfest stage. His lyrics often touch on the politics and hardships of Angolan life, and since 2007 he has served as a UN Goodwill Ambassador in Angola.

When my kids were young we repeatedly visited Sunfest, feasting on its small-town Ontario feel and diverse ethnic good vibes – but also on the scrumptious international street food and crafts for sale by dozens of vendors. That too is experiencing musicking in the summer for me.

Summer Music in the Garden: What more pleasant a reminder of the evanescent – and thus even more keenly savoured – summer in Southern Ontario than music in a garden? As it has for 16 years, Harbourfront Centre is this year again producing a delightful season-long series titled Summer Music in the Garden, skillfully curated by Tamara Bernstein. It’s held in the pleasantly verdant surrounds of the Yo-Yo Ma co-designed public Music Garden at 235 Queens Quay West. Cooled by the nearby waters of Lake Ontario, it’s all free. Make sure you get there in plenty of time however, to snag a seat on one of few benches. Also arrive early if you wish to claim a private pied à terre on the sloping lawn in front of the open air grassy stage area under the magnificent mature weeping willow. (I think you can guess I have performed and visited there many times over the years).

My picks? I can’t make up my mind from among the multiple tempting summer offerings. I invite you to check The WholeNote listings to discover your own old – or perhaps new – favourite. Relaxed, high-quality music in a garden: how can you lose?

A Celebration: June 14 Darbazi, the choir which was formed in a Toronto living room (yes, I was there), marks its 20th anniversary with a concert at St. Andrew by-the-Lake Anglican Church on Ward’s Island, Toronto. Darbazi is Canada’s first choir dedicated to the music of the various regions of the Republic of Georgia. Under the direction of Shalva Makharashvili and founding guest conductor Alan Gasser, the group hosts local groups Trio Zari and Hereti as guests to mark this significant occasion. I invite you to join me to celebrate in Georgian style with song, food and toasts to many more years of music and warm summer weather in which to enjoy it.

In keeping with my custom, I wish you a gloriously musical summer and invite you back to revisit me in these pages in September. 

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

Here be dragons is an English translation of the Latin phrase “hic sunt dracones,” a notation gracing a few medieval manuscript maps and reflecting the wider period practice of drawing dragons, sea serpents and other mythological creatures to identify regions of the unknown and fearful, dangerous or unexplored territories. Some researchers suggest the term may be related to the existence of giant lizards called Komodo dragons indigenous to a few small remote Indonesian islands – and which are still a tourist draw, in the region and beyond, as when in 2003 the first Canadian Komodo dragon was hatched at the Toronto Zoo.

Tales of such creatures, morphed by repeated telling into hybrid beasts, were common not only throughout Asia but also much of the world, acquiring complex and conflicting transcultural rap sheets over the centuries. The great majority – although not all – of dragons depicted in European stories and iconography represent chaos and evil (think St. George and his confrontation with his alter beast).  In Chinese legend and lore, by contrast, they are generally considered beneficial and represent orderly government, potency, auspiciousness, strength and good luck for those worthy of it. The Emperor of China often used the mythical animal as a symbol of his imperial power; in a more philosophical vein the dragon represents the yang principle complementing the phoenix’s yin. In recent decades the term “descendants of the dragon” has become a self-identifying marker of national, ethnic identity among some Chinese, both in the Chinese homelands and throughout the extensive diaspora.

A case in point is the Sound of Dragon Music Festival making its Ontario debut in five Southern Ontario venues from May 20 to 24. Its artistic director, Vancouver-based Lan Tung, explained in a recent phone conversation that the first characters calligraphed in the festival’s descriptive Chinese title refer to dragons singing across the ocean. It’s a potent poetic metaphor for music deeply rooted in Chinese tradition but expressed with a characteristic Canadian inclusive accent. Tung’s instrument the erhu, as well as others such as the pipa, zheng, sheng and ruan will share the spotlight with the violin, viola, cello, bass, flute and clarinet, enlivened with world percussion instruments. Together they perform scores by composers of several nationalities.

2008_-_World_-_Irineu_Nogueira.jpgLaunched last year in Vancouver, the festival, Tung notes, “brings a unique approach to preserving traditional [Chinese] music, while promoting creativity and innovation.” The festival’s core contingent is made up of members of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra (VICO), along with collaborating musicians from Taiwan and Toronto. VICO, founded in 2001, has been described as “the United Nations of music” (CBC Radio) and “music that sounds like Vancouver looks” (Georgia Straight). It’s a significant and I believe particularly Canadian music development — a professional orchestra devoted to the performance of newly created intercultural music. It was one of the first such ensembles in the world and is the only one of its kind in Canada, a testament to the spirit of cultural cooperation many of us like to think exemplifies the best in Canadians.

VICO’s core roster consists of 24 musicians, trained in many world music traditions. Its mission is to “act as a forum for the creation of a new musical art form, one in which all of Canada’s resident cultures can take part….”  It moreover “serves as a voice for Canadian composers and musicians of diverse backgrounds, and fosters the creation of musical works that fuse and transcend cultural traditions.” To date VICO has commissioned and performed over 40 new works by Canadian composers.

The Sound of Dragon Festival, Tung explains, aims “to intertwine diverse styles: ancient, folk and classical Chinese repertoire, as well as contemporary Canadian compositions … and creative improvisation.” By presenting musicians from different ethnicities, nationalities, and musical genres, it aspires to “re-define Chinese music and reflect Canada’s multicultural environment.”

Each concert of the festival has a slightly different focus. It kicks off May 20 with a free concert at the Blue Barracks of the Fort York National Historic Site where members of VICO, Taiwan’s Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra and the Toronto pipa virtuoso Wen Zhao perform traditional and contemporary music written for Chinese instruments, joined in the second set by guest players from  Toronto’s creative music scene to collectively explore and improvise with multiple combinations of Chinese, Western and other instruments.

May 21, as part of Small World’s “Asian Music Series,” the Sound of Dragon Festival takes the Small World Music Centre stage, presenting an intimate evening with musicians from the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra and VICO, joined by Wen Zhao, pipa soloist. The concert finale features the Toronto premiere of Vancouver composer John Oliver’s Eagle Flies to Mountain, a work which animates notions of the four elements (earth, air, water, fire) through musical combinations, and which also invokes the essential complementary duality of the ancient concept of yin and yang.

The following day, May 22, the festival moves north of Steeles Ave. to the Flato Markham Theatre. Free Chinese instrument workshops in the afternoon will be followed by an evening concert featuring a 12-member chamber orchestra conducted by the Taiwanese maestro Chih-Sheng Chen. The orchestra, consisting of VICO core instrumentalists augmented by musicians from Taiwan and Toronto, will perform Lan Tung’s 2014 signature work Sound of Dragon, a lively blend of the well-known Chinese piece Crazy Snake Dance infused with North African rhythms and sprinkled with improvised solos.

Saturday May 23, the festival shifts to the Aeolian Hall in London presented in a concert by Sunfest, formally known as the London Committee for Cross-Cultural Arts Inc. Members of VICO and Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra join forces once again to present a program of Chinese folk music arrangements and commissioned Canadian works, including  “Indian, klezmer, Persian, Chinese and Taiwanese,” and no doubt Euro-North American essential features too.

May 24 the Sound of Dragon Festival completes its Southern Ontario tour with a concert at The Jazz Room, Huether Hotel in Waterloo, produced by Neruda Arts, K-W’s world music presenter.

Meden Glas: May 2 Toronto’s Meden Glas releases its debut album Balkan Mixologies at the Music Gallery. The group is directed by ethnomusicologist Irene Markoff, a specialist in Balkan and Turkish vocal styles and the bağlama (long-necked lute). Members of its expanded group and Bulgaria’s virtuoso kaval (end-blown flute) player Nikola Gaidarov will join the core quintet. Together they present a journey into the vocal styles, intricate rhythms and instrumental music of Croatia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Sardinia, Russia, as well as that of the Kurds and Roma. They promise an “adventure that will bend your ears and get the evening kicking with your dancing feet!” I’m in.

Footsteps of Babur: May 8 the Aga Khan Museum in conjunction with the Aga Khan Trust for Cultural Music Initiative present “Footsteps of Babur,” referring to Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, and the legendary lavishness of 16th-century Mughal court life in which music of many kinds and from many regions and performance genres played a prominent role. Musicians Homayun Sakhi (Afghan rubab), Salar Nader (tabla) and Rahul Sharma (Indian santoor) evoke the light refined music that filled the palace rooms of Mughal India and Afghanistan in centuries past. Sharma is the son of the important Northern Indian santoor player Shivkumar Sharma, often credited as the man who established his instrument in Hindustani classical music performance.

Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Also May 8, “Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project,” also the title of their delightful new album takes the Koerner Hall stage. Two-time JUNO-winning banjoist, composer and band leader Stone has distilled and reinterpreted songs made by the American ethnomusicologist and folklorist Lomax, along with his distinguished instrumental and vocal collaborators. Lomax is justly celebrated for his field recordings conducted over the 50 years straddling the middle of the 20th century. The project revives for our century the voices and spirit of that era’s rural Americana. We hear stirring renditions of sea chanties, fiddle tunes, work songs, moving Georgia Sea Islands African-American a cappella singing and Appalachian ballads. It’s an important roots revival album, and audiences can expect Stone at the core of his tight ensemble at Koerner Hall adding deft touches of his musically nuanced, never superfluous, banjo playing.

Asian Heritage Month at the TPL: May is Asian Heritage Month in Toronto. As in previous years the Toronto Public Library is celebrating it in various ways, including free music performances given by select musicians from Toronto’s Asian music diaspora. May 16 at 1pm the Richview, Etobicoke branch presents Andrew Timar (yes that’s me moonlighting as a musician) and dancer Keiko Ninomiya in a program of “Southeast Asian Dance and Music Fusion” set within a North American aesthetic. North York Central Library’s Auditorium’s stage will be particularly musically active this month. May 21 “The Music of China” takes to its intimate stage with a program of “regional, contemporary, and Western music.” For “An Afternoon of Persian Music” on May 23 the polished Shiraz Ensemble performs music from the Persian Qajar dynasty, plus works by the important composer and santur player Farāmarz Pāyvar (1933—2009), as well as improvisations.

2008_-_World_-_Shawn_Mativetsky.jpgPedram Khavarzamini and Shawn Mativetsky: May 16 Pedram Khavarzamini and Shawn Mativetsky headline at the Music Gallery in a program titled “East Meets Further East.” The concert’s goal is to highlight Iran and India’s deep drumming traditions. Montrealer Mativetsky, performing with bassist George Koller, is an accomplished tabla performer and educator, an exponent of the Benares gharana and disciple of the tabla maestro Pandit Sharda Sahai (1935—2011). Mativetsky teaches tabla and percussion at McGill University and is a passionate advocate of tabla in contemporary music of many genres. Khavarzamini, who was among the most sought-after tombak teachers and players in Teheran when he was a resident there, will perform with tar virtuoso Araz Salek. He has co-authored several books on the drum’s technique and repertoire. In the early 2000s he was invited to join the Greek music innovator Ross Daly’s group Labyrinth and moved to Europe to pursue his music career. He has toured the world with musicians such as Dhruba Ghosh, Dariush Talai, Vassilis Stavrakakis, and others.  Last year he relocated to Toronto, a move which is our city’s and our country’s gain. These two outstanding Canadian drummers will explore much of the range of their respective instruments and rhythmic vocabularies, culminating in a collective performance.

Lulaworld Festival: The Lulaworld Festival is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and this year it’s a whopper. More than two dozen concerts, family workshops, Brazilian parade and other events at the Lula Lounge and environs between May 27 and June 6 work the theme “Celebrating the Music and Dance of the Americas!” Presented by Lula Music and Arts Centre, it’s billed as the summer’s Toronto 2015 PAN AM Games pre-party, guaranteed to “get Toronto dancing to the music of the Americas.” Even if you don’t dance in public, you can expect a healthy serving of Toronto’s finest world, jazz and Latin musicians, often collaborating with international guest artists on Lula’s intimate stage. With a festival on such a vast scale, I can only hint at the musical – and dance – wealth to be discovered. 

May 27, the festival’s opening night, Toronto’s leading Brazilian dance company Dance Migration is joined by guest Sao Paolo-based percussionist Alysson Bruno and Irineu Nogueira.

May 30 the Lula All Stars release their new CD. The group of musicians with roots from across the Americas plays at Lula Lounge’s weekly live salsa series, co-led by Sean Bellaviti and Luis Orbegoso.

Saturday, June 6, the Lulaworld stage at the Dundas West Fest will be chockablock with Latin jazz, salsa, Jamaican ska, Afro-Caribbean jazz, Spanish rock and pop, Canada’s biggest participatory Brazilian drumming parade and “family-friendly workshops.” Best of all, it’s all free.

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

2007-World-ZariTrio.jpgLet’s call it a personal rite of spring. Along with those first warm sunny days, I also look forward to engaging with the larger world in concerts at several of our region’s universities and concert halls.

This season, my first focus falls on Toronto’s award-winning vocal and instrumental trio Zari, which performs April 25 at the little jewel of downtown venues, Musideum. Composed of Shalva Makharashvili, Andrea Kuzmich and Reid Robins, Zari (meaning “bell” in Georgian) draws on the rich regional repertoire of the polyphonic songs of the Republic of Georgia. Standing at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, their ancient country is called Sakartvelo by Georgians.

Declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001, Georgian vocal polyphony, with its close harmonies and untempered scales, is characterized by three-part singing in a variety of regional styles. The songs range from the haunting melismatic melodies of the Eastern provinces, to the wild, explosive counterpoint of the West. They also include more recent romantic urban ballads.

Like many other groups I’ve highlighted in this column who have musical affiliations to another part of the world, Zari was made in Toronto. I spoke with the singer, ethnomusicologist and group co-founder Andrea Kuzmich to get the skinny on Zari.

“It was formed in 2003. We met each other a few years earlier at the downtown Toronto living room singing sessions of Darbazi” (Canada’s first Georgian choir). Kuzmich quickly identified a key feature of the group, its dedication to studying the older strata of Georgian music in its birthplace. “We want to deepen our understanding of and feeling for this musical treasure. When Zari performs, we embrace the profundity of Georgian culture: its roots embedded in ancient times, its strength and courage to survive and its inspiring hospitality.” To that end the trio plans to return to Georgia this October for another round of studies and concerts.

And like numerous Canadian groups that reference other geo-cultural milieus, Zari is perhaps better known there than here. Kuzmich notes that during past Georgian tours, “we have performed at the Chveneburebi festival, Festival of Megrelian song, First International Festival of Gurian Song and other festivals that have taken us around the country.” They have also been featured at the “best performance halls of [the capital] Tbilisi, such as the Opera House, and the Philharmonia Concert Hall.”

In addition to formal concert venues, Kuzmich points out the hard-to-overstate significance of the supra. It’s the traditional, often epic, Georgian feast which serves as an important locus for Georgian social culture – and singing. “You know ... there’s a saying that the best performances happen at the supras after the concerts. We can’t really predict how many supras we’ll attend or which ones will be most educational.” And the supra is such an integral part of Georgian culture that it’s not easy to separate the supra from what happens each day. “There will be [formal] toasting every day, if not multiple times in the day, perhaps even around a table while we’re learning a song. In that case the line between supra and lesson gets blurred.”

She gives an example of how such productive blurring can evolve. “[One day] we were all set to have a lesson, but instead had an impromptu midday supra at a small local house-restaurant in Makvaneti, the village of our Gurian [region of Georgia] teachers …. At the supra they sang many songs, interlaced with stories about music-making from when they were little boys, during Soviet times, and today. We sang with them too, sometimes trading off at inner cadence points. We probably sat there for over three hours. All three of us [in Zari] felt inspired and very connected to the tradition [after that experience], and we learned so much in that one sitting.”

I asked about Zari’s Musideum set list. “We’ll be performing songs from several regions of the country,” said Kuzmich. She mentioned a few songs on their long list. One of the Gurian songs is Chven Mshvidoba (Peace to Us). “We are in the process of learning a fourth or fifth variant, though in performance we tend to just let the improvisation happen.” Maglonia, a lyrical song from Samegrelo, features accompaniment by the panduri, a prominent Georgian three-string lute. “There are a few versions we are listening to, but the one we mostly base our version on is by Polikarpe Khubulava, the Georgian master singer who passed away on January 1, 2015,” she added. “We will also do songs from [the regions of] Imereti and Achara, which are similar, though Imereti has more parallel thirds in the top voice, plus one of those dense Svaneti chordal songs. It’s a place which is snowbound for eight months of the year and the songs, like the people, are rugged.”

Zari feels the need to regularly re-connect with those wellsprings of the oral musical tradition they’ve been born into – or as in the case of Kuzmich, chosen – in order to fuel their inspiration and artistry. Their Musideum concert is part of a series of fundraisers to help get them back to Georgia to study with elder master singers, some well past retirement age. In addition to such venerable living connections to the past, the trio also plans to re-connect with researchers at the Conservatoire, including colleagues at the Ethnomusicology Department and the Research Centre for Traditional Polyphony. “Giorgi Donadze, the leader of Basiani [a prominent choir], is also the director of the State Folk Centre, so we’ll be connecting with that institute,” adds Kuzmich. “And we always try to meet up with Anzor Erkomaishvili, who endows us with new publications on Georgian music.”

It’s always exciting to hear such a depth of passion and engagement from an artist. I plan to catch Zari’s Musideum show to hear the latest in the evolution of Georgian music, Toronto style.

World music in the university: April 1 the University of Toronto Faculty of Music holds its annual spring concert of World Music Ensembles at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building. This season it’s the African Drumming and Dancing, Latin American Percussion and Steel Pan student groups’ turn to shine. Kwasi Dunyo, the Ewe master drummer from Ghana who has for two decades been teaching in universities and schools in Canada and the U.S.A. from his Toronto home base, leads the first ensemble. The Latin American percussion group is led by the accomplished Mark Duggan, an orchestral percussionist, composer and jazz musician. Even 32 years ago his highly honed skills were in demand: he was chosen to play with Canada’s first gamelan, the Evergreen Club. Michelle Colton, an emerging multi-percussionist and educator, directs the Steel Pan ensemble.

The next day, on April 2 at noon, the world music focus shifts to the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, where the Conrad Grebel Gamelan Ensemble performs, directed by Maisie Sum. Introduced into the university as a course only two years ago by Sum, the gamelan semara dana, a kind of Balinese tuned percussion-rich instrumental ensemble, is the first of its kind in Southwestern Ontario. In an interview with The WholeNote a year ago professor Sum reported an enthusiastic reception for the music among the students. “Enrollment for the ensemble doubled in the winter term, so we currently have two groups.”

After the excitement of the noon-hour Waterloo Balinese set, there’s still plenty of time to get down to St. Catharines’ Brock University the same day for an evening concert. Jaffa Road performs at the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre, Centre for the Arts. The JUNO short-listed Toronto world music group offers an amalgam of sacred and secular Jewish song, jazz, Indian and Arabic music, with touches of electronica and dub.

2007-World-GilbertoGil.jpgBrazil’s musical ambassador: April 7 the Royal Conservatory of Music presents “Gilberto Gil: Gilberto’s Samba” at Koerner Hall. Hailed as “Brazil’s musical ambassador,” for more than 40 years the singer, composer, guitar player – and former Minister of Culture – has enjoyed an extraordinary career. Gil is perhaps best known as an eloquent exponent of bossa nova, but he is also a pioneer of the tropicalia and Brasileira genres. The New York Times summed up his monumental yet affable stage presence: delicate bossa novas, strummed rockers and intricate sambas … Mr. Gil didn’t trumpet his virtuosity. It was offered genially, like his melodies and his un-didactic thoughts on love, poetic license and mortality.”

Taiko meets tabla: April 11 two established groups on the Toronto world music scene join for an evening of transcultural percussion-centric musical dialogues. The Japanese taiko group Nagata Shachu directed by Kiyoshi Nagata meets the JUNO-nominated Toronto Tabla Ensemble directed by Ritesh Das on the stage of the Brigantine Room, Harbourfront Centre. Having attended concerts by both groups from their early days, it’s evident that collaborations are important to each. Nagata shares that “I feel that the primal and thunderous sounds of the taiko are a perfect complement to the subtle and intricate rhythms of the tabla. Ritesh and I feel a certain connection, both musically and in terms of how we were trained in our respective traditions.” The personal history the two directors share is an important link between their groups. “I am thrilled to be once again working with Kiyoshi Nagata,” reflects Das. “[He was] one of the first artists I collaborated with after coming to Toronto in 1987. When we rehearsed for the first time in 20 years, I felt a new sense of maturity from both ends, which led to an immediate understanding between us. Together we can create a very rich and elegant Indo-Japanese collaboration.” This respectful fusion not only marks an advanced musical maturity, but is a positive thermometer of the future health of Toronto’s world music scene.

At the Aga Khan Museum: A week later the new Aga Khan Museum and the well-established Raag-Mala Music Society of Toronto join forces for the first time in two concerts at the Aga Khan Museum Auditorium. Titled “Miyan-Ki-Daane: Raags of Tansen,” the programs, presented in the Hindustani dhrupad and khayal music genres, celebrate the music of Miyan Tansen, a bright star among the composers and singers of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century North Indian court. His beautiful compositions have been passed on through many generations of oral tradition through the guru-shishya parampara, the particular manner of transmission from teacher to disciple in traditional Indian culture.

The first program April 18 features singer Samrat Pandit and bansuri (bamboo flute) player Rupak Kulkarni. The singer received the prestigious Sangeeta Shiromani Award from the State of Maharashtra just last year, while Kulkarni is widely recognized as a leading bansuri player. On April 19 Uday Bhawalkar, among the foremost exponents of dhrupad singing today, and the respected sitarist Partha Bose, present an unusual 11am late morning concert. Audiences will thus have a rare opportunity to hear raags appropriate to that time of day, a practice still maintained in Hindustani classical music. It’s definitely worth making alternate work arrangements for this concert.

April 24, also at the Aga Khan Museum, sounds of the Sahara, the Magreb and West Africa are blended with contemporary pop and funk by the powerhouse Noura Mint Seymali. This compelling singer, a star in Mauritania, was born into a prominent Moorish griot family. She is also a master of the ardine (nine-stringed harp) and a composer.

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

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