Autorickshaw Tours South Asia

World 25My last column, highlighting the music programming at the Aga Khan Museum, noted the concert appearance of Toronto’s award-winning group Autorickshaw at the AKM auditorium on November 15. I attended the show to get an overview of their current repertoire, the range of which is wide and the boundaries fluid.

In addition to arrangements of South Indian classical and folk songs, original songs and numbers based on tala principles (overlapping Carnatic solkattu and Hindustani tabla bols) alternated with good-humoured ironic takes on 1970s Bollywood hit film songs. “Autorickshawified” hybrid adaptations of songs by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen – “Bird on a Wire” rendered in a relaxed 7/4 – and the jazz standard “Caravan” were among my personal favourites. While vivacious vocalist Suba Sankaran, the heart of the group, claimed front stage centre for most of the concert, the skilled band comprised of Dylan Bell (bass/keyboards/beatboxing), Ed Hanley (tabla), with Ben Riley (drum set) and John Gzowski (guitar) stepping in for the night, shone in solos. “Caravan” was a rollicking example.

Well into Autorickshaw’s second decade of genre-blending musicking, summing up its repertoire, which is very often multi-genre and transnational in reach, is not an effortless undertaking; especially so for a persnickety listener like me. Autorickshaw’s website nevertheless helpfully weighs in, situating its music “on the cultural cutting edge, as contemporary jazz, funk and folk easily rub shoulders with the classical and popular music of India.”

That statement makes such hybridization sound like an easy reach. It’s anything but. Anyone who has seriously attempted it, or listened to fusion experiments where genres from across the world “easily rub shoulders,” knows how easy it is to fail to satisfy musical expectations – and for many reasons. In fact it is one of the most difficult forms of musical alchemy to pull off effectively and gracefully. Having persevered as a group for a dozen years Autorickshaw is proof that diligent work in the transcultural song mines can pay off. In their case it’s been rewarded with two JUNO nominations for World Music Album of the Year and the 2005 Canadian Independent Music Award. In 2008 they were awarded the John Lennon Songwriting Competition Grand Prize in World Music, in addition to the CAPACOA Touring Artist of the Year.

Autorickshaw’s web statement also accurately geographically locates the overlapping bi-continental musical territories the group primarily explores: North America and the Indian subcontinent. Furthermore testing the effectiveness of such transculturalism in the fire of international audiences via touring seems an essential part of the group enterprise. Autorickshaw has done just that. It’s been on the road exporting its “Canadian-made Indo-fusion” not only across its Canadian home base, the U.S.A. and Europe, but also to India during a three-week tour in late 2006.

As I write this the Autorickshaw Trio consisting of Sankaran, Hanley and Bell is preparing for an unprecedented two-month subcontinent-wide tour of at least two dozen dates in ten projected cities in India and Nepal (in Pokhara and Kathmandu). Departing Toronto on November 28, “we are acting as our own agents, mainly cold-calling our way to India and Nepal” wrote Sankaran in an email interview, building on “contacts [made] the last time we toured India.” She further predicted that “once on the ground, we will likely be approached to do other performances in the various regions we are touring. This happened the last time around as well, so we’re trying to build some buffer time for that.”

I asked about the sort of venues they will be playing. Sankaran commented on their diversity. “We are doing a variety of shows, from soft-seaters to outdoor festivals, from clubs to hotel dates, house concerts, workshops in ashrams, and collaborating with string and choral departments in schools; the majority are performances, [but] we’re offering some workshops as well.”

The incentive for the tour initially came from the group’s desire to commemorate, on December 3, 2014 the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal “gas tragedy,” widely considered the world’s worst industrial disaster. Sankaran and Hanley have a personal commitment to the affected people of that city. In 2009 they co-wrote and recorded the song “The City of Lakes.” All proceeds from the song go to the Bhopal Medical Appeal which funds two local clinics offering free healthcare to thousands of survivors. While in Bhopal the Autorickshaw Trio will also appear as the opening act at the Indian premiere of the motion picture about the disaster, A Prayer for Rain, starring Martin Sheen. Another focal point of the tour is the promotion of songs from its strong new album Humours of Autorickshaw, in newly-minted trio arrangements.

In an email interview with Hanley I wondered how exporting Autorickshaw’s hybrid music to South Asia compared to performing and marketing it domestically. He replied with insight and humour: “There may be weight to the Canadian adage that you can’t ‘make it’ at home until you make it elsewhere. I’m not sure why that seems to be true, but anecdotally it does seem to be the case. We’re not trying to make it in India, but perhaps to lay foundations for future tours … The fact that we incorporate a lot of traditional Indian classical elements in our music seems to be a gateway for South Asian audiences. It’s [also] always nice to represent Canada and Canadian music,” on the international stage, therefore “we’re looking forward to playing some Autorickshawified Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Canadian folk songs (“J’entends le Moulin” with solkattu and tabla bols anyone?)”

I asked Hanley how he expected the various genres their repertoire explores to resonate with tour audiences. “We will definitely adapt our repertoire to the venue and audience. For example we’re doing some Christmas carols with local musicians in Darjeeling – at their request. That should be fun!” He added: “New audiences are always an adventure. There is a magic in performing for people who know, and perhaps like, your music, but there’s a very different kind of magic playing for an audience who has never heard you before, hearing the music … for the first time.”

As for South Asian sales of Autorickshaw music mediated via physical product vs downloads, Hanley noted that they “will take some CDs, and will ship a box ahead. We will carry a lot of download cards, which we can give away as a musical business card, or sell much cheaper than a physical CD. [Plus] all our music is online [and we’ve uploaded] lots of videos onto our YouTube channel.”

Hanley neatly summed up the music scene in India: “It’s really happening [with] clubs popping up. There are festivals galore, with lots of bands producing original music. What we do might come from a different place simply because we grew up in Canada and have a strong Western foundation in various forms such as pop, jazz etc. And why are Indian presenters eager to present us? I’m not sure. Could it be our [unique] Canadian perspective on our blend of styles?

On one hand Autorickshaw’s two-month tour sounds like a grand adventure in (re)encountering the roots of some of the musical streams it has been exploring throughout its collective career. It will also no doubt expand the awareness among South Asian audiences of a Canadian world music accent. I for one will enjoy reading the trio’s “reports from the road,” vicariously experiencing their musical travels which will take them on December 15 to the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory, Nepal, and on January 26 to SpringFest in Kharagpur, India.

Following are some of the stories I would likely have written about in depth had I not been sidetracked into talking about covert world music elements embedded in Canadian Christmas repertoire (Aaron Davis, page 14) and Canadian world musicians about to embed themselves in South Asia.

Small World Music Centre: December 5 Nazar-i Turkwaz (My Turquoise Gaze), four leading singers and instrumentalists on the Toronto world music scene, take the Centre’s stage. Brenna MacCrimmon, Maryem Tollar, Sophia Grigoriadis and Jayne Brown are the remarkable musicians whose appearance at the Aga Khan Museum I wrote about last month. Having collected, performed and recorded songs from Turkey, the Middle East, Greece and the Balkans for decades, you can expect masterful renditions of this repertoire, “cultivating a sweet sonic union” along the way.

December 6 may well mark a first in my column: a musical film screening. The Centre presents two films by American director Matthew Dunning collectively tilted The Stirring of a Thousand Bells (2014), released on DVD by the hipster Seattle, Washington label Sublime Frequencies. This fascinating niche publisher focuses exclusively on “acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers.” Its roster encompasses audio field recordings, repackaged folk and pop compilations, radio collages and DVDs, mostly from Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.

Dunning’s films take viewers on a musical-visual journey of life in Central Java, Indonesia, focussing on gamelan music, a regional orchestral practice unbroken – though continuously shifted geographically, refreshed stylistically and hybridized – for some four centuries. In the city of Solo, where a Sultan still reigns, gamelan and its meditative palace dances remain a part of everyday life. I’ve been to Java five times studying and playing gamelan, and still feel like a beginner in the face of the complex interactive music’s inner workings and emotional life. The director will be present to contextualize his own gamelan practice and his films.

Ensemble Polaris: January 18, 2015 at 2pm the Gallery Players of Niagara present Ensemble Polaris in “Definitely Not the Nutcracker” at the Silver Spire United Church, St. Catharines. This fun concert celebrates Tchaikovsky’s popular music for the ballet but with a whimsical twist. Arrangements by the Ensemble alternate with songs and instrumentals from the Russian folk tradition. The instrumentation gives a hint of what they’re up to. Marco Cera (guitar, jarana barroca); Kirk Elliott (violin, Celtic harp, mandolin); Margaret Gay (cello, guiro); Katherine Hill (voice, nyckelharpa); Alison Melville (baroque flute, recorders); Colin Savage (clarinet, bass clarinet); Debashis Sinha (percussion, birimbao) and Jeff Wilson (percussion, musical saw). This new year why not stretch your musical legs, travel to St. Catharines and experience something other than customary?

Master Shajarian: January 31, 2015 [postponed to the fall of 2015] Persian master singer, composer, teacher and instrument innovator Mohammad Reza Shajarian takes centre stage at Roy Thomson Hall. Shajarian has been widely celebrated and decorated at home and internationally. UNESCO in France presented him in 1999 with the prestigious Picasso Award, one of Europe’s highest honours. In 2006 he was decorated with the UNESCO Mozart Medal and he has twice been nominated for the Grammy for Best World Music album. I had the privilege of hearing him sing about a decade ago and was impressed with his mastery of the difficult classical dastgah idiom. His vocal performances are justly savoured for their technical beauty, power and strong emotional presence. This concert is another good way to celebrate your good luck in reaching 2015 in good nick.

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


Music in Focus at the AKM

beat - world1In my last column I briefly introduced the new museum in town, one which is positioning itself to be a significant world music venue and curator: the Aga Khan Museum. Having opened its doors only in the third week of September, its inaugural music festival featured the renowned Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, a group which has collaborated since 2000 with the Aga Khan Music Initiative in concerts elsewhere.

Music is one of the prime “focus areas” of the Aga Khan Development Network, the larger entity behind the museum: the proof is that five groups are being presented in November and four in December. But is the museum really positioned to “become both major cultural destination and player in very short order” as touted by James Adams of The Globe and Mail, or “a vital new addition to Toronto’s cultural landscape” as augured by David Dacks of the Music Gallery?

As I promised, I set out to take a closer look at the AKM and its music programming. I arranged an interview and tour with Amirali Alibhai, the AKM’s head of performing arts and chief architect of its curatorial vision.

I made my trek to the stretch of Don Mills where the museum is sited, north of Eglinton Ave. and between Don Mills Rd. and the D.V.P., on a cool, rainy October weekday afternoon. To a downtowner it may seem “up there” on a mental map, but on an actual map of Toronto, it is not far from the geographic centre of the city. Located on Wynford Dr., the museum is across the street from the notable modernist mid-century Raymond Moriyama-designed Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre where I’ve enjoyed many memorable cultural events, and only a few blocks north and east of the Ontario Science Centre.

Coming face to face for the first time with the imposing white stone-clad AKM building, the new museum on the block’s standards of architectural excellence are self-evident. The 10,000 square-metre building, the design of prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki, skillfully melds postmodern and Islamic design elements and aesthetics. The monolithic building itself is set in a formal garden within expansive grounds where multiple black infinity pools form a traditional char bagh, a Persian-style four-part garden. The pools evocatively reflected and reframed the rainy Don Mills sky as I walked up to the museum’s dramatic front entrance.

Amir Alibhai led me directly to the 336-seat auditorium, the primary venue for music performances. With teak floors and stage, graced with a high, multifaceted white dome, it’s one of the architectural focal points of the AKM. “It’s an ideal site to present an intimate and powerful experience for audiences,” he says, where they can look forward to “varied and innovative cultural programs throughout the year, including music, dance, theatre, book readings and films.” I haven’t had a chance to hear music there yet but the empty space feels intimate and quiet, an acoustic sound-friendly space, underscored by the lack of air ducts in the hall, with ventilation coming from under the seats.

To ward off the early fall chill we sat down for the interview with invigorating cups of dark hot chocolate strengthened with a shot of espresso. The museum’s small café is right next to a square glassed-in courtyard through which sunlight (and reputedly moonlight) filters through Arabic-inflected mashrabiya patterns etched in the glass. Alibhai has already vetted the courtyard as an alternative performance venue, though with five very hard surfaces it’s undoubtedly a reverberant one. He related that a recent performance of Sufi whirling and its accompanying music “worked very well in the glass-walled courtyard, granting both an effective personal ritual space for the performers, as well as allowing the audience to see the performance thorough the glass walls, if they so wished.”

Prior to moving to Toronto to take his AKM position Alibhai was a 40-year Vancouver resident with an extensive career in arts administration – and significant for readers of The WholeNote, a lifetime background in music. He has worked as an exhibited artist, a curator, educator and facilitator of visual and community-based arts for over 20 years. “I was part of the team that initially developed and ran the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre” he said, referring to the innovative arts-centric Yaletown, Vancouver organization whose mission is to “celebrate diversity ... of people, values, ideas and activities.” He has also developed a national perspective, having served on national arts boards such as the Canada Council for the Arts and the Canadian Conference of the Arts. He has clearly had plenty of opportunity during his career to consider the place of the performing arts in public-access spaces. “It may not be obvious to the core identity of the museum that it may also serve as a venue for a series of live concerts and dance performances. But I’m at the table at every curatorial meeting working to closely integrate my programming with planned exhibits,” he says.

The AKM is the first institution in North America “dedicated to the arts of Islamic civilizations.” It’s a goal clearly reflected in the exhibit halls. Visitors can see it in rare and exquisite editions of the Koran, in the sensuous paintings, illustrations, calligraphy, early scientific instruments, sumptuous silk clothing and carpets, as well as 21st-century artworks confronting and reinterpreting the traditions displayed in galleries closer to the entrance.

 Its stated Toronto mission as an oasis of diversity and dialogue is, “to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Islamic civilizations have made to world heritage ... through education, research, and collaboration.”

I ask where live music fits in. “In terms of [our] music programming the vision is to bring the highest calibre of traditional and contemporary performing artists from the broad diaspora of Muslim cultures to audiences. Music is particularly well suited as a creative medium that inherently engages artists and audiences in cross-cultural understanding and dialogue. “

beat - world2Concerts at the Aga Khan Museum: In an earlier interview AKM educational consultant Patricia Bentley talked about how Islam has always responded to local traditions.” Alibhai’s programming choices to date put that vision into action. In November the five acts over eight concerts demonstrate an even-handed admixture of Canadian, international and local talent, some embedded in the global Islamic community, but also some only peripherally engaged with it.

The series launches November 1 with the show “Memory and Presence of Rumi: Mystic Music of Iran.” Presented by an international group consisting of a quartet of Persian musicians and a dancer, it is co-led by the prominent kamancheh (bowed spiked lute) player and composer Saeed Farajpouri and the Vancouver tar (plucked long-necked lute) master Amir Koushkani. Siavash Kaveh on the frame drum daf, Araz Nayeb Pashayee on the goblet drum tombak and Farzad AJ dancing the whirling Sama round out the ensemble. The concert’s theme is the poetry of Rumi, the great 13th century Sufi mystic. His works and ethos still resonate today across centuries and cultures.

November 8, the focus shifts to a local quartet of singers, but one with an international gaze – Nazar-i Turkwaz (My Turquoise Gaze) – a relatively new collective comprising Brenna MacCrimmon, Maryem Tollar, Sophia Grigoriadis and Jayne Brown. For over 30 years they have individually been collecting and performing traditional repertoire from various regions on or inland from the Mediterranean, in groups such as Maza Meze, Mraya, Doula and Altin Yildiz Orkestra, counting several JUNO nominations along the way. In a Facebook chat with MacCrimmon, in Turkey at the time, she confirmed that “the repertoire is a potpourri of Balkan, Greek, Turkish, [Middle Eastern] and beyond ... with lots of harmony [in our singing].” I don’t want to wait for the album, but plan to enjoy the sweet harmonies live.

The established local group Autorickshaw mount the AKM auditorium stage on November 15. This award-winning genre-bending group is no stranger to these pages. I gave the group’s terrific new album The Humours of Autorickshaw a resoundingly enthusiastic review on July 8, 2014 in The WholeNote. The lineup this night consists of vocalist Suba Sankaran, Dylan Bell (bass/keyboards), Ben Riley (drums), John Gzowski (guitar) and Ed Hanley (tabla). This is the last chance for Toronto audiences to catch Autorickshaw before their trio configuration heads off to India and Nepal on an unprecedented two-month subcontinent-wide tour of ten cities.

Skipping to November 27 and 28, Toronto audiences get another chance to hear one of today’s stars of world music, DakhaBrakha. They are presented with the support of Small World Music. Founded on solid taproots of Ukrainian village songs (and dress), these Kyiv-based performers add musical instruments and vocabularies of other cultures. Moreover they present their songs with the use of popular music microphone techniques, powerfully sung melodies and a theatrical performance art sensibility. It all makes for a striking show, the energy and attitude of which resonates with even those for whom their lyrics are a mystery.

Another performer with a growing international reputation is the Pakistani Sanam Marvi, emerging as an outstanding singer of ghazal, Pakistani folk songs and Sufi music. She gives two concerts on November 29 and 30. Marvi, a student of her father, Fakir Ghulam Rasool, devoted years of study to Sufi poetry and today is recognized as one of the leading singers in that tradition to emerge from the Sindh. Whether singing in Urdu, Sindhi or Saraiki, her aim is to “reach across generations and cultures” with her songs.

December 5 and 6 the Aga Khan Museum presents its first multimedia performance, the world premiere of “Siavash: Stories from the Shah-Nameh.” Written and directed by composer and award-winning sound designer Shahrokh Yadegari, this “page-to-stage” work explores the trials of Prince Siavash as depicted in the Persian epic Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings) through storytelling, music and projected images. Numerous manuscripts of this popular poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010, and illustrated over centuries, are on permanent rotational display at the museum. The cast of Siavash features Gordafarid as the naqal (narrator), Siamak Shajarian (vocalist) and Keyavash Nourai (violin, cello, kamancheh). This world premiere music theatre work neatly aims to bring centuries-old manuscripts alive on stage.

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

Music at the Aga Khan Museum

Even before the construction dust had settled in its galleries, the shiny new granite-clad Aga Khan Museum had, in quick order, been touted in many media reports and by our Prime Minister as a key addition to Toronto’s multi/inter/trans-cultural topography. Yes, it has elegant Fumihiko Maki-designed architecture and a world-class collection dedicated to the arts of Muslim civilizations, but it also promises to be a significant music programmer and destination for citizens and tourists alike.

The museum has only been open since September 18 but live music has already animated the impressive spaces within its walls. The AKM’s programming focusses on  Islamic diversity, encompassing and celebrating a vast range of cultural geographies energizing the GTA. In its opening flourish of concerts the museum’s programming also shows itself to be admirably ecumenical, auguring well for the myriad ways cultures interact musically here. 

October 3 at Koerner Hall the AKM marks one of its first co-presentations with The Royal Conservatory of Music – also part of the Small World Music Festival – an evening featuring Indian-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia (her cover story was featured in the September 2014 issue of The WholeNote) and Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali. The latter is a ten-member Pakistani group, a leading representative of the art of qawwali, Sufi devotional songs accompanied by tabla and harmonium. While the two groups are playing two separate sets in the concert, they will collaborate on one song. This column will undoubtedly revisit the AKM museum’s programs in the future.

BBB-World2The Small World Music Festival: Last issue I focused tightly on one late September concert within the Small World Music Festival, which runs until October 5. The series sets out, in its words, to “capture the world in a ten-day festival.” Here are a few others I’d like to highlight.

October 1 the spotlight falls on the music of North and South India; usually presented individually, they are here combined on the Flato Markham Theatre stage. Zakir Hussain, among the world’s preeminent tabla virtuosi, represents the Northern tradition. He joins veena maestra Jyanthi Kumaresh and violin maestro Kumaresh Rajagopalan, both representing the Southern, or Carnatic, music lineage. Rajagopalan is among India’s leading Carnatic violinists (a standard-issue fiddle but played in an inverted position, sitting on the floor), while Kumaresh performs on the veena, a plucked string instrument with ancient Indian roots. The two traditions have multiple points of divergence in music theory, as well as performance. Therefore it’s always exciting to witness top musicians from each camp issuing musical challenges, because the two parties must inevitably negotiate common ground in terms of pitch, drone tones, tempi and musical repertoire. They must also agree on phrases ending on sum (sam), the downbeat and point of resolution in both rhythm and melody.

October 5 “Cover Me Globally” occupies the intimate Small World Music Centre. The musicians on this particular evening are Drew Gonsalves, the singer-songwriter of Kobo Town; Aviva Chernick, the lead singer of Jaffa Road; Donne Roberts, a member of the African Guitar Summit; and Lisa Patterson, singer-songwriter with ROAM. Each of these Canadian artists embodies musical influences which extend in four different global directions. “Cover Me Globally” sets out to explore what happens when songs cross genre, culture and language. We’ll find out what happens when the “Canadian cultural diaspora … connects through its songwriters.”

Other Picks

BBB-World1NEXUS in the World: October 27 the venerable percussion ensemble NEXUS takes the Walter Hall, University of Toronto stage in a program that also features the Persian vocalist Sepideh Raissadat. NEXUS has from its beginnings incorporated elements of global musics in its diverse concerts and this show is no exception. Founding group member Russell Hartenberger’s percussion ensemble composition, The Invisible Proverb (2002), for example, exhibits substantial African references. Persian composer and setar player Reza Ghassemi’s Persian Songs, arranged by Hartenberger, is sung by Music Faculty doctoral candidate Raissadat, the first female soloist to perform publically in Iran since the 1979 revolution. It is another example of the cultural dialogue encouraged throughout the group’s career. In this case it’s between Persian and North American musical cultures. Twentieth-century modernist and postmodernist classics also have a central place in the core NEXUS repertoire. In this concert they also re-visit Steve Reich’s 1973 luminous minimalist opus Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices & Organ, itself profoundly influenced by the composer’s study of West African ensemble music.

Fado in the City: November 5, presented by The Royal Conservatory in association with Small World Music, singer Ana Moura headlines at Koerner Hall. At the breaking wave of the fado music renaissance, re-interpreting this soul music of Portugal for a new generation of international audiences, Moura typically sings her heartbreaking songs accompanied by a trio of a Portuguese guitar plus two classical guitars. “Even among the new breed of fado singers, which has dared to deviate from a rigid tradition, Ms. Moura is a distinctly worldly superstar,” wrote The New York Times. I couldn’t have said it better.

Polaris Music Prize Trailer: As seasoned concertgoers well know, not many formal music performances last much longer than the usual 90 minutes. That odd hybrid, the music award show, made even more tedious for general music buffs due to long pauses between performances for set changes, TV, and other media breaks, is an exception. Ever the eager reporter for The WholeNote, however, I managed to convince our stern publisher that I should obtain media accreditation for the Polaris Music Prize gala. It was the first time our august magazine was represented at the Polaris.

My story? I was following up on my review of the avant-garde Inuk vocalist Tanya Tagaq’s June 10, 2014 concert at Luminato published on The WholeNote blog. She has performed, toured and recorded with Björk, the Kronos Quartet and the Winnipeg Symphony, but it was her astounding CD Animism that had been short-listed for the Polaris best Canadian album of the year, a surprise to some in the mainstream music industry. Suited up and media pass in hand, I was set to take it all in at The Carlu on the night of September 22. Little did I know how sleep-deprived I was going to be the next day.

Many of you undoubtedly know how the endgame of this grand Cinderella music story unfolded, since it was splashed over the national media the next day. On the other hand much of its musical colour and significance for Canadian music hasn’t filtered through to the media – yet. Fortunately for you, and especially for those who have never heard of the Polaris, your hard-working reporter has the play-by-play, the inside scoop. For a backstage pass to Tanya Tagaq’s jaw-dropping ten-minute performance with her musicians backed up by Element, the Toronto improvising choir of 40 conducted by Christine Duncan, along with her political and provocative comments, I will be covering the story in detail on our blog at thewholenote.com.

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

 

Vicarious Guča

bbb - world viewIt’s a warm sunny weekend day in late August and here I am sequestered in my office. I’m imagining perverse things like concerts in chilly October, when I’d rather be gone fishing, metaphorically speaking that is. The lyrics of a famous 20th-century standard come to mind reminding me that it’s supposed to be the season when “the livin’ is easy.” Except it’s been a busy, busy working summer around here. But enough of my moaning. This morning I rose thinking of singing and world music festivals soon to come.

Ashkenaz: By the time you read this the always fabulous biennial Ashkenaz Festival, billed as “North America’s largest festival of global Jewish music and culture,” will be wrapping up at the Harbourfront Centre, along with almost all of the hot, long days. (We can but hope for a handful more.) This is Ashkenaz’s tenth celebration, with over 200 artists from more than 12 countries participating in dozens of events from August 29 to September 1. As usual tradition (i.e. “Havdallah”) rubs elbows with musical cross-cultural fusion (i.e. “Aaron Kula – Black Sabbath: Blues & Jews,” and “David Buchbinder’s Odessa/Havana”), along with the downright friendly-weird (i.e. “Deep-Fried Gypsy Cumbia”). You can’t say the festival doesn’t have a sense of humour.

Small World Music: The fall season starts properly with the Small World Music Festival, this year running from September 25 to October 5. The series sets out to “capture the world in a ten-day festival,” bringing the music of India, Germany, Trinidad, Serbia, Iran and Pakistan to Toronto venues.

Instead of my usual practice of chronologically going down the listings and issuing “picks” from on high, in this column I’m changing it up and sharing a more in-depth commentary on one of the concerts. I think it’s in keeping with “the livin’ is easy” attitude, don’t you?

September 26 Small World Music Festival in association with AE presents the Boban & Marko Markovic Orkestar at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. Superlatives from The New York Times and the Boston Herald precede the Orkestar’s appearance. Rather than repeating those, I propose a little vicarious field trip to Eastern Europe,  to an unlikely, remarkable festival that launched the rkestar’s success, taking this multigenerational Romani band from Serbian village weddings to large urban concert halls around the world. Consider this a page in your pocket guidebook.

What takes place in the central Serbian village of Guča is undeniably a global musical phenomenon. Since 1961 this tiny sleepy village is transformed each year into the raucous hub of the closely contested and widely popular annual Guča Trumpet Festival. It’s also the world’s largest trumpet competition – and for thousands, licence to show off, get rowdy and imbibe large quantities of their beverage of choice. A remarkable 300,000 to more than 500,000 people have swelled the village site each year, most to hear top Serbian and Balkan-style brass bands play in highly contested competitions. Some have claimed it’s the largest music event anywhere. During the festival, bands from Serbia and all over the world play on the competition stage and also wander, performing in the village’s streets night and day. This wild scene is illustrated in the 2013 U.S. feature documentary Brasslands.

The Boban Markovic Orkestar has long been among Guča’s leading contenders. It took the Best Orchestra award in 2000, as well as the coveted Best Trumpet prize for its maestro no fewer than five times. As for Boban, dubbed the “king of Balkan Brass music,” ever the gracious winner, he has retired from the competition and set his sights further afield. In the last decade he has aimed to reach international audiences through his contributions to movies, as well as by taking his funky and frenetic arrangements of dance-worthy brass music – sometimes described as “Balkan and/or Gypsy roots music” – on tour to global stages.

Following Serbian Romani tradition, in 2006 Boban Markovic formally handed over his orchestra to his son and successor, Marko, on his 18th birthday. Global Rhythm magazine opined, “With nods to klezmer, jazz, Latin and deep-fried funk injected into the mix, the … Orkestar knows where their music’s been but they’re hell-bent on slinging it straight into the future.” This multigenerational musical powerhouse has harnessed brass virtuosity, macho lyrics, lightning tempi, pop kit drumming, Romani vocals and the occasional rap, all delivered with infectious energy. The Orkestar then morphed it all into a populist style that has allowed it to segue from Serbian village celebrations to the floors of trendy Central European dance clubs.

You can join me on the evening of September 26 at the Phoenix. I’ll be the guy at the back soaking up the Orkestar’s vibrations, with a small glass of šljivovica if they stock it, toasting the end of summer.

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

 

Leitmotifs, Topical & Tropical

1909 World 1It’s still May as I write this, yet in that disconcerting way Mother Nature has in Southern Ontario, hot sticky weather’s already suddenly, shockingly arrived. “Why settle for mere spring when you can have summer?” she seems to be asking rhetorically. It almost feels like an ironic taunt coming after that miserably long winter we just endured. But as surely as the arrival of the humidex, BBQs, picnics, heatwaves and dog days – summer’s here to tarry awhile.

One of the first signs of the official arrival of our outdoor music season is the Luminato Festival. Now in its eighth year, it runs Friday, June 6 through Sunday, June 15. Luminato bills itself as “Toronto‘s international multi-arts festival” which for ten days each June transforms Toronto’s “theatres, parks and public spaces with hundreds of events celebrating theatre, dance, music, literature, food, visual arts, magic, film.” Festival artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt and his team’s ambitious aim is to reflect “Toronto as a crossroads of ideas, cultures and traditions.”

In order to navigate through the dozens of concerts scheduled and to get a firm handle on the urban geography of the downtown David Pecaut Square, I spoke with veteran world music programmer Derek Andrews, Luminato’s music curator. “There are two stages at what we call the Festival Hub, the large Pecaut Stage, and new this year: the smaller Slaight Stage.” In addition, the featured site installation this year will lend a suitably tropical feel to Pecaut Square. Luminato has commissioned Cuba‘s Los Carpinteros to design an ingenious surfside-themed environment titled Cardboard Beach stocked with loungers, umbrellas and lifeguard stations.

“One of our themes this year is a celebration of the performing arts of the Americas with a focus on the Caribbean and Latin America, in anticipation of Toronto’s 2015 Pan American Games,” added Andrews. “Audiences will be able to experience a tropical Toronto, with samples of samba, cumbia, reggae and other funky party music. We have also taken the Festival Hub up a notch with three ticketed attractions, The Roots, TV On The Radio and Ziggy Marley.” I’ll train my spotlight on a few of the world music concerts by both local and international musicians. For more, please see our listings and the well-appointed Luminato website.

The Pan American tropical leitmotif is front and centre on June 6. It’s a triple bill opening with Interactivo, the star Cuban music collective layering jazz, funk, soul and rap atop bed tracks of Afro-Cuban rhythms, melodies and harmonies. Singer-songwriter Emeline Michel “the Queen of Haitian Creole song” highlights the island nation’s rara and compass musical genres. JUNO-Award-winning proponent of nouveau flamenco Jesse Cook shares the late evening stage with the Toronto-based Amanda Martinez, with whom he shares an affinity of influences including flamenco, Mexican and South African music.

June 10 four First Nations’ acts grace The Hub in the exciting program “Northern Lights and Music.” Nick Sherman opens the night at 6pm on the Slaight Stage. His songs, deeply rooted in his Northwestern Ontario experiences, are characterised by an “uneasy, yet always fluid transition between unabashed joy and sorrow.” The JUNO-Award-winning five-piece Toronto band Digging Roots follows, co-led by musical partners Raven Kanatakta and ShoShona Kish. Their genre-blending music has been dubbed “Indie roots,” “global blues” and “Aboriginal alternative.” Best I think to hear them live as they access and layer even more vernacular musical styles including hip-hop and reggae with a very good chance of bluesy undertones.

Buffy Sainte-Marie then takes the Pecaut Stage. Certainly among Canada’s most compelling female singer-songwriters, Sainte-Marie’s impressive career spans some two dozen albums. And her Cree heritage is never far from her voice. Wielding her impressive melodic gifts, incisive lyrics and grippingly expressive vocals, she’s perhaps best known for assaying the glories and tribulations of indigenous people across the Americas. While unflinchingly “speaking truth to power” Sainte-Marie is however never afraid to rock out.

Capping the evening the brilliantly innovative Inuk vocalist Tanya Tagaq and her band perform live music to American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty’s classic silent film Nanook of the North (1922). While widely considered a groundbreaking documentary film it has in recent decades been contested, viewed as being contaminated by directed dramatic scenes in the “salvage ethnography” genre. Tagaq is celebrated for her concerts with Björk and the Kronos Quartet. On this project she digs into her own Nunavut childhood and subsequent musical creations, along with music by Canadian composer Derek Charke, to challenge and reclaim aspects of Flaherty’s feature film, animating the film’s directed silent set pieces with emotive soundscapes.

Toronto Music Garden: I’ve spent many pleasant summer evenings over the years listening and even on occasion playing at Harbourfront Centre’s cool and colourful Toronto Music Garden. The garden was co-designed in 1999 by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and landscape architect Julie Moir Messervy to reflect Bach’s Suite No.1 for Cello. No doubt about it, though the imaginatively curated (by Tamara Bernstein) free summer-long concert series held there is on an intimate scale, it’s nevertheless a music festival. It is certainly one of Toronto’s perennial musical treasures. This garden by the lake resounds with culturally diverse concerts most Thursdays and Sundays in the summer. Here’s a sampling.

The season opener on July 3 is titled “Kahnekaronnion” (The Waters). Singing in English and Mohawk, the Akwesasne Women Singers share their songs honouring Hodenausaunee women’s experiences, wisdom and humour. The group is joined by Odawa composer and flutist Barbara Croall performing her compositions on traditional cedar flute.

July 6 marks the Toronto debut of the Vancouver based trio Lalun in “Dreams from Andalusia and the Silk Road.” Featuring the eclectic musicality of Liron Man (hang drum, flamenco guitar), Lan Tung (erhu and vocals) and Jonathan Bernard (percussion), Lalun merges their musical voices in an exploration of Spanish, Chinese and other cultural landscapes.

Vocalist Bageshree Vaze and Vineet Vyas (tabla) return to the Music Garden on July 24. In “Music from the Gardens of India” they present Hindustani classical songs with garden themes, including depictions of the iconic love story of Krishna and Radha in the garden of Vrindavan.

August 14 Jayme Stone’s group takes the space under the imposing overarching willow tree. His “Lomax Project” celebrates the work of famed folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002) by reviving, recycling and re-imagining the traditional music he recorded and analyzed. Jayme Stone (banjo, voice) is joined by Eli West (voice, guitar, bouzouki), Margaret Glaspy (voice, guitar), Brittany Haas (fiddle, voice) and Greg Garrison (bass).

Hanabi: Musical Fireworks in the Garden” on August 21 presents garden regulars Nagata Shachu, Toronto’s leading taiko ensemble, in a program inspired by the Japanese word for fireworks. Hanabi combines the kanji characters for “flower” and “fire.” Judging from the sonic power of their drums Nagata Shachu will probably only require a minimal PA.

August 24 the Sarv Ensemble takes the audience on “Seyr-o Safar: A Musical Journey Across Iran.” Joined by virtuoso percussionist Pedram Khavarzamini, the group performs a wide range of folk and classical Persian music in their own arrangements.

Closing the season on September 4 the U.S.-based Veretski Pass Trio, among the world’s most celebrated klezmer ensembles, presents “Jewish Music from the Carpathian Bow.” Their rare repertoire centres on pre-World War II Jewish music from Carpathian Ruthenia, Bessarabia, Ukraine and Romania as well as from the former Ottoman Empire. It’s arranged for accordion, violin, cimbalom, double bass plus other regional traditional instruments, and performed in their compelling virtuoso-raw village style.

1909 World 2TD Sunfest 2014: London, Ontario’s TD Sunfest 2014 celebrates its 20th anniversary as “Canada’s premier free-admission festival of the global arts” from July 3 to July 6. I used to frequent the festival when it was a more modest affair, charmed by its small-town feel. Today TD Sunfest turns downtown London’s Victoria Park into a culturally diverse party where over “35 outstanding world music and jazz groups representing almost every region of the planet entertain on five stages.”

This summer’s headliners include Cuban dance band stars Los Van Van, the “ferocious folk foursome from Manchester, UK” 4Square, and Comas (Ireland/Belgium/USA), a band which bills itself as “a unique blend of traditional Irish music.” Also featured is the Swedish "folk 'appella" quartet Kongero. These four women coax traditional Swedish music out of its rural past, performing it with precision, emotion and humour. Paul White of Soundonsound cheekily quipped that they’reliving proof that Autotune didn’t need to be invented.”

With more than 275 exhibitors and food vendors at TD Sunfest you come for the music and sun, but tarry for the international food, clothes, crafts and camaraderie you find there.

Afrofest 2014: Music Africa presents Afrofest 2014 at Woodbine Park on July 5 and 6, starting at 1pm on both days.

At time of writing the Afrofest programming had not been finalized, but African and Canadian musicians will perform alongside a Children’s Village and African-centric food, artifact and clothing vendors. Visit the Music Africa website for more detailed program information.

May all you wonderful readers have a fun and safe summer filled with comforting as well as challenging sounds from around the world. See you all in the fall.

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


Back to top