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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


World Musics’ Fourfold Reach

The sometime commercial music category and now broad notion I call world musics is manifest in many, ever-varied ways. It also appears to be spreading geographically to ever more communities in Southern Ontario. Concert presenters are a major vector for this diffusion. It’s notable that aspects of the world’s musics this month and next appear in programs by presenters as different as supper clubs, conservatories of music, classical new music producers, colleges and universities, as well as not-for-profit societies and venues. Yet they all claim to be presenting world music. Some of these presenters have a specific music genre, geographic or cultural construct as a focus, while others a much broader mandate, challenging received ideas of mono-ethnicity embedded in neighbourhood and community by encouraging hybrid exchanges.

I’ve explored in depth individual presenters such as Small World Music in previous columns. This time I thought it would be both fun and instructive to explore four disparate presenters for commonalities and differences, each promoting their event as a festival. Let’s see what Lulaworld 2014, the Mateca Arts Festival, Royal Conservatory of Music’s 21C Music Festival – all in Toronto – plus Conrad Grebel University College’s Sound in the Land in Waterloo have in store for our adventurous ears.

1908-WorldViewLulaworld 2014: Running from May 18 to June 7 Lulaworld 2014, the ninth such annual festival presented by the Lula Music and Arts Centre, showcases Toronto’s top world, jazz and Latin musicians, often performing alongside celebrated international colleagues. In a telephone conversation with Tracy Jenkins, Lula’s co-artistic director, she underscored this year’s theme. “In anticipation of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games, Lulaworld will focus on artists with cultural roots in Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Trinidad, Guadaloupe and Brazil.” She added that musicians with other musical influences, those “from Angola, Israel, Portugal, Turkey and Italy” also have a place on this year’s roster. In addition, for “the very first time, the festival will conclude with a day of free outdoor programming as part of the Dundas [Street] West Fest on June 7.”

I counted 19 separate concerts in Lulaworld. On one date alone, the free Dundas West Fest where the street is closed to traffic, eight groups have been programmed to play on the al fresco stage. I can therefore only touch on a few of the concerts here. The opener on Sunday May 18 kicks off with the Montreal-based singer, pianist and composer Malika Tirolien. Born in Guadaloupe, she soulfully mashes up Antillean, funk, jazz and gospel musical influences. Then the Juno-nominated Toronto group Kobo Town takes the Lula stage with their alternative take on the venerable Trini calypsonian tradition.

There are two shows on May 30. At 7pm the outstanding keyboardist, Grammy-nominated, Juno Award-winning Hilario Duran takes over Lula’s piano for a rare solo concert in his home repertoire of original works, Cuban and jazz standards. At 10pm the Turkish Latin vocalist Zeynep Ozbilen appears with Roberto Linares Brown, among Canada’s most respected salsa bandleaders and composers, plus a nine-piece band. Ozbilen brings a new project, developed with Brown, which she evocatively describes as “Latin with Mediterranean spices.”

In the last in-venue concert on June 6, headliners Jimmy Bosch and Ralph Irizarry with The Lula All Stars demonstrate an important aspect of Lulaworld’s programing: mentorship of local musicians by international stars. Lula co-artistic director Jenkins pointed out that “Jimmy Bosch, a fiery exponent of the progressive sound he calls ‘salsa dura’ (hard salsa) is New York’s most sought after [Latin music] trombonist. And NYC timbalero Ralph Irizarry [aka] the ‘Godfather of Lula’ is a legend of salsa percussion.” They’re both making repeat visits to Lula and will lead workshops and share stage time with our city’s All Stars. You’re encouraged to come for the tropical fusion dinner, take abeginner salsa lesson and stay afterward to dance salsa, merengue, bachata and top 40 to the post-show DJs.

Mateca Arts Festival: In contrast to Lulaworld’s well-seasoned operation, this is the first edition of the Mateca Arts Festival. This “Community Multi-Arts Celebration,” notes its press release, is “inspired by the riches of Latin American culture … honouring the diversity of the city of Toronto. Approximately 15 countries will be represented: Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Spain, USA and Brazil amongst others.”

The festival takes place in Burwash Quad, Victoria College, University of Toronto on June 7 and 8. This an all-inclusive type of cultural gathering, the kind that Harbourfront Centre has popularized over the years, replete with musicians, dancers, visual artists, arts and crafts, food vendors, karaoke, workshops and yoga. Even “motivational speeches” are listed.

For world music fans however perhaps the outstanding event is the trio concert led by the Argentinean singer Beatriz Pichi Malen. With a thriving international concert and recording career, Malen draws on her deep-rooted native Mapuche (indigenous people of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina) heritage. Her trio performs songs, some inter-generationally passed on, dominated by themes from the natural world and by the Mapuche worldview centred on its intimate and harmonious relationship with Mother Earth. Among the indigenous instruments the group plays to accompany their songs are the kashkawilla (bell rattles),kultrung (drum), trompe (jews harp), and truutruka (valveless horn). The native Quechua dancer Lucho Cruz adds to the concert’s Andean flavour with her choreography illustrating what the press release poetically calls “passages of sacred moments in an open and arid geography, splashed by the southern wind.”

21C Music Festival:The venerable Royal Conservatory, with its Koerner and other halls, is certainly no newcomer to presenting a sweeping variety of music, though admittedly until the 21st century it was mostly of the Euro-American classical variety. The RC’s five-year-old Koerner world music series offerings on the other hand have often been mentioned in this column.

The 21C Music Festival, running from May 21 through 25 is a brand new RC project hosting seven ensembles and numerous soloists, most of them Canadian. The media kit reflects one artistic inspiration for the event. Philanthropist Michael Koerner first quotes composer Charles Ives and then remarks that “21C Music Festival is … about ear stretching.” One of the ear stretching elements evidently is music outside the Euro-American classical mainstream. Let’s call it world music for the lack of a better term.

Of all the individual works and non-orchestral instruments in the festival which could claim world music provenance I’d like to focus on the concert on May 23. Titled “After Hours #1,” the event begins late, approximately at 10pm, at the Conservatory Theatre. It features the compositions and performances of two drummer-composers, Trichy Sankaran and Gurpreet Chana, respectively representatives of the South Asian “classical” Carnatic and Hindustani musical traditions.

The internationally renowned Indian-Canadian percussion virtuoso and York University music professor Sankaran has been a prominent performer on the Toronto scene since the early 1970s. He has been commissioned by the RC to compose a new work for this occasion. His Hamsa (2014) for the 21C Ensemble consisting of violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet and Sankaran on the mrdangam (Carnatic barrel-shaped drum) will receive its world premiere at the concert. New music by Sankaran is in itself cause for celebration.

Gurpreet Chana grew up in Canada and studied Indian tabla (double drum) in the Punjab gharana (school/style). He also presents a world premiere, TABLIX, for solo tabla and electronics. In his notes, Chana states that TABLIX is the “product of four years of meticulous research and development … explor[ing] technology’s impact on the untapped melodic potential of the tabla.” Chana’s early experiences as a second-generation South Asian immigrant in Canada echo many other musicians’ experiences, “characterized by interactions with every type of musician.” It is an environment that instils an openness that echoes clearly throughout TABLIX which invites the listener to experience and communicate with contemporary music culture through the eyes of the tabla player.

Sound in the Land 2014 Festival: As illustrated in my last column, world music concerts have also taken root in Waterloo, Ontario. Presented by Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo, the Sound in the Land 2014: Music and the Environment Festival, June 5 to 8, consists of a series of concerts plus a conference. Several of the Mennonite-centred, musical and ecologically themed concerts have world music threads as well as mainstream Euro-American ones. On the June 5 “Mennofolk Concert” the Buffleheads, a trio, perform what is intriguingly described as “Afro-grass” repertoire, a new (sub)genre to me. June 6 at the University of Waterloo’s Humanities Theatre in the concert titled “Sonic Convergences: Orchestra and Multimedia,” the Korean composer and media artist Cecilia Heejeong Kim stages her engaging multimedia piece Earth Songs(2009), for Korean instrumentsand Korean vocals.

Then at the Saturday matinee on June 7 the Grebel Gamelan directed by Maisie Sum plays Balinese instrumental music on the  Grebel Chapel’s patio (in keeping with the open-air presentation typical of performances in the music’s tropical homeland).

Weaving together Lulaworld’s Latin and Luso core with Mateca Arts Festival’s South and Central American community multi-arts celebration, then adding the 21C Music Festival’s embrace of performer-composers outside the received classical composer matrix and finally the multi-hued threads of Conrad Grebel’s Afro-grass, Korean ecological theatre, Balinese gamelan and choral kecak, it becomes clear that these and other such presenters are key actors defining the practice and transmission of world music in our time.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Smartphone Serendipity Not The Only Way

worldview grebel gamelan feb. 2  2014 in theservice of therockway mennonitechurch  rockwaynews issue 22 2014-kitchener on-final fotoA recent article, “The five types of music discovery” by Stuart Dredge (The Guardian March 19, 2014), examines current ways some people “find new bands and songs.” He wonders what future search methods may be employed and his answer appears to centre on the smartphone holding the key to such searches. Dredge argues that the popular music industry is anxious to discern consumers’ tastes and choices in order to deliver what it feels listeners want, characterizing it as “music discovery.” It’s a process driven by commercial interests increasingly tied to mobile apps. Dredge proposes five platforms for music discovery. They are “friends, the crowd, curators, algorithms and serendipity,” all of which he links to smartphone and tablet platforms. Some of these domains use social networks as a “music discovery funnel.”

Dredge’s extended discussion of the role of digital music discovery in the commercial environment may puzzle, disturb, fascinate or elicit a combination of those responses from readers of this column. I have my own reservations. First of all there are clearly many more kinds of music and many more ways to discover them than he cares to deal with. Yet it got me thinking. Are there/will there ever be apps with the potential to create new audiences for world music, opening ears to a transnationally coloured musical palette?

Can commodified music discovery serve as a possible metaphor, or even a model, for the expansion of awareness of musics seen from a global perspective? How can various world musics grow their participants and audiences in our multicultural and multiethnic society? In addition to apps, which currently focus on the search and acquisition of popular commercial music genres, I can think of many other platforms through which this process occurs. They include: recordings on vinyl, tape, CD and other digital media; broadcasts of various types; the online blogosphere and social media; the live concert hall, pub, club, community centre; Meetups, hands-on playing workshops and community groups meeting in consulates and embassies.

Those interested can seek, discover and experience music from outside one’s culture of birth by all these means and I’ve touched on activities at many of them over my years at The WholeNote. Even faith-based congregations present an opportunity for such discovery: see the end of this column for an example.

Yet another platform for world music discovery is the performance courses offered at Canadian schools, conservatories, colleges and universities. Once a rarity and to a degree a novelty in the 1970s and 1980s, they are slowly becoming embedded in an increasing number of music schools alongside the received canon of classical Western music offerings.

Gamelan: I’m going to examine this process through a case study of the introduction of the instruments and repertoire of the gamelan begun in Canada in the 1980s. Emblematic of interactive communal music making, at its core gamelan is orchestral music indigenous to several regions of Indonesia. It’s played on multiple types of tuned and untuned percussion instruments but also often features wind and string instruments, as well as solo and group vocals. The source of this music is about as geographically removed as possible from Toronto, but it’s a subject close to my heart. For over three decades its study, performance and teaching have been my musical staples. During that time I’ve witnessed the incremental growth of the gamelan scene which in 1982 had no resident Canadian performers. Then only a handful of LPs and the very occasional Indonesian touring group booked in our larger halls gave any hint of the musical treasures awaiting our discovery.

In the U.S. gamelan music touched down earlier. Theatrical gamelan performances were staged daily by a visiting group at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, of which audio recordings still exist captured on early cylinder technology. The inauguration of the formal study and performance of gamelan music by Americans however dates from the mid-1950s when Mantle Hood began teaching Javanese gamelan privately in his California home. One of the founders of ethnomusicology, Hood first offered the course “Music and Dance of Java” at UCLA in the 1964-65 academic year; the Javanese musician Hardja Susilo taught the dance component. From that single course today dozens of academic gamelan programs flourish in North American colleges in addition to up to 200 active community groups.

In Canada several of gamelan music’s trailblazers were composers. They introduced it to both concert halls and universities. In 1983 the Toronto-based composer Jon Siddall formed the independent professional group Evergreen Club Gamelan playing on a Sundanese gamelan degung named Si Pawit. Three years later composition professor José Evangelista founded the Atelier de gamelan de l’Université de Montréal, its students playing in Balinese angklung and gong kebyar ensembles. Around the same time Vancouver composer Martin Bartlett brought a complete Central Javanese gamelan to Simon Fraser University and used it to conduct the “Music of Two Worlds Summer Music Intensives.” Participants not only learned the techniques of Indonesian gamelan and dance, but also that of interactive computer music, culturally disparate elements which Bartlett provocatively had students combine in composition and performance.

At the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, Dr. Annette Sanger, an ethnomusicologist specialist in the music of Bali, has directed her Balinese gamelan semar pegulingan performance course for over two decades. Spreading the music to new audiences in the 1980s I found myself among the first in Canada to lead occasional gamelan music workshops. They were held in Toronto on the Evergreen Club Gamelan’s set of degung instruments. In the 1990s and 2000s my teaching increased exponentially, introducing Torontonians to the Javanese gamelan at York University, the Royal Conservatory of Music and to many thousands of students at the Toronto District School Board, among several other institutions. This year the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan is celebrating its 30th season and most of the other gamelan ensembles and courses mentioned are still active, with other universities located on both east and west coasts introducing their own courses in the last decade.

The Grebel Gamelan: The discovery of gamelan music by playing it is still taking place in Ontario. I was pleased to read recently that Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo established a Balinese gamelan and a course in the 2013 fall term. Dr. Maisie Sum, the newly appointed faculty member in Global Music and the university’s first ethnomusicologist, teaches the course titled “World Music Ensemble: Gamelan Music of Bali” casually known as the Grebel Gamelan. Moreover Sum’s incoming mandate includes the expansion of “the study and performance of ‘world music’ in the music program.” Music students can expect to be introduced “to unfamiliar sounds, to [discover] global music by actively participating as listeners and music makers, and to encourage them to ask questions and make connections with their own beliefs, values, and practices.” Will such wide-ranging – idealistic even – goals articulated in this mission statement attract students, regional community engagement and listener participation?

Seeking background on the story of the arrival of Waterloo’s first gamelan I spoke to Sum at her office on a cold and rainy March 19 afternoon. It turns out she is a product of the Canadian gamelan scene: “I’m a member of a Balinese gamelan in Montreal and received my PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of British Columbia.” In Vancouver she studied (Balinese gamelan) gong kebyar with Michael Tenzer followed by years of music field work in Bali. “Conrad Grebel’s gamelan semaradana, a kind of seven-tone Balinese instrumental ensemble, is currently rented from its New York owners,” she noted, “but the university is exploring the purchase of its own set for the long term.” There’s also the ever-pressing matter of where to permanently house a full gamelan which takes up considerable real estate, an issue that’s been problematic for many institutions. Sum seems confident, however, that solutions will be found given the very positive, enthusiastic reception of the Grebel Gamelan course and its performances by faculty, students and audiences: “Enrolment for the ensemble doubled in the winter term, so we currently have two groups.”

What does having the first resident gamelan at Grebel/UW mean for music discovery in the Kitchener-Waterloo region? “It is important to us in many ways, some of which include broadening our students’ musical and cultural awareness, and expressing our core values such as community building, creativity, and global engagement,” Sum replied. While the new ensemble is not yet playing all the various types of instruments of the gamelan semaradana the Conrad Grebel Gamelan Ensemble video clip from its November 27, 2013 noon-hour concert exudes confidence. Enthusiastic smiles abound and a standing ovation greets the musicians. The clip is on YouTube awaiting your discovery. The group demonstrates a performance level belieing less than three months’ prep time between introducing the students to the instruments to the gig itself. This speaks volumes about their dedication but also about the embedded quality and power of the community musical tradition they passionately convey. It also speaks highly of the teaching skills of Sum and her expert Balinese guest musician, I Dewa Made Suparta.

Sum provided one more demonstration of music discovery, one which extends to transcultural community interaction. On February 2 this year her Grebel Gamelan was invited to take part in a church service at the Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener. The members of the congregation heard Grebel music theorist Carol Ann Weaver deliver a cross-cultural sermon titled, “Gamelan as Gospel: Creating Communities of Peace,” exploring parallels between communal musicking embedded in the performance of Balinese gamelan and Mennonite notions of community.

You can catch the Grebel Gamelan’s youthful energy at their concert on April 1 at 1:30pm in the Great Hall of the Student Life Centre at UW and the next day at noon at the Conrad Grebel chapel.

A few other concert picks:

April 1 at the Musideum, a fascinating blend of voices brings “Songs of Gaia meets the FreePlay Duo” to downtown Toronto’s living room concert hall. Vocalist Saina Singer and bassist George Koller meet the FreePlay Duo (Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell) in improvisations borrowing from many global music traditions. While the other illustrious musicians are no strangers to this column, Saina is. She’s from the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) in the immense Siberian region of Russia. Saina began singing in a local pop idiom but then shifted focus to learn songs of Siberian indigenous peoples directly from them, thereby deepening her understanding of her ancestral culture. These musicians have not performed together before, so this concert promises to be full of fresh Northern musical spontaneity.

April 2 again at the Musideum two Toronto groups, The Horables and the Friends of Markos perform “From Freygish to Phrygian, A night of Klezmer and Greek music.” The Friends of Markos brings a rambunctious and unpretentious energy to tunes rendered in the Greek rebetiko style, while The Horables play the self-described “celebratory dance music of Eastern European Jews, as well as Gypsy dance tunes and some Django-style jazz.” Sounds like a fun evening though the dance floor will be tight.

Also on April 2 – and bringing us back to our theme this month of world music discoveries in an educational setting – the University of Toronto Faculty of Music presents their semi-annual “World Music Ensembles Concert” at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building. This edition features the African Drumming and Dancing Ensemble directed by Kwasi Dunyo, Mark Duggan’s Latin-American Percussion Ensemble and the Steel Pan Ensemble directed by Joe Cullen.

worldview autorickshaw s-suba-sankaranApril 29 Small World Music presents the CD release of Autorickshaw’s edgier-than-usual fourth album The Humours of Autorickshaw at Lula Lounge. Mastermind producer Andrew Craig has woven an exciting studio musical tapestry with a solid (and often cheeky) South and North Indian seam deftly employing the considerable and diverse talents of Autorickshaw-ers vocalist Suba Sankaran and tabla wallah Ed Hanley. Thickening the rich arrangements is the glitter of Canadian instrumentalist talent including bassist Rich Brown, guitarists Justin Abedin, Kevin Breit and Adrian Eccleston, violinist Jaron Freeman-Fox, accordionist Gordon Sheard, master drummer Trichy Sankaran, drummer Larnell Lewis, dilruba player George Koller, percussionist Patrick Graham. Will they all be performing at Lula?

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

A Small World After All

In this column I’ve often showcased concerts produced or presented by the Small World Music Society, the feisty Toronto institution dedicated to showcasing world music in its ever-evolving flavours. On February 8, 2014 Small World took a decisive new step in its 15-year evolution. It opened the doors of the Small World Music Centre (SWMC) to the public with a sold-out concert by Gustavo Santaolalla and Quiquie Escamilla. Located in Artscape’s new Youngplace building, Small World’s evolution also resonates in the building’s bricks and mortar too. Artscape’s transformation of the former school into Youngplace was completed last year just prior to the building’s centenary. It’s billed as a “community cultural hub” with spaces for individual artists and small organizations, as well as major ones like the Luminato Festival.

SWMC’s Alan Davis: Seeking insight into SWMC’s design and what its presence will mean for Toronto’s world music performers and fans, I called Alan Davis, Small World’s founder and executive director. Davis began the interview by describing the new space as “a world music hub, featuring professional quality sound, staging, lighting, flexible seating and recording capability.” A full lighting system with wrap-around draping “helps create the perfect acoustic environment for both amplified and acoustic presentations,” Davis adds. It’s also the right size “to host intimate concerts, workshops, incubator residencies and multimedia productions to engage a diverse range of artists and cultural communities.” SWMC aims to service Small World’s “diverse partners, from performers in all genres to community groups as well as our new [Queen West] neighbourhood.”

Davis enthusiastically described a key feature of the new facility: the “virtual concert hall.” This consists of a “suite of high-quality video and audio capture technology, enabling what takes place in the SWMC to be experienced beyond its four walls,” potentially by international audiences. With all the technology in place, “performances, workshops, lectures and more can be fully documented and edited into finished video content.”

Another important aspect of the SWMC’s programming is what he calls its “incubator function ... an intentional mixing of musical cultures, a result of perhaps four or five artists [from different traditions] in a residency,” sharing common musical idioms and perhaps differences too, and designed to allow for “opportunities to create new fusions and to collaborate.”

His hope is that having a permanent presentation space will lend continuity to staging of global musical genres, and will “spell some relief to the presenter’s constant roller coaster ride.” Some world music performance genres’ preferred venues are experiencing a geographic shift to the 905, he explains; others are experiencingt a general decline in audience; while yet others, emerging or still attracting large audiences, are now represented by several competitive presenters.

To close, he offers some modestly realistic circumspection: “As to the future of the Small World Music Centre, we’ll certainly learn as we go,” he says.

1906 worldmusic1Nana Mouskouri: you can hear her on a Wednesday: April 2, Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall present “Nana Mouskouri: The Happy Birthday Tour.” With her trademark black-framed glasses, proud Greek island roots, ringing mezzo-soprano and multinational popular song repertoire, the internationally top-selling singer has racked up impressive numbers. For beginners she’s recorded some 1,500 songs and sold several hundred million records over her more than five-decade long career.

From her professional start in the late 1950s Mouskouri chose to add various types of songs to her repertoire including folk song and other popular styles. For a time she sang jazz standards in Athens nightclubs, leaning toward Ella Fitzgerald’s repertoire. Then in 1957 she recorded her first single, Fascination, in both Greek and English. She quickly became identified with performing songs in multiple languages, thereby appealing to several national commercial record and concert hall markets. Her repertoire likewise draws on varied regional and national sources.

These features taken together, it strikes me that an argument could be made for Mouskouri as a prototypical world music singer before the term became an academic or commercial tag.

She sang on German and French film soundtracks. Impressed with what he heard on her early albums, Quincy Jones brought her to NYC to record a jazz album The Girl from Greece Sings (1962), while the American singer Harry Belafonte, then best known as the “King of Calypso,” included her on his 1966 tour and teamed with her for a duo album. A perennially prolific recording artist, her MTV entry claims that “globally speaking, Nana Mouskouri is the biggest-selling female artist of all time. Her fluency in multiple languages (Greek, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, plus nine more in her albums)  enabled her to reach audiences all over Europe, the Americas and even Asia.”

Well into a very successful singing career and with a punishing touring schedule which connected to fans worldwide, Mouskouri translated her fame into politics, sustained social activism and pacifism. It’s a move few singers have negotiated with grace. She served as a member of the European Parliament (1994 to1999) and is a longtime UNICEF ambassador. A recipient of many European honours, she was recently awarded two in Canada. In 2013 the distinguished National Order of Québec, as well as the Doctor of Letters degree from McGill University were conferred.

At an age when most divas have long hung up their flowing concert gowns Mouskouri’s fan power is such that retirement is not in the cards. She tried. From 2005 through 2008 she conducted an extended intercontinental farewell concert tour. That retirement didn’t last long, however. She kicked off a new world tour in Athens last fall. Toronto audiences at the Roy Thomson Hall concert, billed “The Happy Birthday Tour,” can expect a selection of Mouskouri’s hits performed in a richly textured voice, distinctively accented with her native Greek. Still ringing with passion, today it’s a voice lacquered with the patina of some 60 years of experience of life lived, of concert arenas and intimate stages, of life on the international road.

Other picks:

March 5, at the Lula Lounge, you will find Sierra Maestra, called “guardians of the Cuban son music tradition.” Named after the eastern Cuban mountain range where son originated, Sierra Maestra has avidly preserved this ancestor of salsa, playing at clubs and festivals around the world. The Guardian observed that the band at its heart is revivalist, yet unafraid of “constantly changing styles, from 50s pop to 40s big-band and 30s jazz styles, through to percussive, African-influenced songs from the last century.” Sierra Maestra has played a prominent role in the recent re-popularity of Cuban music. Juan de Marcos González, its ex-leader, was a key player in the creation of the Buena Vista Social Club. That’s the group, a certified mega-phenomenon, which brought mid-century son and its veteran soneros to international fame via its eponymous 1997 album.

March 7 the Small World Music scene moves to the Baltic Avenue Dance Club, 875 Bloor St. W. with “Electro East: Mahmood Schricker & DOORJA.” Touted as a “party with Electro World Musicians,” the sets commence with the Toronto-based DOORJA producing pulsing electronica with live percussion and vocals. Also local are Mahmood Schricker and his band, with Reza Moghaddas (keyboard, programming), Oriana Barbato Guerrero (bass) and guest vocalists performing “electronic music influenced by Persian sounds.” In every promotional photo I’ve seen Schricker is holding a setar, one of Iran’s iconic lutes, a clear badge of his cultural roots.

March 15 Nagata Shachu presents Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos at the Brigantine Room, Harbourfront. BC-based Ramos, the guest soloist in the concert, is a leading North American performer of the shakuhachi, the end-blown Japanese bamboo flute. A multi-instrumentalist, composer and shakuhachi craftsman, Ramos is collaborating with the group Nagata Shachu and its leader Kiyoshi Nagata. The program includes new works, improvisations, traditional Japanese folk songs and physically demanding ensemble drumming for which Nagata Shachu is justly acclaimed.

April 5 Amanda Martinez and her band perform at the Winter Garden Theatre. Mexican and South African roots are mashed up with flamenco soul in Toronto-based singer/songwriter Martinez’s music. Her solo CDs have resulted in several Latin Jazz Performer of the Year nominations. No longer a Canadian secret, she’s appeared internationally too, headlining at the NYC Blue Note jazz club, the 2010 FIFA World Cup festivities in South Africa and at the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico.

1906 worldmusic2Also April 5, Small World Music, in conjunction with Roy Thomson Hall, presents “Zakir Hussain and The Masters of Percussion.” A rare drummer-celebrity in his native India, Zakir Hussain has arguably become the world’s best-known performer of the Hindustani tabla. I attended a previous concert of his touring group a few years ago. I came away impressed with the program’s variety and high performance level, as well as with the boldness of Hussain’s fusion experiments and showmanship.

This visit Hussain has invited a new cadre of outstanding percussionists to join him on stage. While the full lineup was not available at press time, two Hindustani string instrumentalists will provide melodic content on sarangi and sitar. On the other hand two other drummers, each representing differing cultures, have been given billing. V. Selvaganesh, Hussain’s fellow member of the fusion group Remember Shakti is one. He’s a virtuoso Indian percussionist based in the Carnatic tradition playing the ghatam (clay pot drum), kanjira (small frame drum) and the mridangam (barrel drum). Kit drummer Steve Smith, formerly of the top-charting rock group Journey, is a respected member of the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. Smith represents drumming prowess in Western popular music and jazz within Zakir Hussain’s spicy Indian rhythm masala.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Happy (Chinese) New Year

The Chinese New Year (CNY for short) is celebrated all over the world. Based on the lunar calendar, this year the auspicious date falls on January 31. Overseas Chinese communities celebrate CNY in various ways and several are represented in the Greater Toronto Area. There are however a few ritual common denominators among these groups. The first thing which might catch your eye is all the red and gold. Chinese households and businesses post as many red and gold paper decorations up around CNY as possible and each of these has a specific meaning. The essential notions embodied in them include the desirability of such universals as prosperity, luck and happiness throughout the New Year. You might see also intensely coloured depictions of the horse, 2014’s animal of the year.

Another recognised symbol of CNY are the red or gold envelopes – known as lai see in Cantonese or hongbao in Mandarin – which are typically given by married couples to single people, and especially to children, wishing them the universals described above. Tucked inside: nothing but crisp cash. To many, celebrating CNY is synonymous with special food shared with friends and family. In the GTA we’re spoiled with dozens of restaurants that cater to celebrants with special menus, often serving parties of ten or more. One authority advised me strongly to order a fish dish, as the Chinese word for it is “a homonym for abundance.”

bbb - world viewNow to the main course of this column: music and other related forms of entertainment. These too have a place in CNY festivities. The lion dance, internationally emblematic of public Chinese festive events with its idiosyncratic loud musical accompaniment designed to animate public space, is a must-have CNY fixture with an ancient pedigree. Stirring both in sound and in the animated movements of the “lion/dragon,” its performance is meant to bring good fortune as patrons and audiences usher in the New Year. It is accompanied by drumming, cymbals and hopefully the bracing, awakening and auspicious sounds of a shawm. Martial arts and qigong demonstrations channelling good energy, as well as Chinese astrology auguring (hopefully) much more of the same also have a place in public events marking the CNY.

Downtown Chinatown may be the best venue to partake of the fun, after of course putting up some glittering decorations, giving or receiving red envelopes, pocketing the cash and enjoying a sumptuous feast. February 1 the Toronto Chinatown Business Improvement Association presents a free public festival launching at noon at the Chinatown Centre, 222 Spadina Ave. and continuing until 5pm. The action then begins up the street at the aptly named Dragon City Mall, 280 Spadina Ave. at 1pm. The lion dance performers will be there as will martial artists, Chinese theatrical dancers and selections from the several regional Chinese operatic styles. In addition the Toronto Zoo will show off their prized panda, one of China’s most celebrated and internationally recognised icons.

The Chinatown BIA evidently wants you to tarry at the festival, enticing visitors with a Wishing Tree, demonstrations of qigong and booths offering numerous fun CNY-themed all-ages activities. I need as much good luck this year as possible so I’ll likely visit the “dart playing to bring good luck” booth. In case you need an extra day to digest your Chinese feast the same two venues present the full program at both locations from noon until 5pm the next day, Sunday, February 2.

At the Library: Musically Celebrating Black History Month:  As I have noted in my columns in previous years February marks Black History Month. This year the Toronto Public Library is celebrating BHM by hosting an ambitious program of well over a dozen separate free music-centric workshops and concerts by mostly local musicians in branches all over the city. Most of the events are kid-friendly and are scheduled for 45 to 60 minutes, so my advice is to arrive a little early. For full details and locations please visit the TPL’s informative website, but I’ll highlight a few here to give a flavour of the programming.

The series kicks off Saturday, February 1 at 2pm with “Drumming with Amma Ofori” at the York Woods branch. Ofori and her troop of young percussionists will in TPL’s words, “rock the library with traditional African beats.” February 3 at 7pm audiences can join in “Hands-on Drumming with African Drums for Youth” at Don Mills branch’s auditorium. The Mystic Drumz youth workshop will feature demonstrations on African instruments including djembe (the very popular hourglass-shaped hand drum of West African origin), “talking drums” (smaller drums with adjustable pitch that can imitate vocal inflections), agogo (bells played with a stick) and other percussion. After the demonstrations, why not stay to learn to play one of the instruments and then perform an entire piece together? Space is limited, so best call the branch to register.

February 4 at 10:30am younger children will have a chance to enjoy a “Steel Pan Experience with Joy Lapps-Lewis” at the York Woods branch. Billed as the “Princess of Pan” – pan is a kind of tuned metal instrument born last mid-century in Trinidad – Joy Lapps-Lewis will take the audience “on a musical journey to explore the history and evolution of steel pan” music. Again, please call or visit the branch to register. On February 11, 6:30pm is the time for a “Calypso Party!” at the Annette Street branch. The TPL site’s description can’t be beat: “Jump up and join the fun in the Junction with Roger Gibbs and Shak-Shak. How low can you limbo?”

February 12 at 1:30pm the Humberwood branch hosts “Caribbean Folk Songs & Calypso.” Roger Gibbs will through music and stories trace the “Caribbean folk roots of calypso and how the music spread to the world.” February 15 at 2pm the award-winning kalimba (a.k.a. “thumb piano”) virtuoso, bandleader and storyteller Njacko Backo animates the Maria A. Shchuka branch. Njacko Backo performs the music, dances and stories of Cameroon, his West African homeland.

February 25 at 2pm the Tsingory Dance Company performs the dances and music of the island nation of Madagascar at the North York Central Library auditorium. Tsingory Dance leads the audience on the tour of the island, “showcasing the changes in Madagascar’s varying cultures and traditions.” Saturday, March 1 at 2pm, also at the North York Central Library auditorium, Frederic Sibomana performs stories and music of Rwanda and region. Titled “Contes et musique d’Afrique/Stories and Music of Africa,” Sibomana’s concert brings to a close TPL’s Black History Month celebrations.

Other picks: On February 1, the Royal Conservatory, Small World Music and Batuki Music co-present “Fatoumata Diawara with Bassekou Kouyate” at Koerner Hall purveying an exciting hybrid music dubbed “Malian blues.” The headliner is the hot Malian diva Fatoumata Diawara. She shares the stage with Mali’s Bassekou Kouyate, the jeli ngoni (a kind of plucked lute) master whose music has been compared to Ali Farka Touré and Tinariwen’s “electric desert blues.”

Musideum continues its intimate eclectic concert series on February 4 with “Lehera II: Anita Katakkar and George Koller” with a recital centred on the lehera, a concept in North Indian music in which a melody in a particular raga outlines the framework of the tala (time cycle here articulated by the tabla). In “Rakkatak,” her latest fusion project, Toronto tabla player Katakkar layers tabla rhythms with instrumental melodies and electronic soundscapes. The lehera itself is played by the veteran Toronto bassist and multi-instrumentalist Koller on the dilruba, a Hindustani multi-string bowed instrument of which he is perhaps the foremost Canadian exponent.

On February 21 at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts the Soweto Gospel Choir offers its own tribute to Black History Month. Celebrating its tenth anniversary with an international tour and a new CD, Divine Decade, the award-winning, 52-voice South African Soweto Gospel Choir is renowned for its passionate gospel sound. The choir is also noted for its choral fundraising efforts in support of HIV/AIDS orphans, a cause in which it had an ally in the late Nelson Mandela.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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