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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


World Music 1Here, patrolling The WholeNote world music beat, most months bring a consistent flow of concerts to preview. There’s always too much going on in the GTA to include more than just a sampling in this column for my trusting WholeNote readers. In the extent of its exclusions, this December-January column is no exception.

However, as my deadline rushed ever closer, it initially seemed that something unusual was taking place, namely a large hole in the January World View concert listings. Just as I thought I would have to leave out the first month of 2016 entirely, an announcement surfaced for a late January concert of newly discovered Yiddish music from WWII – with a most intriguing backstory. While that concert is well into 2016 (Happy Lunar New Year, dear reader?!), it is as good a place to start as any.

Lost Yiddish Songs of the USSR: January 27, Svetlana Dvoretsky/Show One Productions present “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of Life and Fate” at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. A mixed ensemble of outstanding Russian, Jewish and Canadian musicians premiere Yiddish songs discovered in Ukraine. Their creation, collection, banning and recent discovery tell a story of resistance and reclamation, describing a wide historical and musicological sweep.

Our compelling story begins during the turbulent late days of World War II when leading Soviet linguists and ethnomusicologists including the eminent Moisei Beregovsky collected and notated the songs of Jewish refugees, Jewish soldiers in the Red Army and Holocaust survivors in Ukraine. Their extensive collection documented these survivors’ defiance of the Third Reich in song. Our narrative takes a dark turn when in 1949 the Soviet government arrested Beregovsky and his colleagues, confiscating and hiding the documents. Researchers had long considered them lost.

We pick up the story a few years ago, in the holdings of the Ukrainian National Library in Kiev. Enter Anna Shternshis, associate professor of Yiddish and Diaspora Studies at the University of Toronto. When she opened the sealed boxes she found a trove of thousands of hand-notated Yiddish songs which had lain unheard for nearly 70 years, until now.

Shternshis worked closely with Psoy Korolenko, the Russian poet, philologist, “avant-bard” singer/songwriter and renowned klezmer performer, to produce performing versions of these songs. Selections will receive their world premiere in “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of Life and Fate” performed by Korolenko, the virtuoso Russian trio Loyko, plus Canadian vocalists including the JUNO Award-winning singer Sophie Milman. Accordionist extraordinaire Alexander Sevastian, award-winning trumpeter David Buchbinder and clarinetist/conductor Shalom Bard round out the international cast. A recording of this music is being produced by Shternshis and Dan Rosenberg.

Going Home Star. February 5 and 6 another musically powered story of suffering, resistance and the ultimate reassertion of personal and cultural identity is being performed, this time at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. The critically acclaimed ballet Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation has a story by Joseph Boyden, score by Christos Hatzis and choreography by Mark Godden. It explores the all-Canadian story of loss, resistance and reconciliation: that of the Indian residential school system, its survivors and their families.

The ballet’s richly textured, cumulatively powerful music is not just the work of the Canadian veteran composer Hatzis, enthusiastically performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, but also enfolds important contributions of indigenous voices whose communities have been directly and profoundly affected by the Indian residential schools and their aftermath. They include Cree actor Tina Keeper, the boundary-breaking Inuk vocalist Tanya Tagaq, who won last year’s Polaris Prize, pow-wow stars Northern Cree Singers, as well as songs by Steve Wood (Mistikwaskihk Napesis).

I’ve had a chance to listen to the impressive, recently released 2-CD recording of Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation. It comes chockablock with Hatzis’ signature inclusions of music in multiple vernacular music genres, as well as acoustic and electronic soundscapes diffused from the studi0-produced digital audio track, in addition to the symphonic core. I found the contribution of North American indigenous voices, however, to be the key to the work’s ethical and aesthetic fabric. These voices are essential texts in the story centred on the suffering imposed on children in Canada’s infamous Indian residential schools. While the narrative contains much pain, loss and suffering, the ballet ends with the possibility of personal and intercultural redemption and reconciliation. It’s an important story for all of us to understand. Witnessing this production is, in my estimation, a fitting way to start a new year.

Quick Picks

 Dec 1 Tanya Tagaq and her band share the stage with Owen Pallett and the guided improvising Element Choir directed by Christine Duncan, at Massey Hall.

 Dec 1 The Toronto-based group Ventanas, featuring Tamar Ilana (vocals, dance) and guest Justin Gray (double bass, bass veena), presents an evening with flamenco, Balkan and Sephardic music at Lula Lounge.

 Dec 2 “Roots of India, Grown in Canada” performed by the all-Canadian pop, folk and Indo-fusion group Autorickshaw at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

 Dec 3 University of Toronto Faculty of Music presents its World Music Ensembles including the Klezmer Ensemble, Japanese Drumming Ensemble and world music artist-in-residence Pedram Khavarzamini at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building.

 Dec 5 “Routes of Andalucia,” at Koerner Hall, features David Buchbinder, trumpet. He leads a group with divas Roula Said and Tamar Ilana plus their “crew of cross-cultural

musicians on a journey into the magic musical realm of ancient Andalucia … where Arabic, Jewish and Gypsy cultures connect.”

 Dec 5 The Aga Khan Museum presents the leading proponent of Indo-Afghan classical vocal music, Ustad Eltaf Hussain Sarahang.

 Dec 12 The Aga Khan Museum presents “Under the Sun,” a concert of “internationally-inflected” jazz performed by musicians from Palestine, Afghanistan and Toronto. Musicians include Jamey Haddad, percussion; Ali Amr, qanun; Salar Nader, tabla; Michael Ward-Bergeman, accordion and Billy Drewes, saxophone.

 Dec 11, 12, 13 The Toronto Consort performs “Christmas at the Monastery of Santa Cruz” at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre in a program of villancicos and Brazilian-influenced dances found in the Monastery’s archives. Žak Ozmo plays the lute and guest directs.

 Dec18 Flutist Ron Korb and Celtic harpist Sharlene Wallace perform a program of Celtic and Christmas favourites, capped by original globally inflected compositions at Pickering Village United Church, Ajax. December 19 they repeat the program at the Maple Grove United Church, Oakville.

 Dec 27 Gary Morgan and PanAmericana! take the Lula Lounge stage with a Latin jazz orchestra in a Christmas-themed concert. Musicians Hilario Duran, Mark Kelso, Paco Luviano, Rick Lazar and Juan Carlos Medrano are featured.

 Feb 5 West coast blues and raga guitarist, singer-songwriter Harry Manx appears in the “Folk Under the Clock” series at the Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in Peterborough.

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


In previous columns I’ve explored something I called hybridity in Toronto music -- transculturalism as it manifests itself musically, both in the disciplines of composition, improvisation and performance practice, and in the way audiences respond to music reflecting these hybridized values. This column connects the dots between a few Toronto concerts featuring hybrid sounds.

WorldPedram Khavarzamini is World Music Artist-in-Residence at the U. of T.’s Faculty of Music. Over the last decade or two the GTA has been the beneficiary of a wave of talented, primarily emerging career Iranian musicians. The tombak (principal Iranian goblet drum) virtuoso, teacher and composer, Pedram Khavarzamini, stands prominently among them. Moving to Toronto last year, this accomplished musician and scholar has steadfastly maintained the traditions of tombak technique and repertoire and introduced new audiences to them. He is also known for his innovations in cross-cultural collaboration and musical experimentation. Both the traditional and collaborative sides of Khavarzamini’s work were on ample display in his exciting May 16, 2015 Music Gallery concert, “East Meets Further East,” which he shared with Montréal tabla soloist Shawn Mativetsky. Their drum duo at the end of the night was a memorable marvel of musical respect and communication. It reminded the audience that transcultural challenges can be met and honoured at the highest level.

A pioneer in another – and more hybrid - arena too, Khavarzamini also composes for Persian-centric percussion ensembles. His main outlet is Varashan, a group he directs and composes for. Its performance was yet another musically satisfying feature of the May 2015 Music Gallery concert I attended.

In addition to his eloquent performances set in international halls with leading Persian and international musicians, Khavarzamini has also taken tombak teaching onto the global stage. Offering conducting workshops and individual instruction to scores of students in Iran, Europe and North America, live and via Skype, he has become a leading instructor on his chosen drum and its indigenous musical idioms.

Khavarzamini’s activities as a virtuoso percussionist, composer, teacher and group leader have already attracted the attention of learning centres. His appointment this fall at U of T’s Faculty of Music provides proof of this. Searching for insights into this development in his career, I exchanged several emails and Facebook chats with Khavarzamini in the penultimate weekend of October. He confirmed that his Artist-in-Residence duties will, among others, include “leading masterclasses and the newly formed U. of T. Iranian Music Ensemble,” activities which will involve several dozen music students.

An excellent opportunity to witness the impressive breadth and depth of Khavarzamini’s work can be had at a November 17 free concert at University of Toronto’s Walter Hall, where he will lead the Iranian Music Ensemble and members of Varashan. The Persian instrumentation will include multiple tombaks, the dayereh (medium-sized frame drum with jingles), santoor (hammered dulcimer), kamancheh (bowed lute), tar (plucked lute) and perhaps a vocalist. Then on December 3 the Iranian Music Ensemble directed by Khavarzamini takes part in a World Music Ensembles concert at Walter Hall alongside the Klezmer Ensemble and the Japanese Taiko Ensemble. These biannual public concerts, along with their York University counterparts, have for decades subtly influenced the general Toronto reception of non-mainstream European- and American-centred musics, perhaps even laying the groundwork for the kind of hybrid creations increasingly appearing in a whole range of venues.

David Virelles: Gnosis featuring Román Díaz at the Music Gallery. David Dacks, the Music Gallery’s artistic director, has certainly not shied away from engaging in musical hybridity, as he made clear in an X Avant festival story in The WholeNote last year.

However he remains very aware of the inherent complications of mixing and matching musical genres, especially the ever-prickly notion of authenticity. “If one is attempting to join culture A to culture B in a coherent musical statement, one must be really attuned to power relationships, comparative structures/forms/tuning/language, your own personal experience and other points of connection or difference between musical ingredients one is working with.” He gives a down-home example: “randomly sampled African chants over breakbeats just won’t fly anymore.”

Fortunately we’re mostly in good hands, Dacks adds. “In crazy, diverse Toronto, many musicians are cognizant of these factors, not just academically, but internally. The resulting hybrid musical creations are way more than pastiches, they are declarations of one’s transcultural (going back to last year’s term) life experiences.”

For Dacks the November 27 and 28 concerts, “David Virelles: Gnosis featuring Román Díaz,” at the Music Gallery, co-presented by the Music Gallery, Arraymusic and Lula Music & Arts, are a case in point. For those unfamiliar with Virelles’ music, the billing “futuristic Afro-Cuban chamber music” gives a taste of what one might expect.

Immigrating to Canada from Cuba at 18, pianist and composer Virelles began his musical studies at Toronto’s Humber College and continued them at the University of Toronto. He came under the mentorship of saxophonist Jane Bunnett, long celebrated for her support of both Cuban music and musicians. Virelles has since developed into a cutting-edge jazz innovator. Achieving career success along the way, last year he released his first ECM recording Mboko, in the words of Dacks, “taking Cuban music places it’s never been.”

The 32-year-old Virelles is “capable of tropically intense polyrhythms and irregular but internally logical phrasing, which befits an artist who came to jazz through Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, and Bud Powell.” About five years ago Virelles moved to New York to further his career and has since worked with jazz leaders like Henry Threadgill, Andrew Cyrille and many more. Earlier this year he scooped the Downbeat Rising Star – Piano award.

The Music Gallery partnership with both Arraymusic and Lula Music & Arts in presenting Gnosis is part of the story. As Dacks explains: “Gnosis, is a big project (hence a rare two-night stand at The Music Gallery). It’s a chamber piece, requiring some 12 musicians. Rick Sacks … [has committed members] of the Array Ensemble to the group, plus most of the rehearsals will be at their Arrayspace. It’s turned into a big part of their season too.” As for Lula Music & Arts, they’re “a natural promotion partner in this project. Virelles played there frequently [when he was a Toronto resident] and it’s the nerve centre for so much Latin music in Toronto.”

Another significant element in the work is the inclusion of Abakuá drums by Cuban master drummer Román Díaz with four other Cuban drummers. Hermetic and little known even within Cuba, Abakuá is an Afro-Cuban men’s initiatory fraternity, a secret society, with roots extending back to Nigeria and Cameroon. Despite its secret nature, the percussion and vocal dance music of the Abakuá, as well as other music of West African origin, have been found by researchers to have collectively infused and influenced virtually all genres of Cuban vernacular music, including rumba and son.

Dacks notes that Díaz “has been playing with Virelles for quite a while now” drawing on Cuba’s deep African musical heritage as an essential element of the performance. Rather than using Abakuá songs and drumming as a superficial pinch of ethnic spice in a jazz score, they have instead chosen to perform it as it occurs in Afro-Cuban ritual practice (echoing Dacks’ earlier comments about authenticity). “Abakuá drums have never been in a concert hall setting, so this is absolutely a new form of music that Virelles is exploring.”

For Dacks, it’s not “just a ‘local guy makes good’ show, it’s bigger than that. Virelles is already the most experimental pianist of Cuban origin I’ve ever heard, and he has become a major creative force. As such, this is a unique opportunity for the Music Gallery and our partners to help him take the next, ambitious step.”

Quick Picks

Continuing with this month’s theme of musical hybridity, the Aga Khan Museum presents two concerts which can easily be included in that portfolio.

November 28 the Kinan Azmeh City Band mounts the AKM’s auditorium stage with a concert blending jazz, Western classical and Syrian music. Kinan Azmeh, clarinet, Kyle Sanna, guitar, John Hadfield, percussion, and Petros Klampanis, double bass, perform works from their album Elastic City.

December 5 the spotlight shifts to the Indo-Afghan music of the veteran singer Ustad Eltaf Hussain Sarahang. Starting his career as a young court musician – appointed as Royal Musician to the Court of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan (reigned 1933–73) – Sarahang has enjoyed a career spanning decades as a leading exponent of the hybrid traditions of Indo-Afghan music. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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