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. .

A Holly Jolly Liminal Haiku

1904 worldYes, ’tis the season, though it’s sometimes a cold one for world music lovers. I’ll put my cards on the table for you, dear reader. It doesn’t take much 6/8 time early music to put me into the Christmas spirit, and just a few bars of a polished Salvation Army brass band to warm my chilled Noël heart. I’m a sucker for Yuletide carols, period instrument performances of baroque staples by Bach, et al, grand chorales and church organ music. I may join the tenor section of a sing-along Messiah yet once more this year, the one with Ivars Taurins conducting, re-enacting moody “Herr Handel” warts, waistcoat and all. It’s an interactive event which combines several of those seasonal pleasures I don’t feel obliged to feel guilty about at all.

I wish I could say that about the Timar family holiday tradition. For decades we’ve feasted and then decorated the dessert table with super-rich confections. Make no mistake though; these are serious symbols of conspicuous abundance. Other kids had Christmas lights twinkling publicly on frosty front porches; we had tortes, truffles, candies and pastries shared in the warmth of family. Imagine homemade all-nut tortes garnished with spiked whipped cream and flavoured buttercream in thick layers. And heaping plates of all-butter shortbreads, artisanal boozy mascarpone truffles and raspberry Linzer squares, all toasted with Tokay and bubbly — but I digress from my main musical point...

My problem: none of the music performance sites I mentioned are generally considered or marketed as “world music,” my beat at The WholeNote. Thus I can’t discuss that sort of musicking here. What I do feel free to discuss however is the wealth of music originating from the second, third and hybrid worlds being performed in our midst, some of it even tied thematically to the season.

World cultures for millennia have marked the frighteningly long darkest night and looked forward to any sign of the return of the light. Lux Aeterna is a theme not only in the Latin liturgy and its music but in rituals around the world. As I write this, late fall’s first white flakes swirl from above in shifting clouds, magically dusting our world with lacy crystals of water. It puts me in the mood to engage in haiku, another season-specific activity. This Japanese poetic form, like world music itself is an imported notion, an admirable platform from which to succinctly reflect on this liminal season:

Longest night, coldest

day; Solstice sings fa-la-la —

winter pine boughs cheer.

Picks: December 3 the Nathaniel Dett Chorale presents a concert deftly merging European, African American and Caribbean hybrid musical worlds thematically evoking the season. “An Indigo Christmas: Songs to the Black Virgin” at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church, promises Christmas music with a “distinct Afrocentric vibe.” The Chorale has presented this program before and released a stirring CD titled An Indigo Christmas – Live! in 2004. The notes admirably sum up the music as an “age-old story of expectation, hope, redemption and freedom wrapped up in the promise of a newborn child.” The concert offers arrangements of spirituals and carols, “some with an African shout, a Caribbean twist, a jazz treatment, or a gospel blast of hope and joy.”

Two days earlier, on December 1 at Koerner Hall, the 2012 Canadian Folk Music Award-winning Sultans of String release their new CD, Symphony! in a concert presented by Royal Conservatory and Small World Music. The album was recorded with the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norman Reintamm. Toronto’s Sultans of String was co-founded in 2004 by the well-known six-string violinist Chris McKhool and flamenco guitarist Kevin Laliberté. They are joined by Eddie Paton, guitar, bassist Drew Birston, Roger Travassos on percussion and the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra. Expect a fast-paced instrumental concert mashing up elements of Arabic folk, Spanish flamenco, French Manouche Gypsy jazz, Cuban rhythms, all supported by lush pops orchestral arrangements.

In the last issue of The WholeNote my colleague Wendalyn Bartley wrote about the December 4 and 5 Continuum Contemporary Music production of Nuyamł-ił Kulhulmx/Singing the Earth at the Wychwood Theatre. Is this world music? My excuse for revisiting it here is that the composer of the work, Bella Coola-native Anna Höstman (winner of the 2013 Toronto Emerging Composer Award), incorporates multi-ethnic human texts and musical materials as well as the natural soundscape of the B.C. geography into this fascinating interdisciplinary performance. It weaves into the score not only human stories — a mixture of the indigenous Nuxalk Nation, descendants of Norwegian and Japanese settlers — but also the ever-present sonic backdrop of the place: the river and the forest. The Continuum Ensemble’s skilled septet, conducted by Gregory Oh, is joined by mezzo Marion Newman.

December 5 the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, presents its regular bi-annual “World Music Ensembles Concert” at 7:30pm in Walter Hall. This particular concert includes the (Balinese Semar Pegulingan) Gamelan Ensemble directed by Annette Sanger. They’re joined by Brian Katz’s Klezmer Ensemble; the Japanese Taiko Ensemble directed by Kiyoshi Nagata rounds out the early evening.

Women take stage centre: Rounding out the first week of the month on December 7 the Batuki Music Society showcases “Songs of My Mother: A Celebration of African Women” at the Ada Slaight Hall, Daniels Spectrum. The Batuku Music press release notes that in traditional African music male voices are often privileged while the female voice “is not given [the] prominent role that it deserves” even though it is ever present. Moreover “women are often ... discouraged from assuming leading roles especially as bandleaders. Toronto has a good number of African female singers: some of them lead their own bands and others are vocalists in various groups.” This concert seeks to redress an evident gender inequality and to shine “a light on the rich talent and the diversity of music that these women possess.” The featured singers are: Tapa Diarra, Evelyn Mukwedeya, Memory Makuri, Blandine Mbiya and Ruth Mathiang. They are supported by five (male) musicians and the choreographer/dancer Mabinty Sylla.

December 7 and 8 another concert examines the female diasporic experience, this time from an Asian perspective. The Raging Asian Women Taiko Drummers, aka RAW performs “From Rage Comes” on the spacious stage of the Betty Oliphant Theatre. RAW promises this concert “will not be your typical percussion event.” Toronto’s self-described “well-loved ensemble of Asian women activist drummers” has collectively created an evening-length work which aims to tell their stories as diasporic Asian-Canadian women in the 21st century through music, movement and storytelling. They mine personal experiences which “explore the theme of rage ... and what comes from it. When it is unleashed ... when it is muted ... when it must be swallowed ... and when it empowers women to transcend.” The core taiko drumming practice of RAW, as it has evolved in North America, is a jumping off point “for an artistic journey to explore racial, sexual and cultural identities ... with a special focus on social activism, education and community building.” They’re well worth seeing.

The same night, December 8, the Echo Women’s Choir raises its 80 strong voices at the Church of the Holy Trinity with a social activist, community and world music focus in a program titled “Rise.” The Echo performs Appalachian, Croatian klapa  — a form of traditional a cappella singing from Dalmatia, gospel, South African songs, as well as compositions by several composers. The choir is joined by guest guitarist and fiddler Annabelle Chvostek. Becca Whitla and Alan Gasser conduct.

More picks: December 14 the African Catholic Community Choir presents songs from a variety of African traditions, plus works in English and French. Conducted by Serge Tshiunza, the concert is at the Holy Name Catholic Church.

We skip more than a month, and into a new year, to January 18, 2014. “Send me a Rose” is the concert by the Lute Legends Ensemble at the Glenn Gould Studio. Bassam Bishara, oud (‘ud), Lucas Harris, lute, and Wen Zhao, pipa, present music for three prominent instruments of the venerable and widespread lute family. Some scholars trace the lineages of the modern Near-Eastern ‘ud and Chinese pipa to a common ancestor about 1,100 years ago. The European lute and the ‘ud are also related. Both appear to have descended from a common forbear via diverging evolutionary paths. The Lute Legends trio aims to bend the direction of these divergent geographic paths back toward the unified goal of making music together on the cozy stage of the Glenn Gould Studio. Their program includes music from Turkey, Italy, Iraq, China and Scotland. Sweetening the Can-con, the Canadian composer Andrew Donaldson has written a work for them too.

January 18 Amanda Martinez, no stranger to our column, brings her signature eclectic Latin-centred music to our 905 neighbours in Markham. Martinez and her band will offer a generous mix of Afro-Cuban beats, bossa nova, flamenco and Mexican folk music at the Flato Markham Theatre.

Already into the second month of the New Year, on February 1, Fatoumata Diawara and Bassekou Kouyate perform the exciting hybrid music of Malian blues at Koerner Hall. Co-presented by the Royal Conservatory, Small World Music and Batuki Music, Malian singer Diawara was singled out by Time magazine in 2012 as a singer to watch. “Her well-crafted songs are often light and breezy, but her soulful voice brings a bluesy depth and potency ...” Sharing the stage is Mali’s Kouyate, the jeli ngoni virtuoso, whose music has been compared to the “electric desert blues” of Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré.

I look forward to continuing my personal observations of the GTA world music scene in these pages next year. May you have a banner 2014. 

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. .

On Living with Dying

world view - on living with dying 1El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) has been celebrated by Mexicans for centuries as a time for families to remember and honour the departed. It’s a pre-Columbian custom grafted onto the Christian triduum consisting of All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween to the secular world), All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Many Mexicans believe that the spirits of the dead dutifully visit their descendants on October 31, returning to their accustomed resting places on November 2. To properly receive their spectral relatives, families make altars and place ofrendas (offerings) of food such as pan de muertos (bread of the dead) baked in shapes of skulls and figures, yellow marigolds known as cempazuchitl, photos, candles, and incense.

This practice may sound a touch morbid to some Canadians but to Mexicans death is approached with joy, celebration and playfulness, as well as with mourning. It’s not uncommon for Mexican children to play “funeral” with toys representing coffins and undertakers. The fear of death is transformed through mocking it, as well as by living alongside it, accepting it as a fact of everyday life.

Larry Lake: Day of the Dead rituals have slowly been seeping into our secular Toronto collective consciousness over the past decade or so — see my mention of the Harbourfront events further on in this column. What better time to celebrate influential musicians among us who have recently passed? Larry Lake, the influential Toronto composer, radio broadcaster and record producer, died in September of this year (and was remembered in the October WholeNote by David Jaeger). As he was a friend I’ll call him Larry here, and this is my written mini-ofrenda.

As a composer Larry was best known for his electronic music. Much less well known however is Larry’s support of the early career of the Toronto world music group, Evergreen Club Gamelan (of which I am a member). ECG is Canada’s first performing gamelan group and this season we are marking our 30th anniversary. Larry was an “early adaptor” of the gamelan as a brand new medium for expression among established Canadian composers. “Larry’s support was critical to the fledgling group,” notes Jon Siddall, ECG’s founding artistic director. In the mid-1980s when Siddall commissioned Larry to compose a new work for ECG, the notion of a set of Indonesian gamelan instruments performing contemporary music written and played by Canadians was a brand new — even a radical — proposition. The gamelan ensemble and its music was barely known in the True North. Larry’s open ears, open mind and generous spirit helped the fledgling ECG, among Canada’s first wave of world music groups, to go from strength to strength. In the space of a few years it went on to commission John Cage, as well as dozens of Canadian composers, and to tour internationally.

Larry completed composing his Three Bagatelles for ECG in 1986. Its recording was released on the LP/cassette (later CD) North of Java on the Arjuna label in 1987, the first commercial recording of Canadian gamelan music. I re-auditioned Three Bagatelles recently. I heard a charming three-movement work effectively layering the brash sounds of 1980s electronic music synthesis with the eight-musician acoustic gamelan degung sounds of the ECG. It was in turn declamatory, lyrical and incisively percussive.

Larry’s geniality was often tinged with an endearingly gentle wry sense of humour. When I met him for the first read-through of my suling (bamboo ring flute) part for “Andrew’s Song,” movement two of his Three Bagatelles, I was discouraged by the primitive dot-matrix staff notation printout he presented. I made a comment disparaging what to me seemed an overly simplistic, unchallenging score. Unfazed, Larry gave me some memorable advice: “Treat the notation only as a guide ... go ahead and ‘Eastern it up!’” In other words, play it expressively, where appropriate using idiomatic suling ornaments, articulation, phrasing and dynamic shadings.

From then on whenever I am challenged by a score which appears musically too “square” for its own good I smilingly recall Larry’s challenge to “Eastern it up.” You can hear me heeding Larry’s advice some 27 years ago in the recording of Andrew’s Song, streaming on ECG’s website. When time came to produce a CD from the original LP tracks of North of Java, ECG called Larry. Then in 1994 the group commissioned Larry for Sanft (Soft) another work for pre-recorded electronic sounds and gamelan degung. The collaboration continued with the CD Palace (Artifact Music: 1996) which he co-produced, also streaming on the ECG site.

Through his own compositions in which he dared new cultural mash-ups, his record producing, and his advocacy via his CBC radio music show Two New Hours, Larry did more than introduce generations of listeners to the latest trends in Canadian and international avant-garde concert music. He also introduced them, as I’ve begun to illustrate here, to world music voices which challenged received notions of cultural hierarchies and aesthetic boundaries.

Picks

Sicilian connection: Let’s start this chilly month off with warming southern sounds on November 2 at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall when two Toronto groups the Vesuvius Ensemble and the Sicilian Jazz Project collaborate. Led by Francesco Pellegrino the Vesuvius Ensemble’s mission is to preserve and stage the music of southern Italy. The Ensemble’s repertoire is anchored in the songs of the Neapolitan region. Moreover they perform on some of the instruments from the region including the tammorra (frame drum), chitarra battente and colascione (plucked lute), and the ciaramella, a shawm. Michael Occhipinti’s Sicilian Jazz Project takes Sicilian folk songs and rhythms and interprets them through the harmonic and improvisatory lens of contemporary North American urban jazz, world music, funk, blues and chamber music. Its stellar lineup starts with the eight-time JUNO Award-nominee Michael Occhipinti on guitar, and continues with seven other leading Toronto jazz musicians.

Harbourfront: As I hinted earlier, on November 9 and 10 Harbourfront Centre hosts what it calls “Toronto’s longest running Day of the Dead festival ... two days of family-friendly programming.” There will be public ofrendas both large and small, plus a wide range of films, mariachi music, songs, dance, food, storytelling, crafting and performances, all with a Dia de los Muertos theme. Some of the music events are listed in The WholeNote pages. For a complete listing of all scheduled events please check the Harbourfront Centre’s website.

York and U of T: York University and the University of Toronto have had world music studio programs running continuously since the early 1970s, I know because I dabbled at them in both places back in the day. Every fall both institutions showcase faculty, students and visiting scholars in public concerts that are well worth exploring. I’ve been invariably delighted by these events and they’re at a price every student can afford: gratis.

November 5 at 12:30pm the York University Department of Music presents a rare demonstration of Azerbaijani mugham by Jeffrey Werbock, a leading expert of this modal music, at the Accolade East Building. The same evening at 7:30 the University of Toronto Faculty of Music presents its “World Music Ensembles Concert” at Walter Hall featuring the Balinese gamelan ensemble, the Klezmer ensemble, and the Japanese taiko ensemble.

November 14 at 12:30 pm York’s Department of Music presents one of Toronto’s premier Korean drum and dance ensembles, the Jeng Yi Korean drum and dance ensemble, at the Accolade East Building.

Back downtown on November 25 at 7:30 in Walter Hall, the U of T Faculty of Music showcases the work of its current world music artists-in-residence, the distinguished Balinese-based performers and scholars Putu Evie Suyadnyani and Vaughan Hatch, and their students in its “World Music Visitor Concert.” The program stages Balinese gamelan and dance including repertoires from royal courts, rituals and entertainments performed on the U of T’s gamelan semar pegulingan (orchestra).

COC Bradshaw: The free noon hour “World Music Series” continues at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

world view - on living with dying 2The November 5 concert showcases the bass veena, a new addition to the Hindustani instrumentarium developed by Canadian musician Justin Gray and luthier Les Godfrey. “Monsoon:Synthesis” is the concert’s title evoking a merger of North Indian ragas and original Justin Gray compositions featuring the bass veena and the tabla wizardry of Ed Hanley, with additional percussion and Tibetan singing bowls by Derek Gray.

November 27 “Balinese Music and Dance: Temple, Court and Village Traditions” takes over Bradshaw Amphitheatre. The event is listed in the “Dance Series,” a fitting designation given that dance and music performance is intimately interrelated in Bali. The U of T’s 20-piece gamelan Dharma Santi alternates with Seka Rat Nadi the gendèr wayang (keyed metallophone quartet). The U of T world music artists-in-residence, Vaughan Hatch and Putu Evie Suyadnyani, are again featured performers.

The last event this month is on November 28. The Shargi Persian Percussion Ensemble performs Unbound. Naghmeh Farahmand, a rare female Iranian percussionist, now a Toronto resident, leads a very unusual all-female percussion group in a program of traditional music from Persia and the Middle East.

Gzowski’s Soldier: November 17 The Music Gallery presents “A Soldier’s Tale” an ambitious multidisciplinary theatre work with both aboriginal and world music elements. Composer, sound designer and musician John Gzowski can certainly be considered among Toronto world music stalwarts, having been active in groups like Maza Meze and Tasa. In this staging of “A Soldier’s Tale” he collaborates with Cree actor, artist, choreographer Michael Greyeyes, video artist Andy Moro and David Sait on guzheng. The work’s narrative explores the soldiering role of First Nations in World War II and Iraq using theatrical dance, enhanced by the contribution of other top Toronto world musicians.

Quick Picks

November 22 and 23 Nagata Shachu stages its “15th Anniversary Concert and CD Release” at the Enwave Theatre, Harbourfront Centre. This viscerally exciting Toronto group, regularly discussed in my column, goes from strength to strength and never disappoints musically.

November 23 at Koerner Hall, the Royal Conservatory and Small World Music present Anoushka Shankar. The star sitarist performs selections from her latest CD, Traces of You, produced by the very successful British Indian musician and composer Nitin Sawhney.

November 27, also at Koerner Hall, the Royal Conservatory, Batuki Music and Small World Music present “Rokia Traoré: Beautiful Africa.” Malian-born Rokia Traoré’s powerhouse voice is the ideal vehicle for her rendition of songs from her most recent album. 

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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