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The Toronto area boasts some of the finest talent representing non-Western and traditional music, and four recently released CDs attest to the rich diversity of the city’s cultural fabric. The Georgian vocal ensemble Darbazi has been around since 1995, performing music from the Caucasus region that bridges Europe and Asia. While director Shalva Makharashvilli hails from that region, the other nine or so members are primarily local, but you wouldn’t know it, listening to this CD entitled Vakhtanguri. This is folk music and vocal polyphony at its finest, and it’s easy to hear why Darbazi has been so well received during visits to Georgia. The ensemble and soloists deliver each number with that wonderful open-throated vocal style characteristic of Georgian music, good diction, and outstanding harmonic intonation. The title song, described as a table song, is one of the most intricate, and features yodelling from member David Anderson (of Clay and Paper Theatre fame). The dance song Kakhuri Satsekvao features Makharashvilli as melismatic vocal soloist. Some of the numbers are accompanied by traditional instruments; both plucked and bowed, expertly played by ensemble members. All songs are traditional, and include “toasting” songs, dance, love, and work songs, liturgical and epic poem settings, and songs about life in general. The CD is dedicated to the memory of ensemble member John Martin, who passed away in 2007. (

02_nagata Having celebrated its tenth anniversary, Nagata Shachu (formerly the Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble) recently released its sixth CD, Tsuzure (Tapestry). Toronto’s best known Japanese Taiko ensemble delivers polished performances of eleven works, composed by founder and director Kiyoshi Nagata and ensemble member Aki Takahashi. These compositions are very much rooted in Japanese tradition, however with what Nagata, a former Kodo Drummers protégé, refers to as “looking within the box”. What distinguishes this ensemble is its use of instruments in addition to Taiko drums. The title piece of this CD is a good example of this, employing the zither-like koto, shinobue (transverse flute) and ankle bells alongside the drums, weaving a delicate texture of sound. Other instruments used include shakuhachi (end blown flute), and shamisen (lute), with various others added for the final piece, Mamagoto, literally “child’s play”. Koe Narashi is purely vocal. Percussion lovers won’t be disappointed though; this is primarily a drumming ensemble, featuring Taiko drums of all shapes and sizes generously donated by their drum-manufacturing sponsors in Japan. Expertly engineered, this CD is dedicated to the memory of Nagata’s teacher Oguchi Daihachi (1924-2008). (
Husband and wife team Maryem and Ernie Tollar need no introduction here; Maryem is probably this country’s best known Arabic vocalist, while Ernie is a multi-instrumental wind player and composer. Cairo to Toronto (ROM 09) is their third CD together, and is to a certain extent an autobiographical account of Maryem’s own journey, exploring themes from alienation and longing to freedom and hope for a better future. The title also refers to the two guest artists on this recording, Dr. Alfred Gamil (violin) and Mohamed Aly (violin and oud), who came here from Egypt to work and perform with Maryem and her ensemble this past year. This is a stunning recording all around - a melding of traditional Arabic-rooted melodic style with jazz and pop nuances.The vocal selections are sung and primarily composed by Maryem, with some of the lyrics by her uncle Ehab Lotayef. Some of my favourite tracks however are among the five purely instrumental numbers, three of which are composed by Ernie Tollar, the other two by Alfred Gamil. These sound the most authentically traditional Arabic, though are not quite. The track Duetto Nahawand, a violin duet featuring Gamil and Aly closes the CD. The other musicians are familiar to Toronto audiences: Levon Ichkhanian (guitar), Andrew Stewart and Rich Brown (bass), Deb Sinha (various percussion), Alan Hetherington and Daniel Barnes (drums). ( 03_cairo_toronto
04_neeraj_prem When we think of sitar and tabla, the vast tradition of Indian classical music comes to mind. But United Voices departs from this path. Described as “An Indo-Canadian venture of world Christian hymns”, produced by Hamilton-based sitarist Neeraj Prem, this is gospel with an Indian twist. While the overall sound is decidedly Indian, the texts and musical settings are indicative of another East meets West endeavour. The recording opens with a lively rendition of The Lord’s Prayer (composed by Manick Deep Masih), and includes settings of other Christian hymns arranged Prem. Two songs (My Heart and My Offering) written by Prem, were inspired by ancient Hindi hymns. The “band” includes sarangi (bowed lute), shehnai (Indian oboe), keyboards, saxophone, guitar, percussion, and several fine vocalists. The closing number, Amazing Grace, is a seventeen minute meditation (Prem and Margaret Bárdos vocals), retaining the melody that we’re all familiar with but employing Indian vocal/melodic techniques and instrumental accompaniment that reminds me of the arrhythmic “alap” section of some Indian classical pieces. This CD is dedicated to the memory of Prem’s parents. (

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