- Written by Andrew Timar
- Category: Features
The 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.
- Written by Andrew Timar
- Category: World Music
In both my lead stories this month, World Fiddle Day Toronto and the “folk opera” Zemlya (Earth), an ethnomusicologist is the driving force; Anne Lederman in the former and Marichka Marczyk in the latter.
Pioneering American ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood in 1969 broadly described his discipline as “a holistic investigation of music in its cultural contexts.” He also notably advocated for direct participation, requiring that his students learn to play the music they were studying, calling his approach “bi-musicality” in a 1960 paper. As these two stories clearly demonstrate, however, the role of the ethnomusicologist can extend even further than Hood proposes: beyond the role of investigator, participant and reporter, to that of interpreter for the audience and as presenter of received musical traditions. At times it can even encompass roles of musical and dramatic creator, as demonstrated in Lederman’s intercultural co-composed fiddle tunes and scored Around-the-World Jam, and in Marczyk’s dramatic, staged performative reframing of the transformation of Ukraine village women’s lives.
Presentational ethnomusicology (which some in the field might contrast with the participatory kind) may not yet be a well-defined sub-discipline. There are however increasing numbers of musicians in our midst who are curating, producing, composing, performing and in other ways presenting music to the public combining aspects of folklore, comparative musicology, psychology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, music theory and history – in other words covering the gamut of ethnomusicology. I’ll be tracking this way of presenting music from time to time here in this column.
Zemlya: A Ukrainian folk opera
May 18 the Toronto (mostly) women’s Kalendar Folk Ensemble premieres a new work Zemlya (Earth), which it describes as a “Ukrainian folk opera,” at the St. Vladimir Institute, 620 Spadina Ave. A few years ago Kalendar itself grew out of the Kosa Kolektiv urban folk movement, a subject I explored in this column in 2013. (For backstory completists, it is accessible on thewholenote.com by searching “Kosa Kolektiv”.)
When Kalendar came to commissioning Zemlya, they looked to the Ukrainian village music specialist and ethnomusicologist Marichka Marczyk, a Toronto resident. Marczyk completed her studies at the National Academy of Music in Kyiv in 2002 and while still a student became a founding member of, and a soloist with, the important Bozhychi folklore ensemble.
For over 17 years Bozhychi members have conducted research into village performance traditions, emphasizing what they call an inclusive “authentic” approach to folklore reenactments. This is in contrast to the older 20th century paradigm of academic folk singing and dancing, state-sponsored during the Soviet era, which intended to turn “unsophisticated” folk traditions into “true art.” “We are not just after faithful reproduction. We want to present the treasures of folk music in their living, authentic form,” declared Bozhychi member Illya Fetisov. One of the group’s slogans illustrates their holistic approach: “Everything is authentic – from food to feelings.”
Marczyk counts her repertoire at over 1,000 songs, most personally collected in Ukrainian villages. She has performed them regularly with numerous groups, in Canada the best-known of which is the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Canada’s popular self-styled “guerilla-folk party-punk band.” For over a year in the wake of the 2014 Maidan Revolution, which overtook the streets of her native city, Marichka Marczyk travelled widely across Ukraine with LBO violinist Mark Marczyk, writing articles, short stories and a play aiming to represent the revolutionary gestalt. Their award-winning guerrilla folk opera Counting Sheep (2015), enlivened by the music of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, sold out at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
For Zemlya (Earth), Marichka Marczyk has chosen other themes to explore: urbanization and the mechanization of the lives of Ukrainian village women. Each scene is thematically connected to the earth in some way, from babies made on the earth to bodies buried deep within it. Zemlya takes received village-style solo and polyphonic songs and dances and weaves them together with a narrative tracing the radically changing roles of Ukrainian village women and their essential connection to the cycles of the earth.
Will Marczyk’s approach to the narrative present a nuanced view of the complex issues of the urbanization and mechanization of the roles of agrarian women? How will village songs, dances and instrumental music be integrated into the play and employed to illuminate the story? Will the power of these songs and the play’s drama transcend its possible thematic limitations? I’ll be eager to find answers to those questions at the sole performance of the work on May 18.
May 20: World Fiddle Day Toronto
World Fiddle Day falls on the third Saturday of May. Its aim: to celebrate the “playing of bowed string instruments throughout the world through participation, sharing and outreach, with respect to all world musical traditions.” Originating in Ireland as recently as 2011, this fiddle-centric festival is growing into a significant annual world music event. It has swiftly been embraced by string music aficionados worldwide and is now celebrated in over 45 countries, in thousands of events. Here in Canada, in 2015, Parliament declared the third Saturday of May National Fiddling Day.
On May 20 it will be recognized for the fifth year in a row by a collective of professional and amateur Toronto musicians, beginning in 2013 as a humble gathering on the lawn of Howard Park Emmanuel Church in the visibly multicultural Toronto Roncesvalles neighbourhood. At Fort York last May World Fiddle Day Toronto had grown to the point that 96 players participated in WFDT’s epic signature Around-the-World Jam.
Award-winning Canadian fiddler, singer, composer, ethnomusicologist and music educator Anne Lederman of the groups Muddy York, Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and several other ensembles is WFDT’s artistic director and “teacher-in-chief.” I spoke to Lederman about her vision for the day-long event.
“Having outgrown our lovely space at Fort York, we accepted the invitation of the Aga Khan Museum to bring World Fiddle Day Toronto there this May,” began Lederman. “We aim to be a world music presenter so it’s a perfect fit for us to partner with the museum since its inclusive mission includes serving as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance.
“There is also particular resonance with regards to the thousands of Syrian refugees Canada accepted last year in partnering with that institution.” The AGM’s own mandate echoes that sentiment, offering a space for “unique insights and new perspectives into Islamic civilizations and the cultural threads that weave through history binding us all together.”
Lederman further noted that “while celebration is an important part of World Fiddle Day Toronto, through our work with diverse cultural expressions we also strive to raise awareness of world issues, strengthen cultural diversity and encourage dignity, respect and basic human rights for all cultures.”
When I pressed her for her overarching vison for WFDT, she said simply, “I just want to get people excited about the many possible different approaches to music and art there are.”
WFDT’s Around-the-World Jam
This year for example, the WFDT’s theme tune for the Around-the-World Jam evolved from a collaboration between Lederman and prominent Toronto-based Persian violin and kamancheh player Kousha Nakhaei. “Called Persionada, it pays tribute to our partners at the Aga Khan and also honours Canada’s 150th,” says Lederman. “Kousha chose the traditional Persian song Dost Khan Amiri, and I created a second melody that works with it so it can be performed by the up to 100 bowed string players, expected that day at the Museum.” The rest of the Around-the-World Jam participants will include “violin, viola, cello and some bass players, all accompanied by our stellar back-up house band. But the occasional accordionist has also sometimes snuck in!” quipped Lederman.
This year Jam fiddlers will play 35 tunes from 25 different cultural traditions. And Canadian songs take pride of place among those drawn from most of the world’s continents. Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire features in as a tribute to the celebrated late Montreal-born songwriter, as will Jerry Holland’s nostalgic waltz My Cape Breton Home and Pascal Gemme’s Valse Beaulieu.
As an example of the cultural diversity on show, the WFDT hosts five accomplished guest artists in workshops and at the long evening concert. Featured are Kousha Nakhaei playing Persian violin and kamancheh, Anne Lindsay on Finnish jouhikko, Swedish nyckelharpa and jazz violin, and, as mentioned earlier in this issue’s cover story, Chinese erhu virtuoso Amely Zhou. Representing French-Canadian fiddling are Pascal Gemme and Yann Falquet, while the award-winning youthful brother and sister duo DnA – Diana and Andrew Dawydchak – perform in the best old-time Ontario fiddle and step-dance tradition. These two duos, representing Quebec and Ontario fiddling styles and repertoires, are a particularly apt fit for WFDT’s Canada 150 theme this year.
Lederman is quick to add that WFDT “is not only a celebration of Toronto’s multi-cultural musical traditions, but the culmination of our organization’s full year of activity. These include holding community practice and workshop sessions exploring world traditions, as well as collaborating with Tafelmusik on an outreach program with young string players at the Etobicoke School for the Arts and the MNjcc Suzuki Program.”
At 5:30pm visitors can enjoy a buffet supper of Mid-East cuisine, continuing the exploration of world cultural traditions, all the while listening to WFDT’s Youth Showcase performances.
With its institutional, government, corporate and all-important community support, and driven by Lederman’s vison, World Fiddle Day Toronto’s future as a “cross-cultural ambassador” looks bright.
“Sounds of Spring”: Georgian romantic songs
May 13: Members of Toronto’s extended Georgian musical community present “Sounds of Spring” at Heliconian Hall at 6:30pm. The concert features Georgian romances, as well as city and a cappella rural polyphonic songs, showcasing the classically trained singer Ucha Abuladze and the vocal duo of Diana and Madona Iremashvili. Singer Bachi Makharashvili, also a superb guitar and chonguri player in this repertoire, plus his vocalist wife Andrea Kuzmich and children will perform, making it a warm Georgian family affair. I recommend you make the effort to attend.
Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan goes vocal
May 17: At 8pm at Array Space, the Toronto pioneering world music ensemble Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan presents “Celebrating the Voice,” with music from its two new CD releases. (As usual, when writing about the group, I need to state that I have been a career-long membership of Evergreen, one of many very satisfying, though seldom particularly remunerative, ways I have been engaged in music long before I was a music journalist.)
The eight-musician group typically adheres to an all-instrumental program but here performs a wide range of songs from its hot-off-the-press genre-defying CD Bridge. The fine Toronto vocalists Jennifer Moore and Maryem Tollar are in the spotlight, along with violinist Parmela Attariwala.
Then from its new CD release Grace, ECCG will perform Bill Parsons’ large-scale Translating Grace, scored for the very probably unique instrumentation of soprano (Jennifer Moore), ECCG’s degung, cello (Andrew Downing), bass clarinet (Bob Stevenson) and keyboard (Erik Ross). A bespoke video by Chuck Samuels provides added visual enhancement of the song cycle’s textual themes. As a trumpet virtuoso and University of Victoria music professor very recently put it, “The reckless abandon [ECCG] shows for borders, genres, and easy classification remains an inspiration.”
Autorickshaw celebrates 15 years
May 18: Toronto’s twice JUNO-nominated, Indo-fusion ensemble Autorickshaw presents “Under the Hood” live in concert. Autorickshaw celebrates 15 years, kicking off its 2017 concert season at Lula Lounge. Vocalist Suba Sankaran is joined by elite Toronto musicians Justin Abedin (guitars), Dylan Bell (voice, bass, beatboxing), Ed Hanley (tabla) and Ben Riley (drumkit).
Autorickshaw’s post-fusion repertoire spans Indian classical, folk and Bollywood as well as original compositions. Rooted in both North and South Indian classical music repertoire, its music is further framed by its members’ experiences growing up and studying music in culturally diverse Toronto. Autorickshaw is working on a new album featuring the core trio, to be released later this year. Perhaps we’ll be treated to some of their new work in progress in addition to its greatest hits.
Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
- Written by Andrew Timar
- Category: World Music
Arguably one of the most exciting features of Toronto’s musical geography today is how our metropolis has emerged as a kind of globally flavoured creative seedbed. Over the past few decades potentially viable music hybrids of myriad kinds have been created and encouraged to flourish. I’ve touched on many in this column over the years.
This inclusive scene is abetted by the presence of many of the world’s musics actively performed by musicians of the first rank. In this column last month, for example, I focused on music-making within the Persian community, which is thriving in the greater Toronto area.
In addition to performers, the GTA music scene is also supported by numerous audiences which have developed an appetite for tasting, mixing and merging of sonic genres from disparate worlds. Yet another essential element supporting this development includes a social-political infrastructure comprising community organizations, governments, venues and media which generally view hybrids favourably.
Inclusivity and diversity were adopted as part of the core philosophical platform of the current Canadian government. Recognizing that this approach is not necessarily the norm in other societies, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly articulated its outlines, particularly in his foreign speeches. “Diversity is Canada’s strength,” he said in London, UK, in 2015. “Canada has learned how to be strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them…that capacity will be at the heart of both our success and of what we offer the world.”
Let’s examine how Canada’s appreciation of the value of diversity –reflected and transformed by (both immigrant and Canadian-born) musicians through the process of artistic hybridization – is reflected in and shaped by several April concerts in Toronto.
Small World Music: Asian Music Series
Small World Music’s 15th Annual Asian Music Series, running April 1 to May 20, is a case in point. About half of the events are staged at SWM’s own intimate Centre at the Artscape Youngplace. The 14-concert series came about through networking with partner presenters such as the Aga Khan Museum, Batuki Music Society and Raag-Mala, in addition to support by various arts councils and levels of government. Its private sector sponsor is TD Bank.
The program brings together “emerging artists with internationally renowned figures, engaging communities around the GTA…embracing the scope of music from across the Asian cultural landscape – from India to Japan, via China, Pakistan and Iran….”
In order to assist audiences in navigating the two-month series, SWM groups concerts into what it calls Explorer Bundles. They are cannily shaping audience experiences thematically, as well as across genre and culture of origin. Allowing audiences to “take advantage of Small World’s place at the heart of the city’s global music scene,” the bundling of “Asian Music Experiences” is presented through discounted three-concert packages with the following evocative and user-friendly titles: Rhythm, Soul, Heritage and Motion.
The Asian Music Series Rhythm Explorer Bundle commences with the Haniya Aslam Trio on April 1. Aslam is a star in her native Pakistan, having co-led the country’s first all-female band Zeb and Haniya. Their groundbreaking 2008 hit album Chup! (Silence!) topped the charts for months. Now a Toronto resident, singer-guitarist Aslam fluidly combines pop, folk-rock, alt, blues and jazz with vernacular songs she learned in her native Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Lyrics in Urdu, Pashto, Dari and Turkish, and thematically bold subject matter, thicken the regional-transnational tensions in her songs, yet at the same time give them unusual potency. Continuing her advocacy of transnational culture in her music, she’s joined by leading Toronto world musicians Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion), Peter Lutek (winds) and Waleed Abdulhamid (bass).
The Rhythm Explorer Bundle continues April 16 with Upanishads, Toronto musician Debashis Sinha’s new solo project which explores ancient sacred text while remaining firmly rooted in the thoroughly contemporary sound world of electronic and beat-based music. Steeped in his experience as a second generation South Asian Canadian, Sinha’s music is “committed to expand[ing] the notions of what it means to express and be influenced by a life in/between cultures.”
May 6 at 10pm, the Rhythm Explorer Bundle wraps with a lighthearted “throwback dance party, Globetrotter’s Retro Bollywood Edition.” Local and international DJs will mix a live “cross-cultural concoction on the dance floor, in celebration of diversity and inspired community…with spicy blends of funk, sitar, tabla, soaring vocals and lush orchestras, all mashed up with modern beats.” Vintage Bollywood film clips, South Asian-themed decor and a chai bar round out this multisensory, playful party at Round, 152a Augusta Ave.
Tinariwen and Dengue Fever
Those are only three out of 12 concerts in SWM’s Asian Music Series which fall into the framework of this issue of The WholeNote so I can’t possibly highlight them all here, even though I’m itching to. Well – maybe just one more.
Tinariwen, presented at Massey Hall by Small World Music, Batuki Music Society and Massey Hall on April 12, is a Grammy Award-winning Malian sextet with an impressive international fan following. Formed in 1979 in Algerian exile by Malian Tuareg musicians, Tinariwen is among the pioneers of the desert blues genre. Digging heavily into traditional Tuareg music, but also influenced by Bob Marley, Carlos Santana, American blues and Bob Dylan, Tinariwen’s powerful driving music and controversial lyrics address the pain of exile and the struggle against political repression. Slate called the group “rock ‘n’ roll rebels whose rebellion, for once, wasn’t just metaphorical.”
The opening act Dengue Fever is fronted by award-winning Cambodian native vocalist Chhom Nimol. She sings in both Khmer and more recently in English. California based, the five-piece band with standard pop instrumentation takes 1960s Khmer pop music as its primary source of inspiration. It then liberally adds rock of the garage and psychedelic persuasion. Rock icon and veteran world music champion Peter Gabriel said of their music: “It’s done with a lot of style. It’s spirited, impassioned stuff.”
Tabla and Taiko: April 15 two of Toronto’s veteran world music groups join forces. Toronto Tabla Ensemble and Nagata Shachu present “Tabla and Taiko: Two Ancient Traditions Meet” at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The promotional material states the concert is to serve as a “cross-cultural music collaboration of Indian and Japanese percussive traditions with the goal of bringing communities together.” It promises to be a textbook demonstration of how the evolutionary processes of artistic hybridization can be developed over years and successfully presented.
I’ve written before about how both Toronto-based ensembles have significantly contributed to the Canadian world music scene since the 1990s. In pursuing their groups’ artistic vision they have both succeeded in raising the profiles of received Indian and Japanese musics. In this concert they join hands and drums, featuring compositions by the two ensembles’ artistic directors, Ritesh Das and Kiyoshi Nagata. Each is creating works that maintain their home traditions’ integrity while also searching to integrate the other group’s inherent strengths. I spoke to each AD to better understand their collaborative approach.
“I wrote Sare Panch, in a rhythmic cycle of five and a half beats,” said Das. “I then modified and fine-tuned it in rehearsal so it would work with the extreme dynamic range of the taiko ensemble. I’m also looking forward to performing a piece by Aki Takahashi in 14 beats, as well as a work where I play solo tabla and Kiyoshi plays the chappa, a Japanese cymbal.”
How would he characterize the common denominators between the two quite different groups? “We both share values of respect, discipline and knowledge,” Das replied without pause.
Kiyoshi Nagata added: “I agree we share those values. [On the other hand] I always tell Ritesh it’s not our similarities but our differences that complement one another! For example taiko is loud, tabla is quiet; taiko is primal, tabla intricate and technical. It’s those kinds of juxtapositions which offer rich new sonic and artistic possibilities.
“In addition, both our ensembles work within the oral tradition,” continued Nagata. “Not being bound by notation makes it easier to communicate, I find. As we like to recite to one another: ‘Once you say it, you can play it!’ It’s quite liberating to be able to internalize music in order to express yourself. You could reduce the process to memorization, internalization and finally expression. After all, the goal of taiko practice is that the body becomes the extension of the rhythm.”
Finally Nagata added “Collaborations like this are pretty hard to come by. Toronto is one of the few places where this could happen. There’s a certain convenience in having both groups in the same town. They’re 20 minutes from us, so we can get together any day of the week!”
Aga Khan Museum’s “Entrancement”
As for presenters, they are continually evolving ways to reinterpret aspects of musical inclusivity, diversity and cultural framing to their audiences. The Aga Khan Museum is one such presenter and venue which has actively welcomed the music of the world right from its beginnings in 2014. I spoke to Umair Jaffar, performing arts manager at the AKM about its latest efforts to retag its concert series in order to keep it relevant to its patrons.
“We’ve had series called ‘classical’ and ‘world music’ in the past. Now we’re considering using the word ‘entranced’ however,” said Jaffar. “Trance is a word that aptly describes and connects several of our upcoming performing arts programs.”
It is an idea clearly reflected in the “mesmerizing and mood-altering grooves of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s slide guitar” that will be showcased in his April 22 concert presented in partnership with Raag-Mala Toronto and Small World Music’s Asian Music Series. The Grammy Award-winning Bhatt performs exclusively on his bespoke 19-stringed mohan veena. While his instrument borrows as much from the Hawaiian and blues slide lap guitars as from the indigenous Indian veena, the music Bhatt plays on it is strictly Hindustani classical, relying on the performance of raga. Raga itself is a complex concept in classical Indian music akin to melodic mode, possessing the power to “colour the mind” of the performer, as well as to affect the emotions of the listener.
The April crop from the Toronto global seed bed is promising indeed!
Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Written by Andrew Timar
- Category: World Music
The 2015 Canadian census estimated that Iranian Canadians number over 200,000. They have settled in significant numbers in the greater Montreal and Vancouver regions but the largest group – some estimates put the number at around 65,000 – lives in the northern Toronto outliers of Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Markham and Thornhill.
Over the past few decades, increasing numbers of singers, musicians, composers, conductors and music teachers specializing in many genres have joined their ranks, greatly enriching the musical life of the GTA. They and musicians from many other lands, including those native to Canada, are truly “making Toronto into a real music city,” a politicized phrase I’m cheekily lifting from The WholeNote’s Publisher/Editor In Chief David Perlman’s insightful Op-Ed last issue.
I have highlighted numerous concerts with a Persian theme in my column over the years, however this March several presenters are combining forces to highlight Persian culture alive and well right here in the diaspora. Under the rubric of Nowruz, the Persian annual New Year’s celebration welcoming the advent of spring, a museum exhibition, epic shadow theatre, storytelling, educational workshops, culinary experiences, children’s programs, cinema, dance and music performances – even a Nowruz DJ party – will warm our burg residents’ late-winter blahs.
Mystic Persian Music and Poetry: March 4, the Aga Khan Museum in partnership with Rumi Canada presents “Mystic Persian Music and Poetry” with the Soley Ensemble at the museum’s auditorium. The concert animates the current museum exhibition “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians,” highlighting “cultural rebellion and lyrical reflection” in the works of 23 artists who have chosen self-expression over silence.
The Soley Ensemble is led by the veteran singer-songwriter Soleyman Vaseghi. Born in Tehran in 1946 into a multi-generational Sufi-centric family, he was already popularly known as “Soley” throughout Iran by the age of 20, singing his own songs on National Iranian Radio and Television. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, however, Soley was prohibited from performing in public. He turned intensive research into Persian literature, poetry and music. This work eventually resulted in a series of new age-style albums aimed at international audiences, inspired by the lessons of Sufism.
Soley left Iran in 1986 and by the early 2000s had joined forces with the Lian Ensemble, a Los Angeles-based group of expat Iranian virtuoso musicians and composers. Their common goal was to fuse their classical Persian music heritage with contemporary jazz sensibilities, aiming for a “synthesis of mystical world music.”
Soley now makes Toronto his home and his Soley Ensemble is comprised primarily of several younger generation Toronto-area musicians of Iranian origin playing traditional Persian instruments. In Mystic Persian Music and Poetry, the Soley Ensemble performs devotional Sufi music honouring Nowruz. They are joined by “sacred whirling dancer” Farzad AttarJafari and Toronto-based spoken-word artist Sheniz Janmohamad reciting her English-language poetry.
Nowruzgan Festival: Tirgan, a “non-profit, non-religious and non-partisan cultural organization committed to promoting a cross-cultural dialogue between the Iranian-Canadians and the larger Canadian community,” is at the centre of Toronto’s Nowruz cultural festivities this year. Intending to honour both Nowruz as well as Canada’s sesquicentennial, Tirgan is producing the three-day Nowruzgan Festival.
The festival posits a twin purpose, one that looks culturally to the Persian homeland, but one which also embraces the community’s presence within Canada’s multiple socio-cultural and political geography. In addition, Tirgan’s Nowruzgan Festival mission statement emphasizes not only the entertainment value of its programming but also a didactic purpose.
“Daytime activities are geared toward youth and families and combine Persian art/craft technique with Canadian content.Using workshops and performances, children, teens and young adults have an opportunity to gain a clearer perception of their roles in society’s development as a cultural mosaic. Evening activities are designed for family and adult audiences.” It appears that the Nowruzgan Festival also aims to encourage younger Canadians of Iranian origin to better understand Canadian society.
Running over the March 10 to March 12 weekend, in partnership with Toronto Centre for the Arts, North York Arts and Aga Khan Museum, the Nowruzgan Festival events take place at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. It’s strategically located in the lower end of the heart of contemporary Toronto’s Iranian neighbourhood centred on Yonge Street. Of the nearly 60 scheduled events let’s take a closer look at a few with music as a key ingredient.
Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic: The festival kicks off Friday March 10 with the multidisciplinary shadow theatre production Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic which is repeated three more times during the weekend. Billed as a “cinematic shadow play for all ages,” the production is rooted in stories from the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), an epic literary milestone written by the great Persian poet Ferdowsi roughly between 977 and 1010 CE.
Conceived, designed and directed by New York-based Iranian filmmaker, playwright and graphic artist Hamid Rahmanian in collaboration with the American shadow-theatre trailblazer Larry Reed, Feathers of Fire features original music by composer/musician Loga Ramin Torkian and vocalist Azam Ali, an Iranian American husband-and-wife team. Torkian co-founded the groups Niyaz and Axiom of Choice, both incorporating Persian and Middle Eastern music and lyrics. Torkian performs on the Azerbaijani tar, the Turkish saz and, a recent invention, the guitarviol, a new bowed hybrid of guitar and viola da gamba. He has scored a number of films, a skill which comes in handy supporting this epic production which employs eight actors, 160 puppets, 15 masks and many costumes. Its 158 animated backgrounds are rear-projected onto a vast 15- by 30-foot screen.
Sahba Motallebi with Special Guest Maneli Jamal: Saturday, March 11, at 5pm, the Aga Khan Museum and Tigran co-present Sahba Motallebi with special guest Maneli Jamal at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Motallebi is that rare musician, a female soloist on the tar and setar. Recognized internationally for her virtuosity for four years running (1995-1998), she was named the Best Tar Player at the Iranian Music Festival while still enrolled at the Teheran Conservatory of Music. In 1997 she co-founded the groundbreaking women’s music ensemble Chakaveh and was subsequently invited to join the Iranian National Orchestra.
Motallebi currently lives in Southern California where she completed a degree in world music performance at CalArts. She performs worldwide and has released a series of albums, the latest of which is A Tear at the Crossroad of Time. She has also pioneered Internet tar instruction. Her online teaching has inspired a renewed interest in the transmission of this venerable art form.
Joining Motallebi on stage is the hot Iranian Canadian guitarist Maneli Jamal. He won first place in the 2014 Harbourfront Centre’s Soundclash Music Awards wowing audiences with his signature approachable style of playing acoustic guitar with connections to his Iranian roots. A Minor 7th review raved about his “mastery of phrasing, a sumptuous tone and an ability to wrest emotion from every note, even from the pauses between the notes.” I, for one, look forward to the plucked-string heat generated by Motallebi and Jamal. It will certainly put me in a proper celebratory Nowruz frame of mind.
Mar 4: The Church of St. Mary Magdalene provides an earthly setting for the meeting of two musical choral worlds – the church’s Schola Magdalena and their guest choir Darbazi, the latter singing the polyphonic music from the Republic of Georgia. Schola Magdalena supplies its trademark medieval-to-Renaissance liturgical repertoire of Gregorian chant, Hildegard, Dufay, Dunstable, as well as Appalachian folk song. Toronto’s first Georgian choir Darbazi, on the other hand, performs selections from its extensive sacred and profane Georgian repertoire. The listing also mentions the performance of the intriguing but as yet undesignated “new music.” Will the two choirs jointly sing a new Canadian work or two? My advice is to go and find out.
Mar 16 and 17: Rounding out the month York University Music Department’s World Music Festival runs over two days, March 16 and 17, at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall, Martin Family Lounge and Sterling Beckwith Studio, all in the Accolade East Building. The genres on offer are wide-ranging: Chinese Classical Orchestra, Cuban and Klezmer Ensembles, West African Ghanaian Drumming, Escola de Samba, West African Mande and Caribbean Music. The Korean Drum, the Celtic as well as the Balkan Music Ensembles, will also show what they have learned this year. I’m willing to bet you’ll be impressed.
Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
- Written by Andrew Timar
- Category: World Music
Every February I focus my column’s lens on Black History Month as it is musically celebrated in our midst. And with each year it becomes easier to assume that it has always been thus. It’s worth noting however that this is a relatively recent commemoration in our province, one with an evolving history.
The City of Toronto became the first municipality in Canada to proclaim Black History Month in 1979 in recognition of “the past and present contributions that African Canadians make to the life of Toronto in such areas as education, medicine, art, culture, public service, economic development, politics and human rights.”
Official provincial and national recognition of this aspect of cultural pluralism trailed far behind however. It wasn’t until 1993 that Ontario first proclaimed February as Black History Month citing as one of the reasons: “To mark the 200th anniversary of a law banning the importation of slaves into Upper Canada.” While people have been marking Black History Month throughout the province ever since, official status was not been granted until very recently. It was only last January that “Ontario passed legislation to formally recognize February as Black History Month on a continual annual basis,” according to the Ontario government website. The 2016 legislation “…gives Black History Month official status in law, ensuring that the uniqueness, vitality and continuing contributions of the Black community in Ontario will be celebrated for generations to come.”
I want to start by focusing on a single theatrical production. It’s a show with strong Afro-Caribbean musical roots that resonate throughout popular culture. It showcases Canadian creators and performers interpreting the life and career of an iconic nonagenarian, equally known for his rich contributions to the commercial entertainment landscape of the second half of the 20th century and for his social-political activism.
Harry Belafonte at 90: A Tribute Celebration
February 28 at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, Culchahworks Arts Collective presents “Harry Belafonte at 90: A Tribute Celebration,” sponsored by TD Bank Group. Featuring leading African Canadian talent, including jazz-and-blues diva Jackie Richardson, singers Jay Douglas and Darryl Huggins and Stratford actor David Collins, the show’s choreographer Melissa Noventa weaves the numerous thematic and performative strands together with movement and colour.
Tribute Celebration’s writer, director, producer and music director is Andrew Craig. This prominent Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer, broadcaster and impresario is also the founder and artistic director of Culchahworks. Founded in 2013, Culchahworks is a not-for-profit arts organization that “aims to celebrate and proliferate compelling stories, principally drawn from the Caribbean-Canadian, African-Canadian and African-American cultural legacies, yet having universal resonance, through the arts. Historical, didactic and cutting-edge all at once, Culchahworks endeavours to entertain, educate and inspire a broad range of audiences, using all manner of traditional and new media.”
It’s not easy to think of a living, successful entertainer with a more deeply held commitment and lengthy dedication to the cause of social justice and change than Harry Belafonte. The NYC-born African American has been at various times in his 60-plus-year career, a singer, actor, producer, and a leading international political and humanitarian activist who often challenged the power orthodoxy of the day.
Craig’s chronologically driven narrative traces Belafonte’s nine decades in a tribute filled with music, theatre, dance and screen-role excerpts. Starting with his formative years in NYC and on the island of Jamaica, the show follows his rise to stardom in the 1950s with performances of some of his best-selling recordings including Matilda, Jamaica Farewell and Day-O (The Banana Boat Song). The latter song originated as a Jamaican work song. Mento elements were incorporated in Belafonte’s hit recording.
These and several other records were highly successful commercially. The influence particularly of Belafonte’s early recordings on North American and European popular culture was immense. His Calypso (1956) is the first LP album to sell over one million copies, spending 31 weeks at number one on the recording industry Billboard charts. Belafonte received two Grammy Awards in the 1960s plus a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 for his outstanding work in the studio. With over 55 stage, film and TV credits, he has won both Emmy and Tony Awards and has received numerous major honours for his outstanding work on stage and screen, all the while accepting roles which exposed and explored prevalent racialized issues of the day.
Culchahworks’ Tribute Celebration next assays the other major thread in Belafonte’s life: his lifelong social and political activism. Inspired in his political orientation by his mentor, the renowned singer, actor and Communist activist Paul Robeson, Belafonte played an important role in the 1960s Civil Rights movement as both supporter and confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte played an active role in the anti-apartheid movement and has since 1987 served as UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Performances include songs from his live 1972 album recorded in Toronto, and the 1988 Live in Zimbabwe concert.
Belafonte has challenged many social and political barriers in both his off-stage and singing and acting careers. Tribute Celebration re-enacts scenes from his signature film and TV roles dramatizing these themes.
Having retired from active performing in the 2000s Belafonte has more time these days to advocate for political and humanitarian causes. Rather than slowing down in his senior-plus years, he founded Sankofa the year he turned 86. That social justice charity organization “enlists the support of today’s most celebrated artists and influential individuals in collaboration with grassroots partners to elevate the voices of the disenfranchised and promote justice, peace and equality.” (“Mission” on Sankofa.org.)
Belafonte continues to take his civic responsibilities seriously. He currently serves as the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues.
Tribute Celebration rounds out its program acknowledging Belafonte’s political engagement and recounting his continuing influence on the development of young artists and activists. I’m not sure if the show will touch on his passionate critique of the policies of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidential administrations. Speaking as ever truth to power, Belafonte has also chosen – in his 90th year – to serve as honorary co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington held on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
February 7 the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts presents the pioneering Toronto world music ensemble Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan in its Global Salon Series. The concert takes place in the Centre’s acoustically warm, 560-seat concert hall, dubbed The Isabel. Opened in the fall of 2014, the Centre has positioned itself as a “new home for the creative arts at Queen’s University and a new hub of artistic study, creation and exhibition” in the greater Kingston region. I toured The Isabel during its very early days. All I can say is that it’s worth the drive to Kingston.
Before I discuss ECCG’s music, I feel obliged to mention to new readers of this column that I’m a 34-year founding member of the group. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth, I know, but I still thoroughly enjoy each of our concerts, especially meeting new listeners with adventurous ears.
ECCG has based a three-decade career on commissioning new scores with the end game of performing, recording and touring them on its superb bespoke Sundanese gamelan degung, a kind of gamelan indigenous to West Java, Indonesia. At the same time the group also performs music which can be heard in its West Javanese homeland, though in ECCG’s own idiosyncratic arrangements. As I wrote in this column last fall, “It’s a complex world of music out there and ECCG aims to present that complication from a Canadian perspective.”
In its concert at The Isabel, ECCG explores various border crossings and cultural hybridities in works by Canadian composers Mark Duggan, Paul Intson, Andrew Timar, Linda Catlin Smith and John Wyre. Works by the composer American Lou Harrison and Indonesians Nano Suratno and Burhan Sukarma round out the program.
February 11 Alliance Française de Toronto and the Batuki Music Society co-present a “Concert of Malian Music” by Diely Mori Tounkara, kora and vocals. Hailing from a large family of Malian griots, Tounkara followed his father’s profession, becoming a young master of the kora. Among the leading griots of his generation, his knowledge of the role Mandingo musical tradition plays is profound. His virtuoso playing on the kora brilliantly supports his flexible vocals which convey a wide range of subtle feeling that can be appreciated by Malian as well as Canadian audiences. Tounkara’s appearance aptly connects with the celebration of Black History Month.
February 14 the Royal Conservatory presents Ladysmith Black Mambazo in its World Music Concert Series at Koerner Hall. As a reader of this column, I assume you’ve heard this all-male South African choir. Singing and recording for over half a century, they helped make Paul Simon’s album Graceland (1986) a huge hit with sales of 16 million units. LBM has long been considered South Africa’s musical ambassador. At Nelson Mandela’s request LBM accompanied Mandela to his 1993 Oslo Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, as well as singing at Mandela’s landmark inauguration as President of South Africa the following year.
Having made its first record in 1973, LBM has since recorded over 50 albums, many of which have garnered gold and platinum disc certification. Their most recent CD, Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers, has been nominated for Best World Music Album of 2016 by the Recording Academy, marking the group’s 17th Grammy Award nomination. (A rollcall of awards and honours received would take up an entire column.)
The album’s title accurately reflects the intergenerational makeup of the a cappella choir; most current members are descendants of the original 1960s singers. LBM is a world music institution, touring regularly to bring their uplifting, joyful message to a broad international fan base.
“May the Fourth Be with You”
March 4th, that is. It’s going to be a day of tough concert choices. If you feel in the mood for a raucous, dance-in-your-seat-worthy Balkan wedding band you can catch Goran Bregović and His Wedding and Funeral Band at Massey Hall. The concert is co-presented by Massey Hall and Small World Music.
In another fascinating March 4 concert – this one by two very different choirs, Schola Magdalena presents the joint program, “Weaving the World” with Schola Magdalena and Darbazi at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Schola Magdalena’s guest, Darbazi, is Toronto’s first choir specializing in the performance of the polyphony indigenous to the peoples of the Republic of Georgia. The resident choir will sing Georgian chant, for which they are justly respected, and medieval choral works by Hildegard and Dunstable. Darbazi will perform selections from its extensive Georgian repertoire. The listing also mentions the performance of the intriguing but as yet undesignated “new music.” Will the two choirs jointly sing a new work or two? My advice is to go and find out, along with me.
Finally, also on March 4, the Jubilate Singers connect with the Black History Month theme, bringing our column full circle. In a program titled “The African Connection” the choir celebrates the influence of African music in Christian liturgy, spirituals and vernacular songs, “as written and arranged by Western composers.” Isabel Bernaus conducts the Jubilate Singers while Sherry Squires accompanies on the piano at St. Simon-the-Apostle Church. It’s a felicitous way to wrap up the month.