- 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
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.
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
There’s a new music presenter on the block which also chooses to keep details of its concerts on the down-low. It’s the Toronto iteration of the Sofar Sounds international franchise, begun in 2009 in London, UK, a sort of a Meetup for music concerts. It initially came to my attention because the series has significant world music content, and it’s the primary reason I’m visiting it in this column.
Meet Jonathan Campbell of Sofar Sounds Toronto (SST). He began to organize covert alternate space concerts in the city’s core last year. “SST has regular concerts twice a month. Our secret, intimate shows in alternative locales showcasing the talent and diversity of the city aspire to bring the magic back to live music. We advertise online a [concert] date and the neighbourhood in which it will take place. Yes, we keep the artists secret but [I feel] they will definitely be up the alley of many WholeNote readers.” SST intends to stay: “We’re booked well into 2017.”
I asked about SST’s mission. Campbell explained, “It’s the local branch of the global Sofar Sounds movement, now in nearly 300 cities worldwide. We produce our concerts in alternative locales – offices, studios, galleries, living rooms, backyards and more – celebrating the wealth, diversity, breadth and depth of the artists working and living in or passing through our city.”
By choosing hyperlocal venues with individual curators - they sign up on the SST website for the experience of “hosting a gig”– rather than more typical mainstream halls or commercial pubs, Campbell identifies an important feature of his endeavour: the honouring of cozy “spaces, neighbourhoods and places.” Rather than being a secondary element, a lifestyle soundtrack, he argues that in such intimate, personalized settings, music can be savoured for its own sake. He explicitly referred in our interview to placemaking, a multi-faceted approach used by urban planners and human geographers to the planning, design and management of public spaces with the intention of creating spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and wellbeing.
Placemaking is a philosophy and a process with political resonance due to its close relationship to the notion of place identity. Place identity is not purely a theoretical issue, however. It informs a worldwide movement to protect places of significant local heritage in the face of the powerful forces of cultural globalization. Interestingly, it has direct parallels themes in musical themes I occasionally explored in this column: local and regional vs. transnational identities as reflected in music performance, production, mediation, and in audience and critical reception. SST is exploring aspects of this in Toronto. It’s about the room and how the audience feels in it, as much as about the music being performed.
I asked Campbell about SST’s core audience and its incorporation of various global musics. He referred to programming goals including a commitment to ethnically diverse music and raising SST’s profile among world music audiences.
“I think these two issues are deeply related. Geographically, we’ve been downtown directed, but that reflects the nature of our core demographic. The typical person that has signed up [to attend our concerts] is a hip young urbanite in their 20s or 30s, a person whose experience of live music [has been mainly relegated] to the bars, clubs and other venues of the indie, rock, punk and folk scenes. On one hand we love the idea of having performers of every colour, shape, size, musical style, form, discipline. But, because the bulk of our audience feels at home in the indie, rock, punk and folk genres, it’s been a harder sell to book artists outside of those scenes. On the up side, I think that the more people hear about or experience what our rooms feel like, the more that’s going to change, leading to greater variety in the music genres on offer.”
Campbell’s programming, in line with most Sofar Sounds events around the world, as reflected in their numerous YouTube videos (more on that later), primarily appears to reflect mainstream vernacular music. Great Lake Swimmers, Royal Wood and The O’Pears have presented polished sets. On the other hand, SST has also sought to stretch preconceived hipster notions of the live music experience by expanding what’s on offer. For example, Pocket Concerts presented an authoritatively played program of J.S. Bach string trios. Last December, indigenous cellist/composer Cris Derksen, a 2016 Instrumental Album JUNO nominee, singlehandedly built from layers of powwow-ready sounds with her cello, Western classical music chops and new school electronics.
To ramp up audience anticipation, SST has fun holding back the names of the musical acts it presents, yet it does something few other presenters do: it sends follow-up messages to individual ticket holders. Titled “Thanks for Coming! You were watching...” the email messages offer a thumbnail of each artist on the roster. Campbell notes that “we also track alumni artists’ future gigs and link to them on our Facebook page for the benefit of our followers.”
I’m not at liberty to disclose the identity of future performers – remember the lure of the “secret” concert, the cultivated air of mystery and the element of exploration in SST’s mandate? I can, however, speak about a few of the world music performers who have animated its low-keyed venues. On a hot July 2015 evening in the backyard of a private Toronto home, the Rajasthani Barmer Boys raised their voices in praise to perform songs steeped in the Manganiyar Sufi music tradition. Earlier this year Burkina Faso griot Amadou Kienou animated the dreary March weather in a downtown walkup with songs accompanied by kora and jembe. Sections of all these sets can be viewed on the SST YouTube channel.
A few weeks ago the Dilan Ensemble directed by kamancheh specialist Shahriyar Jamshidi played a program of Kurdish music. On another show, the ten-piece Toronto band Zuze, mashing up Iranian folk melodies with Afrobeat rhythms, shared the snug Small World Music Centre space (eschewing its modest stage for floor space under the spacious windows) with IVA, aka Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt. The Inuk singer-songwriter was accompanied by the Southern Ontario indie-folk band Ptarmigan in a set combining Inuktitut song and poetry.
In another concert, the accomplished Toronto-based Arabic and Jewish musician-singers Maryem Tollar and Aviva Chernick joined Iranian percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand in a new music project dubbed Walking East Trio. In addition, sharing the bill with two other acts, singer-songwriter Dieufaite Charles sang, accompanying himself on guitar, music reflecting a mix of Haitian roots and African rhythms. That concert, held in a private home in the Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood (yes, marked “secret!” in the invitation), was also part of Toronto’s Third Annual Festival of House Culture, yet more evidence of several layers of placemaking in action.
Campbell confirms that “of the three or four acts at every show, at least one will be a surprise to many in our audience – and that’s our intention. I can’t emphasize enough how awesome it’s been to watch audiences react to something clearly completely out of their wheelhouse. Whether it’s Bach played by a chamber trio, a griot singing traditional Burkina Faso songs accompanied by a kora, a rapper backed by live musicians, experimental electronic post-rock, or a solo singer-songwriter, audiences recognize that these are amazing musicians. Before SST, they might see a listing in a magazine or walked by a venue with a sign, but would never imagine going to their concerts. But the in-person experience is a powerful one. It says ‘this is for anyone who wants to hear it.’ It’s been so rewarding for us to be able to introduce artists who don’t generally have access to audiences outside of their own ethnicities. We [imagine that we] live in a city that houses every ethnicity, culture, or tradition on earth, yet we [nevertheless] tend to live in our own local worlds. What’s been amazing to behold is that by creating an air of mystery around audiences not knowing who they’re going to see, we’re able to demonstrate how silly it is that we’re not [culturally] more intermingled. Because great music is great music. Period.”
That’s why, he says, a well-known artist like Lena (aka Anastasia Tchernikova) of Musica Reflecta can entrance a room full of people with a program of solo minimalist piano pieces by Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt as much as a well-known folk group like Great Lake Swimmers, who followed that performance. “There is so much going on in this city, and, to use the old adage, there’s so much that people don’t even know they don’t know about. We want to help change that.”
While Campbell makes a strong case for an era of post-genre concert experiences, what’s in it for the individual musician or group? SST promises an attentive audience, an unusual, unexpected, fun, intimate venue with social media follow-ups on Facebook and Instagram. Each act gets a very modest honorarium. More valuable perhaps, SST provides a high-quality edited video of an item in their performance, uploaded directly to the international Sofar Sounds YouTube channel.
For newly formed groups, it’s an opportunity to connect with an enthusiastic young adult audience in an attentive listening “quiet room” environment. For bands used to gigging in noisy bars where the focus is not necessarily on the music they’re making, the latter is a precious quality. For more established musicians, SST facilitates a connection with a young adult audience demographic, to listeners who may not be familiar with their careers, repertoire or even the genre of music they play.
While mum’s the word on the identity of the global musicians appearing in SST’s December and January concerts, I can divulge two of the locations it has already announced. One is the hip Boxcar Social at Harbourfront Centre overlooking Lake Ontario and the other is “a secret location” in Evergreen Brick Works nestled in the neo-bucolic post-industrial setting of the Don River Valley.
After speaking with SST producer Campbell, I am confident that SST’s programming will continue towards its goal of genre diversity. Gongs, ukuleles and dulcimers will undoubtedly share future SST rooms with guitars, drum kits and keyboards.
Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
- Written by Andrew Timar
- Category: World Music
I’ve been writing this column for almost seven years. Loyal readers will observe that I’ve approached my World View beat from many different – sometimes even conflicting – points of view. Last month I disclosed aspects of my private life, inviting you to fly with me and my bride to our Hungarian honeymoon, a journey which reconnected me to my culture of origin.
That story, shared from my personal album, segued neatly to a case study of the Toronto musician Richard Moore. He actively pursues a very rare double professional life: as a career percussionist he is also a Hungarian cimbalom and hammered dulcimer player. (Quite coincidentally – or is it? – I’m dipping even deeper into these transatlantic, transcultural waters in my examination of 60 years of musical Hungarians in Canada in a feature elsewhere in this issue.)
In order to mix things up a little, for this column I’ve decided to undertake a brief survey of what programmers across our great “multi-culti” (in the words of Deiter, my ethnomusicologist German friend) metropolis have planned for our musical entertainment and edification.
North in the South: Inuit throat singing today: Starting things off on Saturday November 5, The Music Gallery along with Native Women in the Arts present the “Inuit Showcase,” part of the Kwe Performance Series at the Music Gallery. Three Inuit women share the program, a concert and associated workshop. The focus is pulled tight on Inuit throat singing as practised in various regions of the Arctic by these Inuit performers who seek to both preserve and innovate within their received throat-singing traditions. Throat singing was originally a competitive female-centred game for two which imitated the Arctic land-, sea- and animal-scape. In the last decade, however, this folk performance art form has been taken into new and innovative musical regions and showcased on international stages alongside internationally known musicians such as Björk, by the abundantly gifted Inuk vocalist Tanya Tagaq.
Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt, also known as IVA (ee-vah), is a poet, writer and throat singer from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. She has collaborated in performance not only with established Inuit singers such as Susan Aglukark and the aforementioned Tagaq, but also with the singer-songwriter Owen Pallett, the American electronic, experimental hip hop musician DJ Spooky and the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Taqralik Partridge, originally from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in Northern Quebec is best known as a poet and spoken-word performer. While her English poems illuminate the life of Northern people seldom experienced by Southerners, Partridge is also a throat singer and voice actor, appearing on Canadian and European stages.
Nukariik, on the other hand, consists of two sisters, Karin and Kathy Kettler. An important aspect of their performance is the preservation and sharing of their inherited culture. While the sisters have lived most of their lives in Southern Canada, they have maintained strong connections to their culture as it is practised in Kangiqsualujjuaq, an Inuit village located on the east coast of Ungava Bay in Nunavik, Quebec.
Nagata Shachu and Ten Ten: Toronto taiko and minyo. Also on November 5, Toronto’s preeminent taiko group Nagata Shachu presents “Music from Japan and Beyond” at Kobayashi Hall, Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. Artistic director Kiyoshi Nagata notes that “Nagata Shachu is excited to be collaborating with virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Shogo Yoshii, who represents a new generation of Japanese musicians pushing the boundaries of traditional music.” Yoshii, who is coming from Japan for the concert, is an acclaimed taiko (Japanese drums), shinobue (Japanese bamboo transverse flute) and kokyu (Japanese violin) player.
November 8 at 12:30, York University’s Department of Music presents the younger Toronto taiko group Ten Ten in a free concert in its Music at Midday series at the Martin Family Lounge, Accolade East Building, York University. Directed by taiko and shamisen player Aki Takahashi – also a member of Nagata Shachu since 2003 – Ten Ten has performed in theatres, concert halls and festivals featuring her own compositions. Takahashi is a specialist in minyo (Japanese folk song) and has published an astounding 200-plus videos of her repertoire on YouTube, hosted on the Bachido channel.
Small World Music presents African and Andalusían hybrids: November 11, Small World Music, in association with Za & Zoey, presents Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits at The Opera House. Considered a national cultural treasure by many in his Zimbabwean homeland, Mtukudzi, an eloquent vocalist, nimble fingerpicking guitarist and prolific composer (having released some 50 albums), is his county’s most successful musician. He began performing in 1977 and has earned a large fan base across the world. A member of Zimbabwe’s Kore Kore tribe, he sings in the nation’s dominant Shona language as well as in Ndebele and English. He also wears the non-musical hats of businessman, philanthropist, human rights activist AIDS/HIV and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for the Southern Africa Region focusing on young people’s development and HIV/AIDS prevention. He’s the sort of musician I want to be when I grow up.
November 12, La Banda Morisca appears on the Small World Music Centre stage, presented by Small World Music. The septet from Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucía aims to fuse original and re-creative views of traditional regional music. They present attractive vocal-driven mashups of southern Mediterranean genres like Muwashshah secular music, the festival and dance-centric North African Chaabi, flamenco from Jerez, Andalusían rock, as well as several other regional music genres.
ECCG explores the “classical” through musical border crossings and cultural hybridities: December 3, the Aga Khan Museum presents the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan in its Classical Music Series. (As usual I want to flag the fact that I’m 33-year founding member of ECCG – yes it’s been that long, and yes I’m still having fun with it!) This concert series has a fascinating curatorial premise which dovetails with ECCG’s long-term artistic goals. It’s articulated on the AKM’s website in the following manner: “Often used to solely describe Western traditions, the term ‘classical music’ is re-examined within the context of cultural diversity in this special series of performances. Our Classical Music Series presents the sights and sounds of North Indian, Indonesian, Italian and Syrian musical traditions. Redefine your understanding of classical music through performances that explore melodic scales, historical recordings and new interpretations of Western repertoire.”
ECCG, a group of eight Toronto-based musicians, has made a career out of commissioning new, often modernist, scores with the end game of performing and recording them on its Sundanese gamelan degung. At the same time the group has always also performed (often in its own arrangements) the core repertoire of the West Javanese (Sundanese) degung, a kind of gamelan music with past aristocratic roots which some may think of as “classical.” On the other hand ECCG also performs its own instrumental arrangements of popular Sundanese songs, on occasion inviting Canadian singers to interpret them with English lyrics. It’s a complex world of music out there and ECCG aims to present that complication from a Canadian perspective. In its concert it explores various border crossings and cultural hybridities in works by American (Lou Harrison), Canadian (Paul Intson) as well as Sundanese, Indonesian (Nano Suratno, Burhan Sukarma, Ade Suparman) composers.
Quick pick: Also on December 3, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music presents its annual free, fall World Music Ensembles concert at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building. The Iranian Music Ensemble is directed by the Toronto tombak virtuoso, composer and researcher Pedram Khavarzamini, this year’s world music artist-in-residence. The guitarist, composer and educator Brian Katz leads the Klezmer Ensemble, while the Japanese Drumming Ensemble is directed by seasoned taiko drummer, group leader and teacher Gary Kiyoshi Nagata.
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
I don’t usually mention my personal life much in these pages. On the other hand the eventful month since my last WholeNote column has been marked by one of life’s major milestones. I would feel remiss not to share a few of the highlights with you, faithful reader.
In August I enjoyed a joyous pre-wedding reception at Array Space here in Toronto with my bride-to-be, family and friends. On its heels was a bells-and-whistles wedding on Jericho Beach in Vancouver. It was raining for much of the week on the “wet coast,” yet the sun actually beamed and bestowed its blessings on us on the appointed day.
From Vancouver we immediately flew to Hungary for our honeymoon. Over 27 years since my last visit, it was a jam-packed whirlwind tour of the Western Transdanubian region of the country, graced all the way with unseasonably hot and sunny weather. Family, friends, food and wine, vistas and music featured prominently, along with the ever-present rich history of a mixed glorious and painful legacy of 1200 years which surrounded us at every turn. Back only a few days, my bride and I are still wiping jetlag cobwebs from our eyes.
One of my semi-musical tasks in Budapest was to connect with a prominent Hungarian player of the cimbalom – the Hungarian concert hammered dulcimer – on behalf of busy Toronto percussionist and cimbalom player Richard Moore, and that is where this month’s musical story starts.
I first met Moore at York University a few years ago where we were each pursuing our respective graduate degrees. He often spoke to me about his research on the history and repertoire of the cimbalom. His passion for it has clearly shaped his career choices as a gigging musician. Moore’s command of the instrument has made him that rara avis of doublers: a percussionist who also plays the cimbalom and hammered dulcimer. His highly honed skill set is so rare in Canada that he is often the first call cimbalomist in concert chamber, symphonic and film soundtrack work.
October 26 and 27, for example, Moore performs the cimbalom solo in Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite (1926-27) with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Curious about his unusual choice of instrumental doubling, I spoke with Moore on an unusually hot mid-September Toronto afternoon.
We talked first about the origins of the cimbalom scored for in Kodály’s Suite. “The cimbalom has an important voice in Hungarian music of the last 135 years, often being characterized as the country’s ‘national instrument,’” Moore stated. “The piano-like chromatic cimbalom I play today was first developed in Budapest in 1874 by the piano maker József Schunda, probably based on hammered dulcimer predecessors commonly played amongst the Romani in Austria-Hungary.”
It was a large and elaborate instrument, equipped with a pedal damper mechanism and possessing a range of four to five chromatic octaves. “It was immediately put to use by Ferencz Liszt,” Moore says. “The cimbalom entered the western orchestral world via Liszt’s patriotic 1875 Ungarischer Sturmmarsch (Hungarian Assault March) and his Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 with generations of composers following.”
I then asked him about the hammered dulcimer, the roots of which, I’ve read, can be traced back, under many various names, thousands of years. “Yes, the roots of the hammered dulcimer extend back many centuries and span numerous regions of Asia and Europe,” Moore asserted. “A modal and diatonic, rather than a chromatic, instrument, it was also brought by European immigrants to North America, and had a presence in the vernacular music of 17th-, 18th- and 19th- century America and Canada.” It appears that many Hungarian Romani musicians adopted the Schunda cimbalom very early on, he told me. “For example there is contextual stylistic evidence in Liszt’s scores that Roma cimbalom playing influenced some of his Hungarian Rhapsodies,” a significant part of his oeuvre.”
So, how did Moore’s own interest in the cimbalom develop?
“It all started in 1998 when I was a music student in Munich where I heard a Roma cimbalom player on the street. I was immediately drawn to its sound and timbre. Thinking like a percussionist, I made a connection right away between the two beaters he was using and the two-mallet techniques on the percussion instruments I was used to playing. The two performance techniques appeared similar to me. I could see adapting my existing percussion techniques to the cimbalom.”
He soon learned, however, that it is unlike any keyboard percussion instrument in its unique layout of strings, which directly dictates its pitch series. “Instead of the left-to-right horizontal layout typical of keyboards, the notes on the cimbalom are arranged vertically in front of the player.”
Moore continued: “The second obstacle was finding a cimbalom teacher in Munich. I couldn’t find one, so I studied with an instructor of the Hackbrett-cimbalom, a German hybrid chromatic instrument.”
Early in our conversation Moore talked about Liszt’s use of the cimbalom in two of his orchestral works, valorizing its patriotic symbolism as much as its timbral identity. But what of its presence in 20th-century scores?
Moore jumped right in, “In late January 1915, Igor Stravinsky heard Aladár Rácz, the important Romani cimbalomist, playing at Maxim’s, a café in Geneva. The result of that meeting fired the composer’s instrumental imagination, compelling him to purchase one for his personal compositional use.” The experience proved so powerful that it inspired Stravinsky to score for the cimbalom in several major works: the ballet Renard (1915-1916), and in 1917, in the Ragtime for 11 Instruments, a draft instrumentation of Les Noces, and in an early instrumentation of his Four Russian Songs. “Then in 1928 Béla Bartók featured it in his mature Rhapsody No.1 for Violin and Orchestra, underscoring melodies derived from Hungarian folk songs which infuse the work.”
Returning to Kodály’s Háry János Suite in which Moore will be playing the prominent cimbalom part with the TSO this month, Moore notes that “the instrument is found throughout the opera, evoking a mythical Hungarian past.” Illustrating how his rare doubling career works in practice, Moore will play both parts in these concerts, rendering the percussion part in movements of the Suite without the cimbalom.
The Kodály work has, over the years, retained its popularity in the symphonic repertoire. Moore played it with the Winnipeg Symphony around six years ago and also performed it with the Toronto Philharmonia. “By the way, the Toronto jazz pianist Rudy Toth (1925-2009), the son of a cimbalom maker, also doubled on the concert cimbalom until his retirement in 1989, performing it in the Háry János Suite with the TSO and other orchestras.”
New Passion: Beginning in the 1950s, Hungarian modernist composers like György Kurtág embraced the instrument with a new passion. “Kurtág included it in over a dozen works,” Moore says. “His colleague Péter Eötvös has extended the cimbalom’s repertoire further with a concerto and chamber works, one of which I performed with New Music Concerts in Toronto a few years ago under the baton of the composer.”
Is the concert cimbalom only the preserve of Hungarian composers? “British composers like Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies also included it in their works starting in the 1960s,” says Moore. “French composer Pierre Boulez was a notable advocate. He told me he very much enjoyed writing for the instrument when I worked with him in 2006 on the Glenn Gould Award concert in Toronto.” In addition, Frank Zappa scored for the cimbalom in his Yellow Shark (1992-93) score and live concert DVD, possibly influenced by Boulez’s example.
I seem to recall hearing the cimbalom in TV and film soundtracks. “Yes!” enthused Moore. “The Gladiator film soundtrack uses it. I performed it at live screenings in Toronto and Montreal last year. Howard Shore, the multiple Oscar-winning Canadian film composer included it in each of his three Lord of the Rings film scores. The TSO will be performing live to the first of those films on December 1, 2, and 3, 2016. For those concerts I’ll be playing not only the concert cimbalom, but also hammered dulcimer and other percussion parts, since technically these hammered string instruments are considered part of the percussion section,” and thus may be considered doubling instruments of the percussionist.
The Canadian National Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale, its 2013 score composed by English composer Joby Talbot, features two different types of hammered dulcimers on stage. Moore performed the onstage parts and he adds that “its successful 2015 premiere run in Toronto was replicated in 2016 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and also at Lincoln Center, NYC, in which I also performed.”
Moore’s dedication to this string percussion instrument has led him to performance opportunities at the heart of European concert music, as well as in recent popular film soundtracks and ballet scores. I asked him how he sees his cimbalom-playing career evolving. “In the future I see myself working closely with film composers to develop its expressive potential and ability to evoke a particular, though hard to define, sonic atmosphere, often used by composers to depict the exotic ‘other’ landscape – whether Celtic Ireland, a Central or Eastern European folk milieu, or rural 19th-century North America.”
For me, what’s particularly intriguing about Moore’s advocacy of hammered dulcimers is how these instruments have emerged and have been adapted to various performance disciplines and genres. Another intriguing – and as yet little explored – facet is the connection between the cimbalom’s discovery in 1914 by the major modernist music composer Stravinsky and the living Romani tradition which had already long adopted the concert cimbalom by that time. This connection is a living one in Moore’s career. The instrument he is pictured with in the photograph accompanying this story and which he plays in the October TSO concerts was purchased from a Hungarian musician specializing in Romani cimbalom music.