At times in this column I have gone deep into a particular world music theme, presenter, musician, ensemble, audience or school. For example, last month in this column I explored in some detail, the 150-year lineage of Chinese music performance in Canada, then pulled a tighter focus on the world of Chinese Orchestras active in the GTA today. Concerts by two of those ensembles bookend the two-month-plus period I’m covering here.

At other times I’ve painted our region’s worldly music pulse with a broad brush. For this December-January-early February column I’ve chosen the latter approach, surveying the seasonal tapestry of our region’s astonishingly diverse music scenes. So, consider this column the tip of the GTA winter season’s live music iceberg.

Toronto Chinese Orchestra “Scenic Sojourn: A Night of Chinese Music”

December 1: The Toronto Chinese Orchestra is the oldest such continually operating regional orchestra. It’s presenting a concert on December 1 at North York’s Yorkminster Citadel titled “Scenic Sojourn: A Night of Chinese Music” with Matthew Poon conducting. Angela Xu is the yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer) soloist, while Charlotte Liu is featured on the dizi (Chinese transverse flute).

On the program is music by both Chinese and Canadian composers chosen to underscore the concert’s geographic and seasonal themes. They paint portraits of village life in Jiangsu, scenic views of mountain ranges in Taiwan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as evoking the prototypical Canadian winter chill.

Works include Whiteout by Matthew van Driel and Reincarnation Suite by Marko Koumoulas, both early-career Toronto composers. IMHO the performance of these works signals a healthy active engagement with the broader non-Chinese Canadian music community. Composers Hua Wu (Taiwan Folk Song Rhapsody), Xianyu Jiang, arr. Chunmin Zhang (Touring Gusu), and He Huang (Tian Shan Poetry) present Chinese approaches to orchestral writing. Rounding out the evening, a performance by the TCO’s Toronto Youth Chinese Orchestra ensures essential interpretive orchestral skills are passed on to the younger generation.

Payadora: “Tango and Argentine Folk Music”

Payadora Tango EnsembleDecember 2: The warm and intimate Gallery 345 hosts the tango-centric Toronto quartet Payadora in concert. “Tango and Argentine Folk Music” is the aptly concise title of its committed tribute to the tango repertoire and ethos. Payadora regulars, violinist Rebekah Wolkstein, Drew Jurecka, bandoneon, pianist Robert Horvath and bassist Joseph Phillips are joined by guest vocalist Elbio Fernandez in a program drawn partly from the roots of the Buenos Aires’ early 20th-century tango heyday.

The group typically plays scores which favour instrumental tangos designed for listening in a concert setting rather than those intended for couple dancing. The evening continues with Astor Piazzolla’s well-known, trend-setting nuevo tango compositions of the second half of the 20th century.

In my May 1, 2017 review of a Payadora concert in The WholeNote, I wrote that in addition to tango they “also performed two Argentinian vernacular dance music genres. The zamba is set in a slow 3/4 meter – or is it in 6/8? – while yet another couples’ dance, the chacarera, also plays on similar hemiola syncopation.”

Audiences at the December 2 concert can certainly expect similar rhythmically compelling folkloric renditions. Founded in 2013, with its playful and virtuoso approach to the musically accessible tango repertoire, we can see why Payadora has, in a few years, garnered a healthy regional fan base.

Christmas musical themes

Every year at this time I look at music traditions of those who celebrate Christmas in its many guises. For those who don’t, it may be time for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice or just simply “The Holidays.” This year is no exception.

I’ve assembled a few picks from the many seasonal musical offerings that highlight diversities in our region.

December 5: The Toronto Choral Society, Geoffrey Butler conductor, presents “Navidad Nuestra (Our Christmas)” at Koerner Hall. The concert features two of the best-known works of popular Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez (b. 1921). The 150-voice TCS choir is joined by the Latin ensemble (and past collaborator) Cassava, led by Rodrigo Chavez, with tenor soloist Ernesto Cárdenas.

Ramírez’s Navidad Nuestra for choir and Andean instruments is a “folk drama of the Nativity” based on Hispanic-American traditions. His earlier Misa Criolla (1964), a Creole Catholic mass in a South American hybrid mixture of Iberian and Indigenous musical genres, swiftly became a big hit among international choirs and on LP. A pioneering mass written in a regional Indigenous dialect, Misa Criolla’s bright, optimistic sound exuded an unpretentious spirituality, in tune with the changing times in which it was produced.

Founded in 1845, the TCS is the city’s oldest and largest community choir and it is impressive to see them tackle these Ramírez scores again. Feliz navidad!

December 8: Celtic-themed music appears alive and well, particularly during the holiday season. Here’s just one concert example at the eastern end of our own “fertile crescent.”, the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts presents “The Kingston Connection: A Celtic Christmas with Kelli Trottier” at its beautiful Kingston Ontario hall.

A member of the North America Fiddlers’ Hall of Fame, Kingston fiddler, step dancer and vocalist Trottier’s musical vocabulary is steeped in her deep Scottish and French roots, reflected in her ten albums. Trottier and her backup musicians present an album of Canadian and Celtic Christmas songs and fiddle music.

Chris McKhool brings his Holidays of the Global Village with Chris McKhool and Friends to the Kingston Road United Church, December 9. Then he puts on his Sultans of String hat for a whirlwind six-city Beyond the GTA tour from December 12 to 18 with a stop in Markham on December 13 in between. Photo Jake JacobsonDecember 9 at 2pm: “Holidays of the Global Village with Chris McKhool and Friends” plays at the Kingston Road United Church. Kid-friendly Canadian violinist, guitarist and singer-songwriter McKhool is bringing two armloads of world music friends to help him fete the “multicultural mosaic of our country.” Inclusive songs about “Bodhi Day (Buddhist), Carnival (Quebec), Chanukah, Chinese New Year, Christmas, Diwali, Halloween, Kwanzaa (Pan-African), Native Traditions, Ramadan and Winter Solstice” will ring out in the church. Assisting McKhool with his ecumenical vision are Toronto-based musicians Aviva Chernick, Shannon Thunderbird, Maryem and Ernie Tollar, Kevin Laliberté and Drew Birston.

December 20: in keeping with the Celtic theme – and at the southern end of our fertile crescent – The Gallery Players of Niagara present “Glissandi & Guy Bannerman: A Celtic Solstice” at Silver Spire United Church, St. Catharines. Guy Bannerman provides the Celtic-themed narration with the Glissandi trio playing the soulful music of Ireland, Wales and the Scottish Highlands. The program is repeated December 21 even further south at Grace United Church, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Congratulations! We’ve made it to the New Year

KamancelloJanuary 8, 12pm: Kamancello plays on the Canadian Opera Company’s World Music Series at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Kamancello is an innovative bowed string duo with Shahriyar Jamshidi on kamanche (Persian spike-fiddle) and Raphael Weinroth-Browne on cello. Theirs is an East-meets-West artistic partnership that “blurs musical genre conventions and cultural boundaries with their highly evocative improvised performances,” ranging in tone from soulful to incendiary.

January 20, 4pm: Folk Under the Clock presents Harry Manx at the Market Hall Performing Arts Centre, Peterborough. Manx is a veteran of the Canadian music fusion scene who has released 11 albums and garnered multiple industry awards by successfully merging Hindustani classical music with acoustic blues. It’s all propelled by the hybrid sitar-guitar he plays: the mohan veena. His ability to gracefully wed the blues with the classical Indian ragas is unparalleled. It’s an unusual musical mix that has led him to be labelled the “Mysticssippi Blues Man.” Manx and Steve Marriner (vocals, harmonica, guitar) will play tracks from their new album Hell Bound for Heaven.

January 24, 12pm: The Canadian Opera Company presents “Volando: Tango Takes Flight” as part of its World Music Series. The Payadora Tango Ensemble takes over the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre space in a noon-hour master class on contemporary tango listening music, performing from their latest album Volando, inspired by a “beautiful sunset in the clouds as seen from a flight home by violinist Rebekah Wolkstein.”

February 2: Lemon Bucket Orkestra and Aline Morales perform at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Koerner Hall. I’ve written appreciatively about both the Orkestra and Morales numerous times in this column. The quotes, “Adventurous, multicultural and amazing!” (The Wall Street Journal), and “Toronto’s guerilla-punk-Balkan-folk-brass band that started on the streets of Toronto” (their website) about sum up the Orkestra. And we know Morales as the Toronto-based Brazilian singer, percussionist, bandleader and member of KUNÉ: Canada’s Global Orchestra. It’s bound to be a good time.

Also on February 2: Alliance Française Toronto and Batuki Music Society present Les Frères Cissoko Bannaya Family from Senegal, part of their Musique du monde series at 9pm. Les Frères Cissoko’s illustrious Malinke (aka Mandika) musical lineage stretches back several centuries in West Africa, along with their primary instrument, the kora. The kora (21-string long-necked harp lute) was traditionally played by a griot (a.k.a. jali, or jeli) who combines the bardic roles of a historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and musician. As a main repository of regional oral tradition the griot therefore has often been an influential advisor to the West African ruling classes.

Malinke oral tradition recounts that Jali Mady Fouling Cissoko, one of the three Cissoko brothers’ ancestors, a griot in the Kaabu Empire (1537–1867), was responsible for the development of the kora, launching a family tradition still in force today.

Senior brother Noumoucounda has taken his family’s practice considerably further afield however, embracing international vernacular music genres. Formerly with Positive Black Soul, among the first hip-hop groups based in Dakar, Senegal (founded in 1989), he has played with Youssou N’Dour, Ki-Mani Marley (son of Bob Marley) and others, earning him the colourful sobriquets “the hip-hop griot,” and “the Jimi Hendrix of the kora.”

Finally, welcome the Year of the Pig (Boar)!

February 5, 12pm: The Canadian Opera Company celebrates the Chinese New Year featuring the Toronto Chinese Orchestra Chamber Players (TCO-CP) at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

Led by erhu virtuosa Patty Chan, TCO-CP forms the professional core of the Toronto Chinese Orchestra. Marking the Chinese New Year they perform a mix of Chinese music plus contemporary works by Canadian and international composers.

TCO-CP members are established Toronto musicians and music teachers. Their repertoire embraces not only demanding Chinese works, but also contemporary scores by Canadian and international composers. This demonstration of transcultural musical solidarity is a marvellous way to bring in the year of the – carefree, honest, trusting, sincere, brave and wealthy – boar (aka pig). clip_image001.png

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

In my story on the Festival of Arabic Music and Art (FAMA) in my October 2018 column I explored the GTA’s Arabic music scene. That festival is still in full swing, so consult our concert listings for details or visit the festival website at CanadianArabicOrchestra.ca/FAMA.

This month we are taking a peek into the world of Chinese orchestras in our midst, a form of community music-making long hidden from audiences outside its various host communities. Then we join an early world-music adapter, the American composer, percussionist and conductor Adam Rudolph as he returns to the Music Gallery to explore the implications of dastgah (melodic-modal systems) with Toronto tar player and Persian classical music advocate Araz Salek.

The Chinese orchestra

While ensemble music has been practised on a sophisticated level in Chinese aristocratic courts for some three millennia, I am referring here to the modern Chinese orchestra, as currently performed in China and overseas Chinese communities, which began its development in the 1920s, modelled on both the instrumentation of the regional Chinese Jiangnan sizhu ensemble and the organization of the Western symphony orchestra. Such orchestras use Chinese instruments divided into four sections: winds, plucked strings, bowed strings and Chinese percussion. They typically play modernized traditional music often called guoyue (literally “national music”), or adaptations of Western works.

In terms of the dawn of Chinese instrumental music in Canada, the relevant Canadian Encyclopedia entry states that Chinese emigration to Canada – specifically to the Fraser River Gold Rush in British Columbia – began in 1858, mostly from Kwangtung (Canton) Province. Already by the 1870s there were three Cantonese opera clubs established in Victoria, BC.

The production of Cantonese opera required about six instrumentalists, and this led to the founding of music clubs apart from opera clubs. These music associations, as exemplified by the Ching Won Musical Society (founded in Vancouver in 1936), performed for many types of Chinese community activities.

Amely ZhouChinese orchestras in the GTA

The Chinese community in Toronto was established around 1877, with an initial population of two laundry owners. The community grew considerably during the 20th century when, again according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, professional troupes from Hong Kong were frequently invited to perform Cantonese opera until the 1980s, when the expansion of the Chinese community provided performers for locally produced Cantonese opera, often featuring artists from abroad. [As well], local companies such as the United Dramatic Society in Toronto, the Wah Shing Music Group in Ottawa, and the Yuet Sing Chinese Musical Club in Montreal provided training and experience for Canadian performers.”

As I am a newbie to this world, I phoned Amely Zhou, an erhu musician and Chinese orchestra insider. Trained in both Chinese and Western music, she began her music studies at an early age in the city of Shenzhen, in southeastern China. “After immigrating to Canada in 2007,” she told me, “I joined the Toronto Chinese Orchestra where I served for ten years as the bowed string section assistant principal, as well as conductor of the TYCO, its Youth Orchestra.”

She pointed out that beginning with the TCO, today there appear to be four Chinese orchestras active in the GTA: Toronto Chinese Orchestra (1993- ), Ontario Chinese Orchestra (2007- ), North America Chinese Orchestra (2011- ) and Canadian Chinese Orchestra (2017- ).

“I founded the Canadian Chinese Orchestra (CCO) last year and serve as the CCO’s artistic director and conductor. We actually have three groups under the CCO banner: the Canadian Philharmonic Chinese Orchestra made up of amateur adult musicians and the Canadian Youth Chinese Orchestra (CYCO). The third group is a cadre of professional musicians who serve as section leaders. These contract artists teach our CYCO and CPCO musicians, while also performing as soloists in our concerts.”

What about the other Chinese orchestras in our region? “In 2007 the Ontario Chinese Orchestra (OCO) was founded by graduates of top-ranking Chinese music conservatories,” replied Zhou. “Led by Peter Bok, they have produced a regular series of concerts ever since.”

“More recently another performing group, the North American Chinese Orchestra (NACO), was formed by several Mandarin-speaking musicians in 2011,” added Zhou.

The TCO: Despite ample evidence of a century and a half of Chinese music making in Canada, it wasn’t until 1993 that the Toronto Chinese Orchestra was established by a group of Chinese traditional music enthusiasts. According to its website, the “TCO is the largest Chinese orchestra in Ontario and the longest running in Canada. Members include professional and amateur musicians trained in Asia as well as Canada.”

The TCO presents its next concert, “Scenic Sojourn: A night of Chinese Music,” at Yorkminster Citadel on December 1. In addition to works by Chinese composers, the TCO performs works by the emerging Toronto composers Matthew van Driel (Whiteout) and Marko Koumoulas (Reincarnation Suite), indicating an active engagement with the non-Chinese music community.

The Canadian Chinese Orchestra: Chinese orchestras in the GTA appear to be affiliated along linguistic and cultural lines, reflecting Cantonese and Mandarin origins. How does the CCO fit into this context? “In establishing the CCO I was motivated by a desire to reach out to the various Canadian Chinese communities, as well as to the Canadian public in general” said Zhou. “I believe we are Canadians first, so I wanted to include musicians from various Chinese communities, from newcomers to musicians born here.”

The CYCO mounted its most ambitious project to date in the summer of 2018: a five-city tour of the Cantonese region of China. “It came about through an invitation from the president of the Overseas Nanhai International Students Association,” stated Zhou, “partly funded by the Cultural Department of the government of China.”

It’s part of a trend of the GTA’s Chinese orchestras performing in the motherland, made possible through the Chinese government’s sponsorship of cultural exchange between overseas and mainland Chinese communities. It reflects 150 years of region-of-origin (Cantonese in this case) affiliations, transnational business links, and a trend of Canadian cities “sistering” with Chinese cities of similar industry focus, all connected via cultural links. For instance, both cities of Nanhai and Jiangmen, located in the Cantonese region of China and on CYCO’s 2018 tour itinerary, have sistered with the City of Markham, reflecting the commercial interests of high tech companies.

CCO’s November 17 concert at the Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School Theatre is conducted by Amely Zhou and Wang Yi. The concert features repertoire reflecting various regional Chinese folk genres. Here are some highlights.

The CCO’s young prize-winning Canadian-born dizi (bamboo transverse flute) soloist Sophie Du is accompanied by the CCO in an orchestrated Taiwanese folk song inspired by a scene of tea pickers in the Lugu mountains.

Racing Horses, an erhu standard, was composed by Haihuai Huang. Depicting horses racing on the vast Mongolian grassland it is performed by the CCO erhu section together, evoking the sound of a large herd of galloping horses. The concert closes with Flower Festival (1960s). Composed by Xuran Ye as a pipa solo, it is based on a Sichuan folk song; it has been arranged by Zhou for the CCO for this concert.

Adam RudolphDastgah: Go: Organic Orchestra

Coincidentally, also on November 17 the Music Gallery and New Ambient Modes present “Dastgah: Go: Organic Orchestra.” The concert will be curated by Araz Salek, the Toronto tar (Persian long necked lute) player, and conducted by American world music pioneer Adam Rudolph.

Rudolph embarked on a career as a jazz percussionist in Chicago in the late 1960s. He was eager however to expand his musical world view. In 1977 he travelled to West Africa to live and study music, experiencing drumming, singing and dancing, as well as trance ceremonies.

He shares on his blog that in 1978 he “lived in [trumpeter, pioneer of world fusion jazz] Don Cherry’s house in the Swedish countryside.” Cherry inspired Rudolph to “start composing and showed him about [free-jazz pioneer] Ornette Coleman’s concepts and the connection of music to nature.” Back in the USA Rudolph and kora player Jali Foday Musa Suso co-founded The Mandingo Griot Society in 1978, combining aspects of African and American music. He explored Moroccan Gnawa music in the 1980s with sintir (three-stringed bass lute) player and singer Hassan Hakmoun. His music-making and composing has continued to grow over the decades, resulting in a large number of ensemble projects, reflected in over 90 album releases.

Rudolph often sets discussions of his approach to music in a philosophical frame. Case in point, in an April 2017 Downbeat interview by John Ephland, Rudolph evocatively talks about “shooting the arrow and then painting a bullseye around it” when describing his music creation process. He also reports undertaking a rigorous study of North Indian tabla for over 15 years with leading tabla virtuoso and teacher Taranath Rao (1915-1991), crediting Rao with imparting the notion of music as a “form of yoga – the unity of mind, body and spirit…”

Founded two decades ago, Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra is a culmination of a lifetime of musical and philosophical searches, embracing music forms and cosmologies from around the world. His compositional and operational modus operandi is built on a three-page score with graphic notation elements he calls matrices and cosmograms. It’s evidently been successful: over the last ten years Rudolph has conducted several dozen Go: Organic Orchestra residencies throughout Europe, North America and in Turkey.

Toronto’s Music Gallery first presented Go: Organic Orchestra in 2016, inviting 15 eclectic Toronto musicians to play under Rudolph’s direction. Araz Salek, the only musician in the ensemble whose primary background was outside of jazz or Western classical music, was particularly inspired by the experience.

Salek: Born in Iran in 1980, Araz Salek began his tar tutelage at a young age and continued studying classical radif (sets of Persian melodic figures preserved through oral tradition) with master tar musicians. He began an active performing career in Tehran.

Moving to Toronto in 2005 however blew open the doors of Salek’s strict Persian classical music training. While establishing himself in his new home, he quickly began to learn and perform with a wide variety of musicians practicing in numerous musical traditions. In addition to gigging nationally and internationally as a tar player, in 2017 he founded Labyrinth Ontario, dedicated to presenting music workshops and concerts focused on global modal music traditions.

I’ve been involved in a number of concert projects with Salek for over 12 years. I am however not personally involved in Dastgah: Go, so I called Salek late in October to get the skinny.

“Adam Rudolph’s 2016 Music Gallery concert,” he began “was a stunning experience for me. As you know I have an extensive background in Iranian classical music. When I arrived in Toronto I continued my tar practice, but also engaged with the local free improvisation scene. On occasion however, I felt lost in the midst of such freedom, particularly when compared with my own rigorous training and practice in Iranian music.

Working with Adam, on the other hand, he says, felt substantially different than playing free improv. “What really amazed me was how his use of graphic matrices defined not only tonal [and rhythmic] structures, but also freed individual musicians to make choices within them. It was the best of both worlds for me, combining the liberty of free improv with the kind of modal structures I’m most comfortable with. In that way, the 2016 concert was personally an inspiring moment. I wanted the opportunity to expand that musical experience. I made a proposal to Adam: to develop his score by including aspects of Iranian tonal systems. He agreed and our Dastgah: Go: Organic Orchestra project was born.

“The 15 Toronto musicians chosen for the November 17 concert are divided roughly into two instrumental categories: a Western group and an Iranian group. “I will be conducting a series of ear training sessions for the musicians to develop their perception of the microtonal intervals in some of the traditional Iranian modes,” Salek says. “An interesting cross-cultural instrument in our orchestra will be a retuned acoustic piano. This used to be done in 20th-century Iran, but was found to be too costly, and moreover could only accommodate a very limited number of tonal modes. We’ve revived this practice for this concert. It will prove, I think, that even an instrument with fixed tuning like the piano can be accommodated to perform with Iranian instruments.”

Rudolph’s improvisationally conducted spontaneous orchestrations will no doubt be substantially complicated – and enriched – by Salek’s Iranian contributions.

The multicultural dynamics of Dastgah: Go: Organic Orchestra aptly express Rudolph’s creative vision of our shared humanity. As he states on his website, “It is a realization of creative community in a world without boundaries; of culture as the vessel for understanding, empathy and sharing.” It’s a fitting legacy for an early adopter of a single-minded approach to world music. 

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

October is a fine month to go exploring for what’s happening on the global music scene. We listen to hybrid Persian-Western classical music expressing profound Sufi insights, then travel all the way down the QEW to listen to the joyful songs of emerging Indian singer Anandi Bhattacharya. We end up at a College Street “Bar” relaxing with three local groups helping to define today’s Toronto world music brand. Along the way we hear how music is passed on in families abroad – as well as in one downtown Toronto hood. Read on.

(from left) Hafez Nazeri and Shahram NazeriUntold – A New Chapter: Shahram Nazeri and Hafez Nazeri

Veteran Persian classical vocalist Shahram Nazeri and his son, the multi-instrumentalist and composer Hafez Nazeri, are celebrated in their native Iran and increasingly on the international scene. There are also strong Toronto connections to this story. Shahram Nazeri (b.1950), the widely celebrated Kurdish-Iranian tenor, was the first vocalist to set the mystical Sufi poetry of the 13th-century Persian Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (known worldwide as Rumi), to Persian music in the 1980s. Dubbed the “Persian Nightingale” by The New York Times, he has a career discography of over 40 albums that have sold over 70 million units. In 2007 he was honoured with the Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal from the government of France for his achievements in Iranian traditional music; the same year he also received the Lifetime Cultural Heritage Award from the Asia Society of New York. Among connoisseurs of classical Persian music he’s considered a legend.

In his father’s footsteps, Hafez Nazeri (b.1979) has also sought to carry Rumi’s message to a global audience, mediated via his hybrid compositions. With formal training in both Persian and Western classical music, he aims to bridge musical divides between those cultures. Searching for common ground, he states: “I want to create a revolution with music, with love rather than hate, or chaos and bloodshed. At a time when all that we hear about Iran is filtered through headlines of intolerance, focusing around the development of nuclear weapons and facilities, it is important to also portray the 7,000-year-old cultural history, with its deeply poetic and artistic mystical tradition through music and art, to the world … The universal language of music can and should function as the common language of humanity, harmonized, refreshed and redefined.”

The Nazeris’ major work is the Rumi Symphony Project, composed by Hafez Nazeri as an evolving large-scale musical suite inspired by Rumi’s poetry, mixing elements of Persian, Hindustani and Western classical music including harmony, orchestration and choral singing, and enthusiastically received at its 2007 Los Angeles premiere.

Their 2014 album Rumi Symphony ProjectUntold, co-produced by Nazeri and Grammy-winning producer David Frost, reportedly took more than 5,000 studio hours to record. It featured the poetry of Rumi as transcribed by bestselling author Deepak Chopra, dozens of leading international musicians, and ecstatic vocals by Shahram Nazeri. Rumi Symphony ProjectUntold became the first album by Middle Eastern artists to top the Billboard Classical chart.

Toronto here they come!

In October 2018, the Toronto-based artist agency and concert producer, Link Music Lab, is taking the bold step of presenting the next chapter of the work, titled Untold – A New Chapter, in five Canadians cities. Rehearsals start in Toronto early in the month. The tour then launches on October 13 in Ottawa and October 14 in Montreal, moving to Calgary on October 27, and Vancouver on October 28.

October 21, right in the middle of the tour, Untold takes over the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, co-presented by Small World Music. “Small World was proud to present the extraordinary vocalist Shahram Nazeri 18 years ago,” says SWM’s Executive Director Alan Davis “It was one of the first classical Persian music concerts we presented. Now we’re continuing that tradition.”

In addition to the multi-instrumentalist Hafez Nazeri – primarily playing the hafez, his own adaptation of the Persian setar, a member of the lute family – the ensemble will include Hussein Zahawy, a versatile daf (Kurdish frame drum) specialist, plus Iranian percussionist Farhad Saffari. American cellist Felix Fan, violist Liuh-Wen Ting, and violinist Conrad Harris form the string section, while soprano Maria Sokolovsky and mezzo Anna Yelizarova provide a strong female vocal counterpart to Shahram Nazeri’s male voice.

Shahram’s vocal performance forms the core of Untold, featuring extensive use of the characteristic Persian tahrir vocal ornament consisting of very quick melismatic oscillations between notes, including tonal gradations finer than a quartertone when extended, forming what has been described as “sonic arabesques.” These tahrir passages, more than exhibitions of breathtaking virtuoso vocalism, express the underlying passion, yearning or even spiritual transcendence of the particular song’s lyrics.

On the Rumi Symphony Project CD’s liner notes Hafez Nazeri observes, “Traditional Middle Eastern music is essentially defined by the soloist and fluid improvisation. It serves the performer as a vehicle for a spiritual and deeply personal journey, even as the audience submits its will to the moment and journeys along where the soloist may lead. Classical Western music, on the other hand, has evolved as a formal composition characterized by orchestral forms built on a solid balance of harmony, rhythm and structure, and requiring a certain disciplined distance by the performers and the listeners to be properly interpreted and appreciated. One of my greatest challenges was to try and meld these two divergent frameworks into one integral structure.”

Hafez Nazeri’s ambitious goal in this project is nothing less than “to create a new sonic universe, a unified construct [… resulting] in a new school of music that would transcend the cultural divide rather than colour one musical system with another [… laying] the foundation of an inclusive and transformed musical language.”

Anandi BhattacharyaAnandi Bhattacharya: The Voice of Modern India

From the venerable mid-century Sony Centre located in Toronto’s core to the barely three-year-old FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown Catharines is about a two-hour drive – not of course including traffic jams. On November 2, audiences can also travel musically from Iran to Northern India to catch the concert billed as “Anandi Bhattacharya: The Voice of Modern India.”

As in the case of Hafez Nazeri, Anandi Bhattacharya grew up in a deeply musical family, surrounded by professional musicians. The daughter of renowned Hindustani classical slide guitar innovator Debashish Bhattacharya, and niece of tabla master Subhasis Bhattacharya, very early rigorous musical training was to be expected.

Now 22, Anandi is pursuing her own singing career. She has recently released her album Joy Abounds, an exploration of her musical roots and influences. Accompanied by her father, uncle and Catalan clarinetist/guitarist/vocalist Carola Ortiz, her sweet, light and lithe voice covers light classical to folk songs in arrangements interspersed with bravura instrumental solos.

Although steeped in Hindustani musical culture from a very early age, Anandi says she was never forced to be a musical purist by her father and guru. This liberal aesthetic view made possible her high regard for musical fusion and several genres are represented and mashed up in her current repertoire. For example, as well as the pervasive impact of renowned 20th-century Hindustani music masters, she also cites Thom Yorke, Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell as leading influences.

Her current set list includes folk songs of Rajasthan and Bengal, a song by poet Rabindranath Tagore, original compositions by her father Debashish Bhattacharya and Carola Ortiz, as well as accompaniments and solos by Subhasis Bhattacharya, among the world’s foremost tabla players. Anandi notes that her music “is light-hearted but carries the true essence of ragas and their moods, and evokes a sense of familiarity amidst uncharted waters.”

Another factor in her current direction was touring with her father and uncle on the global stage, a profoundly formative experience. Its impact is summed up by Anandi: “I do not believe that I was meant to imbibe my own culture alone. I think for me, finding my sound [… including] all that I love to hear, and all that churns within me, is my path forward.”

So Long SevenWorld Music! Fun!

October 28, Toronto world music quartet So Long Seven throws a family-friendly Sunday 4pm world music party at Toronto event venue, Revival Bar, as a sendoff for their November European tour. Called “World Music! Fun!” the afternoon concert features performances, headlined by So Long Seven, opened by two bands with overlapping membership: Near East Trio and Zephyr.

Recently nominated by the Canadian Folk Music Awards for Best Instrumental Band for its album Kala Kalo, So Long Seven is comprised of Neil Hendry (guitars), Tim Posgate (banjo, bass guitar), William Lamoureux (violin, other strings) and Ravi Naimpally (tabla, other percussion). Individually they’re among Canada’s leading instrumentalists on their respective instruments and in their chosen music genres. Jointly, they share a common mission. “We often play and compose for each other with great mutual respect, trying to challenge, push and inspire each other,” says banjoist Posgate.

Another group performing at the Revival Bar gig, Near East Trio – with Ernie Tollar (sax, flutes), Demetrios Petsalakis (oud), Ravi Naimpali (tabla) – was nominated by the Canadian Folk Music Awards for Best World Music Group.

“These groups are part of a rich local scene,” notes Posgate. “In fact, most of the musicians involved in the show can walk to the gig! So Long Seven rehearses just west of Revival, Zephyr two blocks east and Near East Trio a few blocks north. It’s our home turf!”

These musicians all live in one particular downtown Toronto hood, yet their music has taken them far. Collectively they have logged thousands of touring miles, hundreds of recording credits, and multiple Juno nominations. So Long Seven and Near East Trio both released well-received albums this year, while Zephyr – Brenna MacCrimmon sings songs from Turkey and the Balkans, accompanied by Demetrios Petsalakis (oud) and Jaash Singh (darbuka) – are among the city’s most in-demand world musicians.

Listening to all three groups, perhaps we can hear a kind of downtown Toronto music taking form, rooted in multiple world music traditions. For example So Long Seven’s instrumentation combines jazz violin, Hindustani tabla, bluegrass banjo and acoustic guitar.

“All three groups are dynamic and fun to watch – and at Revival there is space for dancing if the mood hits!” adds Posgate. “Plus we really want to make it fun for the whole family: there will be face painting for the kids and cool door prizes.” 

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

Just past mid-August my WholeNote editor called. Fall on the doorstep, it was time to fine-tune stories for my September column. “What do you have?” he asked. “I am wondering if it’s time for a terminology reboot” I replied. (My column has been called “World View” and the beat I cover has been described as “world music” for a decade or more, even before I took over from my pioneering predecessor columnist Karen Ages.) What got me thinking about all this is that I’d been busy all summer attending, playing in and following online stories of festivals which could be tagged with the “world music” moniker.

To begin with, in June I toured with Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan (ECCG) representing Canada at the International Gamelan Music Festival in Munich, Germany. Cheekily dubbed “Indonesia # Bronze.Bamboo.Beats,” the experience proved both exhilarating and exhausting. For ten days the Munich Municipal Museum hosted for the first time what turned out to be Europe’s largest gamelan festival. There was a two-day symposium, over 300 participants giving 40 concerts and 28 workshops at six venues, in an environment that was much more about a global community sharing a passion for music rather than a commercial enterprise. Not a single band was selling an album or T-shirt.

On public display all over downtown Munich was the face of the transnational contemporary gamelan music scene. Far from its birthplace on the islands of Java and Bali in Indonesia, European audiences witnessed live performances of gamelan music which had been adopted and adapted by people all over the globe. What was emotionally and artistically powerful to hear was how some of those diasporic musical adaptations and personalizations (including those by 35-year-global-gamelan-scene veterans ECCG - Canadians who are musically rather than ethnically connected to Indonesian culture) have been in turn absorbed and indigenized by Indonesian innovators. It was in turns unexpected and inspiring to personally experience all this in the Bavarian home of Oktoberfest. Is this one face of “world music” in practice today?

Then on the August 17 weekend I attended the Small World Music Festival (SWMF) at Harbourfront Centre. This year it celebrated the 30th anniversary of the first North American WOMAD (World of Music Art and Dance) which took place at the same venue. WOMAD, “the world’s most influential global music event … became a landmark event during its [five-year] tenure at Harbourfront,” according to Small World. “The ear-opening inspiration it provided led directly to the formation of Small World Music. Three decades on, we explore this legacy and how it resonates in multicultural 21st-century Toronto.”

Evergreen Club Gamelan performing on the Anne Tindall stage at the first Toronto WOMAD, August 14, 1988. Photo by Ramona Timar.I had not only visited WOMAD during its landmark first year here but had also helped arrange an Evergreen Club Gamelan concert on August 14, 1988 and then played in it. So at some level my interest in this year’s SWMF was personal. Keen to get beyond the autobiographical, though, I checked out two SWMF panels and a workshop, on the afternoon of August 18, 2018. The “WOMAD 30” panel, made up of people who were involved in it on various levels, looked back at that first 1988 music festival that in the words of its Facebook events page, “changed the perception of music in Toronto.” Moreover, in terms of live music, it introduced the “world music” brand, then barely one year old, imported from the UK to Canada.

The second panel “A Post-Genre World” asked some big questions: How do artists, audiences and industry work together in the post-genre world? How are livelihoods and bottom lines affected by a multi-fractured or multi-faceted music space? How does genre affect the creative process?” I found the answers offered in both panels memory-jogging, thought-provoking and compelling.

World Music: the double birth of a term

I’ve weighed in on various occasions in this column on the notion of world music, its promoters, detractors, its problems and its origins. It’s helpful to keep in mind that the term “world music” entered the musical lexicon on two separate occasions, on two continents, serving two quite different purposes and masters.

Its academic origins appeared around 1962, coined and promoted by American ethnomusicologist Robert Brown, professor at Wesleyan University. He meant it as an inclusive term to be used in university music education to describe “living music” and to be used to “foster awareness and understanding of the world’s performing arts and cultural traditions through programs of performance and teaching.” That once-academic term got a marketing refresh a quarter century later, however, at a June 1987 gathering of record label bosses, retailers and producers in the Empress of Russia, a now-defunct London pub. Why was a new marketing tag so necessary that these thirsty English professionals had to put their pints down?

In a succinct 2011 story in The Guardian, journalist Caspar Llewellyn Smith reported that “Charlie Gillett who was present that evening, recalled one example of the problem at hand: in the US, Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade would be filed under reggae, while in the UK, he ‘was just lost in the alphabet, next to ABBA.’ After several proposed terms were vetted, ‘world music’ stuck and ‘11 indie labels put in £3,500 between them to introduce newly labelled sections in record stores.’”

At its commercial birth, “world music” was all about labelling, increasing album visibility, genre identity, market share - and thus hopefully sales - in international brick and mortar record stores. (It doesn’t take a Cassandra to observe that it’s a very different world in 2018, when there are many fewer physical shops and when some musicians and presenters increasingly embrace the possibility of a post-genre musical future.)

Genre vs post-genre: late 20th century record store racks

Back in the last two decades of the 20th century, genre still proudly ruled Toronto’s imposing multi-department, multi-floor record (and then also cassette tape) shops. Following London’s lead, there was a wholesale switchover for many records to the World Music label from what previously were marked Folk or International record shelves.

I well recall schlepping numerous times up the creaky upper level wooden stairs of Sam the Record Man’s flagship Yonge St. store to its upper floors. My mission as Evergreen Club Gamelan’s artistic director and Arjuna label manager was to chart the (to be frank, modest) sales of our LP North of Java (1987). I did the same for its CD remix namesake when it was released in 1992, making sure it wasn’t buried too deeply on the shelf.

What was on that album? All the compositions were by younger-generation Canadian composers. All the musicians were Canadian, it was recorded in a Scarborough, Ontario studio, and the label was registered in Ontario by ECG. While gamelan degung instruments were featured on most cuts, some made prominent use of decidedly non-gamelan sound sources like a synthesizer, electric bass and field recordings, as in the case of my work North of Java. Nevertheless, Sam’s didn’t rack it in the substantial Classical Canadian section on the first floor. Now I understand the album was a novelty, being the first Canadian gamelan disc. But this (to my mind) quintessential Canadian album in that retail environment was displayed not with Canadian music, but in the World Music section among other albums with which it had little in common, a long, long walk up.

World music: contesting and defending the term

My North of Java album story reveals the difficulties retailers faced when attempting to apply the new world music marketing tool. In that case it was misinterpreting a product with multiple layers of cultural and music genre affiliation, racking it by default, I assume, in the World Music section.

The commercial use of world music on one hand fuelled consumer interest in sounds from outside the Western mainstream both on recordings and in live concerts, yet on the other hand it posed the risk of ghettoization, of “othering,” the world’s myriad individual music traditions. Such risks have been articulated in recent decades by numerous voices raised in consternation over the term, seeing it as a polarizing factor.

Rock star David Byrne, an early world music adopter, was also thereafter an early dissenter. In his strongly worded October 1999 New York Times article provocatively titled Why I Hate World Music, he sums up some of the problems he saw in the way it had been commercially applied and then received by consumers: “In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one’s own life ... It’s a way of relegating this ‘thing’ into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant … It groups everything and anything that isn’t ‘us’ into ‘them.’ This grouping is a convenient way of not seeing a band or artist as a creative individual … It’s a label for anything at all that is not sung in English or anything that doesn’t fit into the Anglo-Western pop universe this year.”

Many in the business took notice of Byrne’s passionate denunciation. The following March, Ian Anderson, musician, broadcaster and the editor of fRoots published a lengthy rebuttal in his magazine. In it, he explored many crannies of the topic, including the different resonances world music had in America, UK, France, and among African musicians and audiences. He summed up with, “It’s not all positive, but World Music (or Musique du Monde in neighbourly Paris) is way ahead on points. It sells large quantities of records that you couldn’t find for love or money two decades ago. It has let many musicians in quite poor countries get new respect (and houses, cars and food for their families), and it turns out massive audiences for festivals and concerts. It has greatly helped international understanding and provoked cultural exchanges. …I call it a Good Thing…”

Pierre KwendersPierre Kwenders, the early-career Congolese-Canadian singer and rapper is not impressed with arguments for the term’s usefulness. Shortlisted for the 2015 JUNO Award for World Music Album of the Year and the September 2018 Polaris Prize, Kwenders called out the marketing term on the CBC show q on August 24, 2018. His point comes close to the one I made in the case of North of Java. “What is world music? What is that ‘world’ we put in that box? It’s ridiculous [for example] that classical music from India is put in the same category as the music I make … it doesn’t make any sense. I believe I’m making pop music and it should be put in the pop music category.”

Despite all these concerns, there is still a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album today. Ladysmith Black Mambazo won it earlier this year. Moreover the terms world fusion, ethnocultural music, worldbeat and roots music have been touted as less controversial alternatives, but with modest commercial or popular traction.

As I wrote at the outset of this article, this column has been called “World View” and this beat has been described as “World Music” for over a decade. Is it time for a change? I, and my editor, welcome your comments. 

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

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