Christmas, and the liminal juncture between old and new years that follows, is for many of us a prime occasion for gifting and for helping those less fortunate. It’s also a time when daylight hours are at their shortest and even our waking hours are dominated by darkness. As such it’s a time which amply rewards introspection of the personal kind, when we can profitably reflect back on the past year and also look forward, hopefully, to a brighter new one.

At the heart of all this is observance of the winter solstice. The period around the year’s shortest day has been marked in the Northern Hemisphere with rituals of rebirth, celebrated in holidays, festivals and community gatherings, reaching back perhaps to the Neolithic period. Ancient Romans, Persians, Chinese, Theravada Buddhists, Northern European peoples – pagan and neo-pagan – as well as the Zuni of the American Southwest all celebrated the winter solstice. Some still do. Sensitivity to natural cycles seems to be hardwired in our human DNA.

It’s no coincidence that Christians of the Western tradition chose the winter solstice to celebrate the Longest Night (aka Blue Christmas). Falling at the end of the Advent season, these long and cold nights underscore believers’ own struggle with darkness and grief as they face the end of the growing season, and loss of many kinds. Christmas, the joyous celebration of Christ’s birth, was strategically placed within the Roman annual calendar by the early Church to coincide with this period.

Timar family Christmas

My own family has celebrated Christmas for many generations but in recent decades the focus has increasingly shifted from long-time religious to secular rituals performed by our immediate Toronto family. In our ever-morphing clan new partners are added, names change, babies are born, people move away and some return; they grow up, grow old and yes, our elders ultimately enter the realm of the ancestors.

All dressed up, each year the extended Timar clan gathers at one of our homes to celebrate our seasonal traditions, ancient and new. We feast extravagantly into the night with special rich food and drink that speaks to our multiple ethnic and religious roots, identities and values. Helping refresh family bonds is the spirit of generosity, mutual care and the hospitality that permeates that late December evening.

65 Million Refugee Realities

Things aren’t so rosy however for everyone at this time of year. It’s a particularly sad time for families torn apart geographically, when some are compelled to flee their homelands. So it was too with my family when I was six. We were refugees from post-revolution occupied Hungary. Our first generation is forever grateful to Canada for giving five of us sanctuary, a fertile place to put down roots, make a home, to flourish.

Today, the plight of refugees of many kinds continues to confront every global citizen. Many millions of our fellow humans need aid or asylum at any given time. Celebrated Chinese multimedia artist and activist Ai Weiwei estimates the number at “about 65 million people.”

In October 2017 he opened a vast new installation Good Fences Make Good Neighbours at some 300 sites around New York City, aiming ultimately to draw attention to the world’s refugee crisis. Good Fences criticizes “the global trend of trying to separate us by colour, race, religion, nationality ... against freedom, against humanity,” as Ai said at his October Manhattan press conference.

Reunite the Moneka Family

The mind-boggling numbers of displaced humanity around the world can be overwhelming in the absence of being able to put a human face on suffering. The dilemma of refugees, so passionately articulated by Ai in his art, is reflected in many ways here in Toronto. Not surprisingly, within our musical communities, it shows up particularly keenly among world musicians who have recently made Canada their home.

Early in November I received an email from Jaclyn Tam, manager of concerts and special projects – including New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (NCGMO) – at the Royal Conservatory and TELUS Centre. “I wanted to tell you about a fundraiser I’m organizing on Monday, December 11 at Lula Lounge,” Tam’s email began. JUNO winners and nominee musicians Quique Escamilla, David Buchbinder, Maryem and Ernie Tollar, and many special guests will perform. They’re coming together to support Ahmed Moneka, an incredibly special musician and actor who now calls Toronto home, in his bid to bring his family here. I first met him last year when he auditioned for NCGMO.”

Ahmed MonekaI was immediately gripped. Here was a story with parallels to that of my own family of origin, as well as to ancient semi-mythic narratives of asylum, hopes of peace, reconciliation and gift-giving generosity. I called Tam at her Royal Conservatory office.

“Musician and actor Ahmed Moneka was forced to apply for asylum in Canada in 2015 after his family received death threats for his lead role as a gay Iraqi man in the [short] film The Society,” she told me. (The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and showed at TIFF.)

Moneka’s family, of African Sufi descent, was well established in Baghdad’s artist community. His father was a well-known Iraqi actor and comedian, and his sister Isra was one of the founders of the Cinema Department at the University of Basra. His younger sister Tara has an international career as a singer. She has performed on Iraqi TV and at festivals at a young age.

Having faced months of violent threats from the increasingly powerful militias in Iraq, however, the family was forced to flee to Turkey in 2016. Ahmed’s family has been torn apart and they are now “in a critical situation.” Moneka speaks powerfully of their present danger in his fundraising YouTube video. Moneka hopes to reunite his family in Canada “so that they may live together in peace.” All proceeds from the December 11 Lula concert will support his goal.

 “With Ahmed, it’s all personal,” Tam says. “I met him a few times, heard his music, and since there was a personal connection I felt compelled to act. It was simple really: here’s one person I could help reconnect with his family.”

At his NCGMO audition, “Ahmed radiated pure musical joy.” But as Tam explains, by the time the final roster was decided, he had already made a commitment to tour with another band. The NCGMO moved on without him, but he made abiding connections with artistic director David Buchbinder, who has hired Ahmed for other projects.

After hearing Ahmed’s story, Tam felt personally compelled to help. “I don’t have a lot of money to donate,” she says, “but I do have a large network built up over the years and also the producing skills to put together such an event.” So she reached out to Tracey Jenkins at Lula Lounge and to musicians who have worked with Ahmed. “I was touched by the response of Lula and of the musicians and artists. They didn’t hesitate to donate their talents.”

This is our community at work big time (and it promises to be a fine musical evening as well)! Ahmed plays cajón and sings maqam in a wonderful trio called Moskitto Bar, which will play at the fundraiser. (One of his bandmates, Tangi Ropars, is formerly of Lemon Bucket Orkestra.) Additionally, a group dubbed Orchestra of Love has been organized for the fundraiser, bringing together Toronto world music A-listers such as trumpeter David Buchbinder, singers Maryem Tollar and Roula Said, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Waleed Abdulhamid and wind player extraordinaire Ernie Tollar.

In addition to pure music, NAMAS will recite poetry to guitar accompaniment and Zeena Sileem, an Iraqi painter, will paint a canvas live during the evening. The completed canvas will be auctioned with proceeds benefitting the Moneka family reunification fund.

All in all, this promises to be a terrific community event guaranteed to put all who come out to support the Moneka family’s desire for reunification in a proper holiday spirit.

New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (NCGMO): update

I promised in my summer 2017 column story about NCGMO that I would follow up on the ensemble’s progress. Since I was speaking with Jaclyn Tam about the Moneka story I asked her for an update on the orchestra as well. As it turns out, the Orchestra had a Banff Centre studio residency in September and October, recording its first album (which is being edited and mixed for concert release on April 7, 2018). Shortly after the Banff residency, in November, the NCGMO performed a showcase at “North America’s World Music Summit,” Mundial Montréal. And on February 24, deeper and no doubt whiter into winter, NCGMO will appear on the Isabel Bader Centre stage in Kingston, in what the Isabel’s listings describe as a concert of “transcultural music which connects and communicates in ways that words, politicians, and spiritual leaders cannot. Together, we all find a common language.”

Lula Music and Arts Centre

In its own words, Lula “nourishes a thriving Canadian world music scene … with a focus on local artists performing music of the Americas.” It fosters the Canadian world music scene “through concerts, festivals, cultural exchanges, education, outreach, audience and professional development.”

Lula’s Dundas West space appears to be in particularly heavy rotation this December. I counted 31 concerts and salsa classes on the site. That averages out to an astounding one scheduled event for each day of the month! In January the action announced so far settles down to eight music events, plus another six booked to date in February. It’s entirely possible more gigs will be booked in the interim, but in any case that is much too many to talk about here. I encourage readers to visit The WholeNote’s listings or Lula’s site calendar for updates.

Aga Khan Museum: concert picks for January and February 2018

Another premier Toronto venue for culturally diverse music performance is the Aga Khan Museum. It continues its programs of concerts and more casual pop-ups.

Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues - Photo by Zohar RonJanuary 18 the AKM presents “Yemen Blues,” a truly transcultural band deliveringan explosive combination of Yemeni song and poetry, Jewish music, West African groove and funk.” With musicians from New York City, Uruguay and Tel Aviv, leader Ravid Kahalani’s charts set a high musical standard and have roused international audiences.

February 1 “Musical Inventions” by Paolo Angeli featuring Dr. Draw takes the AKM’s auditorium stage.

Paolo AngeliAngeli, playing a unique 18-string hybrid of guitar, violoncello and drums, performs music rooted in the Sardinian tradition blended with avant-garde aesthetics. He’s joined by electric violinist Dr. Draw.

February 16 the AKM presents “Under the Indian Musical Sky,” with Montréal group Constantinople and Grammy Award-nominated Carnatic venu (flute) virtuoso Shashank Subramanyam. Constantinople’s collaboration with Subramanyam “bridges not only East and West but [also musical] traditions … from across the globe,” much like the group’s namesake city.

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

So far it’s been an odd fall here. Into the third week of October, it’s well past Thanksgiving, yet Toronto is still reaching daytime high temperatures we typically experience in June. There hasn’t even been a whisper of nighttime frost in town. The geraniums still bloom vigorously and peppers continue to redden on my north-facing balcony garden. Endless summer? Dire climactic implications aside, I for one am thankful for this cold weather reprieve, soon to be over, I suspect.

The GTA’s first Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA), presented by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, will be well under way by the time you read this. The festival’s first concert was held at Koerner Hall on October 28, featuring a double bill with Iraqi guitarist, singer and composer Ilham Al-Madfai and the Toronto world music group Sultans of String. Ever since its establishment in 2014 the professional CAO has sought to connect expatriate Arabs with classical Arabic musical culture in order to maintain this heritage in the hearts and minds of the present community in Canada, as well as to safeguard it for future generations. At the same time, the orchestra also seeks to engage with non-Arab Canadian communities. FAMA shows both objectives at work.

Arabic Music in Toronto: Rob Simms and George Sawa

To gain further insight into Arabic music today, in both the Arab world and here in Canada, I called Rob Simms, associate professor at York University’s Department of Music, a Canadian ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist specializing in Middle Eastern and West African traditions. Simms reminded me of the devastation to cultural life impacting large swathes of Iraq and Syria as a consequence of the recent invasions and sustained armed conflict in those countries. One of the results of this upheaval has been the displacement of millions of Iraqis and Syrians, many finding themselves as refugees in foreign lands – including recently, Canada.

Aleppo, Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is a prime example of this cultural devastation. It is considered an important centre of Arabic traditional music, historically supporting renowned practitioners of muwashshah, qudud halabiya and maqam (religious, secular and poetic-musical genres). Aleppo was also known for its sammi’a, a cadre of influential cultivated music connoisseurs. This ancient web of music production, patronage and appreciation has been tragically disrupted as a result of the current civil war.

I then followed up on the phone with longtime Toronto resident George Sawa, a renowned scholar, qanun (Arabic zither) player and music educator who holds a doctorate in historical Arabic musicology from the University of Toronto. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the multi-award-winning Sawa has over 50 years’ experience in Arabic music performance, history and theory. “I arrived in Toronto in 1970 to study at U of T,” he recounted. One of the draws was the university’s Robarts and Faculty of Music libraries, which according to Sawa “contain one of the best Arabic music collections in the world.”

George SawaWhat was the Arabic music scene like in 1970 Toronto? “At the time Arabic music was mostly encountered in cabarets and in clubs which featured belly dancing,” Sawa told me. He immediately sought to enrich the scene.

“In 1971 I founded a trio playing traditional Arabic music. Not long afterward, CBC radio recorded for broadcast a concert of Christmas carols sung by (leading contralto) Maureen Forrester, with me on qanun. The trio increased into a quintet, appearing in concert and on CBC over the next few decades. It became known as the Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble.” Sawa also served as the music director of Toronto’s Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra from 1996 to 2005.

Today one of Sawa’s performing projects is Alpharabius, “an ensemble dedicated to exploring the musical interactions of the rich cultures of the Mediterranean. The group is named after one of the great philosophers of classical Islam, al-Farabi (d. ah 339/ 950 CE), who was renowned as both a musical theorist and a practicing musician… The ensemble is a collaboration of musicians trained in the classical Arabic and Western medieval musical traditions.”

He concluded our conversation by observing that the GTA’s “Arabic community has grown considerably in the past few decades. For example, I think it’s very significant and healthy that before securing support from Canadian Arts Councils, the Canadian Arabic Orchestra initially sought patronage from local Arabic businesses who believed in what they were doing. More power to them!”

Charbel Rouhana, oudist

November 3, FAMA in co-production with Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal presents Charbel Rouhana, the Lebanese composer, singer and oudist accompanied by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre. This program will be repeated November 5 at the Monument National in Montreal.

Possessing ancient roots, the oud – often placed into three general groups, Arabic, Turkish and Persian – is at the core of much of the traditional music played throughout the Middle East and in regions influenced by its people. The oud, which has numerous morphological variants highly dependent on region of origin, typically today has 11 or 13 strings grouped into five or six courses.

Its performance tradition has been particularly long-maintained in Iraq, where a popular saying honours its high value to the culture: “In the music of the oud lies the country’s soul.” The instrument was once common in Iraqi households, something like the guitar in Canada or the USA. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime however, the increasing power of Islamist extremists who consider secular music to be haram (sinful, forbidden) has forced many oud players and teachers to cease playing publicly, or even forced them into exile in order to pursue their oud-related careers.

Already a virtuoso of the instrument, several decades ago Rouhana established a new method of playing the oud. Published in seven volumes, it has been adopted by the National Conservatory of Music in Lebanon and by other music institutions, securing his standing among today’s leading masters of the Arabic oud. Rouhana is also a prizewinning composer: in 1990 he was awarded first prize in the Hirayama Competition for his work Hymn of Peace. He has appeared in concert with classical Hindustani bansuri (bamboo flute) virtuoso Hariprasad Chaurasia, and also with many other leading musicians.

FAMA Concerts

In addition to the November 1 FAMA concert at the Revue Cinema mentioned in my previous column, featuring the outstanding female Syrian oud player and singer Waed Bouhassoun, and the November 3 Charbel Rouhana concert referred to above, there are a several more FAMA concerts in the first half of November. Here are some highlights.

November 4, the group Golan, its members hailing from Tunisia, France and Palestine, takes the stage at the Lester B. Pearson Theatre in Brampton. Leader Hubert Dupont, Golan’s double bassist, gathered like-minded musicians from all over the Mediterranean, arranging a musical exchange between elements of contemporary European music, jazz and Arabic traditional music. Pascal Rozat wrote in France Musique that Golan is reaching for “an ideal of musical fraternity as much as a hymn to freedom, for an ‘oriental journey’ different from others.”

November 9, FAMA, in partnership with the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto and in association with the Aga Khan Museum and the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, presents the world premiere of Origins at the Aga Khan Museum. Tagged “Indigenous/Arabic,” this new production by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra in collaboration with poet and singer Hassan Tamim and St’at’imc (a.k.a. Lillooet) singer-songwriter and dancer Laura Grizzlypaws is perhaps the most ambitious of the FAMA offerings.

Origins showcases similarities as well as cultural divides between the people of two continents through dance and music, “in the spirit of truth and reconciliation and… peace and harmony through the cross-cultural medium of music.” In addition to Grizzlypaws and the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, Origins presents whirling dervish performers of Rumi Canada for part of the program, enhancing the spiritual journey theme of the work.

November 12, FAMA moves to Mississauga’s Hammerson Hall, at the Living Arts Centre. Iraqi-born Naseer Shamma, among the world’s top oud masters, headlines the concert accompanied by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra. Titled “On the Way to Baghdad,” the concert is billed as a veritable masterclass in classical Arabic music.

Born in 1963 in Iraq, Shamma received his diploma from the Baghdad Academy of Music in 1987. He has composed music for TV, films and plays since. In 1998 he established the Arabic Oud House in Cairo, as well as in Tunis and Dubai. His scholarly research consulting old manuscripts on Arabic music has aided in his reconstruction of the Al-Farabi (c. 870-951 CE) model oud, which can produce an expanded tonal range of four octaves, giving the player a vast improvisational terrain.

Naseer ShammaQUICK PICKS

The Aga Khan Museum hosts four concerts in addition to Origins: Nov 4:Fleur Persane by Perséides” featuring Amir Amiri (santur) and Jean Félix Mailloux (double bass); Nov 18: “Haram with Gordon Grdina” is an evening of indie-rock meets jazz and electronica; Nov 25:” All Rivers at Once: The Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative” is described as “jazz-like arrangements of traditional Israeli and Iranian folk songs.” The ensemble, directed by pianist Noam Lemish, includes Saeed Kamjoo (kamancheh), Pedram Khavarzamini (tombak) and Amos Hoffman (oud). Dec 2:Nazar by Turkwaz,” the Toronto quartet of world music divas Maryem Hassan Tollar, Jayne Brown, Sophia Grigoriadis and Brenna MacCrimmon. Expect Arabic, Balkan and Turkish folk songs in tight arrangements with a sprinkling of new charts.

Nov 22: 12 noon, the COC’s World Music Series continues with “Arabic Coffee House.” The Al Qahwa Ensemble, with Maryem Hassan Tollar (vocals), Demetri Petsalakis (oud), Ernie Tollar (flutes) and Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion), animate the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

I’ll be sure to attend this concert of longtime local practitioners of Arabic and related music, bookending what promises to be an extraordinarily chockablock month of Arabic music in the GTA.

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

In my column last month I introduced two new Toronto initiatives, both barely launched in September, and both in their way aiming to address issues of interest to students, performers, presenters and audiences of globally sensitive music. So I’ll begin this month’s column by following up on these.

Polyphonic Ground

Polyphonic Ground, an umbrella organization of 12 live music presenters “committed to building and sustaining Toronto as a global music city” kicked off its first monthly concert at the Revival Bar on September 14.

On October 12 the series continues at the same venue, this time presented by two well-established local organizations. Batuki Music Society promotes African music and art, while Uma Nota Culture is a “cultural production house focusing on Brazilian, Latin, Caribbean, Funk and Soul music.” As in the first concert, these two organizations collaborate to present a program geared to spark transcultural musical discovery.

Three groups are featured in the concert. Matatu Express performs a highly dance-friendly blend of pan-African music genres including Ghanaian highlife and palm wine, Malagasy salegy and blues, and East African benga and rumba. West-African dancer Mabinty Sylla demonstrates how it is done back home.

Beny Esguerra & New Tradition serves up live hip hop, R&B and soul with Afro-Colombian percussion, a blend they evocatively dub “Afro-Native Colombian music from an inner city perspective via Jane-Finch, Tkaronto.” The third group, Future Primitive, presents what they have dubbed “tropical soul” with elements of Latin American and Caribbean, along with catchy bespoke songwriting.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario Launch

I was on hand for the September 15 Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario launch and fundraiser held at the 918 Bathurst Centre. The concert and reception had a warm, mixed-community feel. The buzzy excitement of the launch of a new venture hung in the air and was reflected in the music: there were four ample sets by various groups and individual musicians. They covered aspects of Persian, Southeastern European, Turkish/Kurdish and Middle Eastern musical ground.

The most unusual single item was the joint group performance of the tender lilting Kurdish wedding song Dar Hejiroke, bringing all the performers together onstage. For me this performance perhaps most clearly reflected LMWO’s mission, which includes the fostering of “detailed study of particular modal musical traditions and encounters between different traditions, encouraging intercultural understanding, artistic development and an appreciation of music as embracing all aspects of life.”

LMWO is a significant development on the Toronto music scene, one which not only connects with the transnational movement Ross Daley instituted in Greece, but also animates regional musical threads here in the GTA. LMWO’s website, www.labyrinthontario.com, is now fully operational. It’s worth a visit to see what workshops by leading modal music practitioners are planned for next May.

Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA)

Canadian Arabic OrchestraThe Festival of Arabic Music and Arts launches October 28 at Koerner Hall, then moves to various locations in the GTA and in Montréal until November 12. Its presenting organization is the Canadian Arabic Orchestra (CAO) based in Toronto, co-founded by the husband-and-wife team of qanun expert and CAO president Wafa Al Zaghal, and pianist Lamees Audeh, its music director.

Not only is this the festival’s inaugural year, but it’s my first encounter with the CAO. Audeh filled me in on the backstory in a phone interview.

“Wafa and I formed our duo in 2009,” Audeh recounted. “Then in 2014 we formed an ensemble of five musicians: piano, Arabic violin, oud, qanun and tabla [aka. darabuka]. This group initially performed a repertoire of well-known classical songs drawn from across the Arabic world, both instrumental and vocal.”

Today the orchestra boasts a much larger complement including ney, oud, piano, clarinet, a string section of violins, viola, cello, bass and three percussionists. This instrumentation reflects the mission of the CAO to combine Western and Arabic classical musics.

“Our repertoire is evolving, along with the makeup of the orchestra,” noted Audeh. “The arrangements for our upcoming festival were prepared by me, Wafa, and composers and arrangers drawn from the orchestra and across the Arabic diaspora. Our approach puts less emphasis on [Arab] ethnicity and rather more on the [Arabic] music itself.

The first FAMA concert on October 28 at Koerner Hall brings Iraqi guitarist, singer and composer Ilham Al-Madfai together with the Toronto instrumental group Sultans of String. Al-Madfai formed The Twisters, Iraq’s first rock and roll band, in 1961. His subsequent synthesis of Western guitar, popular song and Iraqi music has kept his popularity as a performer alive in his native country and throughout the Middle East. Led by Canadian violinist and music producer Chris McKhool, the multiple award-winning Sultans of String quintet presents audiences with a “genre-hopping passport.” Celtic reels, Manouche jazz, flamenco, South Asian ragas, and Cuban and Arabic folk music mix onstage, “all presented with pop sensibilities, forms and lengths,” notes McKhool.

October 29 FAMA presents “Jazzy Arabia” at the Maja Prentice Library, Mississauga. Five members of the Canadian Arabic Orchestra perform jazz standards reinterpreted through an Arabic musical lens, as well as Arabic songs rendered in a jazz idiom. The common ground here may well turn out to be the spirit of melodic improvisation and taqsim, which animates both jazz and Middle Eastern performance practices.

November 1 the festival takes a deeper, more mystical turn, when Syrian oud virtuosa and singer Waed Bouhassoun performs solo at the Revue Cinema, Toronto. In 2008 Bouhassoun – who has been performing onstage since she was 10 – received star billing at the inaugural concert of “Damascus, Cultural Capital of the Arab World” held at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, receiving extensive international media coverage. In 2010 she was awarded the Coup de Coeur by the Académie Charles-Cros for her first solo album.

Six more concerts in the first half of November round out FAMA’s first iteration. Please return to these pages next month to find out more about them.

Autorickshaw’s 15th Anniversary Season

Autorickshaw's Ed HanleyI’ve followed the Toronto band Autorickshaw’s career through its release of award-winning albums, concerts and international tours. This season marks its 15th anniversary, a good time to take stock and reflect on the changing landscape of global music and how it has developed for musicians and audiences alike.

By the time you read this, Autorickshaw will have already officially released its fifth studio album Meter on September 28 and 29 at Small World Music Centre. They will tour the album this fall in Southern Ontario and then in India, with a follow-up concert back in Toronto. I’ve had a quick listen to Meter’s 12 tracks. The music moves confidently between commissioned compositions, covers and many overt as well as covert references to the music of the subcontinent.

I spoke to founding band member Ed Hanley about Autorickshaw’s evolution, first asking about changes in the scene since the early 2000s.

“The music industry’s completely changed, of course,” he says. “For instance, our first CD wasn’t even on iTunes (though it was on Bandcamp). Our new release will be available on a number of online stores.”

Hanley directed the video of one of the songs on Meter, the polished Hare Shiva, recently published on YouTube. I was struck by the presence of the personal, the trans-musical genre references, the easy musicality of the Autorickshaw trio, as well as by the prominence of Odissi dance.

“That’s certainly another change from 15 years ago,” commented Hanley. “YouTube has become the main discovery platform for music, and you really need to have a music video now – though it is of course a major extra expense. I feel you need two types of videos now: live videos to show presenters and audiences what the music looks and sounds like in concert, and an ‘art video’ to serve as a companion piece to the album.”

Presenting music with roots on several continents often means having to explain the various constituent elements. “I feel we have to explain less about our music today,” said Hanley. “Speaking for myself, more people seem to know what a tabla is than during Autorickshaw’s early days. I get much less ‘is that bongos?’”

“When we started out we were aware of the world music category, specifically the Indo-Jazz sub-category we felt our music fit. Since then we’ve moved in many different musical directions, and the industry has also evolved. Musically speaking, today we don’t feel the need to be concerned with genre. We’re more comfortable in our musical skins now.”

I’ll be keeping tabs on Autorickshaw as they roll out their season and embark on their cross-India tour.

In my summer 2017 column I examined the formation and first season of the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra – the Royal Conservatory’s supergroup celebrating cultural diversity and pluralism – and its search for a common language here in Toronto, Canada.

Now, with fall subtly nipping at our heels, two new initiatives aiming to address issues of interest to students, practitioners and audiences of globally sensitive music, are poised to set projects in motion. On the one hand, Polyphonic Ground aspires to bring under a big tent a group of individual “live music presenters committed to building and sustaining Toronto as a global music city.” On the other hand, Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario is a non-profit “dedicated to promoting the study and appreciation of modal music traditions of Asia, Africa and Europe.” Both publicly launch in September.

Polyphonic Ground

TurkwazKayla McGee, Small World Music’s managing director, serves as Polyphonic Ground’s community lead. In a mid-August interview she told me why Polyphonic Ground was an obvious next step in the evolution of our region’s global music community. “We at Small World saw there was no real infrastructure for live music presenters, no shared platforms to allow us to work and grow together.” Small World couldn’t do it alone. But the need for setting up such infrastructure became abundantly clear to McGee when she served with Ontario’s Live Music Working Group, an industry association promoting live Canadian music.

Polyphonic Ground’s activities, McGee explains, will include collaborative programming, fundraising, addressing resource issues and professional development such as presenter panels and surveys. “We also want to stress to audiences that the music we collectively present is for the culturally curious and not just for members of a specific group. Many of us are looking for ways to break out of genre and confirmed audience silos … to cross-pollinate audiences.”

That Small World had identified a real need became instantly clear when they put the word out about Polyphonic Ground; 12 small-to-medium-sized organizations responded to the call for “a new initiative to strengthen Toronto’s culturally diverse music industry.” It’s an impressive list: Ashkenaz Foundation, Lula Music and Arts Centre, Batuki Music Society, Good Kind Productions, Link Music Lab, MonstrARTity Creative Community, Music Africa, Revolutions Per Minute, Uma Nota Culture, World Fiddle Day Toronto, iNative and Small World Music Society, the initiative’s catalyst.

I have featured the activities of many of its members individually in this column over the years. Under the Polyphonic Ground banner these presenters could constitute a significant cultural voice. Taken as a whole the numbers are impressive. Collectively they employ 40 people in their operations and present some 300 concerts each year, to an estimated audience of over 300,000.

The press release announcing Polyphonic Ground’s formation — Hear Toronto. Where the World Lives. — sets out its mission systematically: to provide points of connection for artists and audiences; to strengthen industry practices and be a united voice to government, business and industry; to encourage exchange and discovery through a monthly double-bill performance series and professional development initiatives for diverse artistic leaders. The release also acknowledges funding by the Ontario Media Development Corporation, as well as support from MusicOntario, Music Canada Live, City of Toronto and Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO). So at some level the collective has already begun making its case.

SandcatchersPolyphonic Ground serves up the first in its series of monthly double-bill concerts at Revival Bar, 783 College Street. As planned, for each concert, two partner organizations will pair in collaborative programs geared to transcultural musical discovery. The September 14 inaugural concert is spearheaded by Ashkenaz Foundation and Small World Music Society in co-presentation with three groups: Turkwaz (Toronto), GROOZ (Montreal) and Sandcatchers (Brooklyn). Transcultural the evening certainly will be, featuring the Balkan voices of the seasoned JUNO-nominated Turkwaz trio, the Middle Eastern-meets-Appalachian fusion of Sandcatchers, and GROOZ’s spirited Algerian-Québécois septet. (This inaugural concert also celebrates the launch of the 16th annual Small World Music Festival, running September 14 to 17, “bringing Toronto music from around the world and around the corner.”) Further double-bill Polyphonic Ground musical juxtapositions are scheduled for October 12, November 9 and December 14, with different Polyphonic Ground member organizations presenting. I’ll be eagerly following these concerts.

I’ll also be following with interest Polyphonic Ground’s other meaningful initiatives beyond the concert hall. These include access to training and leadership and bolstering professional development opportunities within the music industry. Already announced is its Diversity and Live Music Panel series, supported by Ontario government and industry players; the Developing Diverse Leaders program “with the goal of empowering young talent through mentorship;” as well as its Best Practice Workshops. The titles may not be as catchy as “Middle Eastern-meets-Appalachian fusion” but the need is real.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario

While Polyphonic Ground is presenter-driven, Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario focuses on the education of a new generation of musicians – and also audiences. Its stated mission and mandate is also distinctly different: “dedicated to promoting the study and appreciation of modal music traditions of Asia, Africa, and Europe.”

Founded in 2017 by two Toronto-based musicians, Persian tar player and teacher Araz Salek and keyboardist, composer and sound designer Jonathan Adjemian, LMWO takes its cues directly from the successful Labyrinth Musical Workshop founded in 2002 at Houdetsi, Crete by leading world musician and educator Ross Daly and running annually since. That successful model has inspired similar workshops in Spain and Italy, establishing an international Labyrinth network.

In a recent telephone interview Salek framed the core reason for establishing Labyrinth Ontario as a belief “in encouraging the study of modal musical traditions in their specific details. [We believe in] embracing the diversity of musical traditions and audiences in the GTA rather than smoothing out particularities of tuning, rhythm or phrasing to cater to an assumed common ground. Our ultimate hope is to see the GTA become a global hub for the study and performance of these traditions, providing institutional support to the many world-class musicians already living here and encouraging a new generation of performers.”

Having begun his music career in Iran, Salek has been active as a tar player and leader in Toronto for about a decade in both Persian ensembles as well as in more eclectic music circles. He has taught and performed at the Labyrinth Musical Workshop in Houdetsi since 2011. Labyrinth Ontario will hold its first annual Toronto training intensive in May 2018. On offer will be a series of three week-long seminars in instrumental technique and in regional modal theory systems. Topics will cover aspects of Afghan, Arab, Azeri, Bulgarian, Greek, Iranian, Kurdish, and Turkish music. Confirmed faculty includes Bassam Bishara (CAN, oud), Ross Daly (Greece, modal music composition), Imamyar Hasanov (USA, Azeri kamancha), Pedram Khavarzamini (CAN, tombak), Ali Akbar Moradi (Iran, Kurdish tanbur), Araz Salek (CAN, tar) and Kelly Thoma (Greece, Cretan lyra). In addition to the workshops, faculty and their students will give concerts each week and moderated panel discussions will be open to the public.

Pedram KhavarzaminiFriday September 15, Labyrinth Ontario holds its Launch Event and Fundraiser at 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education in order to celebrate its upcoming 2018 programming. The concert features performances by oud player and faculty member Bassam Bishara, Bulgarian and Balkan vocal and instrumental ensemble Meden Glas and Iranian Modal Music Ensemble of Toronto. Then a quartet co-led by faculty members tombak master Pedram Khavarzamini and artistic director Araz Salek on tar takes the stage, capped by a set by DJ Cheba Khadijah of Souk Sessions, known for his “Arab techno for the people.”

New Canadian Global Music Orchestra, Polyphonic Ground and Labyrinth Ontario all launched this year. They are all ambitious adventures in imagining new ground on which global music can grow in Ontario soil, in our Ontario souls. They also address, albeit in very different ways, challenges of bridging musical cultures and expanding global musics’ musician and audience base while maintaining the music’s quality.

We’ll keep eyes – and ears – open for just how they engage with all their necessary Toronto region stake-holders consisting of learners, creators, presenters, audiences and funders alike.

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

Update 3pm, Sep 6 2017: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that Polyphonic Ground received financial support from organizations other than the OMDC, and that McGee encountered barriers among colleagues to setting up the organization. These errors have since been corrected.

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