The spirit of an extended modal family is reflected in Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario’s inaugural season’s remarkably ambitious lineup featuring 11 masters of Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Iranian, Azerbaijani, Arabic, Kurdish and Afghani music traditions. Historically these musical cultures interacted for centuries in their ever-shifting places of origin. In 2018 Toronto it’s possible to see such fruitful musical interactions reflecting the demographic reality on the ground.

Each faculty member will conduct week-long workshops and then perform in four concerts in Toronto throughout May and into June.

Labyrinth Ontario is a made-in-Toronto modal music school founded by an Iranian-Canadian musician, but with roots in an unlikely place (a Mediterranean island), and perhaps an even more unlikely founding father (the English-born Ross Daly who boasts Irish ancestry). Let’s go explore.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop, Crete

Labyrinth Musical Workshop began in 1982 as the brainchild of the Cretan world musician and educator of Irish descent Ross Daly. His first series of Labyrinth workshops took place in 1997 in Athens, Greece.

Daly – a specialist on the music of the Cretan lyra (fiddle) and of the Ottoman court, a participant in intercultural composition before world music became a commercial term, and a composer – originally wanted to establish a space for a creative group of friends. His overall aim was to explore “various modal musical traditions from around the world, as well as of the potential for creative interaction between them.”

In 2002, a permanent base for Labyrinth was established in a restored manor house in the village of Houdetsi on the island of Crete, Greece. There Daly has fine-tuned his workshop model of concentrated weekly music lessons focusing “primarily on the modal musical traditions of the Balkans, Middle East, Central Asia, India, North Africa,” as well as presenting concerts by “outstanding teachers/musicians, the prime representatives of these traditions.”

While leading international musicians and students travel twice a year to Labyrinth’s Cretan village environment, in the last two years Daly’s notion of teaching global modal musical traditions has really caught fire. It has spread across Europe and now jumped the Atlantic to Canada. In 2016 Labyrinth Catalunya was established in Barcelona, and in 2017, Labyrinth Italia in Santa Sofia. This year Labyrinth Cyprus launched, with three modal music seminars which were held April 10 to 15, 2018 in Nicosia, capped with a concert.

Ross DalyLabyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario: Backstory

That brings us to the most recent iteration of the concept, Labyrinth Ontario Musical Workshop in Toronto. And it may be the most ambitious of the Daly-inspired spinoffs, animated by a series of 11 workshops running over four weeks, plus four concerts.

Labyrinth Ontario was on my radar back in September 2017 when I offered a preview in my World Music column, observing that it “focuses on the education of a new generation of musicians – and also audiences.”

Two Toronto-based musicians are at the heart of the project. Virtuoso tar (Persian lute) player and teacher Araz Salek serves as its artistic director and keyboardist and sound designer Jonathan Adjemian as its admin director. Having begun his music career in Iran, Salek has been active as a tar player and leader in Toronto for over a decade in both Persian classical music ensembles as well as in eclectic music circles, such the Persian-flamenco fusion group Persamenco. He performs often in other settings too, in Toronto and on tour internationally, experimenting with new transcultural groupings and various crossroads of classical, experimental and improvised music, seeking out creative musicians in all those areas.

Starting an unorthodox music education and concert series is certainly a risky endeavour, but Salek’s street cred in this arena positions him strongly to kickstart Labyrinth’s presence in Toronto. For example, he has served as an instructor at Daly’s Labyrinth Musical Workshop in Crete and since 2012 has been a core member, with Daly, Pedram Khavarzamini and Kelly Thoma, of the Toronto-Crete quartet This Tale of Ours – a group continuing to be a source of inspiration for Salek. They are all workshop leaders in Labyrinth Ontario’s inaugural season.

I followed the story to the 918 Bathurst Centre. There, on the evening of September 15, 2017, Labyrinth Ontario held its launch and fundraising concert. The event had a warm, mixed-community feel, underscored by the ethnically diverse music and foods on offer covering Persian, Southeastern European, Turkish, Kurdish and Middle Eastern ground. That diversity was reflected in Labyrinth Ontario’s board of directors introduced at the event: Poorya Ferdowsi, Pouria Lotfi, Alia Hamdan O’Brien, Irene Markoff and Rob Simms.

Silk Road and the Spirit of the Extended Modal Family

Simms, associate professor of music at York University, recently posted an essay on Labyrinth Ontario’s website placing its project into a much larger frame. He begins by pointing out that while as recently as 40 years ago “Toronto was thoroughly white-bread, WASP dominated,” today it is “regularly cited as one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. While this is a wonderful fact and opportunity for those of us who live in the city, it is even more remarkable how recent this came to be.” He continues that while world history “features many previous hotbeds of cultural contact … none of these come close to the complete global integration we now inhabit and that forms the fabric of daily lives” in major global cosmopolitan centres.

Simms then invokes the example of the network of trade routes known as the Silk Road which provide us with “an incredible continuity of musical expression stretching from North Africa, Southern and Eastern Europe, clear across to Central Asia and Western China. This massively extended musical family shares similar social contexts for performance, aesthetics, philosophy, performance practice, instrumentation and musical structures – rhythmic cycles, forms and melodic modes (scales with particular behaviours or personalities).”

Among the various systems of melodic modes which grew up along the Silk Road, one of the most common is the maqam, literally “station, place” in Arabic. “While the underlying musical foundation was shared … a rich array of varying musical traditions flowered, cross-pollinated and withered through the centuries into our own time. Most of the musicians stayed in their particular sonic and social worlds … Until the late 20th century” – which is when Ross Daly enters Simms’ essay. Simms nominates Daly as one of the “early pioneers of exploring the larger maqam family.” Attracted to the lyra tradition of Crete where he has lived for over 40 years, Daly has “established a unique and highly successful series of workshops that brings together master teachers of myriad maqam traditions and keen students from around the world.”

One of the keys to the success of Daly’s Labyrinth Workshops is that they are at the same time informal and highly social yet also intensive and serious in musical focus. In this mix Simms sees the “spirit of the extended modal family tradition throughout history,” echoing Daly’s own ethos: “Labyrinth is more than a musical workshop, it is a way of life through music.”

Labyrinth Ontario’s First Season: Workshops, Concerts and Discussions

Labyrinth Ontario’s first season workshop faculty includes an international roster of leading instrumentalists, singers and composers in their respective genres. They are: Ross Daly (Greece) on modal music composition, Kelly Thoma (Greece) on Cretan lyra, Ali Akbar Moradi (Iran) on Kurdish tanbur, plus American-based Imamyar Hasanov on Azeri kamancha, Tzvetanka Varimezova on Bulgarian singing, and Quraishi on Afghan rabab.

Toronto-area expert practitioners George Sawa on Arabic music theory and qanun, Araz Salek on tar, Bassam Bishara on oud, Pedram Khavarzamini on tombak and Ahmet Ihvani on Turkish bağlama/saz complete this year’s teaching faculty. Interested readers can find bios of each instructor and the dates of instruction on Labyrinth Ontario’s informative website: www.labyrinthontario.com/labyrinth-2018-workshops.

In addition to the workshops, faculty will give a concert each week, and TBA-moderated panel discussions will be open to the public.

The first concert on May 12 features This Tale of Ours, a quartet with members hailing from Canada and Greece, though certainly not musically limited by those nationalities. (The group’s membership – Daly, Thoma, Khavarzamini and Salek – bridges the parent Labyrinth with its newly minted Toronto offspring.) Look to The WholeNote listings and the Labyrinth Ontario website for details on this and the other three concerts.

Each month in this column I chart a few of (what appear to me at the time as) the high points of master musicians from around the world appearing in Toronto and region in concerts, festivals and one-off workshops. From my vantage point it seems Labyrinth Ontario takes this situation to yet another level, focusing our attention intensively – and at an uncompromisingly high artistic level – on a few fascinating and related modal musical cultures.

Borrowing a phrase from Simms’ essay I’m prompted to ask whether Toronto is indeed the “perfect location to carry this amazing, vibrant Eurasian cultural treasure [offered by Labyrinth Ontario] to wherever it is heading in the 21st century.”

It’s too early to give a definitive answer: we’re still weeks away from the final workshop and concert. But the fact that this ambitious project was founded by a person who has emerged from outside Canada’s established cultural elite circles should be a source of pride in the direction we as a community are moving. I will continue to cover Labyrinth Ontario’s progress as it seeks to explore sites of our own Toronto brand of “post-global” music. clip_image001.png

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

Oversimplifying a complex subject, I believe that all music is essentially hybrid, reflecting the diversity and the hybridity of our own music-loving species. What fuels the hybridizing impulse when staying with the tried and true often seems the safer musical choice?

The continual process propelling the evolution of musical culture can be witnessed in seemingly small things. I’ve seen it sparked by casual jams and offstage exchanges between musicians from different cultures, for example. Such explorations have also occasionally been instigated by adventurous composers eager to incorporate new sounds or cultural sound-views in their scores and recording projects. I see this kind of cultural transfusion as a hallmark of the healthiest scenes, those which will continue to thrive among future music creators, interpreters and audiences.

Relevant to this discussion is the evolving notion of transculturalism. Simply put, it is “involving, encompassing, or combining elements of more than one culture.”

The idea of the transcultural society was developed by the German cultural philosopher Wolfgang Welsch. In Transculturality – the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today (1999) he asserts that the notion of transculturality takes into account “the internal complexities and constant variations characteristic of every culture, as well as recognizing the degree to which cultures are becoming inseparably linked with one another.” According to Welsch, cultures today are no longer homogenous and monolithic but rather have multiple intersections and interdependencies which exhibit network characteristics.

A number of Toronto musicians and music groups have creatively embraced the practices of cultural hybridity and transculturality (with or without using that tag), putting the social reality we experience every day on centre stage.

For this month’s column I’ve sought out music creators and presenters among us who seek to combine instruments, melodies and modes, musical forms, song lyrics, performance genres and practices, presenting concerts mixing two or more musical cultures. Here are just a few I’ve found.

KUNÉ – Canada’s Global Orchestra

Launched last year as The New Canadian Global Music Orchestra by the RCM’s Mervon Mehta, and recently rebranded as the more mellifluous-sounding KUNÉ (“together” in Esperanto), this Toronto world music supergroup could be transcultural music’s poster family. (I wrote extensively on KUNÉ’s origin story in my May 2017 column in The WholeNote (NCGMO Explores the Power of the Collective) and recommend a visit there for those who would like to know more about this ambitious project.)

Directed by David Buchbinder, KUNÉ releases its debut album in concert on April 7 in its Koerner Hall home. As I mention in my review of the album elsewhere in this issue, it is a milestone in the group’s “journey to create a band that looks and sounds like Canada today.”

After intermission David Buchbinder is joined by Grammy Award-nominated Cuban piano master Hilario Durán along with their band Odessa/Havana. They skillfully mash up the worlds of klezmer and Latin music, creating new lyrical and swinging transcultural music along the way.

Kiran Ahluwalia’s “LOVEfest: Welcome the Stranger”

Two-time JUNO Award-winning singer and songwriter Kiran Ahluwalia’s concert “LOVEfest: Welcome the Stranger” is a case study in transcultural performance. The production tours eight North American cities in April. Its sole Toronto stop is on April 14 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, part of Small World Music’s 16th Annual Asian Music Series which runs April 6 to May 25.

Kiran Ahluwalia - photo by Swathi ReddyBorn in India, raised in Canada and currently living in New York City, Ahluwalia makes songs deeply rooted in Indian and Pakistani classical music and ghazal traditions. Her songs and arrangements draw from her rich South Asian heritage but they are also heavily influenced by African desert blues and American jazz. In these disparate elements we can trace Ahluwalia’s own multicontinental life journey, witnessing how she has morphed musical influences from each into a sweet sounding emblem of transculturality.

Tagged as “an eclectic celebration of love and diversity through music and dance,” LOVEfest includes sacred and secular performers from both Muslim and Sikh traditions. In an impromptu text chat with me, Ahluwalia pointed out with concern that these “two communities are currently experiencing an alarming rise in hate crimes.” It’s an issue evidently front of mind. The April tour supports her new album 7 Billion; its second track Saat (Seven) explores the faces of cultural intolerance. Says Ahluwalia, “It is a theme close to my personal experience. My story is that of an immigrant born in India and raised in Canada. As an immigrant child the hardships we faced were touted as temporary – the effects were permanent.”

Onstage, Ahluwalia is supported by her crack five-piece band on electric guitar, electric bass, tabla, accordion and voice. Affirming cultural diversity, she welcomes to the show Souad Massi (Algeria), the most successful female singer-songwriter in the Arabic-speaking world today. Massi’s lyrics are about creativity and tolerance, and the common human yearning for freedom.

Adding cultural layers and spiritual dimensions to the concert, the Bhai Kabal Singh trio of tabla, two harmoniums and three voices performs songs in their Sikh temple kirtan tradition. Then Egyptian dancer Yasser Darwish renders the tanoura, a colourful whirling Dervish dance featuring multicoloured skirts that symbolically demonstrate core values of Sufi spiritual belief, such as unconditional forgiveness.

Now for an exclusive insider tip just for WholeNote readers. In our recent text exchange Ahluwalia hinted she and Massi may be singing a cover of a song by a renowned world music diva. After some prompting, she revealed they’re working on Gracias a la Vida, the song made famous by Mercedes Sosa, the late Argentinian giant of Latin American song. It’s a telling choice. Written in 1966 by Violeta Parra, a founder of Nueva Canción Chilena, the song stands as a defiant, life-affirming response to political injustice while unblinkingly reflecting on the bittersweet nature of life’s joy and sadness.

To a generation of Chileans Gracias a la Vida became an anthem uniting people in times of trouble. For audiences on both sides of the world’s longest peaceful border, LOVEfest’s program aims to demonstrate, employing elements from diverse global cultures, what it feels like to “welcome the stranger” though heartfelt music and dance.

“LOVEfest: Welcome the Stranger” also plays April 12 at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts and April 13 at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines.

Ensemble Constantinople “Under the Senegalese Musical Sky”

April 13 the Aga Khan Museum presents “Under the Senegalese Musical Sky,” featuring the Montreal-based Ensemble Constantinople directed by Kiya Tabassian, and guest Senegalese musician Ablaye Cissoko. Inspired by the ancient city illuminating East and West, Ensemble Constantinople was conceived as a forum for encounters and cross-fertilization. In its two-decade career it has explored many musical genres and historical periods, from medieval manuscripts to contemporary aesthetics, from Mediterranean Europe to Eastern traditions.

Ablaye Cissoko (left) and Ensemble Constantinople - photo by Michael SlobodianLast fall the Aga Khan Museum inaugurated a series of performances titled “Conversation Nation,” linked thematically to its HERE exhibition. Using Ensemble Constantinople as the house band, four musical pairings, each with a different national focus and guest musician, were programmed. The series launched in October 2017 with “Under the Syrian Musical Sky.”

The scene shifts to Senegal April 13, with the master kora player, vocalist and composer Cissoko. Born into a Mandingo griot (troubadour/historian) family, Cissoko has developed an international concert and recording career playing music characterized as “at the confluence of African music and jazz.”

Ensemble Constantinople has worked with Cissoko since 2014, forging innovative encounters between Mandinka and Persian classical music, set within a transnational world music aesthetic. Their 2015 collaborative album Jardins migrateurs (Itinerant Gardens) garnered critical plaudits for “conveying a sense of effortless invention grounded in unassuming technical masterery.” We can expect another masterclass in gentle transcultural music from this quartet on April 13.

Taiko Plus! Esprit Orchestra with guest group Nagata Shachu

Although I’ve followed the trailblazing Esprit Orchestra since its inception, I rarely get a chance to write about its music in this column. Why? As Canada’s only full-sized professional orchestra devoted to performing new orchestral music, it usually falls outside my world music beat. Not this month.

On April 15, the 65-member Esprit Orchestra, under the direction of Alex Pauk, assays the transcultural embedded at the core of contemporary orchestral music in its Koerner Hall concert. The work in question is Japanese composer Maki Ishii’s Mono-Prism (1976), scored for orchestra and a group of seven taiko drummers. Under the direction of Toronto’s Kiyoshi Nagata, members of his veteran taiko group Nagata Shachu perform those demanding drum parts.

I caught up with Esprit conductor Alex Pauk on the phone recently. “This isn’t the first Ishii work with non-orchestral percussion we’ve played. In a past season we performed his Afro-Concerto (1982) which uses African drums. The earlier Mono-Prism had its roots in Ishii’s extended studies with Ondekoza, the founding group of the modern taiko movement.”

Mono-Prism, the first work for orchestra and taiko, was premiered in 1976 by conductor Seiji Ozawa at the Tanglewood Music Festival, with Ondekoza playing the taiko parts. Its compelling energy, rhythmic vitality, clouds of sound from the pen of a skilled orchestrator, and its East-meets-West subtext, won a favourable reception. Its heart-skipping finale still excites audiences today.

I should mention that the Esprit Orchestra has embraced transcultural music making before. In 2013 it hosted Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, jointly performing two works by Canadian composers. (As usual I want to flag my 35-year membership in ECCG – yes, I was on that stage and yes, I’m still having fun doing so!)

As a bonus that night Esprit added a dance performance by Balinese dancer Evie Suyadnyani. Intrepid classical music blogger Leslie Barcza recognized the transculturality that night, exclaiming, “My head is still buzzing in a good way from this exquisitely intercultural experience.”

Gamelan in Concert

Finally, speaking of the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, the pioneer Canadian world music octet has built a 35-year career making music which regularly crosses cultural stereotypes and boundaries. The group has embraced not only the West Javanese music indigenous to its gamelan degung (set of instruments) but many other global genres as well. ECCG has collaborated in concerts and recordings with an enormous variety of music-makers, including Baroque and contemporary orchestras, string quartets, violin soloists, choirs, NEXUS, opera and world music singers, turntable duo iNSiDEaMiND, rapper Abdominal, and the leading Sundanese songwriter of his generation, Nano S.

On April 21 the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia in Toronto presents “Gamelan in Concert” at its Jarvis Street hall. Doesn’t sound particularly transcultural? What if I told you that three types of gamelan from three distinct cultures are represented?

In addition to playing its Sundanese degung, ECCG hosts Javanese musician and scholar Sutrisno Hartana as its artist-in-residence. He’ll be developing new works in a series of workshops with ECCG, exploring common ground between Sundanese, Javanese and Western instruments and performance practices.

Kayonan Balinese Gamelan Orchestra represents Bali, the third culture in the concert. Founded in 2011 by dancer/choreographer and gamelan musician Keiko Ninomiya, Kayonan is Toronto’s first gong kebyar (orchestra). She has actively promoted the awareness and appreciation of Balinese gamelan music and dance in Toronto through performances, demonstrations, workshops and weekly courses ever since.

During the break between the first and second halves of the concert, the Consulate has considerately arranged Indonesian snacks for anyone in the audience who feels peckish. After a feast of mixed gamelan music and dance, what better than a plate of gado-gado piled high with sticks of sate and pink krupuk to feel truly transcultural on Jarvis Street?

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

From its earliest years York University fostered a unique music environment which embraced what was then the fringe. Experimental music, research into biofeedback as a musical controller, interdisciplinary performance studies, jazz, improvisation, period musical performance and world music were all on the curriculum. Did geographic isolation encourage and help incubate such an adventurous and exploratory musical spirit?

York University Subway StationYork’s Keele campus is located in northwestern Toronto. Back when I first attended, it felt a world apart from the downtown classical music scene anchored in the established programs at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. The sheer distance between the two institutions and the time it took to travel between them emphasized the cultural gulf. Yet in the traffic between the two universities’ world music ensembles there are threads we can trace, via the public transit web that connects both institutions.

There has been talk of a York University subway station on the Keele campus ever since the Music Department was incorporated in 1969 as part of the Faculty of Fine Arts. Rumours continued to rumble as the decades rolled on about a York subway stop until the new TTC Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension (TYSSE), finally opening to great fanfare on December 17, 2017, made it a reality. For the first time, downtown travellers can take the subway beyond the city limits – and vice versa. Significant reductions in travel time are being touted by the TTC for their beneficial long-term impacts. Asked for her comments as to what these longer-term impacts of the TYSSE may be on music and other kinds of performances at the Keele campus, York University media relations spokesperson Janice Walls put a positive, if fairly obvious, spin on things in an email: “Now that the subway stops at York University, it makes it much easier for people to access the many music and theatre performances available on campus.”

Equally obvious, perhaps, but perhaps less spin-worthy, York students can now also take the subway to an evening concert at a downtown venue and then get back home at a reasonable time!

The Advantages of New Frontiers

Already evident during its foundational 1970s decade, among the York Music Department’s strong suits were its world music ensembles. In 1970, the first year they were offered at York, I took the Carnatic, Hindustani and kulintang ensemble classes. But what exactly are the roots of this kind of ensemble?

The concept of the world music ensemble can be traced back to the late 1950s at UCLA, when it entered the discipline of ethnomusicology partly being developed there. It was introduced by American ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood (1918-2005), a specialist in Indonesian music, who took on the mission of bringing the fieldwork and academic study of ethnomusicology into the realm of practical musical experience and eventually performance. (I well recall a visit by the dramatic, black cape-wearing Hood to my undergraduate York music class circa 1970, the visit arranged by Sterling Beckwith, the Music Department’s first chair.)

The world music ensemble was one way in which Hood’s notion of bi-musicality, a term he coined in a 1959 paper, could be acquired within an educational institution. His approach encouraged the researcher to learn about music “from the inside,” and thereby experience its technical, conceptual and aesthetic challenges. Another of its aims was to enable the learner to better connect socially with the community being studied and have increased access to that community’s performances and musical practices. Many institutions all over North America have since incorporated a myriad of world music ensembles, presenting many music genres, into their course offerings.

York’s Music Department was among the world music ensemble’s very early Canadian adopters, in part perhaps because of its need to make an adventurous virtue of its isolation from the well-established downtown musical mainstream. Its world music courses have continued to grow in number and variety over the decades. I’m a first-person witness to that evolution as a member of the first Music Department undergrad class, and then later establishing its first Javanese gamelan music performance course there in 1999.

Perhaps what is most significant, however, is not so much the individual careers of professors or their courses, but that collectively they and thousands of their students have in many ways fed the interest and appetite for world music discovery, creation, appreciation, making and public performance in our community. In this way, York’s world music ensembles have served as a sort of R&D studio. They have made a substantial contribution to establishing the Toronto region as one of the most welcoming and productive hybrid music-friendly places on the globe – a real music city!

York University Music Department’s World Music Festival

Every year the Music Department holds a series of late winter concerts celebrating its near five decades of introducing yet another cohort of students to learning musics new to them. It also affords audiences – potentially coming from across the region care of the shiny new TYSSE – to explore musics they may never have heard live in student performances. Bonus: it’s all free.

This year the World Music Festival includes ten concerts representing many music traditions at halls located in York’s Accolade East Building, just south of the new giant white boomerang-shaped subway station.

(Please refer to the WholeNote listings for exact concert times. But here’s an appetizer.)

March 15 promises to be a long world music-rich day at York. Audiences can take in six concerts, starting at 11am with the Cuban Ensemble, directed by Latin music scene veteran Rick Lazar and Anthony Michelli at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall. It’s followed by guitarist and dedicated klezmer expert Brian Katz’s Klezmer Ensemble, upstairs in the Martin Family Lounge. All the remaining concerts also alternate between these two venues

After lunch, master Ghanaian drummer and longtime gifted instructor Kwasi Dunyo directs the “West African Drumming: Ghana” concert, then the Escola de Samba takes the stage, directed by the multitalented Rick Lazar.

At 4pm the West African Mande Ensemble performs, directed by Anna Melnikoff. The day closes with Lindy Burgess’ Caribbean Music Ensemble in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall.

York’s World Music Festival continues the next day, at noon on March 16, with the Korean Drum Ensemble directed by Charles Hong at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall. Sherry Johnson then directs the Celtic Ensemble, followed by the Chinese Classical Orchestra directed by Kim Chow-Morris. The festival wraps at 7:30pm with a performance of ethnomusicologist Irene Markoff’s Balkan Music Ensemble.

Master drummer Kwasi Dunyo leads ensembles in both festivals.

World Music Ensembles: Spring Festival, University of Toronto

Now just a 13-stop, single-line subway ride south from York U to Museum Station, U of T’s Faculty of Music also has a rich history of offering world music classes and engaging Toronto audiences in their performances. I attended world music ensemble concerts at Walter Hall in the 1980s and in following decades. I always encountered new and ear-opening music that enriched my multicultural palette.

The Faculty of Music’s World Music Ensembles website states that the “program at the University of Toronto has for many years enriched the musical lives of our students and has provided alternative perspectives on learning and making music by offering training in various world traditions. The ensembles vary from year to year. We have also been able to take advantage of an ensemble led by our annual visitor in the World Music artist-in-residence program [between 2007 and 2016].”

So we continue our “world music goes to college” theme back downtown, with a concert March 23 at 12 noon featuring the popular, long-running African Drumming and Dancing Ensemble. Under the dynamic direction of the Toronto-based master drummer Kwasi Dunyo, the event takes place at Walter Hall in the Edward Johnson Building.

A couple of weeks later, on April 7 at 2:30pm, other World Music Ensembles take the Walter Hall stage in the Faculty of Music’s annual spring concert. The Latin American Music Ensemble, directed by veteran percussionist and composer Mark Duggan, and Steel Pan Ensemble, directed by pan music educator, percussionist and arranger Joe Cullen, have been confirmed.

It’s far too soon to tell what the impacts of the TYSSE will be, positive and negative, on the health of nodes of local culture within the region.

But for sure I’ll be taking the subway more often in search of music. In both directions. clip_image001.png

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

I look forward each February to focus my column’s lens on Black History Month as celebrated in music. Last year I mentioned that the City of Toronto became the first municipality in Canada to proclaim BHM in 1979, recognizing “the past and present contributions that African Canadians make to the life of Toronto….”

It was only as recently as 2016 however, that Ontario passed legislation to formally recognize February as BHM on a continual annual basis. Its history is ever evolving. Therefore I recently asked Andrew Craig, the Toronto-based vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, broadcaster and musical director of high-profile tributes to Quincy Jones and Oscar Peterson, for his views of its relevance today.

“Black History Month, in my estimation, continues to grow in importance and significance. In recent years, our many screens have become flooded with increasingly negative images of people of African descent in compromised or disempowered circumstances. The media is quick to latch on to stories depicting people of colour in well-worn stereotypical roles. What gets far less airtime are stories, both past and present, of the incredible contributions African descendants have made to the development of our contemporary society and culture.

“Despite the fact that these accounts of heroic and exemplary Blacks are so often relegated to the margins of the history books, a fresh retelling of their struggles and triumphs provides inspiration to all, regardless of one’s background or colour,” Craig concluded.

Andrew CraigPortraits, Patterns, Possibilities: a Black Canadian Trilogy

Craig puts his ideas into action on February 23 at Eglinton St. George’s United Church. Culchahworks Arts Collective, of which he is the founder and artistic director, presents a hybrid live action/videotaped evening titled “Portraits, Patterns, Possibilities: a Black Canadian Trilogy.”

This theatrical event, conceived, written and directed by Craig, paints a portrait of three important Black Canadians and the historical milestones they set. Portrayed by actors, the characters collectively observe that despite their considerable accomplishments the struggles they fought for continue to this day. Nevertheless a core theme of optimism permeates Trilogy, the show envisioning a “brighter future for all of us,” as Craig puts it.

The first landmark covered is the 225th anniversary of the passage of the Emancipation Act of 1793. Craig notes that the Black slave woman Chloe Cooley was the catalyst for the introduction of this legislation, the first to limit and ultimately abolish slavery in the British Empire.

As well, this year is the 195th birthday of Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893), the first Black woman publisher in North America, notable also as the first woman publisher in Canada. In addition, she was a pioneer in the desegregation of schools, worked for women’s suffrage and graduated as a lawyer at the age of 60! The third milestone being celebrated is the 60th anniversary of the breaking of the NHL colour barrier by Boston Bruins hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree, known as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey.”

To aid in telling these inspiring stories Craig has programmed music drawn from a mix of sources. It ranges in time and genre from a cappella choral music evoking field hollers and Negro spirituals, up to instrumental music in the style of the post-WWII era. Much of the score will be by Craig himself.

The evening will be videoed live with the public invited to be part of the studio audience. Join me in commemorating these compelling Black Canadian figures and witness the making of Portraits, Patterns, Possibilities, an essential story in our complex national narrative.

Africa Without Borders

Much earlier in the month, on February 3, Alliance Française de Toronto and Batuki Music Society mark BHM with a concert, “Africa Without Borders,” at the Alliance Française’s Toronto venue. The Okavango African Orchestra, winner of the 2017 JUNO Award for Best World Music Album of the Year, is featured. OAO recorded their album in front of a jammed house at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio during BHM.

The eight accomplished African-born musicians in OAO now live in Toronto and Montreal. They include Daniel Nebiat (krar, vocals) from Eritrea, Donne Roberts (guitar, vocals) from Madagascar and Tichaona Maredza (marimba, nyunga-nyunga, hosho, vocals) from Zimbabwe. In addition Kooshin (kaban, vocals) is from Somalia, while Sadio Sissokho (kora, tama, djembe, vocals) came from Senegal, Nicolas Simbananiye (vocals) is from Burundi, while Kofi Ackah (percussion, vocals) and Ebenezer Agyekum (bass) both hail from Ghana. The group’s Batuki Music Society artist page neatly sums up the numbers: “Okavango African Orchestra: 12 instruments, 10 languages, 7 countries … one special concert.”

“The orchestra takes its name from the Okavango Delta, a basin in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, where many different animal species come together to feed and find water. Similarly, the Okavango African Orchestra brings together the traditional music and instruments of several major African cultures that historically have had little or no interaction. The musicians of Okavango have created a common meeting place for these disparate cultures, and a new musical language that harmonizes their different tuning systems, rhythms and timbres. The multicultural spirit of modern-day Canada bridges ancient African solitudes.”

The group draws on music genres like Somali jazz, Tigrinya folk music, Malagasy ballads and salegy, hybrid sounds of Shona folk and popular music of Zimbabwe, West Africa griot music and Ghanaian highlife, all vital elements in the successful musical recipe cooked up by OAO.

OAO’s Facebook event page closes with the group’s aspirational message: to continue its collective “journey to an Africa without borders … before the borders were created.”

Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble and Kaia Kater

On February 24, the Aga Khan Museum partners with Batuki Music Society to present its BHM-themed concert,” Kaia Kater and Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble,” at the Museum. In an exploration of “Black/African diasporic cultural expression in all its many forms,” this concert draws on traditional and contemporary instruments, genres and performance styles. The music ranges from “Nubia to Harlem via Appalachia, New Orleans and Mississauga.”

Ruth Mathiang. Photo by Cari Flammia.The double bill brings together Waleed Kush Jazz Ensemble with guest singer Ruth Mathiang, and banjo player, singer-songwriter Kaia Kater, to explore musical expressions of the African-Canadian experience.

Of African-Caribbean descent, the Quebec born Kaia Kater grew up between two worlds. In her Toronto home she experienced her family’s ties to Canadian folk music firsthand; in West Virginia on the other hand, she immersed herself in the deeply rooted musical traditions of Appalachia. Her debut album Sorrow Bound (2015) referenced this divide. Kater’s second album, Nine Pin (2016), delves even further into the realities faced by people of colour in North America. Her restrained but idiomatically spot-on banjo finger picking provides an elegant support for her expressive voice.

The Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble combines African rhythms and melodies, melding them with jazz harmonies and song forms. Led by the Sudan-born Toronto multi-instrumentalist, composer and vocalist Abdulhamid, band members include local musicians Aaron Ferrera, John Ebata and Cory Sitek. The group writes that “just as Toronto is a harmonious mix of culture and people … [so] the inspiration for our music … is the harmonious mixing of rhythm and harmony.” Poet and singer-songwriter Ruth Mathiang, also born in Sudan but commencing her musical career in Kenya, is the group’s guest vocalist.

Angélique Kidjo

We wind up our non-definitive look at BHM (for many more concerts please check The WholeNote’s listings) with Angélique Kidjo’s concert at Koerner Hall on March 3.

Angélique KidjoThree-time Grammy Award winner, dancer, songwriter, author and social activist, Angélique Kidjo is among the top tier of international singers today, a creative force with some 15 album credits. I was immediately struck by her powerful voice and commanding stage presence when I saw her perform live at Toronto’s Harbourfront at the beginning of her very active touring career. Time magazine has since acclaimed her “Africa’s premier diva.”

As well as performing her original songs Kidjo’s music ranges across ethnicities, boundaries and genres, cross-pollinating the West African music of her native Benin with R&B, soul, gospel, jazz, French Caribbean zouk, Congolese rumba and Latin music. She does it all with “irresistible energy and joie de vivre.” (Los Angeles Times)

Though for many years unconvinced of the value of European classical music, Kidjo has however maintained a lifelong curiosity and transcultural ambition. It’s a trait she says she learned from her father. 2014 marked the beginning of her work with European symphony orchestras with the release of her Grammy Award-winning album Eve. It included Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg among many other top collaborators. The same year she collaborated on a song cycle based on Yoruba poems with American composer Philip Glass. The result was Ifé, Three Yorùbá Songs, scored for orchestra and Kidjo’s eloquently impassioned vocals. For its 2015 American premiere performance with the San Francisco Symphony, Philip Glass wrote in the program notes, “Angélique, together we have built a bridge that no one has walked on before.”

Her latest album, Sings (2015), continues her journey with the orchestra in a collection of nine songs arranged by Gast Waltzing and performed with his Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. The stylistically ambitious recording combines the formal, reserved qualities of European classical music with the freedom of jazz and the emotional intensity and rhythmic verve of African and Brazilian rhythms. It won her another Grammy.

Kidjo’s Koerner Hall appearance however will be with a considerably more streamlined touring band including guitarist Dominic James, bassist Ben Zwerin, drummer Yayo Serka and percussionist Magatte Sow.

Thanks for reading my BHM picks. Now get out and enjoy some live music!

QUICK PICKS

Feb 1: Aga Khan Museum/Instituto Italiano di Cultura Toronto.” Musical Inventions by Paolo Angeli featuring Dr Draw.” Angeli, playing a unique 18-string hybrid of guitar, violoncello and drums, performs music rooted in the Sardinian tradition but influenced by avant-garde aesthetics. He’s joined by electric violinist Dr. Draw.

Feb 9: Alliance Française de Toronto. “Exoria: Songs of Exile.” Montréal Greek music-centered Ensemble Rebetika examines the 20th-century Greek experience of exile through songs.

Feb 10: Music Gallery/Native Women in the Arts. “Mother Tongue” features Joanne Shenandoah, Salia Joseph, Kwiigay Iiwaans and Nelson Tagoona. The event is the first of its kind, a showcase for musicians working to revitalise their Indigenous mother tongues. 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education.

Feb 16: Aga Khan Museum.” Four Skies, Four Seasons: Under the Indian Sky.” The East-West-bridging Montreal collective, Constantinople, welcomes the renowned Indian flautist Shashank Subramanyam in a “tribute to Indian music.”

Feb 17: Lula Lounge presents “Salsa Saturday: Conjunto Lacalu, plus DJ Santiago Valasquez.” Rooted in the Cuban sonora genre, this group adds a dynamic three-trumpet horn section to a rhythm section featuring Afro-Cuban hand percussion, piano, bass and tres. Dance lessons with Dreyser Garcia are available.

Feb 17: Canadian Music Centre. “Momentary.” New works for solo kamanche (4-string Persian spike-fiddle) by Shahriyar Jamshidi composer, singer and creative Kurdish kamanche improviser.

Feb 17: Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre/Nagata Shachu. “Yukiai.” Nagata Shachu (Kiyoshi Nagata, artistic director) is joined by Chieko Kojima, a founding member and principal dancer of the best-known of all taiko groups, Kodo, in an evening of dance, drums and song at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

Feb 22: Living Arts Centre presents the Lemon Bucket Orkestra in Hammerson Hall, Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

Feb 24: Royal Conservatory of Music presents the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, Kingston.

Feb 24: Toronto Centre for the Arts. “Idan Raichel: Piano Songs.” Israeli singer-songwriter and musician Raichel, best known for his fusion of electronics, Hebrew texts and Arab and Ethiopian music returns to his first love, the piano.

Feb 24: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra marks the Chinese Year of the Dog with a celebratory concert. Wen Zhao, pipa; Adrian Anantawan, violin; Xiaoqiu Lin, erhu; Mark Rowswell (“Dashan”), host; Carolyn Kuan, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall.

Feb 27: St. Michael’s Concerts presents the Vesuvius Ensemble performing music from southern Italy circa 1600 – traditional folk music about the Sorrowful Mother and other works – featuring Francesco Pellegrino, tenor, chitarra battente; Marco Cera, mandolin, ciaramella; Lucas Harris, lute, theorbo, Baroque guitar. St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica. clip_image001.png

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

Back to top