Before wading into the teeming waters of this month’s events, a moment’s reflection on the recognition of world music and of the general stature accorded to the arts in this town: The occasion that brought both together for me was the 2011 Mayor’s Arts Awards lunch. Presented by the Toronto Arts Foundation on Thursday October 20 at the Bay’s Arcadian Court, While this was the sixth such awards event, it was to have been Rob Ford’s first — that is, if he had chosen to attend the ceremony named after his office. But that would have meant delegating his high school football coaching duties (final game of the season you know). The mayor’s choice was not lost on the media covering the event or on the arts insiders who did attend. But his absence did surprisingly little to sour the mood, thanks in no small part to the deft emceeing of playwright, novelist and actor Ann-Marie MacDonald and a brace of earthy and soulful songs from blues singer and songwriter extraordinaire Rita Chiarelli led the proceeding with a brace of earthy and soulful songs, the second tapping her Italian roots. Then the awards rolled out.
More than 300 guests had cleared their busy agendas. The enthusiastic crowd consisted of seasoned artists, politicians, business leaders, arts patrons, bureaucrats and arts media. They gathered to celebrate artists, arts administrators and supporters who have helped build Toronto’s vibrant civic and cultural life. Five awards, with cash prizes totalling more than $40,000, were presented.
The Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre (previously widely known as Canadian Childrens Dance Theatre) won the Arts for Youth Award. In her acceptance speech artistic director Deborah Lundmark praised not only the key choreographers, teachers and dancers in her company, but also composers like the late Michael Baker who contributed significantly to the company’s success.
The Muriel Sherrin Award for international achievement in music went to the mrdangam and kanjira drummer, composer and York University music professor Trichy Sankaran. Indian born Sankaran has been an active fixture on the Toronto, and indeed on the global world music scene, for 40 years. He has tirelessly taught music, performed his native Carnatic classical music of South India, and has collaborated with a vast array of leading musicians from many genres. I see this award as a milestone, recognizing a lifetime of achievement. It’s also a recognition that world music has come of age in our town.
As for Sankaran’s contribution to the Toronto scene, it’s no exaggeration that he has taught and inspired dozens of musicians who have gone on to notable careers. One of them, ’80s Sankaran student, saxophonist Richard Underhill (best known as the leader of the bop rap jazz combo Shuffle Demons), was sitting to his former teacher’s left. (On a personal note, Trichy Sankaran is one of the reasons I’ve pursued a career in inter-cultural music.)
Echo: spotted among the “seasoned artists” at the aforementioned Arts Awards luncheon were Allan Gasser and Becca Whitla, the organizational glue of many a true community arts venture, among them Toronto’s Echo Women’s Choir. At the beating heart of most cultures around the world is the practice of community music and dance. These are too often sidelined in the public and media gaze, however, in favour of polished staged professional presentations, the kind that appear in large venues in cities. For 20 years the Echo Women’s Choir has been “keeping it real” by cultivating songs from many places — including our own — with passion, musicianship and a small-town activist community spirit.
So there’s no need to get out of town to celebrate the harvest season because on Saturday, November 5 you can do it at the heart of downtown. The Echo Women’s Choir is serving up an old-fashioned community square dance at the Church of the Holy Trinity, beside the Eaton Centre. I’ll be getting in touch with my inner square dancer as caller Lorraine Sutton guides dancers through the steps and Cape Breton fiddler Dan Macdonald and keyboardist Kate Murphy provide the essential live musical incentive. In true Echo Women’s Choir tradition, there’s more: craft activities for children, homemade preserves for sale and a gourmet home-baked pie raffle. I’m holding out for a tart and, hopefully, heritage apple pie.
And there’s so much more!
From November 1 through 6, Mirvish Productions presents Fela! at the Canon Theatre. Fela! is a dramatization of the story of Nigerian Afro-beat pioneer, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, whose powerful music ignited a generation; it is directed and choreographed by the Tony Award winning Bill T. Jones. Fela Kuti dedicated his life and music to the struggle for freedom and human dignity. The Broadway buzz is that this triumphant and athletic production chock full of Kuti’s propulsive music, Jones’ book and explosive choreography ends up as an inspirational evening.
The Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, continues its series of free noon concerts. On November 3, Nova Bhattacharya, dancer and Ed Hanley, tabla, present a programme titled “Bharatanatyam Beat.” On November 23, “In the Shadow of the Volcano,” featuring the traditional music of southern Italy, is performed by the Vesuvius Ensemble with tenor Francesco Pellegrino. Indigenous music genres include the villanelle, tarantella, fronna and tammurriata.
On November 4 at Koerner Hall, the Royal Conservatory presents star Spanish flamenco and tango singer Diego El Cigala. The show titled “Cigala & Tango” serves up an “evening when tango and flamenco join hands.” El Cigala is joined by leading Spanish and Argentine musicians. The same night at the Music Gallery, Minor Empire performs a concert co-produced by Small World Music. Minor Empire is a band with unabashed Turkish roots yet embracing the language of electro jazz. The group is manned by local musicians including Orgu Ozman, vocals; Ozan Boz and Michael Occhipinti, guitar; Chris Gartner, bass; Debashis Sinha, percussion; Ismail Hakki Fencioglu, oud; and Didem Basar, kanun.
Beyond the GTA, the University of Waterloo Department of Music hosts a free noon concert on November 16 called “Honkyoku Duet.” Traditional Japanese shakuhachi solos and contemporary duets are rendered by shakuhachi master Gerard Yun and Kathryn Ladano, bass clarinet, at the peaceful Conrad Grebel University College Chapel.
November 18 to 20 will be auspicious days for Nagata Shachu. The Japanese taiko group performs at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre. John Terauds noted in the Toronto Star, “It’s another credit to this cosmopolitan city that one of the world’s most interesting Japanese taiko drumming ensembles hails from Toronto.” Not only will it unveil its second DVD video, but Nagata Shachu is also premiering a new show, Hana. Rooted in the folk drumming traditions of Japan, Nagata Shachu’s principal aim is to rejuvenate this performance art by producing innovative and exciting music that speaks to today’s audiences. Its production of Hana strives to strip away the superficiality of typical concert performances and to reveal the essence of each performer to the audience through the use of many kinds of taiko, flutes, shamisen, voice, and movement.
Over the past few years Gallery 345 has proven itself to be a modest venue with an ambitious programming policy. On November 18, multi-instrumentalist, singer and oud virtuoso Mel M’rabet pairs up in concert with the illustrious Cuban-Canadian pianist Hilario Duran. Mel has performed internationally with musicians such as Cesaria Evora, Steve Potts, Omar Sosa and Cheb Mami. Still at Gallery 345, the November 20 concert at 3:30pm is titled “David Lidov. Recital Number Six.” The world music aspect of the evening is in the form of the premiere of Lidov’s Obedient Ears for sulings (Indonesian bamboo ring flutes) and piano. Performers include David Lidov and William Wescott on piano, the Annex String Quartet and yours truly on sulings.
On November 25, Small World Music presents Naseer Shamma & the Magnificent Strings at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. And plucked strings are undoubtedly what you will hear. Naseer Shamma, a renowned Iraqi oud player, is joined on stage by Pakistani sitarist Ashraf Sharif Khan and Andalusian flamenco guitarist Romero Iglesias.
Judging from the next concert, it seems we’re already ramping up to the holiday season. On November 26 at 1 pm Small World Music presents “Celebrate! Holidays of the Global Village with Chris McKhool & Friends” at Trinity-St Paul’s Centre. This free multi-cultural musical mosaic includes musical guests Ernie and Maryem Tollar, Suba Sankaran, Shannon Thunderbird, Jordan Klapman, Aviva Chernick and the members of Sultans of String.
My world music also includes the music of the First Nations. The University of Toronto Faculty of Music presents “World Music Visitor: Pura Fé,” in a concert of First Nations contemporary music on November 26, 7:30pm, at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building. The award-winning vocalist Pura Fé is a founding member of the native woman’s a capella trio, Ulali, and is recognized for bringing Native contemporary music into the mainstream.
November 27, the Batuki Music Society presents Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba at the Great Hall; 1087 Queen St. W. Bassekou Kouyaté is a virtuoso musician and singer whose work overlaps West African and American roots music. The ngoni, his instrument, is a “spike lute” and considered one of the ancestors of the banjo. Deeply anchored in the griot tradition, Kouyaté has collaborated with many musicians in and outside of Mali. He was part of Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabaté’s “Kulanjan” project, as well as serving as one of the key musicians on Ali Farka Toure’s posthumous album Savane (2006). He also toured and recorded with master banjoist Bela Fleck on the Grammy winning Throw Down Your Heart. I saw them in Toronto last summer and was duly mesmerized by their music.
Finally, on December 3, the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall showcases famed Israeli folk singer-songwriter Chava Alberstein, acclaimed as “the most important female folk singer in Israeli history,” with over 50 albums to her credit, in a double bill with extraordinary Egyptian-Canadian vocalist Maryem Tollar. Their large band includes Oved Efrat, acoustic guitar; Eran Weitz, guitars; Avi Agababa, percussion; Waleed Abdulhamid, bass; Naghmeh Farahmand, tombak; and Michael Ibrahim, nay. Local musicians include Ernie Tollar, saxophone and flutes; Hugh Marsh, electric violin; Ian De Souza, bass; and Levon Ichkhanian, guitar. I’m expecting the Israeli-Egyptian musical forecast in Koerner Hall to be convivial and warm, even though the temperature on Bloor St. might prove rather frigid that December Saturday night.
Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.