Since 1997, Alan Davis, curator of Small World Music, has been introducing Toronto audiences to some of the finest non-Western musicians from around the world. We missed acknowledging Small World’s tenth anniversary season, but there’s no time like the present to have a chat with Alan about what’s been, and what’s coming up.
How did Small World Music come into being?
Small World grew out of my love of forms of music from outside the culture I grew up with. Rock and jazz had always been my ‘world’ and remain very important to me, but somewhere around the early 80’s my ears were opened, largely by some very influential ‘mainstream’ artists - Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno. Without a doubt, Gabriel’s creation of WOMAD, the festival which still takes place in various locations around the globe each year, was a sea change in music for many people. The festival’s presence in Toronto for several years at Harbourfront was a huge revelation to me and many others, who discovered a world of sounds that, while sung in languages we didn’t understand, touched a spiritual place that resonated deeply.
My work at the Music Gallery during those years gave me a platform to begin to ‘share’ the music. In those days, the notion of ‘world music’ was still pretty obscure and it was a tremendous pleasure discovering local musicians who were playing under the radar in Toronto, and putting them on stage in front of wider audiences. We were able to present many Toronto firsts during that time. When things changed at the Music Gallery, I stumbled into a situation where I took it upon myself to continue that activity.
Fortunately, the idea coincided with a gradual awakening on the part of institutions like the funding agencies and CBC, that to represent Canadian culture meant going beyond supporting ‘white culture’ and including a wider spectrum of communities. Obviously, that support has been key in the growth of the organization and has enabled us to survive over ten years and more than 300 presentations.
What was the very first concert you presented, and what were some of the challenges in making it happen?
The Vancouver-based Vietnamese ensemble Khac Chi at Harbourfront. Often I think of the projects I embarked on and what it took to do them on my own and I think, ‘damn I must’ve been crazy’. Well, I certainly had more energy then, anyway!
How do you select groups/artists that you’d like to perform, and how do you go about contacting them? What are some of the challenges you face when booking international artists?
Our profile internationally generates a lot of approaches from artists and agents from around the world, so there’s a fair degree of ‘push’. The ‘pull’ side of the equation includes our special projects like the Canadian Cross-cultural Collaborations that have been presented in the last three fall festivals. With these, we’ve taken Canadian artists from a variety of traditions and given them time to create new repertoire, offer public workshops and a concert. Drum Nation, World on a String and last year’s One Voice, have focused on various instrument groupings. These have been tremendously satisfying on a variety of levels. The music has been outstanding and it addresses what’s become increasingly important for me, the fostering of intercultural exchange. Without being too cliche or naive, the future has to be about breaking down the barriers which still exist in the multi-cultural mosaic that Toronto’s so proud of. In terms of the logistics of getting people into the country to play, let’s just say it’s not getting any easier. We’ve had significant challenges getting entry for South Asian and Iranian artists in particular in recent years. All we can do is try our best within the existing rules and systems.
Small World concerts take place in all kinds of venues, from the Lula Lounge to Roy Thomson Hall. What’s the most unusual venue you’ve used?
Hmm... A toss-up between the ‘Fermenting Cellar’ at the Distillery District four or five years ago, when it was still a very raw industrial space, or our collaboration with the local Afrobeat band Mr. Something Something, who performed on their bicycle-powered stage at the Don Valley Brickworks this fall.
Looking back over the years, is there a particular concert or two that stands out for you as being particularly memorable?
Well, with over 300 to choose from, it’s not exactly easy to say! There’ve been so many great moments. The vast majority of concerts are of incredibly high quality, so it’s the combination of great music and great audience response that really resonates with me. Just in the last year, there’s the Bajofondo and Tinariwen nights at the Mod Club - full houses and fantastic vibes. Working with an artist over the years as they grow is very fulfilling - Mariza’s February 13th performance at Massey Hall will be the fifth time we’ve been lucky enough to work with her and the crowds have gone from 500 to 2,000 in that time.
Tell me more about the fundraiser before the Feb. 26 show, and how can our readers reserve VIP reception tickets?
February 26th is a night to celebrate Small World as it enters its second decade and acknowledge its contribution to Toronto and to South Asian culture. The fundraiser, including the VIP reception and silent auction is in support of our annual South Asian series in the spring. It’s going to be a great party and concert. This is the third appearance by the Dhoad Gypsies in town and they put on a spectacular show. Tickets and info can be found at www.smallworldmusic.com.
What else do you have coming up this season that we should definitely not miss?
Attend all shows! But maybe that’s asking too much - there’s lots of good stuff, including Mali’s Habib Koite as part of la Semaine de Francophonie on March 26th, the return of Japan’s amazing Yoshida Brothers June 2nd and three days later, Iran’s rising star singer, Homayoun Shajarian doing his first tour as soloist.
Can you give us a glimpse into what you’ve got planned, or who’s on your “wish list” for the 2009/10 season or beyond?
More free programming when we can, more family programming in association with a new Putumayo kid’s project in fall of 2010. A possible world music conference to coincide with the fall festival. Onward and upward!
Other events this period, in brief: From Mali, west Africa, kora master Ballaké Sissoko gives a solo concert February 5 at York University’s Tribute Communities Recital Hall. York’s music department also presents a West African drum and dance showcase at Founders Assembly Hall, February 28. Persian musician and composer Reza Manbachi, along with several musicians from the Chakavak Ensemble give a CD release concert February 7 at the Arbor Room, Hart House. Harbourfront Centre presents KUUMBA, African Heritage Month festival, February 7,8 and 14,15 (www.harbourfrontcentre.com). Latin-jazz singer Eliana Cuevas and her band perform February 15 at the Lula Lounge. Autorickshaw performs February 19 at the RCM, and March 7 at the Toronto Symphony after-concert party. COBA (Collective of Black Artists) celebrates Black History Month with Banta, a program of dance and live music including a tribute to the late South African singer Miriam Makeba, February 20-22 at the Fleck Dance Theatre. Nagata Shachu (Japanese Taiko ensemble) performs March 6 at McMaster University’s Convocation Hall. The Toronto Classical Turkish Music Ensemble performs March 7 at the Noor Cultural Centre. See our listings for more information.