2204 World View 1There’s a new music presenter on the block which also chooses to keep details of its concerts on the down-low. It’s the Toronto iteration of the Sofar Sounds international franchise, begun in 2009 in London, UK, a sort of a Meetup for music concerts. It initially came to my attention because the series has significant world music content, and it’s the primary reason I’m visiting it in this column.

Meet Jonathan Campbell of Sofar Sounds Toronto (SST). He began to organize covert alternate space concerts in the city’s core last year. “SST has regular concerts twice a month. Our secret, intimate shows in alternative locales showcasing the talent and diversity of the city aspire to bring the magic back to live music. We advertise online a [concert] date and the neighbourhood in which it will take place. Yes, we keep the artists secret but [I feel] they will definitely be up the alley of many WholeNote readers.” SST intends to stay: “We’re booked well into 2017.”

I asked about SST’s mission. Campbell explained, “It’s the local branch of the global Sofar Sounds movement, now in nearly 300 cities worldwide. We produce our concerts in alternative locales – offices, studios, galleries, living rooms, backyards and more – celebrating the wealth, diversity, breadth and depth of the artists working and living in or passing through our city.”

By choosing hyperlocal venues with individual curators - they sign up on the SST website for the experience of “hosting a gig”– rather than more typical mainstream halls or commercial pubs, Campbell identifies an important feature of his endeavour: the honouring of cozy “spaces, neighbourhoods and places.” Rather than being a secondary element, a lifestyle soundtrack, he argues that in such intimate, personalized settings, music can be savoured for its own sake. He explicitly referred in our interview to placemaking, a multi-faceted approach used by urban planners and human geographers to the planning, design and management of public spaces with the intention of creating spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and wellbeing.

Placemaking is a philosophy and a process with political resonance due to its close relationship to the notion of place identity. Place identity is not purely a theoretical issue, however. It informs a worldwide movement to protect places of significant local heritage in the face of the powerful forces of cultural globalization. Interestingly, it has direct parallels themes in musical themes I occasionally explored in this column: local and regional vs. transnational identities as reflected in music performance, production, mediation, and in audience and critical reception. SST is exploring aspects of this in Toronto. It’s about the room and how the audience feels in it, as much as about the music being performed.

I asked Campbell about SST’s core audience and its incorporation of various global musics. He referred to programming goals including a commitment to ethnically diverse music and raising SST’s profile among world music audiences.

“I think these two issues are deeply related. Geographically, we’ve been downtown directed, but that reflects the nature of our core demographic. The typical person that has signed up [to attend our concerts] is a hip young urbanite in their 20s or 30s, a person whose experience of live music [has been mainly relegated] to the bars, clubs and other venues of the indie, rock, punk and folk scenes. On one hand we love the idea of having performers of every colour, shape, size, musical style, form, discipline. But, because the bulk of our audience feels at home in the indie, rock, punk and folk genres, it’s been a harder sell to book artists outside of those scenes. On the up side, I think that the more people hear about or experience what our rooms feel like, the more that’s going to change, leading to greater variety in the music genres on offer.”

Campbell’s programming, in line with most Sofar Sounds events around the world, as reflected in their numerous YouTube videos (more on that later), primarily appears to reflect mainstream vernacular music. Great Lake Swimmers, Royal Wood and The O’Pears have presented polished sets. On the other hand, SST has also sought to stretch preconceived hipster notions of the live music experience by expanding what’s on offer. For example, Pocket Concerts presented an authoritatively played program of J.S. Bach string trios. Last December, indigenous cellist/composer Cris Derksen, a 2016 Instrumental Album JUNO nominee, singlehandedly built from layers of powwow-ready sounds with her cello, Western classical music chops and new school electronics.

To ramp up audience anticipation, SST has fun holding back the names of the musical acts it presents, yet it does something few other presenters do: it sends follow-up messages to individual ticket holders. Titled “Thanks for Coming! You were watching...” the email messages offer a thumbnail of each artist on the roster. Campbell notes that “we also track alumni artists’ future gigs and link to them on our Facebook page for the benefit of our followers.”

I’m not at liberty to disclose the identity of future performers – remember the lure of the “secret” concert, the cultivated air of mystery and the element of exploration in SST’s mandate? I can, however, speak about a few of the world music performers who have animated its low-keyed venues. On a hot July 2015 evening in the backyard of a private Toronto home, the Rajasthani Barmer Boys raised their voices in praise to perform songs steeped in the Manganiyar Sufi music tradition. Earlier this year Burkina Faso griot Amadou Kienou animated the dreary March weather in a downtown walkup with songs accompanied by kora and jembe. Sections of all these sets can be viewed on the SST YouTube channel.

A few weeks ago the Dilan Ensemble directed by kamancheh specialist Shahriyar Jamshidi played a program of Kurdish music. On another show, the ten-piece Toronto band Zuze, mashing up Iranian folk melodies with Afrobeat rhythms, shared the snug Small World Music Centre space (eschewing its modest stage for floor space under the spacious windows) with IVA, aka Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt. The Inuk singer-songwriter was accompanied by the Southern Ontario indie-folk band Ptarmigan in a set combining Inuktitut song and poetry.

In another concert, the accomplished Toronto-based Arabic and Jewish musician-singers Maryem Tollar and Aviva Chernick joined Iranian percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand in a new music project dubbed Walking East Trio. In addition, sharing the bill with two other acts, singer-songwriter Dieufaite Charles sang, accompanying himself on guitar, music reflecting a mix of Haitian roots and African rhythms. That concert, held in a private home in the Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood (yes, marked “secret!” in the invitation), was also part of Toronto’s Third Annual Festival of House Culture, yet more evidence of several layers of placemaking in action.

2204 World View 2Campbell confirms that “of the three or four acts at every show, at least one will be a surprise to many in our audience – and that’s our intention. I can’t emphasize enough how awesome it’s been to watch audiences react to something clearly completely out of their wheelhouse. Whether it’s Bach played by a chamber trio, a griot singing traditional Burkina Faso songs accompanied by a kora, a rapper backed by live musicians, experimental electronic post-rock, or a solo singer-songwriter, audiences recognize that these are amazing musicians. Before SST, they might see a listing in a magazine or walked by a venue with a sign, but would never imagine going to their concerts. But the in-person experience is a powerful one. It says ‘this is for anyone who wants to hear it.’ It’s been so rewarding for us to be able to introduce artists who don’t generally have access to audiences outside of their own ethnicities. We [imagine that we] live in a city that houses every ethnicity, culture, or tradition on earth, yet we [nevertheless] tend to live in our own local worlds. What’s been amazing to behold is that by creating an air of mystery around audiences not knowing who they’re going to see, we’re able to demonstrate how silly it is that we’re not [culturally] more intermingled. Because great music is great music. Period.”

That’s why, he says, a well-known artist like Lena (aka Anastasia Tchernikova) of Musica Reflecta can entrance a room full of people with a program of solo minimalist piano pieces by Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt as much as a well-known folk group like Great Lake Swimmers, who followed that performance. “There is so much going on in this city, and, to use the old adage, there’s so much that people don’t even know they don’t know about. We want to help change that.”

While Campbell makes a strong case for an era of post-genre concert experiences, what’s in it for the individual musician or group? SST promises an attentive audience, an unusual, unexpected, fun, intimate venue with social media follow-ups on Facebook and Instagram. Each act gets a very modest honorarium. More valuable perhaps, SST provides a high-quality edited video of an item in their performance, uploaded directly to the international Sofar Sounds YouTube channel.

For newly formed groups, it’s an opportunity to connect with an enthusiastic young adult audience in an attentive listening “quiet room” environment. For bands used to gigging in noisy bars where the focus is not necessarily on the music they’re making, the latter is a precious quality. For more established musicians, SST facilitates a connection with a young adult audience demographic, to listeners who may not be familiar with their careers, repertoire or even the genre of music they play.

While mum’s the word on the identity of the global musicians appearing in SST’s December and January concerts, I can divulge two of the locations it has already announced. One is the hip Boxcar Social at Harbourfront Centre overlooking Lake Ontario and the other is “a secret location” in Evergreen Brick Works nestled in the neo-bucolic post-industrial setting of the Don River Valley.

After speaking with SST producer Campbell, I am confident that SST’s programming will continue towards its goal of genre diversity. Gongs, ukuleles and dulcimers will undoubtedly share future SST rooms with guitars, drum kits and keyboards.

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

2203 World ViewI’ve been writing this column for almost seven years. Loyal readers will observe that I’ve approached my World View beat from many different – sometimes even conflicting – points of view. Last month I disclosed aspects of my private life, inviting you to fly with me and my bride to our Hungarian honeymoon, a journey which reconnected me to my culture of origin.

That story, shared from my personal album, segued neatly to a case study of the Toronto musician Richard Moore. He actively pursues a very rare double professional life: as a career percussionist he is also a Hungarian cimbalom and hammered dulcimer player. (Quite coincidentally – or is it? – I’m dipping even deeper into these transatlantic, transcultural waters in my examination of 60 years of musical Hungarians in Canada in a feature elsewhere in this issue.)

In order to mix things up a little, for this column I’ve decided to undertake a brief survey of what programmers across our great “multi-culti” (in the words of Deiter, my ethnomusicologist German friend) metropolis have planned for our musical entertainment and edification.

North in the South: Inuit throat singing todayStarting things off on Saturday November 5, The Music Gallery along with Native Women in the Arts present the “Inuit Showcase,” part of the Kwe Performance Series at the Music Gallery. Three Inuit women share the program, a concert and associated workshop. The focus is pulled tight on Inuit throat singing as practised in various regions of the Arctic by these Inuit performers who seek to both preserve and innovate within their received throat-singing traditions. Throat singing was originally a competitive female-centred game for two which imitated the Arctic land-, sea- and animal-scape. In the last decade, however, this folk performance art form has been taken into new and innovative musical regions and showcased on international stages alongside internationally known musicians such as Björk, by the abundantly gifted Inuk vocalist Tanya Tagaq.

Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt, also known as IVA (ee-vah), is a poet, writer and throat singer from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. She has collaborated in performance not only with established Inuit singers such as Susan Aglukark and the aforementioned Tagaq, but also with the singer-songwriter Owen Pallett, the American electronic, experimental hip hop musician DJ Spooky and the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Taqralik Partridge, originally from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in Northern Quebec is best known as a poet and spoken-word performer. While her English poems illuminate the life of Northern people seldom experienced by Southerners, Partridge is also a throat singer and voice actor, appearing on Canadian and European stages.

Nukariik, on the other hand, consists of two sisters, Karin and Kathy Kettler. An important aspect of their performance is the preservation and sharing of their inherited culture. While the sisters have lived most of their lives in Southern Canada, they have maintained strong connections to their culture as it is practised in Kangiqsualujjuaq, an Inuit village located on the east coast of Ungava Bay in Nunavik, Quebec.

Nagata Shachu and Ten Ten: Toronto taiko and minyoAlso on November 5, Toronto’s preeminent taiko group Nagata Shachu presents “Music from Japan and Beyond” at Kobayashi Hall, Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. Artistic director Kiyoshi Nagata notes that “Nagata Shachu is excited to be collaborating with virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Shogo Yoshii, who represents a new generation of Japanese musicians pushing the boundaries of traditional music.” Yoshii, who is coming from Japan for the concert, is an acclaimed taiko (Japanese drums), shinobue (Japanese bamboo transverse flute) and kokyu (Japanese violin) player.

November 8 at 12:30, York University’s Department of Music presents the younger Toronto taiko group Ten Ten in a free concert in its Music at Midday series at the Martin Family Lounge, Accolade East Building, York University. Directed by taiko and shamisen player Aki Takahashi – also a member of Nagata Shachu since 2003 – Ten Ten has performed in theatres, concert halls and festivals featuring her own compositions. Takahashi is a specialist in minyo (Japanese folk song) and has published an astounding 200-plus videos of her repertoire on YouTube, hosted on the Bachido channel.

Small World Music presents African and Andalusían hybrids: November 11, Small World Music, in association with Za & Zoey, presents Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits at The Opera House. Considered a national cultural treasure by many in his Zimbabwean homeland, Mtukudzi, an eloquent vocalist, nimble fingerpicking guitarist and prolific composer (having released some 50 albums), is his county’s most successful musician. He began performing in 1977 and has earned a large fan base across the world. A member of Zimbabwe’s Kore Kore tribe, he sings in the nation’s dominant Shona language as well as in Ndebele and English. He also wears the non-musical hats of businessman, philanthropist, human rights activist AIDS/HIV and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for the Southern Africa Region focusing on young people’s development and HIV/AIDS prevention. He’s the sort of musician I want to be when I grow up.

November 12, La Banda Morisca appears on the Small World Music Centre stage, presented by Small World Music. The septet from Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucía aims to fuse original and re-creative views of traditional regional music. They present attractive vocal-driven mashups of southern Mediterranean genres like Muwashshah secular music, the festival and dance-centric North African Chaabi, flamenco from Jerez, Andalusían rock, as well as several other regional music genres.

ECCG explores the “classical” through musical border crossings and cultural hybriditiesDecember 3, the Aga Khan Museum presents the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan in its Classical Music Series. (As usual I want to flag the fact that I’m 33-year founding member of ECCG – yes it’s been that long, and yes I’m still having fun with it!) This concert series has a fascinating curatorial premise which dovetails with ECCG’s long-term artistic goals. It’s articulated on the AKM’s website in the following manner: “Often used to solely describe Western traditions, the term ‘classical music’ is re-examined within the context of cultural diversity in this special series of performances. Our Classical Music Series presents the sights and sounds of North Indian, Indonesian, Italian and Syrian musical traditions. Redefine your understanding of classical music through performances that explore melodic scales, historical recordings and new interpretations of Western repertoire.”

ECCG, a group of eight Toronto-based musicians, has made a career out of commissioning new, often modernist, scores with the end game of performing and recording them on its Sundanese gamelan degung. At the same time the group has always also performed (often in its own arrangements) the core repertoire of the West Javanese (Sundanese) degung, a kind of gamelan music with past aristocratic roots which some may think of as “classical.” On the other hand ECCG also performs its own instrumental arrangements of popular Sundanese songs, on occasion inviting Canadian singers to interpret them with English lyrics. It’s a complex world of music out there and ECCG aims to present that complication from a Canadian perspective. In its concert it explores various border crossings and cultural hybridities in works by American (Lou Harrison), Canadian (Paul Intson) as well as Sundanese, Indonesian (Nano Suratno, Burhan Sukarma, Ade Suparman) composers.

Quick pick: Also on December 3, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music presents its annual free, fall World Music Ensembles concert at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building. The Iranian Music Ensemble is directed by the Toronto tombak virtuoso, composer and researcher Pedram Khavarzamini, this year’s world music artist-in-residence. The guitarist, composer and educator Brian Katz leads the Klezmer Ensemble, while the Japanese Drumming Ensemble is directed by seasoned taiko drummer, group leader and teacher Gary Kiyoshi Nagata.

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

2202-WorldView.jpgI don’t usually mention my personal life much in these pages. On the other hand the eventful month since my last WholeNote column has been marked by one of life’s major milestones. I would feel remiss not to share a few of the highlights with you, faithful reader.

In August I enjoyed a joyous pre-wedding reception at Array Space here in Toronto with my bride-to-be, family and friends. On its heels was a bells-and-whistles wedding on Jericho Beach in Vancouver. It was raining for much of the week on the “wet coast,” yet the sun actually beamed and bestowed its blessings on us on the appointed day.

From Vancouver we immediately flew to Hungary for our honeymoon. Over 27 years since my last visit, it was a jam-packed whirlwind tour of the Western Transdanubian region of the country, graced all the way with unseasonably hot and sunny weather. Family, friends, food and wine, vistas and music featured prominently, along with the ever-present rich history of a mixed glorious and painful legacy of 1200 years which surrounded us at every turn. Back only a few days, my bride and I are still wiping jetlag cobwebs from our eyes.

One of my semi-musical tasks in Budapest was to connect with a prominent Hungarian player of the cimbalom – the Hungarian concert hammered dulcimer – on behalf of busy Toronto percussionist and cimbalom player Richard Moore, and that is where this month’s musical story starts.

I first met Moore at York University a few years ago where we were each pursuing our respective graduate degrees. He often spoke to me about his research on the history and repertoire of the cimbalom. His passion for it has clearly shaped his career choices as a gigging musician. Moore’s command of the instrument has made him that rara avis of doublers: a percussionist who also plays the cimbalom and hammered dulcimer. His highly honed skill set is so rare in Canada that he is often the first call cimbalomist in concert chamber, symphonic and film soundtrack work.

October 26 and 27, for example, Moore performs the cimbalom solo in Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite (1926-27) with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Curious about his unusual choice of instrumental doubling, I spoke with Moore on an unusually hot mid-September Toronto afternoon.

We talked first about the origins of the cimbalom scored for in Kodály’s Suite. “The cimbalom has an important voice in Hungarian music of the last 135 years, often being characterized as the country’s ‘national instrument,’” Moore stated. “The piano-like chromatic cimbalom I play today was first developed in Budapest in 1874 by the piano maker József Schunda, probably based on hammered dulcimer predecessors commonly played amongst the Romani in Austria-Hungary.”

It was a large and elaborate instrument, equipped with a pedal damper mechanism and possessing a range of four to five chromatic octaves. “It was immediately put to use by Ferencz Liszt,” Moore says. “The cimbalom entered the western orchestral world via Liszt’s patriotic 1875 Ungarischer Sturmmarsch (Hungarian Assault March) and his Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 with generations of composers following.

I then asked him about the hammered dulcimer, the roots of which, I’ve read, can be traced back, under many various names, thousands of years. “Yes, the roots of the hammered dulcimer extend back many centuries and span numerous regions of Asia and Europe,” Moore asserted. “A modal and diatonic, rather than a chromatic, instrument, it was also brought by European immigrants to North America, and had a presence in the vernacular music of 17th-, 18th- and 19th- century America and Canada.” It appears that many Hungarian Romani musicians adopted the Schunda cimbalom very early on, he told me. “For example there is contextual stylistic evidence in Liszt’s scores that Roma cimbalom playing influenced some of his Hungarian Rhapsodies,” a significant part of his oeuvre.”

So, how did Moore’s own interest in the cimbalom develop?

“It all started in 1998 when I was a music student in Munich where I heard a Roma cimbalom player on the street. I was immediately drawn to its sound and timbre. Thinking like a percussionist, I made a connection right away between the two beaters he was using and the two-mallet techniques on the percussion instruments I was used to playing. The two performance techniques appeared similar to me. I could see adapting my existing percussion techniques to the cimbalom.”

He soon learned, however, that it is unlike any keyboard percussion instrument in its unique layout of strings, which directly dictates its pitch series. “Instead of the left-to-right horizontal layout typical of keyboards, the notes on the cimbalom are arranged vertically in front of the player.”

Moore continued: “The second obstacle was finding a cimbalom teacher in Munich. I couldn’t find one, so I studied with an instructor of the Hackbrett-cimbalom, a German hybrid chromatic instrument.”

Early in our conversation Moore talked about Liszt’s use of the cimbalom in two of his orchestral works, valorizing its patriotic symbolism as much as its timbral identity. But what of its presence in 20th-century scores?

Moore jumped right in, “In late January 1915, Igor Stravinsky heard Aladár Rácz, the important Romani cimbalomist, playing at Maxim’s, a café in Geneva. The result of that meeting fired the composer’s instrumental imagination, compelling him to purchase one for his personal compositional use.” The experience proved so powerful that it inspired Stravinsky to score for the cimbalom in several major works: the ballet Renard (1915-1916), and in 1917, in the Ragtime for 11 Instruments, a draft instrumentation of Les Noces, and in an early instrumentation of his Four Russian Songs. “Then in 1928 Béla Bartók featured it in his mature Rhapsody No.1 for Violin and Orchestra, underscoring melodies derived from Hungarian folk songs which infuse the work.”

Returning to Kodály’s Háry János Suite in which Moore will be playing the prominent cimbalom part with the TSO this month, Moore notes that “the instrument is found throughout the opera, evoking a mythical Hungarian past.” Illustrating how his rare doubling career works in practice, Moore will play both parts in these concerts, rendering the percussion part in movements of the Suite without the cimbalom.

The Kodály work has, over the years, retained its popularity in the symphonic repertoire. Moore played it with the Winnipeg Symphony around six years ago and also performed it with the Toronto Philharmonia. “By the way, the Toronto jazz pianist Rudy Toth (1925-2009), the son of a cimbalom maker, also doubled on the concert cimbalom until his retirement in 1989, performing it in the Háry János Suite with the TSO and other orchestras.”

New Passion: Beginning in the 1950s, Hungarian modernist composers like György Kurtág embraced the instrument with a new passion. “Kurtág included it in over a dozen works,” Moore says. “His colleague Péter Eötvös has extended the cimbalom’s repertoire further with a concerto and chamber works, one of which I performed with New Music Concerts in Toronto a few years ago under the baton of the composer.”

Is the concert cimbalom only the preserve of Hungarian composers? “British composers like Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies also included it in their works starting in the 1960s,” says Moore. “French composer Pierre Boulez was a notable advocate. He told me he very much enjoyed writing for the instrument when I worked with him in 2006 on the Glenn Gould Award concert in Toronto.” In addition, Frank Zappa scored for the cimbalom in his Yellow Shark (1992-93) score and live concert DVD, possibly influenced by Boulez’s example.

I seem to recall hearing the cimbalom in TV and film soundtracks. “Yes!” enthused Moore. “The Gladiator film soundtrack uses it. I performed it at live screenings in Toronto and Montreal last year. Howard Shore, the multiple Oscar-winning Canadian film composer included it in each of his three Lord of the Rings film scores. The TSO will be performing live to the first of those films on December 1, 2, and 3, 2016. For those concerts I’ll be playing not only the concert cimbalom, but also hammered dulcimer and other percussion parts, since technically these hammered string instruments are considered part of the percussion section,” and thus may be considered doubling instruments of the percussionist.

The Canadian National Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale, its 2013 score composed by English composer Joby Talbot, features two different types of hammered dulcimers on stage. Moore performed the onstage parts and he adds that “its successful 2015 premiere run in Toronto was replicated in 2016 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and also at Lincoln Center, NYC, in which I also performed.”

Moore’s dedication to this string percussion instrument has led him to performance opportunities at the heart of European concert music, as well as in recent popular film soundtracks and ballet scores. I asked him how he sees his cimbalom-playing career evolving. “In the future I see myself working closely with film composers to develop its expressive potential and ability to evoke a particular, though hard to define, sonic atmosphere, often used by composers to depict the exotic ‘other’ landscape – whether Celtic Ireland, a Central or Eastern European folk milieu, or rural 19th-century North America.”

For me, what’s particularly intriguing about Moore’s advocacy of hammered dulcimers is how these instruments have emerged and have been adapted to various performance disciplines and genres. Another intriguing – and as yet little explored – facet is the connection between the cimbalom’s discovery in 1914 by the major modernist music composer Stravinsky and the living Romani tradition which had already long adopted the concert cimbalom by that time. This connection is a living one in Moore’s career. The instrument he is pictured with in the photograph accompanying this story and which he plays in the October TSO concerts was purchased from a Hungarian musician specializing in Romani cimbalom music.

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

2201_-_World_1.jpgIn my summer 2016 WholeNote column I mused on Luminato’s repurposing of the cavernous decommissioned Hearn Generating Station. Would it work as a venue for symphony orchestra, for community cultural engagement, visual art, for Shakespeare? In the end, the capacious,  though out-of-the-way, venue turned out to be a gamble that paid off handsomely for Festival organisers as well as for concertgoers. It appears to be part of the continuing recognition in our collective urban zeitgietst of the importance of reclaiming, revitalizing and honouring Toronto’s industrial-commercial past.

In September it’s the turn of another large scale 20th-century man-made structure to be repurposed as an artistic venue. Originally opened on May 22, 1971, Ontario Place, the government of Ontario-owned amusement park, was imposed into Lake Ontario, sited on three artificially constructed and landscaped islands. The futuristic buildings and entertaining amenities along Toronto’s shoreline included the world’s first IMAX theatre, the geodesic-domed Cinesphere, and the province’s first waterpark.

Some of us old enough to have attended concerts there might fondly recall the spacious, leisurely rotating stage of the Forum. It’s where I took my young kids for free summer concerts, including the memorable time we saw jazz great Miles Davis and his band. We bonded over cool jazz with attitude that sunny afternoon. Then early in 2012 most of the public sections of the park were closed for redevelopment – its 2017 projected completion date aimed to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial.

in/future: After the venue has been shuttered for four years, Art Spin in partnership with Small World Music is re-animating Ontario Place’s scenic 14-acre West Island. They’ve cooked up an ambitious menu consisting of 11 days and nights of arts programming from September 15 to 25, dubbing the festival in/future. Wishing to dig deeper, I spoke to Small World’s executive director and in/future co-curator Alan Davis one hot sunny summer day.

“It’s the 15th anniversary of Small World’s fall festival,” Davis began, “and we’re delighted that Art Spin invited us to showcase part of our current season at in/future.” Art Spin – Layne Hinton and Rui Pimenta’s brainchild – has been active as a presenter for over seven years, re-activating decommissioned venues and public spaces to produce group exhibitions along with curated bicycle-led art tours.

“The festival will host site-specific projects by over 60 visual and sound artists,” Davis continued, “with close to 50 music acts on the Small World stage (presented by Exodus Travels).” Films and videos will also be presented in the Cinesphere, as well as dance performances, a lecture series, and kid-friendly programming and activities at various sites.

“We’re excited by this opportunity to connect with the larger community. Nostalgia for Ontario Place’s illustrious musical past is one part of the draw, but so is engaging with young audiences. For example, site DJ activations will encourage a party vibe.”

“We have also tried to squeeze the envelope with regard to genres, to mix things up, to embrace the entirety of the global musical spectrum. Cross-fertilization is one of the things we’re aiming for. Though it’s easy to say, it’s hard to do,” he added with a knowing smile.

I asked Davis to pick a few highlights. “We are leaning toward high-energy, festive acts suitable for an outdoor stage. An example would be BaBa ZuLa, Istanbul’s legendary psychedelic dub band, which takes the stage Friday September 16 with a wide variety of influences and a truckload of instruments. They are followed by Mariachi Flor, a feminist Mexican mariachi group based in New York” he explained.

Saturday September 24, at the other end of the festival, is a day so chock full that space here permits only a partial mention. Headlining is the Dhol Foundation, a leading bhangra band making its Canadian debut. It’s led by the U.K.- born master-dhol drummer and artistic director of the group, the “bhangra king” Johnny Kalsis. His London-based 12-piece band, which he first established about 17 years ago, places the musical focus tightly on the massive sound of closely miked multiple dhol drums, those icons of Punjabi bhangra music. Kalsis has since waded into transnational waters by fusing bhangra with a mixed bag of popular global genres including Afrobeat, reggae, hip-hop, EDM, and Bollywood with a Celtic fiddling twist. The resulting thumping beats are designed to lift audiences’ spirits, moving everyone to dance.

Also performing on September 24 is the Shanbehzadeh Ensemble. It was formed in 1990 by Saeid Shanbehzadeh, a virtuoso of the neyanbān (Persian Gulf bagpipe) and the ney-e jofti (Persian Gulf double reed pipe). He is well known as a forceful performer of the traditional song, music and dance of the southern Iranian province of Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf. It’s a region of Iran strongly influenced by African as well as Arabic culture, and its music and dance amply demonstrate those influences. Shanbehzadeh is no stranger to Toronto. In 1996 he taught a world music studio course at the University of Toronto and at the time I was impressed with his brilliant and charismatic solo performances, full of the feeling of his culture of origin. Now a resident of France, in recent videos he’s increasingly playing alto sax, and including an electric guitarist and a DJ in his sets, in addition to the regional acoustic instruments he made his reputation with. It looks like in/future audiences can expect a mix of trance-y traditional dance music of the Persian Gulf merged with contemporary beats from Shanbehzadeh.

Much of the rest of the ambitious festival music program likewise appears to echo Alan Davis’ dictum of high-energy, populist leaning, multiple genre-inclusive and at the same time genre-smearing music performances. While there is a place for nostalgia, this is perhaps the sort of non-nostalgic au courant musical cross-fertilization needed to re-activate the 45-year-old old Ontario Place and make it fun and relevant again – at least for 11 days this September.

Follow Your Heart:

2201_-_World_2.jpgMy second story is about a single production, but one which is no less ambitious in the size of its cast and the scope of national cultural elements and themes portrayed.

Four years in the making and workshopped at the Fleck Theatre in 2014, Toronto’s Evolution Dance Theatre presents the premiere of Follow Your Heart, a “Broadway-style Middle Eastern multimedia extravaganza.” The multimedia and multidisciplinary production runs September 22 to 25 at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. Follow Your Heart was conceived, written and directed by EDT founder and artistic director Armineh Keshishian. Rooted in the rich traditions of Middle Eastern dance and culture, the production tells its story with sound design, lighting, actors, dancers and three sets of musicians, 45 performers in all.

The production has both pre-recorded sound design cues, as well as live music, the latter provided by three culturally distinct groups of three musicians each. The Middle Eastern section is led by Persian percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, the African section by master drummer Amadou Kienou and the Indigenous Canadian section by singer Sue Croweagle. In the show’s finale, the three groups perform together, directed by Kienou accompanying dancers who likewise represent ethnic, cultural and gender mutual respect and harmony.

I spoke with Keshishian in between rehearsals about her show. “Follow Your Heart is a tale of love and struggle, with a special emphasis on the empowerment of women,” she told me. “Our story centres around Almaza, a modern Middle Eastern woman, who falls in love with Jivan, a traditional Middle Eastern man – in contemporary Toronto. It’s the journey of a woman who fights for love against all odds, a love story marked by both taboo and tradition.” She concluded, “the story in the end explores unity and mutual understanding between peoples, a relevant theme in these troubled times,” particularly in the Middle East.

Whether or not a “Broadway-style multimedia extravaganza” is your cup of tea, Follow Your Heart’s inclusive and optimistic vision of a world where people born three continents apart can share their indigenous music and dance – even if it’s only modelled for us briefly on stage – is cause for celebration.

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

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