According to The WholeNote’s “Previous Issues” searchable database, this marks the ninth year I’m writing this column. According to a back-of-the-envelope tally, I’ve written about 80 of these explorations of the seemingly inexhaustible globally conscious music communities in the GTA. Occasionally, I’ve even ventured off-continent following the touring activities of our musicians.

No matter how often I do it, however, writing about the launch of the pre-fall concert season amid our typical Southern Ontario August heat and humidity always feels oddly dyssynchronous.

One way to bridge this musical inter-seasonality is to select some of the musicians whose careers I’ve touched on here in past Septembers over the years, trace their 2019 summers, and see where they land this September. The fact they’re all recent Polaris Music Prize recipients, and all Indigenous artists, provides us with another interesting lens.

Polaris Music Prize

The Polaris Music Prize is arguably a Canadian music industry bellwether. It is annually given to the “best full-length Canadian album based on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales, or record label.” Founded in 2006 by Steve Jordan, a former Canadian music industry A&R executive, it was endowed with an inclusive-sounding mission statement: “A select panel of [Canadian] music critics judge and award the Prize without regard to musical genre or commercial popularity.” Polaris’ aim differs from other awards which recognize album and digital title sales and/or streaming, radio airplay, touring and social media engagement.

Mission statement notwithstanding, a review of Polaris winners for the first eight years reveals its juries chose artists reflecting commercial album production within relatively mainstream popular music genres. These include indie rock (Final Fantasy/Owen Pallett, Patrick Watson, Arcade Fire, etc), pop (Dan Snaith/Caribou), post-rock (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), electronic/hip-hop (Kaytranada), as well as hardcore punk. Given those genres, until a few years ago Polaris awardees would not have found their way into this column.

In recent years however, Indigenous voices have come to the fore with Polaris juries, bringing their awards and their artistic achievements to the attention of the general public and to this column. While A Tribe Called Red’s album Nation II Nation – their electronic dance music, dubbed powwow-step, imbued with powerful elements of First Nations music – was short-listed in 2013; it didn’t win best album. But Indigenous sounds, however, did finally sweep into the Polaris award nightscape in downtown Toronto the following year.

Tanya Tagaq. Photo by Bob TomlinsonTanya Tagaq’s 2014 Win

On September 22, 2014 avant-garde Inuk vocalist Tanya Tagaq gave a jaw-dropping, dramatic ten-minute Polaris concert performance with drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, along with, for the first time, the 44-voice improvising Element Choir conducted by Christine Duncan. “…It was as if an intense Arctic wind had blown into downtown Toronto’s The Carlu [venue]…” I wrote, reporting for The WholeNote. To cap off the evening, Tagaq was awarded the Prize for her brilliant, overtly political album Animism.

“Her win marks a significant milestone” I wrote in my WholeNote report. “For the first time it was awarded to an Indigenous musician. … a complex and heady mix of confrontation and reconciliation, of social and political issues [with] musical genres … hinting at the potential transcultural power of the healing force of sound.”

In the Polaris Spotlight in 2015 and Beyond

Tagaq’s 2014 award seemed to have opened some kind of Polaris door for Indigenous Canadian musicians. The following year, the Piapot Cree-born singer-songwriter, composer, educator and social activist Buffy Sainte-Marie won the Prize for her firebrand statement, Power in the Blood; her 15th studio release. This fearless veteran of the music business, 74-years-old at the time, has been writing and singing songs of love, war, religion and Indigenous resistance for over half a century.

Lido Pimienta. Photo by Alejandro SantiagoIn 2017 the Polaris jury awarded the $50,000 Polaris Music Prize to the Colombian Canadian singer-songwriter Lido Pimienta for her album La Papessa. Identifying as Afro-Colombian with Indigenous Wayuu heritage on her mother’s side, her music incorporates musical influences from those sources, as well as synthpop and electronic music genres. I also covered that Polaris gala evening for The WholeNote, and wrote: “In addition to her acrobatic voice, the sound of the tambura (Colombian bass drum), snare drum, electronics and a four-piece horn section dominated the music.” There wasn’t a single guitar or piano on stage; a rarity in the Polaris world.

Also significant that year, four of the ten short-listed albums directly reflected current Indigenous realities. A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq and Lido Pimienta were joined by Gord Downie’s Secret Path, a moving concept album about Chanie Wenjack, the Anishinaabe boy who tragically died after escaping from a residential school. 

Then in 2018, singer, pianist and composer Jeremy Dutcher captured the Prize with his moving freshman album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. Dutcher, a Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) member of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, studied music and anthropology at Dalhousie University. He also trained as an operatic tenor, surely the first Polaris winner to do so. He later expanded his professional repertoire to include the traditional singing style and songs of his Wolastoqiyik community. His unique album reflects all those musical, linguistic and historically informed threads, reclaiming the past with an authenticity and emotional core that resonates with audiences.

Jeremy Dutcher. Photo by Christina CassaroIn his Polaris acceptance speech, Dutcher declared, “Canada, you are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance,” placing his work within a larger, growing Indigenous presence in the Canadian theatre, music, visual arts, dance and cinema scenes. With an eagle feather in his hand – holding an eagle feather honours the Creator and invites them to take notice – he continued, “What you see on the stage tonight is the future. … Are you ready to hear the truths that need to be told?”

Dutcher concluded his 2018 speech with a mission statement, an insight and a heartfelt invitation. “I do this work to honour those who have gone before and to lay the footprints for those yet to come. This is all part of a continuum of Indigenous excellence – and you are here to witness it. I welcome you.”

The Summer of 2019

The laying of footprints continues apace. Over the 2019 summer, Tagaq, Pimienta and Dutcher kept busy touring. Tagaq, having relocated to Toronto since her win, has been on tour with both her music and her award-winning genre-bending literary debut Split Tooth (2018) which masterfully mashes up fiction, memoir, Inuit myth and poetry. Her coming-of-age story is not unlike her music in the richly layered texture of its narratives. In July, Tagaq appeared several times at the Riddu Riđđu Festival at the Centre for Northern Peoples in Northern Norway, along with Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jeremy Dutcher and other global Indigenous acts.

Pimienta’s self-described “work of theatre, work of performance” We Are in a Non-relationship Relationship premiered earlier this year at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The cross-disciplinary work illustrated her versatility across a variety of performance genres integrating music, storytelling and visual elements, portrayed on three screens above a living room-like set. She’s ambitiously expanding her career in new theatrical directions, “exploring the politics of gender, race, motherhood, identity and the construct of the Canadian landscape in the Latin American diaspora and vernacular.”

Pimienta also took her music on tour this summer to Montréal’s Suoni per il Popolo, Toronto’s Koerner Hall, Folk on the Rocks in Yellowknife, Pickathon 2019 in Oregon, USA, SummerStage in New York City’s Central Park and headlined the Dawson City Music Festival.

The positive reception of Jeremy Dutcher’s Polaris win has provided a discernible lift to his career in radio plays, print coverage, record sales and live concerts. In The WholeNote‘s summer issue, I wrote about Dutcher’s August concert at the rural Westben in Campbellford ON., an event that also featured an Anishinaabe BBQ for concertgoers. He also appeared at summer festivals in Toronto (Luminato), San Francisco, Montreal, Canso NS, Moncton NB, Woody Point NL, and Rees, Germany.

And in September … and early October

September 24, Tanya Tagaq and her band take the National Arts Centre stage in Ottawa along with Kalaallit (Greenlandic Inuk) Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, in a concert evocatively titled “Voices Rising.” A frequent Tagaq onstage collaborator, Bathory is a performance artist, actor, and storyteller, a specialist in uaajeerneq, a Greenlandic mask dance.

Jeremy Dutcher’s tour dates include the World Music Festival in Chicago on September 18 and 19, the National Arts Centre Ottawa on September 25 and Centre in the Square in Kitchener on September 27 and 28. He continues with dates at First Ontario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines on October 3 and Burton Cummings Theatre, Winnipeg on October 9.

October 18 The Music Gallery presents “Lido Pimienta: Road to Miss Colombia, plus OKAN” at its home Toronto hall as part of its annual X avant concerts. Pimienta presents songs from Miss Colombia, her La Papessa follow-up album, exploring Pimienta’s relationship to the culture of her birth. Performing with horns, winds and choir, the performance showcases her new songs arranged by Halifax-based composer Robert Drisdelle.

And the 2019 Polaris Music Award?

For one thing, Indigenous musicians remain contenders. The short list includes the Indigenous West Coast hip-hop duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids, nominated for their strong third album Trapline. Haisla rappers Darren “Young D” Metz and Quinton “Yung Trybez” Nyce incorporate themes from the Kitimat BC reservation, where they grew up, in their album’s dense lyrics, mixing it with trap (a style of hip-hop music developed in the Southern USA): a style the duo call “Indigenous Trap.”

Inuk singer, filmmaker and activist Elisapie, born in Salluit in Quebec’s far north, is also on the short list. Her The Ballad of the Runaway Girl is by turns moody, melodic, richly layered and skillfully arranged throughout.

Of course there are eight other, non-Indigenous, nominees too. But no matter which one wins on September 16, the 2019 edition of the Polaris Music Prize clearly reflects, as Jeremy Dutcher astutely observed, the “continuum of Indigenous excellence” that the Prize itself, since 2014 at least, has contributed to.


SEP 7: Aga Khan Museum, in partnership with Raag Mala Society of Canada, presents “Stree Shakti: Celebrating Women in Music,” featuring Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar at the Museum. Ankalikar-Tikekar, an award-winning Hindustani music vocalist, accompanied by harmonium and tabla, performs raags associated with female deities and her own compositions.

SEP 28: Aga Khan Museum presents Madagascar’s supergroup Toko Telo in its auditorium. Toko Telo features the soulful vocals of Malagasy diva Monika Njava and guitarists D’Gary (the fingerpicking master) and Joël Rabesolo, inspired by the rich inter-cultural music traditions of the island’s southwest.

SEP 19 TO 29: Small World Music Society (SMWMS) presents its 18th Annual Small World Music Festival in Toronto. Here are just three of the concerts to look forward to:

SEP 19: Hanggai from China and Mongolia takes the stage at the Revival Bar. Beijing-based Hanggai convincingly mashes up rock and Mongolian music; the resulting mix can be heard on some of the world’s biggest festival stages;

SEP 26: Lula Music & Arts Centre in association with SMWMS present “Women in Percussion Festival” opening night at Lula Lounge, headlining Adriana Portela. A leading figure in the samba-reggae movement, Portela was the first woman to lead a samba-reggae ensemble, and has played percussion with many leading Brazilian groups. Also on the bill is Brazilian-Canadian percussionist and vocalist Aline Morales with her new horn and drum project, Aline Morales & Vulvas.

SEP 28: MRG Concerts in association with SMWMS present Tinariwen at the Danforth Music Hall. Formed 40 years ago, this Malian band is closely associated with the electric-guitar-driven desert blues sound and with their powerful songs about issues facing their Tuareg people.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

“Idecided to noise-cancel life,” begins Olga Khazan in a provocative recent article What Happens When You Always Wear Headphones in The Atlantic’s Health section. “The buck stops at my cochlea. Just like we choose everything else, I choose exactly what to put in my ears.” she concludes.

Early in May of this year, the Global Musics and Musical Communities conference at California’s UCLA posed a question: “How and why [do] specific musical genres travel outside their countries of origin and lead to the formation of new musical communities?” Presenters examined genres such as hip-hop, gamelan and taiko as musics that have “become global in the past century.” Ethnomusicologist Henry Spiller’s talk sported the cheeky yet insightful title The Hereness of the There: Making Sense of Gamelan in the United States.

So what do Khazan’s noise-cancelling earbud manifesto and the Global Musics and Musical Communities conference have to do with my summer column?

The UCLA conference reminded me that the examination of musical nation-hopping performed every day in Canadian locales has been one of my main subjects here over the years, arguing strenuously that cross-cultural musical interaction is the norm rather than the exception. The widespread, speedy transmission of these genres to musical communities around the world, beginning in the second half of 20th century, and their adoption and incorporation, is a significant and remarkable development.

As for living a “noise-cancelling life” – I’m not sure that, even if attainable, it is a healthy goal. I’m all for choice and for protecting the health of one’s ears in an increasingly noise-polluted environment, but for me the joy of music includes the excitement of exploration, the pleasure of surprise, chance, or even surreptitious discovery.

What does that sound like?

It’s the feeling of walking through the lush shrub- and tree-filled lakeside Toronto Music Garden on a hot summer afternoon – the garden that was co-designed by cellist Yo Yo Ma to reflect in landscape Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for cello. The music of a small group you’ve only read about slowly emerges out of the city’s din as you come to the brow of a knoll in the garden. They’re playing at the bottom of a modest grassy amphitheatre sheltered by a mature weeping willow.

There’s no front of house, program, no ushers or bar to contend with. You’re in a T-shirt, shorts and sandals, wearing a protective hat. If you’ve ridden your bike down, as I have on occasion, you search for a safe place to park it. Pleasure boats are moored at Marina Quay West to the left, Billy Bishop Airport’s prop planes within earshot. On the right, the Lakeshore Blvd. and Gardiner Expressway traffic sings with an eternal buzz, like the drone of thousands of urban cicadas.

That urban Toronto scene for me is one of the great and unique joys of music in the summer. It can’t be experienced with earbuds on, noise-cancelling or otherwise. So, with transcultural music in mind, and minds and ears open rather than closed, let’s explore just a few of the summer global music treats in store in the urban jungle, the GTA and beyond.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario: Have Yourself a Modal Summer

Let’s begin by following up on two of the stories from my column last month.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario (LO) recently announced several concerts in addition to its June modal music workshops (check its website to register) and its June 8 concert, “Modal Music Summit: Ross Daly with This Tale of Ours plus Tzvetanka Varimezova,” at Eastminster United Church. On the July 1 weekend it is programming three separate performances as part of the Aga Khan Museum’s Rhythms of Canada program (more on this further on). Then on consecutive Saturday afternoons – August 3, 10, 17 and 24 – LO offers afternoon concerts in Flemingdon Park (at Don Mills and Eglinton), supported by the Toronto Arts Council’s Arts in the Parks program. The concerts are billed as “family-friendly” and will include a chance to meet the musicians and instruments. Start time is around 3pm. Best confirm both the Aga Khan Museum and Flemingdon Park events in the listings or on the LO website.

Didgori Ensemble: Georgian Polyphony Tours Ontario and Quebec

My other lead story last issue was on the six-member Didgori Ensemble, the award-winning choir from the Republic of Georgia, and its June Canadian tour. As I mentioned, such a rare moment for Canadian Georgian-music lovers only happens once a lifetime.

We pick up the choir’s tour on June 7 when a consortium of Toronto presenters showcase the Didgori Ensemble at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre’s Jeanne Lamon Hall. Audiences can expect brilliant performances of Georgian polyphony, with ensemble members accompanying themselves on traditional Georgian instruments. June 8, Didgori gives a public Georgian choral workshop from 5 to7pm at the St. Vladimir Institute, 620 Spadina Ave., and the next day they hold a five-hour Georgian choral workshop at the MusiCamp Studio, 11 Cobourg Ave., starting at 11am. Check MusiCamp’s website for registration information.

June 10, Didgori travels east to Kingston Ontario’s St. George’s Cathedral where they sing liturgical music at 12:15pm, presented by MusiCamp, the Melos Choir and Period Instruments. They continue east to Quebec, where on Wednesday June 12, Gabrielle Boutillier presents “Didgori en concert à Québec” at the Voûtes de la Maison Chevalier. The next day, they perform and conduct a workshop at the Auberge La Caravane, in North Hatley, QC. The tour then concludes on Saturday June 15 at 8pm in Montreal where the Harira Ensemble and MusiCamp present Didgori: Live in Concert at the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes. For those eager to experience this extraordinary music first-hand, Didgori offers an all-ages Workshop for Singers of All Levels June 15 and 16 at the Centre des Musiciens du Monde, 5043 St Dominique St, Montreal. You can reserve a spot at

Polky Village BandSmall World Music: Free Summer Lunch

Small World Music presents its free Summer Lunch concert series in partnership with Union Station on the latter’s TD Stage, 65 Front St. W. on nine consecutive Wednesdays from 12 noon to 1pm. SWM’s Summer Lunch lineup launches June 5 with Mimi O’Bonsawin who recently won the Best Pop Album at the 2019 Indigenous Music Awards. It continues June 12 with Moskitto Bar, the Toronto quartet musically covering territory from Brittany to Bagdad, through Ukraine and the Balkans. June 19 the Polky Village Band, an energetic Polish-Canadian folk music group takes audiences on a musical journey to Poland, “the melting pot of Eastern and Central Europe with Carpathian, Jewish, Gypsy, Ukrainian, Slovak and Hungarian influences.” June 26 the Tich Maredza Band, fronted by Toronto-based Zimbabwean singer, guitarist, mbira-ist and composer Tichaona Maredza takes the stage.

Of the five additional acts appearing on the Summer Lunch series, Fränder, a Swedish and Estonian folk quartet, is the only non-Ontario group, appearing on July 17. Representing the latest generation of talented musicians to take their rich heritage of indigenous songs to the world stage; it’s worth taking your soup, sandwich or sushi to their set.

SWM’s Summer Lunch series, incidentally, is part of Union Summer: Presented by TD, a sprawling 50 consecutive days of summer programming on the Front St. TD Stage, promising to “showcase …Toronto’s talent, culture and spirit right at the gateway to the city.”

Summer Music at the Museum: Aga Khan Museum

Earlier I mentioned Labyrinth Ontario’s three Canada Day weekend performances at the Aga Khan Museum. The AKM is producing three festivals this summer celebrating “Canada’s contemporary fabric, a dynamic mix of world views, cultures, stories, and rhythms. Our festivities honour the Indigenous people of this land … much of it planned to happen outdoors.”

Some other selections from its “Rhythms of Canada” festival, running Sunday June 30 and Monday July 1:

Sunday opens with the 13-member Asiko Afrobeat Ensemble led by Nigerian-born bandleader Foly Kolade, and includes Toronto-based singer and composer Hussein Janmohamed, plus two-time world-champion hoop dancer Lisa Odjig from the Odawa/Ojibwe/Pottawatomi Nations from Wikwemikong, Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Headlining the event is the Cris Derksen Trio, led by rising star musician and composer Derksen, who describes herself as a “half-Cree, half- Mennonite classically trained cellist.” Also on the bill is the Waleed Kush Ensemble offering percussion-driven African jazz, led by Sudanese multi-instrumentalist Waleed Abdulhamid. The next day on July 1 Toronto’s Maracatu Mar Aberto perform the rhythms, songs and dances derived from the traditions of Northeastern Brazil, while other world music and dance events fill out the Canadian Day afternoon.

The AKM’s “Moon Landing Festival” (July 20 and July 21) plus its “First Five Fest” celebrating five years of programming (August 31 and September 1) both have plenty for global music explorers. Please check the listings and the Museum website for details.

Harbourfront Centre: Summer Music in the Garden

My introduction to this month’s column makes it pretty clear how I feel about Harbourfront Centre’s delightful annual series of al fresco concerts. Summer Music in the Garden ranks among our city’s essential music-in-the-park experiences. Now entering its third decade, artistic director Tamara Bernstein always makes room for top-rank global music in her astutely curated series. The concerts are scheduled for Thursdays at 7pm and Sundays at 4pm, so it pays to check the listings. Pro tip: unless it’s sunny, best call the info desk at 416-973-4000 for the up-to-the-minute rain call.

Mercedes and Alfredo Caxaj, Sunfest co-artistic directorsSunfest: “Canada’s Premier Celebration of World Cultures”

Every summer for a quarter of a century the southwestern Ontario city of London has hosted what has become “one of the best overseas [world] music festivals,” according to the UK’s prestigious Songlines Magazine, transforming London’s central Victoria Park into “a culturally diverse jewel, where 40 top world music and jazz groups from all corners of the planet entertain.” This year from July 4 to 7 the admission-free festival jams the park chock-a-block with five stages and more than 225 exhibitors, including vendors of global cuisine, crafts and visual art.

I spoke directly with co-artistic director Mercedes Caxaj. “This is the 25th edition of Sunfest,” Caxaj explained, “which my father Alfredo Caxaj founded.” Mercedes has literally grown up with the festival. “You could consider it a family operation since my mother and brother are also involved in running Sunfest,” she added.

On the fact that Sunfest’s website the festival’s lineup is divided into International and National performers, so I asked her about that. “It’s one way visitors can get a feel for the world music scene today,” she replied. “Also, by separating Canadian acts from those we’ve invited from abroad, we can highlight homegrown talent. Our main aim is to represent as many cultures as possible, and to ensure that Sunfest 2019 in the centre of London, Ontario, is an inclusive space.”

Indeed, the geographic scope of the festival is vast, covering music from five continents. Caxaj listed groups from Cape Verde, Spain, England, Scotland, Netherlands, Norway, Czech Republic, Russia, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Niger, Cameroon, Uganda, Palestine and Canada. It would be impossible to list them all. I don’t think it would be fair to highlight just a few either, so I invite you to visit the Sunfest 2019 website for details. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

There is one more thing to note: Sunfest’s community-level arts engagement, a key reason why it’s thriving and moving into its second generation. “Sunfest has accomplished in 25 years what has eluded municipal planners, politicians and corporations alone,” states its media release. “From the beginning, the Sunfest Committee recognized the inestimable power of the performing arts to effect cultural and social change in this community and, despite the incredible challenges, organizers, patrons and sponsors were willing to take a chance on what’s arguably one of London’s most inspired utopian projects of the past quarter century. At its heart, TD Sunfest is about vision and hope: along with providing exemplary representation and accessibility … [it] offers inclusiveness to our visitors through the common denominator of their shared humanity.”

Is Sunfest’s inspirational model one that other festivals and presenters could emulate?

Stratford Summer Music

One of Ontario’s most venerable annual summer music festivals takes place in Stratford. Last year the award-winning Canadian violinist Mark Fewer was appointed Stratford Summer Music’s new artistic director, taking over the reins from John Miller who ran the extensive multi-week festival for 18 years.

This year, 100 events featuring more than 350 musicians in both indoor and outdoor venues will be heard throughout downtown Stratford – a great opportunity for what I described earlier as surreptitious musical discovery . As an example, two concerts with global themes, both presented at Factory 163 in Stratford: July 25, the Tehran-born Canadian musician Amir Amiri takes the stage. Amiri, a soloist on the santur (72-string Persian hammer dulcimer), composer and music director, strives to “explore the limits of music, stretching beyond the constraints of classical thought.” July 29, Toronto’s brilliant Payadora Tango performs a selection from their large repertoire of original compositions and arrangements of Argentinean tango and folk music.

Westben Concerts at The Barn

Also located in Southern Ontario, Westben Concerts at The Barn celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer. This rural music festival with a wide range of programs holds most of its concerts at The Barn, 6698 County Road 30 in Campbellford.

July 28, it presents Toronto’s Kuné – Canada’s Global Orchestra. Dubbing itself “a celebration of Canada’s cultural diversity” Kuné’s eclectic ensemble of Canadian musicians “hail from all corners of the globe, play over 20 instruments,” representing the musics of their home cultures. August 2, the 2018 Polaris Prize-winning Jeremy Dutcher, a classically trained tenor and composer plays The Barn. Dutcher’s music creatively blends his Wolastoq First Nation linguistic and music roots with Euro-Canadian classical and vernacular music. Come early for the 5pm feast featuring Anishinaabe BBQ; reservations are required two days in advance.


JUN 7, 8PM: Small World Music Society presents Arnab Chakrabarty Sarod Recital featuring Arnab Chakrabarty (sarod), Zaheer-Abbas Janmohamed (tabla) in a concert of Hindustani classical music at the Small World Music Centre, Artscape Youngplace.

JUN 8, 8PM: Toronto’s most seasoned and celebrated taiko group Nagata Shachu presents Nagata Shachu and American Rogues at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre. Nagata Shachu directed by Kiyoshi Nagata performs with The American Rogues Celtic Band.

JUN 9, 7:30PM: The Toronto Chinese Orchestra presents The Butterfly Lovers, featuring The Butterfly Lovers Concerto at the Markham People’s Community Church, 22 Esna Park Dr., Markham.

JUL 21, 7:30PM: The Elora Festival presents Kuné, Canada’s Global Orchestra at the Gambrel Barn, at the corner of Country Rd. 7 and 21 in Elora, ON.

AUG 2 and 3, 7PM: The Collingwood Summer Music Festival presents Nhapitapi from Zimbabwe at the New Life Church, Collingwood ON August 2, followed by the Payadora Tango Ensemble at the same venue the following evening.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

Spring is a season of renewal. As the last of the dirty snow melts away, grass greens around us, tree buds begin to plump and birds return to song, we’re reminded that the season is connected to some of humanity’s deepest values and hopes.

That optimism is reflected in major cyclical religious holidays celebrated round the world – Holi, Nowruz, Passover and Easter – each of which possesses an extensive song list. While these spring-launch festivals will have taken place by the time you read this, there still remains the balance of the season to explore in music the many sacred and profane rites of spring associated with the vernal equinox. Please use this column as your guide to some of its rich abundance in our Greater Toronto Area communities.

In this issue I’ll be exploring ethnic pluralism, aka cultural diversity as performed in music, in three stories. First is a preview of the second season of Labyrinth Ontario, modal music’s Toronto outpost, then a segue to the Toronto leg of the Canadian tour of a choir from the Republic of Georgia, finally arriving, in my Quick Picks, at the smorgasbord of musical offerings this season.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario

Speaking of renewal, Labyrinth Music Workshop Ontario, an organization “dedicated to promoting the study and enjoyment of global traditions of modal music,” is launching its second season of workshops, capped by a concert.

In its inaugural season, the full range of spirit of an extended modal family was reflected in Labyrinth’s remarkably ambitious lineup featuring nine week-long workshops, twelve concerts, plus two panel discussions. Eleven masters of Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Iranian, Azerbaijani, Arabic, Kurdish and Afghani music traditions gave lessons and performed. Historically these musical cultures have interacted variously in and between their homelands, but last year’s Toronto concerts reflected an intensified interaction perhaps only possible on the ground here today.

Ethnomusicologist Rob Simms, a Labyrinth Ontario board member, provided an overview on the site’s blog. “Labyrinth’s inaugural season offered attendees an immense wealth of practical insights into the technique and craft of modal music, inspiring performances, and valuable lore and wisdom regarding the larger context of contemporary modal cultures, straight from the source of some of the most important representative artists.

“While there was much great music making going on, I was particularly struck by the reminder that true mastery goes beyond playing to knowing what really matters on a deeper cultural, aesthetic, and ultimately spiritual level with this music—and being it, living it. … Toronto’s Danforth and Chester neighbourhood is quite likely the modal musical centre of the planet for the month of May!”

Ross DalyRoss Daly, a musician of international influence and founder in 1982 of the original Labyrinth centre in Crete – after which Labyrinth Ontario is modelled–- was on hand for the duration of last year’s events. An eloquent spokesman for contemporary modal music, Daly offered thought-provoking perspectives at the panel discussions on many aspects of his long, inspiring career. He spoke to the relationship of individuals to tradition, building a repertoire, the balance of study and intuitive creativity, aesthetic preferences, the dynamics of audiences, the effect of recordings on learning and performing, and on the role of “cultural outsiders.” These are all issues very pertinent to Canadian musicians in this scene too.

Labyrinth Ontario June 2019 Workshops

Daly again plays a central role in this year’s Labyrinth activities. June 3 to 7 he will blend lecture, demonstration, performance and hands-on composition in his workshop, drawing on his decades of study of modal traditions. A modal heads-up: while the workshop is suitable for performers and composers of all levels and backgrounds, an “instrument capable of playing quarter-tones” is recommended. All workshops will be held at Eastminster United Church, 310 Danforth Ave., Toronto

Kelly ThomaRunning concurrently, Cretan lyra virtuosa Kelly Thoma leads a workshop on her instrument covering technique and repertoire, serving as an introduction to Cretan music and to her compositional and performance practice. Award-winning Bulgarian diva Tzvetanka Varimezova brings her decades of experience as a choir director and solo vocalist to cover vocal techniques and several styles of Bulgarian song in her class.

The following week on June 10 to 14, Araz Salek (tar) and Hamidreza Khalatbari (kamanche) jointly offer an Introduction to Iranian Music covering the fundamentals of Iranian modal music, while tombak virtuoso Pedram Khavarzamini teaches Percussion Cycles drawing on his deep intercultural study of cyclic rhythmic patterns in his workshop.

Labyrinth Ontario’s concert

Saturday June 8, Labyrinth Ontario presents Modal Music Summit at Eastminster United Church, the concert tying together various threads explored by workshop leaders, including Ross Daly, the group This Tale of Ours (Daley, Thoma, Salek and Khavarzamini), plus vocalist Varimezova.

Araz SalekI spoke recently with Labyrinth’s artistic director, Araz Salek, about the organization’s first year. One of the healthiest aspects of the inaugural concerts was the mixed audiences, he told me. “They were not just drawn from the music’s community of origin, but also attended by Torontonians eager for something new. That’s in the core missions of Labyrinth: to encourage audiences to experience and then enjoy musics beyond what they listen to day to day. We believe audiences can develop a taste and ear for modal music traditions. We can learn to appreciate musics other than those we’ve grown up with.”

Why is that important? “Because that experience ultimately enriches our lives. Many of us look forward to exploring cuisines we didn’t grow up with, eventually developing a taste for diverse food and drink: why not music?”

Salek cautions against easy solutions, however. “Musicians from modal traditions often aim to make their music palatable to a broad international audience. All too often this results in reducing its essential characteristics to the lowest common denominator that the music shares with Western models. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do at Labyrinth. We encourage musicians, their students and our audiences to reach for what’s essential in each musical tradition, and to develop it. Getting rid of microtones, modality and shoehorning melodies and performance practices into a Western framework, compromises the cultural voice of the individual culture represented.”

Cultural bridges are crucial, Salek reminds us, “but it takes good will, time and considerable effort to build a sturdy and elegant bridge that accommodates both sides without compromise.” This insight is useful for musicians to keep in mind when embarking on transcultural musical collaborations.

Didgori EnsembleDidgori Ensemble in Canada

Didgori Ensemble is an award-winning six-voice choir from the Republic of Georgia performing the country’s unique polyphonic choral repertoire. Since 2004, the have toured Russia, UK, France, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Israel. Late in May into mid-June their Canadian tour promises to be a huge moment for Georgian music in Canada, an opportunity that happens perhaps once in a lifetime. How uncommon is this? The only time a choir from Georgia toured Canada previously was in the 1970s.

Co-sponsored by a consortium of Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebecois producers, Didgori’s tour kicks off with a concert and workshop at the Edmonton International Choral Festival. The Winnipeg Singers then present them in Manitoba before they travel to Toronto, followed by dates in Kingston and Quebec.

Declared by UNESCO in 2001 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the millennial-old Georgian polyphonic singing tradition, with its close harmonies and un-tempered scales, is a visceral experience. It features three-part singing in a variety of regionally based styles, ranging from melismatic lyrical singing and drones, to relaxed urban songs, to exploding “crunchy” counterpoint, reflecting the old, diverse and complex Georgian social and physical landscape.

The Didgori singers are acknowledged masters of a variety of Georgian musical styles. They are dedicated to the traditions of their ancestors through the mastery and popularization of Georgian polyphonic folk songs and liturgical chants. Didgori’s very name honours the 1121 battle that helped reunite Georgia and usher in a period of growth in arts and culture.

Didgori Ensemble in Toronto: concert and workshops

Friday June 7, three Toronto arts organizations – MusiCamp, Clay & Paper Theatre and Folk Camp Canada – present Didgori Ensemble at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

On June 8, Didgori gives a public Georgian choral workshop from 5 to7pm at the St. Vladimir Institute, 620 Spadina Ave. Then on Sunday, June 9, MusiCamp holds a five-hour Georgian choral workshop with Didgori at the MusiCamp Studio, 11 Cobourg Ave. from 11am to 4pm. Limited to 12 participants, this intensive mentoring experience with six experts of traditional Georgian choral repertoire is the closest Torontonians can get to this music short of a very, very long plane ride to Tbilisi. For more information about registration check MusiCamp’s website.

Monday June 10, Didgori drives east for a 12:15pm concert at St. George’s Cathedral, 270 King St. E, Kingston, Ontario, before travelling to dates in Québec. 


MAY 1, 5:30PM: the Canadian Opera Company presents Stomp the Floor with the sibling-fuelled Métis Fiddler Quartet at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, as part of its noon hour World Music Series. The concert is free, but note that a “no late seating” is strictly observed.

MAY 2, 7PM: North York Central Library/University of Toronto Faculty of Music offer Toronto audiences the rarely heard Music of Rajasthan with vocalist Abhishek Iyer, harmonium player Sushant Anatharam and Tanmay Sharma on tabla, at the North York Central Library. The event is free but registration is required.

MAY 2, 8PM: the popular sitarist Anoushka Shankar and party perform at Koerner Hall, Telus Centre in a concert produced by the Royal Conservatory of Music

MAY 3 AND 4, 8PM; MAY 5, 3PM: Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company stages its latest show Impulso at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre. The production features works by choreographers Esmeralda Enrique and José Maldonado. Guitarists Caroline Planté and Benjamin Barrile, vocalists Manuel Soto and Marcos Marin, are joined by percussionist Derek Gray to provide the energizing dance music.

MAY 4, 7PM: Singing Together 2019 presents A Celebration of Cultural Diversity, a “multicultural choral concert with seven choirs from different ethnic backgrounds,” at St. Paschal Baylon Church, Thornhill. Groups include the Chinese Canadian Choir of Toronto (Cantonese); Coro San Marco (Italian); Joyful Singers (Korean); Nayiri Armenian Choir of Toronto (Armenian); Noor Children’s Choir (Armenian); Toronto Taiwanese Choir (Mandarin), plus the guest Filipino Choral Group.

MAY 4, 6:30PM: the Mississauga Festival Choir, joined by guest world music ensemble Autorickshaw, offers songs from South Africa, South Asia and Canada’s far north in a concert titled Building Bridges at the Living Arts Centre, Mississauga.

MAY 5, 1PM: the Royal Conservatory of Music presents the illustrious Toronto vocal quartet Turkwaz at the Mazzoleni Concert Hall, Royal Conservatory. Maryem Hassan Tollar draws on her Arabic language heritage, Jayne Brown and Sophia Grigoriadis bring their experience with Greek music and Brenna MacCrimmon adds her expertise in Turkish song repertoire to the mix.

MAY 12, 3PM: Echo Women’s Choir performs a Mother’s Day Concert: Thanks to Life, A Celebration of Songs from the Americas at the Church of the Holy Trinity. The repertoire includes Calixto Alvarez’s Cuban Suite and Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida (arr. B. Whitla). Guest singer-songwriter Amanda Martinez joins veteran Echo conductors Becca Whitla and Alan Gasser.

MAY 17, 8PM: Small World Music Society presents Anindo Chatterjee & Guests, a North-meets-South-Indian percussion summit at the Small World Music Centre, Artscape Youngplace. Tabla master Pandit Anindo Chatterjee headlines, joined by Gowrishanker Balachandran (mrdangam), Ramana Indrakumar (ghatam), Shirshendu Mukherjee (vocalist), Hardeep Chana (harmonium), and local tabla maestro Ravi Naimpally.

MAY 26, 3PM: the Kyiv Chamber Choir conducted by Mykola Hobdych sings a program titled Sounds of Ukraine at the Koerner Hall, Telus Centre.

MAY 26, 7PM: Jewish Music Week in Toronto presents Nomadica: Music of the Gypsies, Arabs and Jews featuring David Buchbinder on trumpet and vocalist Roula Said at Lula Lounge.

MAY 28, 12PM: the Canadian Opera Company presents Celebrate Japan! in its World Music Series. Nagata Sachu, directed by Kiyoshi Nagata, will makes the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre ring with festive percussion-centric sounds.

JUN 2, 7:30PM: Sing! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival continues with Cuban Fantasies with Vocal Sampling and Freeplay at Lula Lounge.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

After a long, dreary, weary winter, spring is finally deigning to show us some sun. Yet springtime signs are still meagre. In the midtown city park across the street the trees remain starkly bare. On the bright side, a few brave bird chirps can occasionally be heard. It’s surely a harbinger of kinder weather to come when we can venture out of doors to hear human as well as nature’s music.

Written while still firmly in the grip of winter, my column last month, World Music Goes to School explored the commitment of several Ontario universities to global music education. The focus was on world music ensemble courses as seen through the perspectives of several current teaching and performing practitioners.

James Kippen and Annette SangerPerforming Scholars: Annette Sanger and James Kippen

We did not hear however from Annette Sanger and James Kippen, veteran University of Toronto ethnomusicologists, musician-educators and partners in life. And that’s because I found out only recently that, by the time this issue is well and truly launched, the university’s Faculty of Music will have honoured them with a rare two-day symposium and concert on March 29 and 30, in celebration of their distinguished university careers.

An expert on tabla performance and the life and music of communities of hereditary drummers in North India, Kippen has authored several books and numerous articles on the subject. He began his career at the Faculty of Music in January 1990 where he has taught and mentored several generations of students. He’s also been active in several musical groups in our town.

Sanger received her PhD for her research on the music and dance in Balinese society. That background served the GTA well, as she is a pioneer of Balinese music performance here. Commencing teaching in 1990 at the university’s Scarborough Campus, within a few years she arranged to have the university purchase a complete Balinese gamelan, inaugurating the Semar pegulingan gamelan ensemble course in the fall of 1993. That launched the first Balinese ensemble and course in Canada west of Montreal, an ensemble she led for a remarkable 25 years. Later she formed the performing ensemble Seka Rat Nadi – more of which further on.

Outside academia, Sanger served Toronto’s larger music community in many roles. Just two examples: from 1990 to 2000 she was the director of the Music & Arts School at the University Settlement House, the first community-based social service centre in Toronto. For several years she also reviewed CDs for The WholeNote.

Titled “Constant Flame: A concert honoring the retirements of Professors Annette Sanger and James Kippen,” the March 29 event features a performance by Seka Rat Nadi with Sanger, Kippen plus Toronto musicians Albert Wong and John Carnes. Seka Rat Nadi is the name of the group consisting of four Balinese gendèr (metallophone instruments), a quartet traditionally called a gendèr wayang. In addition, several guest musicians will perform Hindustani classical and other musics.

The symposium is called “The Performing Scholar,” reflecting the interlocking twin aspects of Kippen and Sanger’s careers. (It also rather accurately describes the lifelong work of most of the musician-educators I interviewed for my March 2019 column.)

By the time most of you read this, the symposium honouring our two performing scholars will have probably already taken place. But I couldn’t leave you, dear reader, hanging like that. I asked them what they intend to do now that they’ve officially retired.

“We plan to return to Bali to learn more gendèr repertoire including more unusual regional styles that are fast becoming eclipsed by inevitable standardization,” replied Sanger. “As well, we will go to India where Jim will continue to work on his research into the history of the tabla. As always, we are open to doing occasional performances and demonstrations in and around Toronto.”

It’s clear they don’t intend to hang up their performing scholar hats anytime soon.

Small World Music Society’s Asian Music Series

Toronto’s oldest and largest presenter of culturally diverse music, Small World Music Society celebrates springtime with the 17th annual edition of its Asian Music Series. Marking Asian and South Asia Heritage Month, throughout April and May, 11 concerts, a film screening, plus a talk will be held at the intimate Small World Music Centre (SWMC) in downtown Toronto, as well as at grander venues across the GTA.

I asked SWM’s founding director Alan Davis about his longstanding relationships with his programming partners. “We’ve always embraced partnerships as a way to get Small World’s message out to as many people as possible,” he replied. “This is increasingly true in recent years, as more and more larger presenters embrace diversity and cross paths with artists who are part of our musical ecosystem.”

Davis is confident that with SWM’s hard-won reputation for community outreach and deep connections, they can bring value to their partners by connecting them to audiences that they may not otherwise intersect with. “This speaks to both audience taste and geography. [For example]… audiences going to the Markham Theatre will be aware of events at the Rose Theatre in Brampton, Koerner Hall and the Small World Centre downtown, and a wide variety of presentations from traditional to modern. Collectively, the hope is … audience-building and community intersection. ‘Cause that’s how we all succeed!”

Let’s explore a few of the concerts in this year’s Asian Music Series.

Mahmood Schricker – thoughtful sadness of the electric setar: April 4 the Series launches at the SWMC with the music of Mahmood Schricker, the Toronto musician-producer of electronic music for film and commercials. An electric setar (Persian long lute) performer, Schricker’s concert is a release of his new instrumental album El Muerte, inspired by the Persian dastgah (tonal modal system), the delicate strumming of the setar, international dub and techno, all supported by electronics and drum machine sounds. Nima Dehghani’s videos provide a backdrop for Schricker’s live music, reflecting moods of “thoughtful sadness…” onto the screen.

Bageshree Vaze – Global Bollywood: April 5 at 7pm, SWM in association with The Rose presents “Bageshree Vaze: Global Bollywood” at the Rose Theatre, Brampton. The show is a celebration of the widely popular music and dance featured in the globe’s biggest film industry. Starring Indo-Canadian GTA resident vocalist and dancer Bageshree Vaze, the concert is a tribute to the songs, instrumentals and extravagant dance numbers that have propelled Bollywood to international fame. Featuring a cast of Toronto musicians and dancers, Global Bollywood is also choreographed and directed by the multitalented Vaze.

Qais EssarQais Essar and Fazelyar Brothers – Afghani instrumental: April 11 at 8pm, SWM and the Tawoos Initiative co-present Qais Essar x Fazelyar Brothers at SWMC. Qais Essar is a GTA-based Afghan composer, instrumentalist and producer, a specialist on the rubab (a.k.a. rabab), a short-necked Afghani lute. He has toured extensively visiting international stages, releasing two LPs, five EPs plus a live album.

Essar contributed original music to feature films such as the Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated film The Breadwinner (2017) and earned a Canadian Screen Award for Best Original Song for his work The Crown Sleeps. He will be playing selections from his recently released EP I am Afghan, Afghani is a Currency, Vol. III. The concert also features the Afghani-Canadian duo Fazelyar Brothers, consisting of tabla player Haris Fazelyar and Wares Fazelyar a rubab student of Essar.

Dang Show – Iranian musical hybridity: Both April 12 and 13 concerts at the SWMC by the Dang Show sold out well in advance. Dang Show is a popular Iranian four-piece band which regularly sells out Tehran venues. The band has also composed and recorded soundtracks for over ten major Iranian movie releases. Its unusual name in Farsi evokes, in the words of the band, “mountainous vocals as well as velvety textures, jazz saxophone, medieval counterpoints, rock rhythms, [a sound which is] lush, rich and brassy like the best Balkan bands. Dang Show could be defined as a fusion of Persian classical and jazz.”

With an instrumentation of piano, saxophone, Persian vocals and percussion, Dang Show’s ambitious goal is to satisfy traditional Iranian classical music aficionados as well as those primarily interested in pop-flavoured music. In 2018 Dang Show was awarded Best Fusion Album for Mad O Nay in Iran. No wonder both their SWMC shows are sold out.

Amjad Ali Khan and sonsAmjad Ali Khan – sarod master: April 13 at 8pm, The Rose in association with SWMS present Amjad Ali Khan, with his sons Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash at the Rose Theatre, Brampton. The multiple award-winning veteran sarod (a.k.a. sarode) master and composer, Amjad Ali Khan, was born into a renowned Indian classical musical family and has toured internationally since the 1960s. Over the course of his distinguished career he has garnered numerous international accolades.

The sixth generation exponent of the Senia-Barash gharana (a North Indian music lineage), Khan is at heart a classicist with a populist’s need to “communicate with the listener who finds Indian classical music remote,” as he once put it. You can expect khayal (the Hindustani classical music genre) musicianship at its finest in his recital.

Anda UnionAnda Union – Mongolian fusion revival: April 17 at 8pm, SWM and Flato Markham Theatre explore Northern Asian culture in their presentation of the Mongolian fusion group Anda Union at the Flato Markham Theatre in Markham. Hailing from Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia in northern China, the versatile nine-piece band has deep cultural roots in the vast grasslands where many of their families still live. Its mission: to rework the region’s music, filled with ancestral stories of nomadic customs and beliefs.

The band brings together tribal and musical traditions from all over Inner Mongolia playing a wide variety of Indigenous instruments and vocal throat singing styles. Its 2018 set at the London UK Songlines Encounters Festival was dubbed “a rousing masterclass in folk revivalism,” by The Guardian.

Qawwali – demystified and performed: April 18 at 8pm, SWM’s executive director Umair Jaffar gives a free talk titled “Demystifying Qawwali” at the SWMC. He notes that “Qawwali is the most popular Sufi devotional music from South Asia and, in recent years, has gained increased attention from worldwide audiences. Despite its popularity, upbeat rhythm and emotional appeal, qawwali’s origins and lyrics are shrouded in mystery.” Jaffar explains the genre, exploring its history, and demystifies the hidden messages in its poetry.

April 19, the series moves to the Aga Khan Museum with “Hamza Akram Qawwal and Brothers.” The 26-year-old singer Hamza Akram’s music is deeply rooted in the Pakistani Sufi devotional tradition. The group is becoming known in the subcontinent, across Europe, Middle East and North America. Akram and his brothers are the 26th generation of their musical lineage, the Qawwal Bachon ka Delhi Gharana, and are dedicated to sharing qawwali with the world. Their performance is part of the Aga Khan Museum’s 2018/19 Performing Arts season titled “The Other Side of Fear,” featuring artists who seek to transcend fear through music, dance and spoken word.

Anoushka Shankar – continuing a legacy of transcultural collaborations: The Asian Music Series continues well into May, but the last concert we will look at in this column takes place early that month. May 2, the Royal Conservatory of Music and SWM co-host sitar virtuosa and composer Anoushka Shankar and party on the Koerner Hall stage. Being groomed by her illustrious father from an early age, she has developed into one of South Asia’s most celebrated instrumentalists. In March 2019, Shankar released her latest Deutsche Grammophone album, Reflections, a retrospective of her career so far, focusing on musical collabs.

I last saw her live at Koerner Hall almost ten years ago with her father Ravi, who was a still musically vibrant 89 at the time. She has, since his death in 2012, taken his musical legacy into several new territories, crossing classical and vernacular, South Asian and Euro-American. Audiences at her concert can expect more transcultural musical dialogues while she demonstrates the versatility of her sitar across musical genres. 

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at

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