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

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

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

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

Andrew CraigPortraits, Patterns, Possibilities: a Black Canadian Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Africa Without Borders

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

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

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

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

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

Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble and Kaia Kater

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

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

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

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

Angélique Kidjo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QUICK PICKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas, and the liminal juncture between old and new years that follows, is for many of us a prime occasion for gifting and for helping those less fortunate. It’s also a time when daylight hours are at their shortest and even our waking hours are dominated by darkness. As such it’s a time which amply rewards introspection of the personal kind, when we can profitably reflect back on the past year and also look forward, hopefully, to a brighter new one.

At the heart of all this is observance of the winter solstice. The period around the year’s shortest day has been marked in the Northern Hemisphere with rituals of rebirth, celebrated in holidays, festivals and community gatherings, reaching back perhaps to the Neolithic period. Ancient Romans, Persians, Chinese, Theravada Buddhists, Northern European peoples – pagan and neo-pagan – as well as the Zuni of the American Southwest all celebrated the winter solstice. Some still do. Sensitivity to natural cycles seems to be hardwired in our human DNA.

It’s no coincidence that Christians of the Western tradition chose the winter solstice to celebrate the Longest Night (aka Blue Christmas). Falling at the end of the Advent season, these long and cold nights underscore believers’ own struggle with darkness and grief as they face the end of the growing season, and loss of many kinds. Christmas, the joyous celebration of Christ’s birth, was strategically placed within the Roman annual calendar by the early Church to coincide with this period.

Timar family Christmas

My own family has celebrated Christmas for many generations but in recent decades the focus has increasingly shifted from long-time religious to secular rituals performed by our immediate Toronto family. In our ever-morphing clan new partners are added, names change, babies are born, people move away and some return; they grow up, grow old and yes, our elders ultimately enter the realm of the ancestors.

All dressed up, each year the extended Timar clan gathers at one of our homes to celebrate our seasonal traditions, ancient and new. We feast extravagantly into the night with special rich food and drink that speaks to our multiple ethnic and religious roots, identities and values. Helping refresh family bonds is the spirit of generosity, mutual care and the hospitality that permeates that late December evening.

65 Million Refugee Realities

Things aren’t so rosy however for everyone at this time of year. It’s a particularly sad time for families torn apart geographically, when some are compelled to flee their homelands. So it was too with my family when I was six. We were refugees from post-revolution occupied Hungary. Our first generation is forever grateful to Canada for giving five of us sanctuary, a fertile place to put down roots, make a home, to flourish.

Today, the plight of refugees of many kinds continues to confront every global citizen. Many millions of our fellow humans need aid or asylum at any given time. Celebrated Chinese multimedia artist and activist Ai Weiwei estimates the number at “about 65 million people.”

In October 2017 he opened a vast new installation Good Fences Make Good Neighbours at some 300 sites around New York City, aiming ultimately to draw attention to the world’s refugee crisis. Good Fences criticizes “the global trend of trying to separate us by colour, race, religion, nationality ... against freedom, against humanity,” as Ai said at his October Manhattan press conference.

Reunite the Moneka Family

The mind-boggling numbers of displaced humanity around the world can be overwhelming in the absence of being able to put a human face on suffering. The dilemma of refugees, so passionately articulated by Ai in his art, is reflected in many ways here in Toronto. Not surprisingly, within our musical communities, it shows up particularly keenly among world musicians who have recently made Canada their home.

Early in November I received an email from Jaclyn Tam, manager of concerts and special projects – including New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (NCGMO) – at the Royal Conservatory and TELUS Centre. “I wanted to tell you about a fundraiser I’m organizing on Monday, December 11 at Lula Lounge,” Tam’s email began. JUNO winners and nominee musicians Quique Escamilla, David Buchbinder, Maryem and Ernie Tollar, and many special guests will perform. They’re coming together to support Ahmed Moneka, an incredibly special musician and actor who now calls Toronto home, in his bid to bring his family here. I first met him last year when he auditioned for NCGMO.”

Ahmed MonekaI was immediately gripped. Here was a story with parallels to that of my own family of origin, as well as to ancient semi-mythic narratives of asylum, hopes of peace, reconciliation and gift-giving generosity. I called Tam at her Royal Conservatory office.

“Musician and actor Ahmed Moneka was forced to apply for asylum in Canada in 2015 after his family received death threats for his lead role as a gay Iraqi man in the [short] film The Society,” she told me. (The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and showed at TIFF.)

Moneka’s family, of African Sufi descent, was well established in Baghdad’s artist community. His father was a well-known Iraqi actor and comedian, and his sister Isra was one of the founders of the Cinema Department at the University of Basra. His younger sister Tara has an international career as a singer. She has performed on Iraqi TV and at festivals at a young age.

Having faced months of violent threats from the increasingly powerful militias in Iraq, however, the family was forced to flee to Turkey in 2016. Ahmed’s family has been torn apart and they are now “in a critical situation.” Moneka speaks powerfully of their present danger in his fundraising YouTube video. Moneka hopes to reunite his family in Canada “so that they may live together in peace.” All proceeds from the December 11 Lula concert will support his goal.

 “With Ahmed, it’s all personal,” Tam says. “I met him a few times, heard his music, and since there was a personal connection I felt compelled to act. It was simple really: here’s one person I could help reconnect with his family.”

At his NCGMO audition, “Ahmed radiated pure musical joy.” But as Tam explains, by the time the final roster was decided, he had already made a commitment to tour with another band. The NCGMO moved on without him, but he made abiding connections with artistic director David Buchbinder, who has hired Ahmed for other projects.

After hearing Ahmed’s story, Tam felt personally compelled to help. “I don’t have a lot of money to donate,” she says, “but I do have a large network built up over the years and also the producing skills to put together such an event.” So she reached out to Tracey Jenkins at Lula Lounge and to musicians who have worked with Ahmed. “I was touched by the response of Lula and of the musicians and artists. They didn’t hesitate to donate their talents.”

This is our community at work big time (and it promises to be a fine musical evening as well)! Ahmed plays cajón and sings maqam in a wonderful trio called Moskitto Bar, which will play at the fundraiser. (One of his bandmates, Tangi Ropars, is formerly of Lemon Bucket Orkestra.) Additionally, a group dubbed Orchestra of Love has been organized for the fundraiser, bringing together Toronto world music A-listers such as trumpeter David Buchbinder, singers Maryem Tollar and Roula Said, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Waleed Abdulhamid and wind player extraordinaire Ernie Tollar.

In addition to pure music, NAMAS will recite poetry to guitar accompaniment and Zeena Sileem, an Iraqi painter, will paint a canvas live during the evening. The completed canvas will be auctioned with proceeds benefitting the Moneka family reunification fund.

All in all, this promises to be a terrific community event guaranteed to put all who come out to support the Moneka family’s desire for reunification in a proper holiday spirit.

New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (NCGMO): update

I promised in my summer 2017 column story about NCGMO that I would follow up on the ensemble’s progress. Since I was speaking with Jaclyn Tam about the Moneka story I asked her for an update on the orchestra as well. As it turns out, the Orchestra had a Banff Centre studio residency in September and October, recording its first album (which is being edited and mixed for concert release on April 7, 2018). Shortly after the Banff residency, in November, the NCGMO performed a showcase at “North America’s World Music Summit,” Mundial Montréal. And on February 24, deeper and no doubt whiter into winter, NCGMO will appear on the Isabel Bader Centre stage in Kingston, in what the Isabel’s listings describe as a concert of “transcultural music which connects and communicates in ways that words, politicians, and spiritual leaders cannot. Together, we all find a common language.”

Lula Music and Arts Centre

In its own words, Lula “nourishes a thriving Canadian world music scene … with a focus on local artists performing music of the Americas.” It fosters the Canadian world music scene “through concerts, festivals, cultural exchanges, education, outreach, audience and professional development.”

Lula’s Dundas West space appears to be in particularly heavy rotation this December. I counted 31 concerts and salsa classes on the site. That averages out to an astounding one scheduled event for each day of the month! In January the action announced so far settles down to eight music events, plus another six booked to date in February. It’s entirely possible more gigs will be booked in the interim, but in any case that is much too many to talk about here. I encourage readers to visit The WholeNote’s listings or Lula’s site calendar for updates.

Aga Khan Museum: concert picks for January and February 2018

Another premier Toronto venue for culturally diverse music performance is the Aga Khan Museum. It continues its programs of concerts and more casual pop-ups.

Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues - Photo by Zohar RonJanuary 18 the AKM presents “Yemen Blues,” a truly transcultural band deliveringan explosive combination of Yemeni song and poetry, Jewish music, West African groove and funk.” With musicians from New York City, Uruguay and Tel Aviv, leader Ravid Kahalani’s charts set a high musical standard and have roused international audiences.

February 1 “Musical Inventions” by Paolo Angeli featuring Dr. Draw takes the AKM’s auditorium stage.

Paolo AngeliAngeli, playing a unique 18-string hybrid of guitar, violoncello and drums, performs music rooted in the Sardinian tradition blended with avant-garde aesthetics. He’s joined by electric violinist Dr. Draw.

February 16 the AKM presents “Under the Indian Musical Sky,” with Montréal group Constantinople and Grammy Award-nominated Carnatic venu (flute) virtuoso Shashank Subramanyam. Constantinople’s collaboration with Subramanyam “bridges not only East and West but [also musical] traditions … from across the globe,” much like the group’s namesake city.

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

So far it’s been an odd fall here. Into the third week of October, it’s well past Thanksgiving, yet Toronto is still reaching daytime high temperatures we typically experience in June. There hasn’t even been a whisper of nighttime frost in town. The geraniums still bloom vigorously and peppers continue to redden on my north-facing balcony garden. Endless summer? Dire climactic implications aside, I for one am thankful for this cold weather reprieve, soon to be over, I suspect.

The GTA’s first Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA), presented by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, will be well under way by the time you read this. The festival’s first concert was held at Koerner Hall on October 28, featuring a double bill with Iraqi guitarist, singer and composer Ilham Al-Madfai and the Toronto world music group Sultans of String. Ever since its establishment in 2014 the professional CAO has sought to connect expatriate Arabs with classical Arabic musical culture in order to maintain this heritage in the hearts and minds of the present community in Canada, as well as to safeguard it for future generations. At the same time, the orchestra also seeks to engage with non-Arab Canadian communities. FAMA shows both objectives at work.

Arabic Music in Toronto: Rob Simms and George Sawa

To gain further insight into Arabic music today, in both the Arab world and here in Canada, I called Rob Simms, associate professor at York University’s Department of Music, a Canadian ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist specializing in Middle Eastern and West African traditions. Simms reminded me of the devastation to cultural life impacting large swathes of Iraq and Syria as a consequence of the recent invasions and sustained armed conflict in those countries. One of the results of this upheaval has been the displacement of millions of Iraqis and Syrians, many finding themselves as refugees in foreign lands – including recently, Canada.

Aleppo, Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is a prime example of this cultural devastation. It is considered an important centre of Arabic traditional music, historically supporting renowned practitioners of muwashshah, qudud halabiya and maqam (religious, secular and poetic-musical genres). Aleppo was also known for its sammi’a, a cadre of influential cultivated music connoisseurs. This ancient web of music production, patronage and appreciation has been tragically disrupted as a result of the current civil war.

I then followed up on the phone with longtime Toronto resident George Sawa, a renowned scholar, qanun (Arabic zither) player and music educator who holds a doctorate in historical Arabic musicology from the University of Toronto. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the multi-award-winning Sawa has over 50 years’ experience in Arabic music performance, history and theory. “I arrived in Toronto in 1970 to study at U of T,” he recounted. One of the draws was the university’s Robarts and Faculty of Music libraries, which according to Sawa “contain one of the best Arabic music collections in the world.”

George SawaWhat was the Arabic music scene like in 1970 Toronto? “At the time Arabic music was mostly encountered in cabarets and in clubs which featured belly dancing,” Sawa told me. He immediately sought to enrich the scene.

“In 1971 I founded a trio playing traditional Arabic music. Not long afterward, CBC radio recorded for broadcast a concert of Christmas carols sung by (leading contralto) Maureen Forrester, with me on qanun. The trio increased into a quintet, appearing in concert and on CBC over the next few decades. It became known as the Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble.” Sawa also served as the music director of Toronto’s Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra from 1996 to 2005.

Today one of Sawa’s performing projects is Alpharabius, “an ensemble dedicated to exploring the musical interactions of the rich cultures of the Mediterranean. The group is named after one of the great philosophers of classical Islam, al-Farabi (d. ah 339/ 950 CE), who was renowned as both a musical theorist and a practicing musician… The ensemble is a collaboration of musicians trained in the classical Arabic and Western medieval musical traditions.”

He concluded our conversation by observing that the GTA’s “Arabic community has grown considerably in the past few decades. For example, I think it’s very significant and healthy that before securing support from Canadian Arts Councils, the Canadian Arabic Orchestra initially sought patronage from local Arabic businesses who believed in what they were doing. More power to them!”

Charbel Rouhana, oudist

November 3, FAMA in co-production with Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal presents Charbel Rouhana, the Lebanese composer, singer and oudist accompanied by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre. This program will be repeated November 5 at the Monument National in Montreal.

Possessing ancient roots, the oud – often placed into three general groups, Arabic, Turkish and Persian – is at the core of much of the traditional music played throughout the Middle East and in regions influenced by its people. The oud, which has numerous morphological variants highly dependent on region of origin, typically today has 11 or 13 strings grouped into five or six courses.

Its performance tradition has been particularly long-maintained in Iraq, where a popular saying honours its high value to the culture: “In the music of the oud lies the country’s soul.” The instrument was once common in Iraqi households, something like the guitar in Canada or the USA. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime however, the increasing power of Islamist extremists who consider secular music to be haram (sinful, forbidden) has forced many oud players and teachers to cease playing publicly, or even forced them into exile in order to pursue their oud-related careers.

Already a virtuoso of the instrument, several decades ago Rouhana established a new method of playing the oud. Published in seven volumes, it has been adopted by the National Conservatory of Music in Lebanon and by other music institutions, securing his standing among today’s leading masters of the Arabic oud. Rouhana is also a prizewinning composer: in 1990 he was awarded first prize in the Hirayama Competition for his work Hymn of Peace. He has appeared in concert with classical Hindustani bansuri (bamboo flute) virtuoso Hariprasad Chaurasia, and also with many other leading musicians.

FAMA Concerts

In addition to the November 1 FAMA concert at the Revue Cinema mentioned in my previous column, featuring the outstanding female Syrian oud player and singer Waed Bouhassoun, and the November 3 Charbel Rouhana concert referred to above, there are a several more FAMA concerts in the first half of November. Here are some highlights.

November 4, the group Golan, its members hailing from Tunisia, France and Palestine, takes the stage at the Lester B. Pearson Theatre in Brampton. Leader Hubert Dupont, Golan’s double bassist, gathered like-minded musicians from all over the Mediterranean, arranging a musical exchange between elements of contemporary European music, jazz and Arabic traditional music. Pascal Rozat wrote in France Musique that Golan is reaching for “an ideal of musical fraternity as much as a hymn to freedom, for an ‘oriental journey’ different from others.”

November 9, FAMA, in partnership with the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto and in association with the Aga Khan Museum and the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, presents the world premiere of Origins at the Aga Khan Museum. Tagged “Indigenous/Arabic,” this new production by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra in collaboration with poet and singer Hassan Tamim and St’at’imc (a.k.a. Lillooet) singer-songwriter and dancer Laura Grizzlypaws is perhaps the most ambitious of the FAMA offerings.

Origins showcases similarities as well as cultural divides between the people of two continents through dance and music, “in the spirit of truth and reconciliation and… peace and harmony through the cross-cultural medium of music.” In addition to Grizzlypaws and the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, Origins presents whirling dervish performers of Rumi Canada for part of the program, enhancing the spiritual journey theme of the work.

November 12, FAMA moves to Mississauga’s Hammerson Hall, at the Living Arts Centre. Iraqi-born Naseer Shamma, among the world’s top oud masters, headlines the concert accompanied by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra. Titled “On the Way to Baghdad,” the concert is billed as a veritable masterclass in classical Arabic music.

Born in 1963 in Iraq, Shamma received his diploma from the Baghdad Academy of Music in 1987. He has composed music for TV, films and plays since. In 1998 he established the Arabic Oud House in Cairo, as well as in Tunis and Dubai. His scholarly research consulting old manuscripts on Arabic music has aided in his reconstruction of the Al-Farabi (c. 870-951 CE) model oud, which can produce an expanded tonal range of four octaves, giving the player a vast improvisational terrain.

Naseer ShammaQUICK PICKS

The Aga Khan Museum hosts four concerts in addition to Origins: Nov 4:Fleur Persane by Perséides” featuring Amir Amiri (santur) and Jean Félix Mailloux (double bass); Nov 18: “Haram with Gordon Grdina” is an evening of indie-rock meets jazz and electronica; Nov 25:” All Rivers at Once: The Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative” is described as “jazz-like arrangements of traditional Israeli and Iranian folk songs.” The ensemble, directed by pianist Noam Lemish, includes Saeed Kamjoo (kamancheh), Pedram Khavarzamini (tombak) and Amos Hoffman (oud). Dec 2:Nazar by Turkwaz,” the Toronto quartet of world music divas Maryem Hassan Tollar, Jayne Brown, Sophia Grigoriadis and Brenna MacCrimmon. Expect Arabic, Balkan and Turkish folk songs in tight arrangements with a sprinkling of new charts.

Nov 22: 12 noon, the COC’s World Music Series continues with “Arabic Coffee House.” The Al Qahwa Ensemble, with Maryem Hassan Tollar (vocals), Demetri Petsalakis (oud), Ernie Tollar (flutes) and Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion), animate the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

I’ll be sure to attend this concert of longtime local practitioners of Arabic and related music, bookending what promises to be an extraordinarily chockablock month of Arabic music in the GTA.

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

In my column last month I introduced two new Toronto initiatives, both barely launched in September, and both in their way aiming to address issues of interest to students, performers, presenters and audiences of globally sensitive music. So I’ll begin this month’s column by following up on these.

Polyphonic Ground

Polyphonic Ground, an umbrella organization of 12 live music presenters “committed to building and sustaining Toronto as a global music city” kicked off its first monthly concert at the Revival Bar on September 14.

On October 12 the series continues at the same venue, this time presented by two well-established local organizations. Batuki Music Society promotes African music and art, while Uma Nota Culture is a “cultural production house focusing on Brazilian, Latin, Caribbean, Funk and Soul music.” As in the first concert, these two organizations collaborate to present a program geared to spark transcultural musical discovery.

Three groups are featured in the concert. Matatu Express performs a highly dance-friendly blend of pan-African music genres including Ghanaian highlife and palm wine, Malagasy salegy and blues, and East African benga and rumba. West-African dancer Mabinty Sylla demonstrates how it is done back home.

Beny Esguerra & New Tradition serves up live hip hop, R&B and soul with Afro-Colombian percussion, a blend they evocatively dub “Afro-Native Colombian music from an inner city perspective via Jane-Finch, Tkaronto.” The third group, Future Primitive, presents what they have dubbed “tropical soul” with elements of Latin American and Caribbean, along with catchy bespoke songwriting.

Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario Launch

I was on hand for the September 15 Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario launch and fundraiser held at the 918 Bathurst Centre. The concert and reception had a warm, mixed-community feel. The buzzy excitement of the launch of a new venture hung in the air and was reflected in the music: there were four ample sets by various groups and individual musicians. They covered aspects of Persian, Southeastern European, Turkish/Kurdish and Middle Eastern musical ground.

The most unusual single item was the joint group performance of the tender lilting Kurdish wedding song Dar Hejiroke, bringing all the performers together onstage. For me this performance perhaps most clearly reflected LMWO’s mission, which includes the fostering of “detailed study of particular modal musical traditions and encounters between different traditions, encouraging intercultural understanding, artistic development and an appreciation of music as embracing all aspects of life.”

LMWO is a significant development on the Toronto music scene, one which not only connects with the transnational movement Ross Daley instituted in Greece, but also animates regional musical threads here in the GTA. LMWO’s website, www.labyrinthontario.com, is now fully operational. It’s worth a visit to see what workshops by leading modal music practitioners are planned for next May.

Festival of Arabic Music and Arts (FAMA)

Canadian Arabic OrchestraThe Festival of Arabic Music and Arts launches October 28 at Koerner Hall, then moves to various locations in the GTA and in Montréal until November 12. Its presenting organization is the Canadian Arabic Orchestra (CAO) based in Toronto, co-founded by the husband-and-wife team of qanun expert and CAO president Wafa Al Zaghal, and pianist Lamees Audeh, its music director.

Not only is this the festival’s inaugural year, but it’s my first encounter with the CAO. Audeh filled me in on the backstory in a phone interview.

“Wafa and I formed our duo in 2009,” Audeh recounted. “Then in 2014 we formed an ensemble of five musicians: piano, Arabic violin, oud, qanun and tabla [aka. darabuka]. This group initially performed a repertoire of well-known classical songs drawn from across the Arabic world, both instrumental and vocal.”

Today the orchestra boasts a much larger complement including ney, oud, piano, clarinet, a string section of violins, viola, cello, bass and three percussionists. This instrumentation reflects the mission of the CAO to combine Western and Arabic classical musics.

“Our repertoire is evolving, along with the makeup of the orchestra,” noted Audeh. “The arrangements for our upcoming festival were prepared by me, Wafa, and composers and arrangers drawn from the orchestra and across the Arabic diaspora. Our approach puts less emphasis on [Arab] ethnicity and rather more on the [Arabic] music itself.

The first FAMA concert on October 28 at Koerner Hall brings Iraqi guitarist, singer and composer Ilham Al-Madfai together with the Toronto instrumental group Sultans of String. Al-Madfai formed The Twisters, Iraq’s first rock and roll band, in 1961. His subsequent synthesis of Western guitar, popular song and Iraqi music has kept his popularity as a performer alive in his native country and throughout the Middle East. Led by Canadian violinist and music producer Chris McKhool, the multiple award-winning Sultans of String quintet presents audiences with a “genre-hopping passport.” Celtic reels, Manouche jazz, flamenco, South Asian ragas, and Cuban and Arabic folk music mix onstage, “all presented with pop sensibilities, forms and lengths,” notes McKhool.

October 29 FAMA presents “Jazzy Arabia” at the Maja Prentice Library, Mississauga. Five members of the Canadian Arabic Orchestra perform jazz standards reinterpreted through an Arabic musical lens, as well as Arabic songs rendered in a jazz idiom. The common ground here may well turn out to be the spirit of melodic improvisation and taqsim, which animates both jazz and Middle Eastern performance practices.

November 1 the festival takes a deeper, more mystical turn, when Syrian oud virtuosa and singer Waed Bouhassoun performs solo at the Revue Cinema, Toronto. In 2008 Bouhassoun – who has been performing onstage since she was 10 – received star billing at the inaugural concert of “Damascus, Cultural Capital of the Arab World” held at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, receiving extensive international media coverage. In 2010 she was awarded the Coup de Coeur by the Académie Charles-Cros for her first solo album.

Six more concerts in the first half of November round out FAMA’s first iteration. Please return to these pages next month to find out more about them.

Autorickshaw’s 15th Anniversary Season

Autorickshaw's Ed HanleyI’ve followed the Toronto band Autorickshaw’s career through its release of award-winning albums, concerts and international tours. This season marks its 15th anniversary, a good time to take stock and reflect on the changing landscape of global music and how it has developed for musicians and audiences alike.

By the time you read this, Autorickshaw will have already officially released its fifth studio album Meter on September 28 and 29 at Small World Music Centre. They will tour the album this fall in Southern Ontario and then in India, with a follow-up concert back in Toronto. I’ve had a quick listen to Meter’s 12 tracks. The music moves confidently between commissioned compositions, covers and many overt as well as covert references to the music of the subcontinent.

I spoke to founding band member Ed Hanley about Autorickshaw’s evolution, first asking about changes in the scene since the early 2000s.

“The music industry’s completely changed, of course,” he says. “For instance, our first CD wasn’t even on iTunes (though it was on Bandcamp). Our new release will be available on a number of online stores.”

Hanley directed the video of one of the songs on Meter, the polished Hare Shiva, recently published on YouTube. I was struck by the presence of the personal, the trans-musical genre references, the easy musicality of the Autorickshaw trio, as well as by the prominence of Odissi dance.

“That’s certainly another change from 15 years ago,” commented Hanley. “YouTube has become the main discovery platform for music, and you really need to have a music video now – though it is of course a major extra expense. I feel you need two types of videos now: live videos to show presenters and audiences what the music looks and sounds like in concert, and an ‘art video’ to serve as a companion piece to the album.”

Presenting music with roots on several continents often means having to explain the various constituent elements. “I feel we have to explain less about our music today,” said Hanley. “Speaking for myself, more people seem to know what a tabla is than during Autorickshaw’s early days. I get much less ‘is that bongos?’”

“When we started out we were aware of the world music category, specifically the Indo-Jazz sub-category we felt our music fit. Since then we’ve moved in many different musical directions, and the industry has also evolved. Musically speaking, today we don’t feel the need to be concerned with genre. We’re more comfortable in our musical skins now.”

I’ll be keeping tabs on Autorickshaw as they roll out their season and embark on their cross-India tour.

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