2209 WorldThis summer column focuses on an ensemble so new that at press time it hasn’t played a single concert, and yet with concerts already booked into next year!

The New Canadian Global Music Orchestra (we’ll call it NCGMO for short) was formed in late 2016 and gives its debut concert at Koerner Hall on June 2, after rehearsing and composing music for months. The orchestra includes 12 professional musicians each hailing from a different country, “from Peru to Burkina Faso to Cuba to Ukraine,” but who currently make their homes in the Toronto and Montreal areas. Then it goes on tour in the summer and fall.

Conceived by Mervon Mehta, executive director of Performing Arts at the Royal Conservatory, and hosted by the RCM, the NCGMO is, in the words of its host, “a major initiative by the RCM which celebrates the cultural diversity and pluralism of our great country as it turns 150, connecting us and communicating in ways that words, politicians and spiritual leaders cannot, and helping us to find a common language.”

To helm this ambitious undertaking, the RCM picked JUNO Award-winning trumpeter, composer and bandleader David Buchbinder as NCGMO’s artistic director. Buchbinder’s career bristles with varied performance and intercultural projects, on both large and small scales. Initially he was known for his music groups, such as the Flying Bulgars, Nomadica and Odessa/Havana, and as the founding artistic director (1995) of the flourishing Ashkenaz Festival. He has subsequently produced the shows Shurum Burum Jazz Circus, Andalucia to Toronto, Tumbling into Light and Jerusalem Salon, as well as award-winning scores for stage and screen.

He was also the founder, in 2010 of Diasporic Genius, founded on the premise that new hybrids can emerge from dramatically different musical traditions and art forms in a city like Toronto. The organization seeks to interweave communities and art forms that are typically estranged, to bring about personal and civic transformation, embodying in action “the notion of strength through diversity.”

All this activity has earned him a reputation as a leading figure in the Canadian world music and jazz scenes. In 2016 Buchbinder was recognised as a “cultural inventor” when he was presented with the Toronto Arts Council William Kilbourn Award for “artistic contributions to creative city building.” 

In NCGMO’s official video trailer, Mervon Mehta lays out an ambitious, aspirational roadmap for the project. “We’re going deeper into a holistic [conception] of musical form rather than a fusion of musical styles. This is just what we need right now. We need to show people that, yes, we can work together and form a new entity with people from around the world.”

Buchbinder in the same trailer, as an experienced intercultural music director, is a bit more cautious, but just a bit: “It’s always a bit of a fool’s game to claim you’re doing something in music that’s never been done before – because it’s all been done in a way – but doing a process just like this is pretty rare.” He then proposes two initial roadblocks to success: “First of all, how do you make all these instruments work together? Second…how do you get them to speak to each other?”

Good questions and, without missing a beat, he offers solutions. “Well, you don’t try to make all the traditions directly speak to each other,” he says. Their approach, he explains, is to have the ensemble’s music filtered through each of the individual composers in the ensemble. “My gig” he says “is to coordinate things so that the band has a [cohesive] sound.”

Having explored the ever-changing subject of when and when not to attempt to bridge the boundaries of different music cultures from many angles in this column, I personally recognize and applaud the general goodwill and Canadian multiculturalism at work here. On the other hand, even before its premiere concert, NCGMO has prompted healthy dialogue on social media from invested performers in this field, based on media releases and video trailers. One commentator challenged the notion of “composing” for this combination of global instruments, suggesting a privileging of European orchestral culture at work. How will the compositions produced share credit with those whose cultures include a large proportion of improvisation, or those that interpret melody or structure without an externally imposed roadmap? Furthermore, will the differences between urban and high art cultures vs. rural and vernacular traditions be addressed?

Another concern raised: if you want to work as a single orchestra, compromise is necessary – but whose standard/s will govern? And how will writing music on staff notation as a modus operandi impact on the musicians in the group not fluent in it, or for whom such notation does not work for their instrument or performance tradition? And what happens in terms of the potential watering down and glossing over of the individual musical traditions represented, including those with tunings, tonal modes, idioms and performance contexts which diverge from those commonly practised by more dominant cultures? Furthermore, will some instruments lose things inherent to their cultural and musical identity when subsumed within an ensemble such as this?

Concerns such as these underline how complex and sensitive such a project is, and why it has rarely been tried on this scale. All the more reason, perhaps, for undertaking it as a crucible for their exploration.

Returning to Buchbinder’s initial observation about nothing ever being entirely new, self-avowed transcultural acoustic ensemble musicking – the kind NCGMO does – already has roots in this country and elsewhere. A ready example is the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra. Founded in 2001, it is going strong today. Before it, both the Vancouver World Music Collective and the ASZA acoustic quartet flourished in the 1990s, encouraging the appetite for hybrid music in the region. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Yo-Yo Ma’s pioneering, Grammy Award-winning Silk Road Ensemble here. Formed in 2000, it claims performers and composers from more than 20 countries. (The group, which set the bar high for cross-cultural understanding and innovation, was featured in my article Silk Road Stories: Spinning a Musical Web in The WholeNote in September 2015.)

Over the course of the last few months, NCGMO members have shared their music traditions with one another in rehearsals, composition sessions and workshops. I arranged to speak with Buchbinder in person, now that things are moving towards their first performance, about what it has taken to reach this point.

“Selecting the participant musicians was a lengthy process, one which involved a large number of potential candidates. The NCGMO audition call went out last fall. We had three rounds of auditions with more than 100 Canadian musicians, originally from 47 countries, applying to be in the orchestra, ending up with the 12 musicians we have today.”

What were the criteria used to choose the musicians? “We wanted to spread the music traditions represented as widely as possible round the globe,” replied Buchbinder. “We were also looking for musicians with a wide range of musical experience, open minds, and playing at a high and exciting level of musicianship.”

In the end, the chosen musicians include some who are established on the local world music, scene such as sitarist Anwar Khurshid, who also plays flute, esraj, tabla and harmonium, and Brazilian percussionist and vocalist Aline Morales. But it’s only by seeing the complete personnel list, however, that we can get an impression of NCGMO’s aspirational global reach: Luis Deniz (saxophone), Lasso Salif Sanou (Fulani flute, kambélé n’goni, tamanin, balafon, djembe, doum-doum, vocals), Paco Luviano (bass), Demetrios Petsalakis (oud, guitar, lyra, bouzouki, riq, Greek baglama), Padideh Ahrarnejad (tar), Sasha Boychouk (woodwinds, ethnic Ukrainian flutes), Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk (Métis fiddling, jaw harp, spoons, vocals); Matias Recharte (drums, percussion, cajón, conga, timbales); and, rounding out the Asian branch of the orchestra, Dorjee Tsering (dranyen, flute, piwang, yang chin, Tibetan vocals) and Dora Wang (bamboo flute, flute, hulusi, xiao, panpipe, ocarina).

I asked him about the biggest challenges of the process so far. “Creating a cohesive ensemble where musicians can connect on cultural and musical common ground,” he said. “Beginning with meetings at the end of last year, we began rehearsals in earnest in January of 2017. We used group-building exercises I’ve developed over the years including a language game.”

(We can see Buchbinder briefly conducting one of these games in the video trailer I mentioned earlier.)

There have been three phases to the group’s ongoing development, he says. “The first includes group building, creating a common language, exploring musical ideas. The second focuses on composition, since most of these performers hadn’t experienced working in this sort of environment, and exploring ways of approaching intercultural musical development. The third involves holding intensive rehearsals and then shaping the works each composer/musician developed. Each member of the group worked on a musical idea; most of the ideas were then arranged by me.”

I asked him how how they had negotiated the issue of notation, which could potentially conflict with the multiple oral traditions represented within the group.

“I was a bit surprised to find that eight of the twelve read Western staff notation well. Notation gives us the opportunity to specify musical intention [and to record it for performance]. Given the limitations of rehearsal time, in this phase of our work we’ve created charts on paper that serve as blueprints for performance. The big challenge is how to have a musical meeting in every piece, allowing each musician’s voice to emerge from among the ensemble – a process which includes adaptation and making space [for the individual within the collective].”

“After all, the notes are only a starting place. I think of the ideal texture as cultural heterophony, where everyone gets to perform with their own accent. The process of defining each musician’s voice is actually happening on two levels. On one level each composition is one person’s own; on the other each other person is putting their own shimmer on it.”

What about future directions for NCGMO? “One of our members, Alyssa [Delbaere-Sawchuk], is Indigenous, and that’s something I want to explore further. One of the essentials of cross-cultural creation is the idea of specificity, of individual identity. I completely believe in the power of intercultural creations, and it is powered by individual stories.”

The emergence of NCGMO signals a growing general societal awareness around embracing musical multiplicity. It also signals the recognition by an elite music organization, focused in the past almost exclusively on Euro-American music, of the reality of changing Canadian demographics and music markets, and the responsibility to broaden its musical landscape.

On the Road

After NCGMO’s inaugural June 2 performance on its RCM home turf, the show goes on the road. On June 30, it opens Toronto’s Canada 150 celebrations at Nathan Phillips Square. Then it travels west down Hwy. 401 to TD SunFest in London, Ontario, in downtown Victoria Park, where on Sunday, July 9, it plays two festival-headlining performances. Begun in 1994, Sunfest is a non-profit community arts organization “dedicated to promoting cross-cultural awareness and understanding of the arts,” and this year its main festival happens July 6 to 9. I can attest it is worth the drive to London to catch the small-town feel and the world music-centred programs.

NCGMO next appears in the evening program on Friday, July 14, at North York’s annual Cultura Festival at Mel Lastman Square. Curated by world-music programmer Derek Andrews, who has been on the world-music file for decades, Cultura is a free family-friendly outdoor festival presenting every Friday evening in July. Expect the eclectic. A sampling: the Korean folk pop of Coreyah, JUNO-winning Okavango Orchestra, and Peterborough Celtic fiddling by Donnell Leahy.

On July 15, NCGMO performs at the Hillside Community Festival held in the idyllic Guelph Lake Conservation Area in rural Ontario. It will give a mainstage performance as well as workshops at this festival that “celebrates creativity through artistic expression, community engagement and environmental leadership.” I attended years ago and eagerly soaked up the positive community vibe in the verdant park setting.

On July 23, the orchestra takes the afternoon stage at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre during the Canada Scene festival, produced by the RCM and presented in collaboration with Ottawa Chamberfest. Canada Scene is a vast festival aiming to be “a living portrait – a daring, eclectic reflection of contemporary Canadian arts and culture.” It includes “1,000 talented artists in music, theatre, dance, visual and media arts, film, circus, culinary arts and more for an extraordinary national celebration.” With some dozen concerts tagged “World” and “Folk,” I’m seriously tempted to visit our nation’s capital to take in the musical wealth. Fall dates have also been announced for NCGMO, including a recording session at the Banff Centre.

I wish the fledgling NCGMO beautiful sounds, exciting experiences and lasting friendships. And I wish all you, dear readers, a relaxing, music-filled summer.

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

In both my lead stories this month, World Fiddle Day Toronto and the “folk opera” Zemlya (Earth), an ethnomusicologist is the driving force; Anne Lederman in the former and Marichka Marczyk in the latter.

Pioneering American ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood in 1969 broadly described his discipline as “a holistic investigation of music in its cultural contexts.” He also notably advocated for direct participation, requiring that his students learn to play the music they were studying, calling his approach “bi-musicality” in a 1960 paper. As these two stories clearly demonstrate, however, the role of the ethnomusicologist can extend even further than Hood proposes: beyond the role of investigator, participant and reporter, to that of interpreter for the audience and as presenter of received musical traditions. At times it can even encompass roles of musical and dramatic creator, as demonstrated in Lederman’s intercultural co-composed fiddle tunes and scored Around-the-World Jam, and in Marczyk’s dramatic, staged performative reframing of the transformation of Ukraine village women’s lives.

Presentational ethnomusicology (which some in the field might contrast with the participatory kind) may not yet be a well-defined sub-discipline. There are however increasing numbers of musicians in our midst who are curating, producing, composing, performing and in other ways presenting music to the public combining aspects of folklore, comparative musicology, psychology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, music theory and history – in other words covering the gamut of ethnomusicology. I’ll be tracking this way of presenting music from time to time here in this column.

Zemlya: A Ukrainian folk opera

2208 World View 1

May 18 the Toronto (mostly) women’s Kalendar Folk Ensemble premieres a new work Zemlya (Earth), which it describes as a “Ukrainian folk opera,” at the St. Vladimir Institute, 620 Spadina Ave. A few years ago Kalendar itself grew out of the Kosa Kolektiv urban folk movement, a subject I explored in this column in 2013. (For backstory completists, it is accessible on thewholenote.com by searching “Kosa Kolektiv”.)

When Kalendar came to commissioning Zemlya, they looked to the Ukrainian village music specialist and ethnomusicologist Marichka Marczyk, a Toronto resident. Marczyk completed her studies at the National Academy of Music in Kyiv in 2002 and while still a student became a founding member of, and a soloist with, the important Bozhychi folklore ensemble.

For over 17 years Bozhychi members have conducted research into village performance traditions, emphasizing what they call an inclusive “authentic” approach to folklore reenactments. This is in contrast to the older 20th century paradigm of academic folk singing and dancing, state-sponsored during the Soviet era, which intended to turn “unsophisticated” folk traditions into “true art.” “We are not just after faithful reproduction. We want to present the treasures of folk music in their living, authentic form,” declared Bozhychi member Illya Fetisov. One of the group’s slogans illustrates their holistic approach: “Everything is authentic – from food to feelings.”

Marczyk counts her repertoire at over 1,000 songs, most personally collected in Ukrainian villages. She has performed them regularly with numerous groups, in Canada the best-known of which is the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Canada’s popular self-styled “guerilla-folk party-punk band.” For over a year in the wake of the 2014 Maidan Revolution, which overtook the streets of her native city, Marichka Marczyk travelled widely across Ukraine with LBO violinist Mark Marczyk, writing articles, short stories and a play aiming to represent the revolutionary gestalt. Their award-winning guerrilla folk opera Counting Sheep (2015), enlivened by the music of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, sold out at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

For Zemlya (Earth), Marichka Marczyk has chosen other themes to explore: urbanization and the mechanization of the lives of Ukrainian village women. Each scene is thematically connected to the earth in some way, from babies made on the earth to bodies buried deep within it. Zemlya takes received village-style solo and polyphonic songs and dances and weaves them together with a narrative tracing the radically changing roles of Ukrainian village women and their essential connection to the cycles of the earth.

Will Marczyk’s approach to the narrative present a nuanced view of the complex issues of the urbanization and mechanization of the roles of agrarian women? How will village songs, dances and instrumental music be integrated into the play and employed to illuminate the story? Will the power of these songs and the play’s drama transcend its possible thematic limitations? I’ll be eager to find answers to those questions at the sole performance of the work on May 18.

May 20: World Fiddle Day Toronto

2208 World View 2World Fiddle Day falls on the third Saturday of May. Its aim: to celebrate the “playing of bowed string instruments throughout the world through participation, sharing and outreach, with respect to all world musical traditions.” Originating in Ireland as recently as 2011, this fiddle-centric festival is growing into a significant annual world music event. It has swiftly been embraced by string music aficionados worldwide and is now celebrated in over 45 countries, in thousands of events. Here in Canada, in 2015, Parliament declared the third Saturday of May National Fiddling Day.

On May 20 it will be recognized for the fifth year in a row by a collective of professional and amateur Toronto musicians, beginning in 2013 as a humble gathering on the lawn of Howard Park Emmanuel Church in the visibly multicultural Toronto Roncesvalles neighbourhood. At Fort York last May World Fiddle Day Toronto had grown to the point that 96 players participated in WFDT’s epic signature Around-the-World Jam.

Award-winning Canadian fiddler, singer, composer, ethnomusicologist and music educator Anne Lederman of the groups Muddy York, Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and several other ensembles is WFDT’s artistic director and “teacher-in-chief.” I spoke to Lederman about her vision for the day-long event.

“Having outgrown our lovely space at Fort York, we accepted the invitation of the Aga Khan Museum to bring World Fiddle Day Toronto there this May,” began Lederman. “We aim to be a world music presenter so it’s a perfect fit for us to partner with the museum since its inclusive mission includes serving as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance.

“There is also particular resonance with regards to the thousands of Syrian refugees Canada accepted last year in partnering with that institution.” The AGM’s own mandate echoes that sentiment, offering a space for “unique insights and new perspectives into Islamic civilizations and the cultural threads that weave through history binding us all together.”

Lederman further noted that “while celebration is an important part of World Fiddle Day Toronto, through our work with diverse cultural expressions we also strive to raise awareness of world issues, strengthen cultural diversity and encourage dignity, respect and basic human rights for all cultures.”

When I pressed her for her overarching vison for WFDT, she said simply, “I just want to get people excited about the many possible different approaches to music and art there are.”

WFDT’s Around-the-World Jam

This year for example, the WFDT’s theme tune for the Around-the-World Jam evolved from a collaboration between Lederman and prominent Toronto-based Persian violin and kamancheh player Kousha Nakhaei. “Called Persionada, it pays tribute to our partners at the Aga Khan and also honours Canada’s 150th,” says Lederman. “Kousha chose the traditional Persian song Dost Khan Amiri, and I created a second melody that works with it so it can be performed by the up to 100 bowed string players, expected that day at the Museum.” The rest of the Around-the-World Jam participants will include “violin, viola, cello and some bass players, all accompanied by our stellar back-up house band. But the occasional accordionist has also sometimes snuck in!” quipped Lederman.

This year Jam fiddlers will play 35 tunes from 25 different cultural traditions. And Canadian songs take pride of place among those drawn from most of the world’s continents. Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire features in as a tribute to the celebrated late Montreal-born songwriter, as will Jerry Holland’s nostalgic waltz My Cape Breton Home and Pascal Gemme’s Valse Beaulieu.

As an example of the cultural diversity on show, the WFDT hosts five accomplished guest artists in workshops and at the long evening concert. Featured are Kousha Nakhaei playing Persian violin and kamancheh, Anne Lindsay on Finnish jouhikko, Swedish nyckelharpa and jazz violin, and, as mentioned earlier in this issue’s cover story, Chinese erhu virtuoso Amely Zhou. Representing French-Canadian fiddling are Pascal Gemme and Yann Falquet, while the award-winning youthful brother and sister duo DnA – Diana and Andrew Dawydchak – perform in the best old-time Ontario fiddle and step-dance tradition. These two duos, representing Quebec and Ontario fiddling styles and repertoires, are a particularly apt fit for WFDT’s Canada 150 theme this year.

Lederman is quick to add that WFDT “is not only a celebration of Toronto’s multi-cultural musical traditions, but the culmination of our organization’s full year of activity. These include holding community practice and workshop sessions exploring world traditions, as well as collaborating with Tafelmusik on an outreach program with young string players at the Etobicoke School for the Arts and the MNjcc Suzuki Program.”

At 5:30pm visitors can enjoy a buffet supper of Mid-East cuisine, continuing the exploration of world cultural traditions, all the while listening to WFDT’s Youth Showcase performances.

With its institutional, government, corporate and all-important community support, and driven by Lederman’s vison, World Fiddle Day Toronto’s future as a “cross-cultural ambassador” looks bright.

QUICK PICKS

“Sounds of Spring”: Georgian romantic songs

May 13: Members of Toronto’s extended Georgian musical community present “Sounds of Spring” at Heliconian Hall at 6:30pm. The concert features Georgian romances, as well as city and a cappella rural polyphonic songs, showcasing the classically trained singer Ucha Abuladze and the vocal duo of Diana and Madona Iremashvili. Singer Bachi Makharashvili, also a superb guitar and chonguri player in this repertoire, plus his vocalist wife Andrea Kuzmich and children will perform, making it a warm Georgian family affair. I recommend you make the effort to attend.

Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan goes vocal

May 17: At 8pm at Array Space, the Toronto pioneering world music ensemble Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan presentsCelebrating the Voice,” with music from its two new CD releases. (As usual, when writing about the group, I need to state that I have been a career-long membership of Evergreen, one of many very satisfying, though seldom particularly remunerative, ways I have been engaged in music long before I was a music journalist.)

The eight-musician group typically adheres to an all-instrumental program but here performs a wide range of songs from its hot-off-the-press genre-defying CD Bridge. The fine Toronto vocalists Jennifer Moore and Maryem Tollar are in the spotlight, along with violinist Parmela Attariwala.

Then from its new CD release Grace, ECCG will perform Bill Parsons’ large-scale Translating Grace, scored for the very probably unique instrumentation of soprano (Jennifer Moore), ECCG’s degung, cello (Andrew Downing), bass clarinet (Bob Stevenson) and keyboard (Erik Ross). A bespoke video by Chuck Samuels provides added visual enhancement of the song cycle’s textual themes. As a trumpet virtuoso and University of Victoria music professor very recently put it, “The reckless abandon [ECCG] shows for borders, genres, and easy classification remains an inspiration.”

Autorickshaw celebrates 15 years

May 18: Toronto’s twice JUNO-nominated, Indo-fusion ensemble Autorickshaw presents “Under the Hood” live in concert. Autorickshaw celebrates 15 years, kicking off its 2017 concert season at Lula Lounge. Vocalist Suba Sankaran is joined by elite Toronto musicians Justin Abedin (guitars), Dylan Bell (voice, bass, beatboxing), Ed Hanley (tabla) and Ben Riley (drumkit).

Autorickshaw’s post-fusion repertoire spans Indian classical, folk and Bollywood as well as original compositions. Rooted in both North and South Indian classical music repertoire, its music is further framed by its members’ experiences growing up and studying music in culturally diverse Toronto. Autorickshaw is working on a new album featuring the core trio, to be released later this year. Perhaps we’ll be treated to some of their new work in progress in addition to its greatest hits.

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

2207-World 1.jpgArguably one of the most exciting features of Toronto’s musical geography today is how our metropolis has emerged as a kind of globally flavoured creative seedbed. Over the past few decades potentially viable music hybrids of myriad kinds have been created and encouraged to flourish. I’ve touched on many in this column over the years.

This inclusive scene is abetted by the presence of many of the world’s musics actively performed by musicians of the first rank. In this column last month, for example, I focused on music-making within the Persian community, which is thriving in the greater Toronto area.

In addition to performers, the GTA music scene is also supported by numerous audiences which have developed an appetite for tasting, mixing and merging of sonic genres from disparate worlds. Yet another essential element supporting this development includes a social-political infrastructure comprising community organizations, governments, venues and media which generally view hybrids favourably.

Inclusivity and diversity were adopted as part of the core philosophical platform of the current Canadian government. Recognizing that this approach is not necessarily the norm in other societies, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly articulated its outlines, particularly in his foreign speeches. “Diversity is Canada’s strength,” he said in London, UK, in 2015. “Canada has learned how to be strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them…that capacity will be at the heart of both our success and of what we offer the world.”

Let’s examine how Canada’s appreciation of the value of diversity –reflected and transformed by (both immigrant and Canadian-born) musicians through the process of artistic hybridization – is reflected in and shaped by several April concerts in Toronto.

Small World Music: Asian Music Series

Small World Music’s 15th Annual Asian Music Series, running April 1 to May 20, is a case in point. About half of the events are staged at SWM’s own intimate Centre at the Artscape Youngplace. The 14-concert series came about through networking with partner presenters such as the Aga Khan Museum, Batuki Music Society and Raag-Mala, in addition to support by various arts councils and levels of government. Its private sector sponsor is TD Bank.

The program brings together “emerging artists with internationally renowned figures, engaging communities around the GTA…embracing the scope of music from across the Asian cultural landscape – from India to Japan, via China, Pakistan and Iran….”

In order to assist audiences in navigating the two-month series, SWM groups concerts into what it calls Explorer Bundles. They are cannily shaping audience experiences thematically, as well as across genre and culture of origin. Allowing audiences to “take advantage of Small World’s place at the heart of the city’s global music scene,” the bundling of “Asian Music Experiences” is presented through discounted three-concert packages with the following evocative and user-friendly titles: Rhythm, Soul, Heritage and Motion.

The Asian Music Series Rhythm Explorer Bundle commences with the Haniya Aslam Trio on April 1. Aslam is a star in her native Pakistan, having co-led the country’s first all-female band Zeb and Haniya. Their groundbreaking 2008 hit album Chup! (Silence!) topped the charts for months. Now a Toronto resident, singer-guitarist Aslam fluidly combines pop, folk-rock, alt, blues and jazz with vernacular songs she learned in her native Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Lyrics in Urdu, Pashto, Dari and Turkish, and thematically bold subject matter, thicken the regional-transnational tensions in her songs, yet at the same time give them unusual potency. Continuing her advocacy of transnational culture in her music, she’s joined by leading Toronto world musicians Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion), Peter Lutek (winds) and Waleed Abdulhamid (bass).

The Rhythm Explorer Bundle continues April 16 with Upanishads, Toronto musician Debashis Sinha’s new solo project which explores ancient sacred text while remaining firmly rooted in the thoroughly contemporary sound world of electronic and beat-based music. Steeped in his experience as a second generation South Asian Canadian, Sinha’s music is “committed to expand[ing] the notions of what it means to express and be influenced by a life in/between cultures.”

May 6 at 10pm, the Rhythm Explorer Bundle wraps with a lighthearted “throwback dance party, Globetrotter’s Retro Bollywood Edition.” Local and international DJs will mix a live “cross-cultural concoction on the dance floor, in celebration of diversity and inspired community…with spicy blends of funk, sitar, tabla, soaring vocals and lush orchestras, all mashed up with modern beats.” Vintage Bollywood film clips, South Asian-themed decor and a chai bar round out this multisensory, playful party at Round, 152a Augusta Ave.

Tinariwen and Dengue Fever

Those are only three out of 12 concerts in SWM’s Asian Music Series which fall into the framework of this issue of The WholeNote so I can’t possibly highlight them all here, even though I’m itching to. Well – maybe just one more.

Tinariwen, presented at Massey Hall by Small World Music, Batuki Music Society and Massey Hall on April 12, is a Grammy Award-winning Malian sextet with an impressive international fan following. Formed in 1979 in Algerian exile by Malian Tuareg musicians, Tinariwen is among the pioneers of the desert blues genre. Digging heavily into traditional Tuareg music, but also influenced by Bob Marley, Carlos Santana, American blues and Bob Dylan, Tinariwen’s powerful driving music and controversial lyrics address the pain of exile and the struggle against political repression. Slate called the group “rock ‘n’ roll rebels whose rebellion, for once, wasn’t just metaphorical.”

The opening act Dengue Fever is fronted by award-winning Cambodian native vocalist Chhom Nimol. She sings in both Khmer and more recently in English. California based, the five-piece band with standard pop instrumentation takes 1960s Khmer pop music as its primary source of inspiration. It then liberally adds rock of the garage and psychedelic persuasion. Rock icon and veteran world music champion Peter Gabriel said of their music: “It’s done with a lot of style. It’s spirited, impassioned stuff.”

2207 World 2Tabla and Taiko: April 15 two of Toronto’s veteran world music groups join forces. Toronto Tabla Ensemble and Nagata Shachu present “Tabla and Taiko: Two Ancient Traditions Meet” at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The promotional material states the concert is to serve as a “cross-cultural music collaboration of Indian and Japanese percussive traditions with the goal of bringing communities together.” It promises to be a textbook demonstration of how the evolutionary processes of artistic hybridization can be developed over years and successfully presented.

I’ve written before about how both Toronto-based ensembles have significantly contributed to the Canadian world music scene since the 1990s. In pursuing their groups’ artistic vision they have both succeeded in raising the profiles of received Indian and Japanese musics. In this concert they join hands and drums, featuring compositions by the two ensembles’ artistic directors, Ritesh Das and Kiyoshi Nagata. Each is creating works that maintain their home traditions’ integrity while also searching to integrate the other group’s inherent strengths. I spoke to each AD to better understand their collaborative approach.

“I wrote Sare Panch, in a rhythmic cycle of five and a half beats,” said Das. “I then modified and fine-tuned it in rehearsal so it would work with the extreme dynamic range of the taiko ensemble. I’m also looking forward to performing a piece by Aki Takahashi in 14 beats, as well as a work where I play solo tabla and Kiyoshi plays the chappa, a Japanese cymbal.”

How would he characterize the common denominators between the two quite different groups? “We both share values of respect, discipline and knowledge,” Das replied without pause.

Kiyoshi Nagata added: “I agree we share those values. [On the other hand] I always tell Ritesh it’s not our similarities but our differences that complement one another! For example taiko is loud, tabla is quiet; taiko is primal, tabla intricate and technical. It’s those kinds of juxtapositions which offer rich new sonic and artistic possibilities.

“In addition, both our ensembles work within the oral tradition,” continued Nagata. “Not being bound by notation makes it easier to communicate, I find. As we like to recite to one another: ‘Once you say it, you can play it!’ It’s quite liberating to be able to internalize music in order to express yourself. You could reduce the process to memorization, internalization and finally expression. After all, the goal of taiko practice is that the body becomes the extension of the rhythm.”

Finally Nagata added “Collaborations like this are pretty hard to come by. Toronto is one of the few places where this could happen. There’s a certain convenience in having both groups in the same town. They’re 20 minutes from us, so we can get together any day of the week!”

Aga Khan Museum’s “Entrancement”

As for presenters, they are continually evolving ways to reinterpret aspects of musical inclusivity, diversity and cultural framing to their audiences. The Aga Khan Museum is one such presenter and venue which has actively welcomed the music of the world right from its beginnings in 2014. I spoke to Umair Jaffar, performing arts manager at the AKM about its latest efforts to retag its concert series in order to keep it relevant to its patrons.

“We’ve had series called ‘classical’ and ‘world music’ in the past. Now we’re considering using the word ‘entranced’ however,” said Jaffar. “Trance is a word that aptly describes and connects several of our upcoming performing arts programs.”

It is an idea clearly reflected in the “mesmerizing and mood-altering grooves of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s slide guitar” that will be showcased in his April 22 concert presented in partnership with Raag-Mala Toronto and Small World Music’s Asian Music Series. The Grammy Award-winning Bhatt performs exclusively on his bespoke 19-stringed mohan veena. While his instrument borrows as much from the Hawaiian and blues slide lap guitars as from the indigenous Indian veena, the music Bhatt plays on it is strictly Hindustani classical, relying on the performance of raga. Raga itself is a complex concept in classical Indian music akin to melodic mode, possessing the power to “colour the mind” of the performer, as well as to affect the emotions of the listener.

The April crop from the Toronto global seed bed is promising indeed!

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

2206- BBB - World.jpgThe 2015 Canadian census estimated that Iranian Canadians number over 200,000. They have settled in significant numbers in the greater Montreal and Vancouver regions but the largest group – some estimates put the number at around 65,000 – lives in the northern Toronto outliers of Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Markham and Thornhill.

Over the past few decades, increasing numbers of singers, musicians, composers, conductors and music teachers specializing in many genres have joined their ranks, greatly enriching the musical life of the GTA. They and musicians from many other lands, including those native to Canada, are truly “making Toronto into a real music city,” a politicized phrase I’m cheekily lifting from The WholeNote’s Publisher/Editor In Chief David Perlman’s insightful Op-Ed last issue.

I have highlighted numerous concerts with a Persian theme in my column over the years, however this March several presenters are combining forces to highlight Persian culture alive and well right here in the diaspora. Under the rubric of Nowruz, the Persian annual New Year’s celebration welcoming the advent of spring, a museum exhibition, epic shadow theatre, storytelling, educational workshops, culinary experiences, children’s programs, cinema, dance and music performances – even a Nowruz DJ party – will warm our burg residents’ late-winter blahs.

Mystic Persian Music and Poetry: March 4, the Aga Khan Museum in partnership with Rumi Canada presents “Mystic Persian Music and Poetry” with the Soley Ensemble at the museum’s auditorium. The concert animates the current museum exhibition “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians,” highlighting “cultural rebellion and lyrical reflection” in the works of 23 artists who have chosen self-expression over silence.

The Soley Ensemble is led by the veteran singer-songwriter Soleyman Vaseghi. Born in Tehran in 1946 into a multi-generational Sufi-centric family, he was already popularly known as “Soley” throughout Iran by the age of 20, singing his own songs on National Iranian Radio and Television. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, however, Soley was prohibited from performing in public. He turned intensive research into Persian literature, poetry and music. This work eventually resulted in a series of new age-style albums aimed at international audiences, inspired by the lessons of Sufism.

Soley left Iran in 1986 and by the early 2000s had joined forces with the Lian Ensemble, a Los Angeles-based group of expat Iranian virtuoso musicians and composers. Their common goal was to fuse their classical Persian music heritage with contemporary jazz sensibilities, aiming for a “synthesis of mystical world music.”

Soley now makes Toronto his home and his Soley Ensemble is comprised primarily of several younger generation Toronto-area musicians of Iranian origin playing traditional Persian instruments. In Mystic Persian Music and Poetry, the Soley Ensemble performs devotional Sufi music honouring Nowruz. They are joined by “sacred whirling dancer” Farzad AttarJafari and Toronto-based spoken-word artist Sheniz Janmohamad reciting her English-language poetry.

Nowruzgan Festival: Tirgan, a “non-profit, non-religious and non-partisan cultural organization committed to promoting a cross-cultural dialogue between the Iranian-Canadians and the larger Canadian community,” is at the centre of Toronto’s Nowruz cultural festivities this year. Intending to honour both Nowruz as well as Canada’s sesquicentennial, Tirgan is producing the three-day Nowruzgan Festival.

The festival posits a twin purpose, one that looks culturally to the Persian homeland, but one which also embraces the community’s presence within Canada’s multiple socio-cultural and political geography. In addition, Tirgan’s Nowruzgan Festival mission statement emphasizes not only the entertainment value of its programming but also a didactic purpose.

“Daytime activities are geared toward youth and families and combine Persian art/craft technique with Canadian content.Using workshops and performances, children, teens and young adults have an opportunity to gain a clearer perception of their roles in society’s development as a cultural mosaic. Evening activities are designed for family and adult audiences.” It appears that the Nowruzgan Festival also aims to encourage younger Canadians of Iranian origin to better understand Canadian society.

Running over the March 10 to March 12 weekend, in partnership with Toronto Centre for the Arts, North York Arts and Aga Khan Museum, the Nowruzgan Festival events take place at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. It’s strategically located in the lower end of the heart of contemporary Toronto’s Iranian neighbourhood centred on Yonge Street. Of the nearly 60 scheduled events let’s take a closer look at a few with music as a key ingredient.

Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic: The festival kicks off Friday March 10 with the multidisciplinary shadow theatre production Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic which is repeated three more times during the weekend. Billed as a “cinematic shadow play for all ages,” the production is rooted in stories from the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), an epic literary milestone written by the great Persian poet Ferdowsi roughly between 977 and 1010 CE.

Conceived, designed and directed by New York-based Iranian filmmaker, playwright and graphic artist Hamid Rahmanian in collaboration with the American shadow-theatre trailblazer Larry Reed, Feathers of Fire features original music by composer/musician Loga Ramin Torkian and vocalist Azam Ali, an Iranian American husband-and-wife team. Torkian co-founded the groups Niyaz and Axiom of Choice, both incorporating Persian and Middle Eastern music and lyrics. Torkian performs on the Azerbaijani tar, the Turkish saz and, a recent invention, the guitarviol, a new bowed hybrid of guitar and viola da gamba. He has scored a number of films, a skill which comes in handy supporting this epic production which employs eight actors, 160 puppets, 15 masks and many costumes. Its 158 animated backgrounds are rear-projected onto a vast 15- by 30-foot screen.

Sahba Motallebi with Special Guest Maneli Jamal: Saturday, March 11, at 5pm, the Aga Khan Museum and Tigran co-present Sahba Motallebi with special guest Maneli Jamal at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Motallebi is that rare musician, a female soloist on the tar and setar. Recognized internationally for her virtuosity for four years running (1995-1998), she was named the Best Tar Player at the Iranian Music Festival while still enrolled at the Teheran Conservatory of Music. In 1997 she co-founded the groundbreaking women’s music ensemble Chakaveh and was subsequently invited to join the Iranian National Orchestra.

Motallebi currently lives in Southern California where she completed a degree in world music performance  at CalArts. She performs worldwide and has released a series of albums, the latest of which is A Tear at the Crossroad of Time. She has also pioneered Internet tar instruction. Her online teaching has inspired a renewed interest in the transmission of this venerable art form.

Joining Motallebi on stage is the hot Iranian Canadian guitarist Maneli Jamal. He won first place in the 2014 Harbourfront Centre’s Soundclash Music Awards wowing audiences with his signature approachable style of playing acoustic guitar with connections to his Iranian roots. A Minor 7th review raved about his “mastery of phrasing, a sumptuous tone and an ability to wrest emotion from every note, even from the pauses between the notes.” I, for one, look forward to the plucked-string heat generated by Motallebi and Jamal. It will certainly put me in a proper celebratory Nowruz frame of mind.

Other Picks

Mar 4: The Church of St. Mary Magdalene provides an earthly setting for the meeting of two musical choral worlds – the church’s Schola Magdalena and their guest choir Darbazi, the latter singing the polyphonic music from the Republic of Georgia. Schola Magdalena supplies its trademark medieval-to-Renaissance liturgical repertoire of Gregorian chant, Hildegard, Dufay, Dunstable, as well as Appalachian folk song. Toronto’s first Georgian choir Darbazi, on the other hand, performs selections from its extensive sacred and profane Georgian repertoire. The listing also mentions the performance of the intriguing but as yet undesignated “new music.” Will the two choirs jointly sing a new Canadian work or two? My advice is to go and find out.

Mar 16 and 17: Rounding out the month York University Music Department’s World Music Festival runs over two days, March 16 and 17, at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall, Martin Family Lounge and Sterling Beckwith Studio, all in the Accolade East Building. The genres on offer are wide-ranging: Chinese Classical Orchestra, Cuban and Klezmer Ensembles, West African Ghanaian Drumming, Escola de Samba, West African Mande and Caribbean Music. The Korean Drum, the Celtic as well as the Balkan Music Ensembles, will also show what they have learned this year. I’m willing to bet you’ll be impressed.

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

Back to top