2007-World-ZariTrio.jpgLet’s call it a personal rite of spring. Along with those first warm sunny days, I also look forward to engaging with the larger world in concerts at several of our region’s universities and concert halls.

This season, my first focus falls on Toronto’s award-winning vocal and instrumental trio Zari, which performs April 25 at the little jewel of downtown venues, Musideum. Composed of Shalva Makharashvili, Andrea Kuzmich and Reid Robins, Zari (meaning “bell” in Georgian) draws on the rich regional repertoire of the polyphonic songs of the Republic of Georgia. Standing at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, their ancient country is called Sakartvelo by Georgians.

Declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001, Georgian vocal polyphony, with its close harmonies and untempered scales, is characterized by three-part singing in a variety of regional styles. The songs range from the haunting melismatic melodies of the Eastern provinces, to the wild, explosive counterpoint of the West. They also include more recent romantic urban ballads.

Like many other groups I’ve highlighted in this column who have musical affiliations to another part of the world, Zari was made in Toronto. I spoke with the singer, ethnomusicologist and group co-founder Andrea Kuzmich to get the skinny on Zari.

“It was formed in 2003. We met each other a few years earlier at the downtown Toronto living room singing sessions of Darbazi” (Canada’s first Georgian choir). Kuzmich quickly identified a key feature of the group, its dedication to studying the older strata of Georgian music in its birthplace. “We want to deepen our understanding of and feeling for this musical treasure. When Zari performs, we embrace the profundity of Georgian culture: its roots embedded in ancient times, its strength and courage to survive and its inspiring hospitality.” To that end the trio plans to return to Georgia this October for another round of studies and concerts.

And like numerous Canadian groups that reference other geo-cultural milieus, Zari is perhaps better known there than here. Kuzmich notes that during past Georgian tours, “we have performed at the Chveneburebi festival, Festival of Megrelian song, First International Festival of Gurian Song and other festivals that have taken us around the country.” They have also been featured at the “best performance halls of [the capital] Tbilisi, such as the Opera House, and the Philharmonia Concert Hall.”

In addition to formal concert venues, Kuzmich points out the hard-to-overstate significance of the supra. It’s the traditional, often epic, Georgian feast which serves as an important locus for Georgian social culture – and singing. “You know ... there’s a saying that the best performances happen at the supras after the concerts. We can’t really predict how many supras we’ll attend or which ones will be most educational.” And the supra is such an integral part of Georgian culture that it’s not easy to separate the supra from what happens each day. “There will be [formal] toasting every day, if not multiple times in the day, perhaps even around a table while we’re learning a song. In that case the line between supra and lesson gets blurred.”

She gives an example of how such productive blurring can evolve. “[One day] we were all set to have a lesson, but instead had an impromptu midday supra at a small local house-restaurant in Makvaneti, the village of our Gurian [region of Georgia] teachers …. At the supra they sang many songs, interlaced with stories about music-making from when they were little boys, during Soviet times, and today. We sang with them too, sometimes trading off at inner cadence points. We probably sat there for over three hours. All three of us [in Zari] felt inspired and very connected to the tradition [after that experience], and we learned so much in that one sitting.”

I asked about Zari’s Musideum set list. “We’ll be performing songs from several regions of the country,” said Kuzmich. She mentioned a few songs on their long list. One of the Gurian songs is Chven Mshvidoba (Peace to Us). “We are in the process of learning a fourth or fifth variant, though in performance we tend to just let the improvisation happen.” Maglonia, a lyrical song from Samegrelo, features accompaniment by the panduri, a prominent Georgian three-string lute. “There are a few versions we are listening to, but the one we mostly base our version on is by Polikarpe Khubulava, the Georgian master singer who passed away on January 1, 2015,” she added. “We will also do songs from [the regions of] Imereti and Achara, which are similar, though Imereti has more parallel thirds in the top voice, plus one of those dense Svaneti chordal songs. It’s a place which is snowbound for eight months of the year and the songs, like the people, are rugged.”

Zari feels the need to regularly re-connect with those wellsprings of the oral musical tradition they’ve been born into – or as in the case of Kuzmich, chosen – in order to fuel their inspiration and artistry. Their Musideum concert is part of a series of fundraisers to help get them back to Georgia to study with elder master singers, some well past retirement age. In addition to such venerable living connections to the past, the trio also plans to re-connect with researchers at the Conservatoire, including colleagues at the Ethnomusicology Department and the Research Centre for Traditional Polyphony. “Giorgi Donadze, the leader of Basiani [a prominent choir], is also the director of the State Folk Centre, so we’ll be connecting with that institute,” adds Kuzmich. “And we always try to meet up with Anzor Erkomaishvili, who endows us with new publications on Georgian music.”

It’s always exciting to hear such a depth of passion and engagement from an artist. I plan to catch Zari’s Musideum show to hear the latest in the evolution of Georgian music, Toronto style.

World music in the university: April 1 the University of Toronto Faculty of Music holds its annual spring concert of World Music Ensembles at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building. This season it’s the African Drumming and Dancing, Latin American Percussion and Steel Pan student groups’ turn to shine. Kwasi Dunyo, the Ewe master drummer from Ghana who has for two decades been teaching in universities and schools in Canada and the U.S.A. from his Toronto home base, leads the first ensemble. The Latin American percussion group is led by the accomplished Mark Duggan, an orchestral percussionist, composer and jazz musician. Even 32 years ago his highly honed skills were in demand: he was chosen to play with Canada’s first gamelan, the Evergreen Club. Michelle Colton, an emerging multi-percussionist and educator, directs the Steel Pan ensemble.

The next day, on April 2 at noon, the world music focus shifts to the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, where the Conrad Grebel Gamelan Ensemble performs, directed by Maisie Sum. Introduced into the university as a course only two years ago by Sum, the gamelan semara dana, a kind of Balinese tuned percussion-rich instrumental ensemble, is the first of its kind in Southwestern Ontario. In an interview with The WholeNote a year ago professor Sum reported an enthusiastic reception for the music among the students. “Enrollment for the ensemble doubled in the winter term, so we currently have two groups.”

After the excitement of the noon-hour Waterloo Balinese set, there’s still plenty of time to get down to St. Catharines’ Brock University the same day for an evening concert. Jaffa Road performs at the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre, Centre for the Arts. The JUNO short-listed Toronto world music group offers an amalgam of sacred and secular Jewish song, jazz, Indian and Arabic music, with touches of electronica and dub.

2007-World-GilbertoGil.jpgBrazil’s musical ambassador: April 7 the Royal Conservatory of Music presents “Gilberto Gil: Gilberto’s Samba” at Koerner Hall. Hailed as “Brazil’s musical ambassador,” for more than 40 years the singer, composer, guitar player – and former Minister of Culture – has enjoyed an extraordinary career. Gil is perhaps best known as an eloquent exponent of bossa nova, but he is also a pioneer of the tropicalia and Brasileira genres. The New York Times summed up his monumental yet affable stage presence: delicate bossa novas, strummed rockers and intricate sambas … Mr. Gil didn’t trumpet his virtuosity. It was offered genially, like his melodies and his un-didactic thoughts on love, poetic license and mortality.”

Taiko meets tabla: April 11 two established groups on the Toronto world music scene join for an evening of transcultural percussion-centric musical dialogues. The Japanese taiko group Nagata Shachu directed by Kiyoshi Nagata meets the JUNO-nominated Toronto Tabla Ensemble directed by Ritesh Das on the stage of the Brigantine Room, Harbourfront Centre. Having attended concerts by both groups from their early days, it’s evident that collaborations are important to each. Nagata shares that “I feel that the primal and thunderous sounds of the taiko are a perfect complement to the subtle and intricate rhythms of the tabla. Ritesh and I feel a certain connection, both musically and in terms of how we were trained in our respective traditions.” The personal history the two directors share is an important link between their groups. “I am thrilled to be once again working with Kiyoshi Nagata,” reflects Das. “[He was] one of the first artists I collaborated with after coming to Toronto in 1987. When we rehearsed for the first time in 20 years, I felt a new sense of maturity from both ends, which led to an immediate understanding between us. Together we can create a very rich and elegant Indo-Japanese collaboration.” This respectful fusion not only marks an advanced musical maturity, but is a positive thermometer of the future health of Toronto’s world music scene.

At the Aga Khan Museum: A week later the new Aga Khan Museum and the well-established Raag-Mala Music Society of Toronto join forces for the first time in two concerts at the Aga Khan Museum Auditorium. Titled “Miyan-Ki-Daane: Raags of Tansen,” the programs, presented in the Hindustani dhrupad and khayal music genres, celebrate the music of Miyan Tansen, a bright star among the composers and singers of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century North Indian court. His beautiful compositions have been passed on through many generations of oral tradition through the guru-shishya parampara, the particular manner of transmission from teacher to disciple in traditional Indian culture.

The first program April 18 features singer Samrat Pandit and bansuri (bamboo flute) player Rupak Kulkarni. The singer received the prestigious Sangeeta Shiromani Award from the State of Maharashtra just last year, while Kulkarni is widely recognized as a leading bansuri player. On April 19 Uday Bhawalkar, among the foremost exponents of dhrupad singing today, and the respected sitarist Partha Bose, present an unusual 11am late morning concert. Audiences will thus have a rare opportunity to hear raags appropriate to that time of day, a practice still maintained in Hindustani classical music. It’s definitely worth making alternate work arrangements for this concert.

April 24, also at the Aga Khan Museum, sounds of the Sahara, the Magreb and West Africa are blended with contemporary pop and funk by the powerhouse Noura Mint Seymali. This compelling singer, a star in Mauritania, was born into a prominent Moorish griot family. She is also a master of the ardine (nine-stringed harp) and a composer.

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

2006-World-Tova_Kardonne.jpgDuring the relentless winter choke-holding the eastern half of our continent we occasionally see signs of weather more benign. Not that I’m complaining about our crisp white-scaped great outdoors, mind, but I’m not complaining either about music’s special power to open the world’s window wide to another, less icy landscape.

A case in point is The Lanka Suite. In it the multi-talented emerging Toronto-born composer, vocalist and violist Tova Kardonne evokes Sri Lanka’s lush natural and human landscapes, expressing her outsider musical explorations in her distinctive jazz and chamber music-inflected music. The Ashkenaz Foundation and Koffler Centre for the Arts co-present the work performed by a choir, an instrumental ensemble, as well as a vocal and an instrumental soloist, in concert at The Music Gallery on March 14.

I called Kardonne on a frosty February afternoon to chat about her ambitious Lanka Suite, and how she got there. Even before pursuing a career in music, she told me, her passion for mathematics – in which she has a degree – initially took centre stage. “I developed a taste for aspects of beauty and emotion in mathematics, for its elegance as well as its ugliness. These are parallel to characteristics I also felt in music.” But she also pursued viola and piano studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music, as well as singing alto in a series of choirs. “Singing (and playing) the alto voice is a great place to be for a composer: right in the middle of the music!” It’s a practice she actively maintains with Andrea Kuzmich’s Broulala, Christine Duncan’s The Element Choir and with the GREX vocal ensemble directed by Alex Samaras. (The latter choir has a core role in the performance of The Lanka Suite on March 14. )

In addition to music, Kardonne explained that dance has been another key to her artistic expression. “I originally studied dance with Jeannette Zingg of Opera Atelier. Later, in ’99 I was introduced to the freedom and discipline of contact improvisation, attending downtown Toronto’s weekly Contact Dance Jams. Improvised movement reinforced my evolving understanding of creation and intention. Though I didn’t quite realize at the time, it would prove important in shaping my compositional process down the road.” In 2014 she remounted an evening titled “60×60 Dance,” continuing her ongoing engagement with the dance world. It featured 60 different combinations of Canadian choreographers and composers, a complex project she co-curated and produced.

Having completed a degree at Humber College concentrating on vocal jazz, composition and arranging in 2008, jazz certainly figures in Kardonne’s musical language. She has involved a number of Toronto’s jazz elite in The Thing Is, her current eight-member band. It has included Jim Vivian, Dave Restivo, Ted Quinlan, Peter Lutek, Rich Brown, Rob Clutton and several others since its inception. Currently she favours musicians with mixed resumés who are able to excel in what she calls “non-idiomatic improvisational contexts.” That’s why she notes “my band is called The Thing Is, because it reflects an open-ended process of becoming,” an ensemble musical work. She creates an evolutionary, boundary-crossing and collegial atmosphere in the ensemble: “As my music evolved, it has attracted different kinds of musicians. At least two of them have been around [the scene] for long enough that I don’t really know where they ‘come from’.”

Kardonne points out one more significant element informing The Lanka Suite: for the lack of a better term, its “world music” features. It goes back to the Klezmer bands she played in, starting in her teens, as well as her grandparents’ Eastern European Jewish roots. “My mixed family heritage directed me along the path of seeking connections through the differences.” Citing her studies of Cuban santería batá drumming, North and South Indian drumming patterns, and her participation in the Brazilian Samba Elégua group, she conludes that  “deep down, I’m driven by rhythm.” In The Lanka Suite this fascination is reflected in unusual time signatures and phrases, drawing from both South Asian and Eastern European folk idioms, though couched in the instrumentation of a jazz combo with its affiliated rich harmonic field.

I asked Kardonne for The Lanka Suite’s back story. The four-part composition was “inspired by a trip with my partner [the experimental electric guitarist] Nilan Perera to Sri Lanka in 2012. He wished to reconnect with family for the first time since the end of the conflict in 2009 and to talk to some of the generation of artists who had grown up in the midst of conflict, not as he had, in the diaspora.” While Kardonne was a complete stranger to the country, she recounts that “those things which were most new and strange nonetheless had parallels in my experience.” Her first-hand observations elicited contrasting emotions of joy as well as confusion. She also encountered a society in transition, rebuilding the fabric of families and institutions after a devastating 30-year civil war. One music seed was sown when Kardonne heard a girl sing to entertain fellow bus commuters on the A9 highway to Jaffna, the northernmost city on the South Asian island nation. She notated the girl’s song and it surfaced in the work’s first movement titled “A9 to Jaffna.”

On returning home, her life-altering experience compelled her to rethink her “own understanding of life back in Canada through the lens of what I learned from Sri Lanka.” The profound themes she explores in her lyrics for The Lanka Suite include Sri Lankans’ essential connection to the land and the importance of self-definition through politics, even though this trust seems inevitably doomed to be betrayed by the political class. The ravages borne by the abundant natural world and the shifting role of women are also examined.

When she first presented The Lanka Suiteat The Rex Hotel last year in its stripped down eight-musician version, the favourable audience reception centred on perceptions of cultural familiarity, despite the score’s vibrant mash-up of musical idioms. Various listeners “picked up on what in the music seemed familiar to them” reported the composer, “but I certainly felt vindicated when people told me ‘I hear you and that’s my music too.’” Infusing additional jazz sparkle to The Lanka Suite’s full airing at the Music Gallery, the multi-JUNO Award winningflute and soprano saxophonevirtuosa Jane Bunnett joins Kardonne, her seven-piece band The Thing Is, and the GREX choir.

Opening the evening is Khôra, the experimental music project of Toronto’s Matthew Ramolo. He performs his music on acoustic and electronic instruments, as well as field recordings and analogue/digital processing, summoning “the spirit of Eastern modes, contemporary classical, avant and sacred minimalism, experimental rock and various forms of electronic music.”

Other Picks:

2006-World-Radik_Tyulyush.jpgMarch 6 and 7, Tuvan singer Radik Tyulyush and Inuk diva Tanya Tagaq, two masters of throat singing, split the bill at the Aga Khan Museum, presented with the support of Small World Music. Though drawing on musically distinct cultures over 6,000 kilometres apart, it’s a rare pleasure for Toronto audiences to witness these outstanding performers on a single stage. The abundantly talented Tyulyush, a member of perhaps Tuva’s most successful music group Huun Huur Tu, is not only a leading performer of the several types of indigenous throat and “regular” singing, but is a master of several Tuvan instruments including the igil, doshpuluur, shoor and khomu. He’s a Tuvan rock star to boot. His set opens the concert.

Tagaq follows. I covered her Polaris Prize performance and reviewed her brilliant album Animism which sealed the win last fall in The WholeNote. There’s no doubt in my mind that she’s among the most musically, emotionally and politically compelling avant-garde vocalists working today. I’m not sure if I have ever deemed a performance a must-see in this column, but her live vocal confrontation, accompanied by her band, of a screening of the silent film Nanook of the North (1922) is such a show.

March 12 at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Japan’s Kodo Drummers return to Toronto, after a four-year absence, with their “Kodo One Earth Tour: Mystery.” I’ve seen them before and this taiko (Japanese drum) group which has been setting the bar high for decades keeps improving, making theatrically engaging, powerful music. For those who have never seen them live, they also incorporate various flutes and other Japanese instruments in their precision shows. “Mystery” is the second Kodo program directed by the famous kabuki actor Tamasaburō Bandō, designated a National Living Treasure in Japan. He became Kodo’s artistic director in 2012, and during his tenure has aimed to deepen Kodo’s theatricality and to give more prominence to women performers. Of special interest, the pre-show discussion at 7pm features members of Toronto’s Nagata Shachu Japanese Taiko and Music Ensemble examining the history of taiko in Japan, the various drums used in performance, the costumes worn, how the music is taught and learned, as well as the development of the modern taiko movement led by groups such as Kodo.

March 26, the Mississauga- based singer and songwriter Vandana Vishwas presents a selection of her sugam sangeet songs at the Musideum. Songs in the ghazal, bhajan, geet, thumri, folk, Indo-jazz and light classical genres, often reflected on Indian film soundtracks, are collectively known as sugam sangeet. Vishwas, who performed for ten years as an All India Radio artist until she left India, is accompanied by George Koller, one of Toronto’s favourite bass and dilruba players, tabla maestro Ed Hanley and Vishwas Thoke on acoustic guitar.

 March 29 the Small World Music Society in association with Batuki Music Society presents the Toronto debut of Tal National, Niger’s most popular group, at the Drake Underground. Drawing on regional West African music genres like highlife, soukous, Afrobeat and desert blues, Tal National has evolved a joyous dance-centric music driven by drums, guitars and deep grooves. While at home they are known to play till daybreak, bets are off that will happen at the Drake. One sure thing however: the relentless cyclical energy of their music will propel dancers far longer than even they thought possible.

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

2005_-_Beat_-_World_-_Ruth_Mathiang.pngSince 2008 the Batuki Music Society has been tirelessly promoting African music and art in Toronto, seeking out local artists and working with them to book venues. It does much more than typical presenters however, providing the valuable service of advising musicians on career development, recording and touring. Moreover, Batuki appears to have an even larger social mission. As expressed on the society’s website, it provides “visibility and necessary publicity to artists who hail from minority groups by placing them in concerts and festivals in mainstream venues to help them integrate.” Incorporated as a non-profit community-based organization in 2008 by artistic director Nadine McNulty, Batuki’s artistic vision encourages local African musicians to participate in enriching the diverse arts and cultural scene through live music concerts, visual arts exhibits, film, spoken word/poetry, dance and festivals.

Spiritual Songs of Sub-Saharan Africa

Batuki Music Society’s programming usually heats up during Black History Month and this February is no exception. On February 14 it is presenting “Spiritual Songs of Sub-Saharan Africa” at the theatre of the Alliance Française de Toronto. Reflecting spirituality in African music, the songs are rooted in multiple genres performed across the vast continent, from Guinean griot and Ghanaian highlife and gospel, to South Sudanese spirituals, Ethiopian soul, back to Congolese rumba and Zimbabwean spirit music. 

2005_-_Beat_-_World_-_Cheka_Kaetnen_Dioubate.pngThe concert’s curatorial aim is to present the evolving nature of African music from its rural roots to its contemporary urban and transnational mediations, with an emphasis on its spiritual content. The performers have been drawn from Toronto’s rich pool of sub-Saharan African musical talent. Confirmed are seven of the city’s finest African singers, Frederica Ackah, griot Cheka Katenen Dioubate, Ruth Mathiang, Blandine Mbiya, Evelyn Mukwedeya, Memory Makuri, and Netsanet Melesse. The seven singers are backed by an impressive band consisting of Donne Roberts (guitar), Tichaona Maredza (rhythm guitar), Quandoe Harrison (bass), Fantahun Shewankochew Mekonnen (acoustic krar), Kofi Ackah (drums, percussion), Ruben Esguerra (congas), and Amadou Kienou (djembe). 

I’d like to sample the rich program for you. Performing the songs of the Shona people of Zimbabwe will be Evelyn Mukwedeya and Memory Makuri accompaning themselves on the mbira (sometimes called thumb piano), as well as hand clapping, hosho and dancing. The playing of the mbira dzavadzimu, which used to be a deeply entrenched male preserve, is an important ingredient in conducting healing ceremonies among Shona communities. In the 1970s Stella Chiweshe, also a traditional healer, challenged that male exclusivity, becoming one of the first female mbira players. She is now a role model for younger women like Mukwedeya and Makuri.

Blandine Mbiya, a singer and songwriter from the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo performs songs in the gospel-inspired rumba genre as well as those in the so-called bazombo trance music. The latter – the Bazombo are members of the much larger Bakongo group whose communities lie near the Angola and DRC borders – is a music genre reputedly associated with witchcraft and other ceremonies, though solid evidence of this is hard to locate for outsiders. On the other hand, the popular DRC rumba (aka African rumba, which also overlaps with soukous), exhibits Cuban and older Franco-Belgian missionary choral strains. Rumba’s rise to prominence has been directly linked to the suppression of the Congo’s indigenous spiritual music practices during the colonial period.

Cheka Katenen Dioubate is a Guinean griot whose job description includes storyteller, historian, poet, musician and praise singer. Griots are central to the maintenance of Mande traditions in West Africa. Serving as a living archive, they are keepers and singers of the oral history and culture of the people, performing at marriages, funerals and other rites of passage. Dioubate brings to the stage a powerful voice and commanding presence, as befits the griot who must serve as intermediary between generations of her ancestors and her living audience.

Our last stop in this incomplete concert preview is Ethiopia, as represented by the songs of Netsanet Mellesse. This singer has an impressive recording back catalogue, having produced traditional Ethiopian, pop and gospel albums back home. One of Ethiopia’s finest krar players and composers Fantahun Shewankochew Mekonnen will accompany Mellesse at the Alliance Francaise.

2005_-_Beat_-_World_-_Hugh_Masekela.pngVusi Mahlasela and Hugh Masekela: This is not Batuki Music Society’s only big presentation this month. On February 28, in association with Koerner Hall, they co-present “Vusi Mahlasela and Hugh Masekela: 20 Years of Freedom.” This concert is billed as “freedom songs honouring 20 years of democracy in South Africa and the official end of apartheid” and headlines the trumpeter, singer and composer Masekela and singer/songwriter Mahlasela. 

The award-winning Mahlasela, known as The Voice in his home country, is celebrated for his distinct, powerful voice and his poetic lyrics. He has released seven studio albums on Sony and worked with numerous international recording stars. His songs of hope with themes of struggle for freedom, but also forgiveness and reconciliation with enemies, inspired many in the anti-apartheid movement.

In his eighth decade, Masekela, the world-renowned multifaceted musician and defiant political voice, is still going strong. Credited as one of the founders of world fusion music, his global career began in the South Africa of the 1950s with stylist roots which tapped into jazz (ragtime, jive, swing, doo-wop, bop), musicals and pop, as well as multiple African genres including mbaqanga, South African music with rural Zulu roots. His group, the Jazz Epistles, released the first African jazz LP in 1959, followed by 40 more albums over his career. His 1986 anti-apartheid anthem Bring Home Nelson Mandela (1986) was an inspiration and rallying cry around the world at the time. After decades in exile, following the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, Masekela returned to live in South Africa. It may well be on the Koerner Hall program celebrating twenty years of South Africa’s democracy.

Other picks:

February 6 The Royal Conservatory’s World Music series presents Pavlo and his band at Koerner Hall. The Toronto native with two Juno Award nominations who goes by a single name, Pavlo may have coined the term “Mediterranean guitar sound” for his brand of music, but for his current tour Pavlo integrates “exotic instruments,” as the promotion notes. His fans can expect Pavlo’s signature sound with acoustic Spanish guitar upfront in the mix, but also infused with Chinese erhu, Portuguese guitarra, Arabic ney, Indian sitar and Greek bouzouki.

Also February 6 the Small World Music Centre’s still new intimate theatre is undertaking its first screening, rescheduled from last year. The Stirring of a Thousand Bells (2014) by emerging  American filmmaker Matthew Dunning is an experimental documentary consisting of two videos taking the audience on a kaleidoscopic visual and musical tour of life in Surakarta, a city in Java, Indonesia. It features footage of its centuries-old royal court gamelan music and dance culture, still vital today. A live music concert “Imaginary Soundtrack for Ambient Worlds: Indonesia meets Canada” by the Andrew Timar and Bill Parsons Duo, playing Indonesian kacapi and suling, will begin the program. (Yes I’m that Andrew Timar).

February 8, the Flato Markham Theatre audience will be in for a treat a concert that showcases two generations of one family with a proud musical lineage, encompassing several strands of world music. Amjad Ali Khan, the renowned veteran maestro of the sarod (Hindustani plucked lute) is joined by his sarod-playing sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan for this rare three sarod concert. Billed as “The Sarod Project,” percussionists Issa Malluf (Arabic/Middle Eastern percussion) and ace Toronto tabla player Vineet Vyas join the soloists.

Hindustani music is certainly Khan’s forte but in the first set he will demonstrate his affinity for an even wider sweep of musical geography, ranging from various regions of India to the Middle East. His sons Amaan and Ayaan will then demonstrate their traditional Hindustani music cred by performing a raga to be announced at the hall, exemplifying the living tradition that has been passed down from father to son for several generations “Music is the greatest wealth in our family,” confirmed Amjad Ali Khan. 

February 13 and 14 the Aga Khan Museum in partnership with the Aga Khan Music Initiative presents “Wu Man and the Sanubar Tursun Ensemble” at the AKM auditorium. This multicultural meeting of the Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man and the celebrated Uyghur singer Sanubar Tursun, explore ancient cultural links between Chinese and Central Asian music traditions. Wu Man, who has multiple Grammy Award nominations as well as the 1999 City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize to her credit, is a cross-cultural collaboration veteran. She’s worked extensively with the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, among several others. Sanubar Tursun, who has become an iconic Uyghur cultural figure, employs her delicate, sensuous yet also athletic vocals in renditions of classical muqam and folk songs. The soloists are accompanied by an ensemble of Uyghur musicians.

If these concerts are any indication, it promises to be a rich and musically eventful February.

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


World 25My last column, highlighting the music programming at the Aga Khan Museum, noted the concert appearance of Toronto’s award-winning group Autorickshaw at the AKM auditorium on November 15. I attended the show to get an overview of their current repertoire, the range of which is wide and the boundaries fluid.

In addition to arrangements of South Indian classical and folk songs, original songs and numbers based on tala principles (overlapping Carnatic solkattu and Hindustani tabla bols) alternated with good-humoured ironic takes on 1970s Bollywood hit film songs. “Autorickshawified” hybrid adaptations of songs by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen – “Bird on a Wire” rendered in a relaxed 7/4 – and the jazz standard “Caravan” were among my personal favourites. While vivacious vocalist Suba Sankaran, the heart of the group, claimed front stage centre for most of the concert, the skilled band comprised of Dylan Bell (bass/keyboards/beatboxing), Ed Hanley (tabla), with Ben Riley (drum set) and John Gzowski (guitar) stepping in for the night, shone in solos. “Caravan” was a rollicking example.

Well into Autorickshaw’s second decade of genre-blending musicking, summing up its repertoire, which is very often multi-genre and transnational in reach, is not an effortless undertaking; especially so for a persnickety listener like me. Autorickshaw’s website nevertheless helpfully weighs in, situating its music “on the cultural cutting edge, as contemporary jazz, funk and folk easily rub shoulders with the classical and popular music of India.”

That statement makes such hybridization sound like an easy reach. It’s anything but. Anyone who has seriously attempted it, or listened to fusion experiments where genres from across the world “easily rub shoulders,” knows how easy it is to fail to satisfy musical expectations – and for many reasons. In fact it is one of the most difficult forms of musical alchemy to pull off effectively and gracefully. Having persevered as a group for a dozen years Autorickshaw is proof that diligent work in the transcultural song mines can pay off. In their case it’s been rewarded with two JUNO nominations for World Music Album of the Year and the 2005 Canadian Independent Music Award. In 2008 they were awarded the John Lennon Songwriting Competition Grand Prize in World Music, in addition to the CAPACOA Touring Artist of the Year.

Autorickshaw’s web statement also accurately geographically locates the overlapping bi-continental musical territories the group primarily explores: North America and the Indian subcontinent. Furthermore testing the effectiveness of such transculturalism in the fire of international audiences via touring seems an essential part of the group enterprise. Autorickshaw has done just that. It’s been on the road exporting its “Canadian-made Indo-fusion” not only across its Canadian home base, the U.S.A. and Europe, but also to India during a three-week tour in late 2006.

As I write this the Autorickshaw Trio consisting of Sankaran, Hanley and Bell is preparing for an unprecedented two-month subcontinent-wide tour of at least two dozen dates in ten projected cities in India and Nepal (in Pokhara and Kathmandu). Departing Toronto on November 28, “we are acting as our own agents, mainly cold-calling our way to India and Nepal” wrote Sankaran in an email interview, building on “contacts [made] the last time we toured India.” She further predicted that “once on the ground, we will likely be approached to do other performances in the various regions we are touring. This happened the last time around as well, so we’re trying to build some buffer time for that.”

I asked about the sort of venues they will be playing. Sankaran commented on their diversity. “We are doing a variety of shows, from soft-seaters to outdoor festivals, from clubs to hotel dates, house concerts, workshops in ashrams, and collaborating with string and choral departments in schools; the majority are performances, [but] we’re offering some workshops as well.”

The incentive for the tour initially came from the group’s desire to commemorate, on December 3, 2014 the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal “gas tragedy,” widely considered the world’s worst industrial disaster. Sankaran and Hanley have a personal commitment to the affected people of that city. In 2009 they co-wrote and recorded the song “The City of Lakes.” All proceeds from the song go to the Bhopal Medical Appeal which funds two local clinics offering free healthcare to thousands of survivors. While in Bhopal the Autorickshaw Trio will also appear as the opening act at the Indian premiere of the motion picture about the disaster, A Prayer for Rain, starring Martin Sheen. Another focal point of the tour is the promotion of songs from its strong new album Humours of Autorickshaw, in newly-minted trio arrangements.

In an email interview with Hanley I wondered how exporting Autorickshaw’s hybrid music to South Asia compared to performing and marketing it domestically. He replied with insight and humour: “There may be weight to the Canadian adage that you can’t ‘make it’ at home until you make it elsewhere. I’m not sure why that seems to be true, but anecdotally it does seem to be the case. We’re not trying to make it in India, but perhaps to lay foundations for future tours … The fact that we incorporate a lot of traditional Indian classical elements in our music seems to be a gateway for South Asian audiences. It’s [also] always nice to represent Canada and Canadian music,” on the international stage, therefore “we’re looking forward to playing some Autorickshawified Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Canadian folk songs (“J’entends le Moulin” with solkattu and tabla bols anyone?)”

I asked Hanley how he expected the various genres their repertoire explores to resonate with tour audiences. “We will definitely adapt our repertoire to the venue and audience. For example we’re doing some Christmas carols with local musicians in Darjeeling – at their request. That should be fun!” He added: “New audiences are always an adventure. There is a magic in performing for people who know, and perhaps like, your music, but there’s a very different kind of magic playing for an audience who has never heard you before, hearing the music … for the first time.”

As for South Asian sales of Autorickshaw music mediated via physical product vs downloads, Hanley noted that they “will take some CDs, and will ship a box ahead. We will carry a lot of download cards, which we can give away as a musical business card, or sell much cheaper than a physical CD. [Plus] all our music is online [and we’ve uploaded] lots of videos onto our YouTube channel.”

Hanley neatly summed up the music scene in India: “It’s really happening [with] clubs popping up. There are festivals galore, with lots of bands producing original music. What we do might come from a different place simply because we grew up in Canada and have a strong Western foundation in various forms such as pop, jazz etc. And why are Indian presenters eager to present us? I’m not sure. Could it be our [unique] Canadian perspective on our blend of styles?

On one hand Autorickshaw’s two-month tour sounds like a grand adventure in (re)encountering the roots of some of the musical streams it has been exploring throughout its collective career. It will also no doubt expand the awareness among South Asian audiences of a Canadian world music accent. I for one will enjoy reading the trio’s “reports from the road,” vicariously experiencing their musical travels which will take them on December 15 to the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory, Nepal, and on January 26 to SpringFest in Kharagpur, India.

Following are some of the stories I would likely have written about in depth had I not been sidetracked into talking about covert world music elements embedded in Canadian Christmas repertoire (Aaron Davis, page 14) and Canadian world musicians about to embed themselves in South Asia.

Small World Music Centre: December 5 Nazar-i Turkwaz (My Turquoise Gaze), four leading singers and instrumentalists on the Toronto world music scene, take the Centre’s stage. Brenna MacCrimmon, Maryem Tollar, Sophia Grigoriadis and Jayne Brown are the remarkable musicians whose appearance at the Aga Khan Museum I wrote about last month. Having collected, performed and recorded songs from Turkey, the Middle East, Greece and the Balkans for decades, you can expect masterful renditions of this repertoire, “cultivating a sweet sonic union” along the way.

December 6 may well mark a first in my column: a musical film screening. The Centre presents two films by American director Matthew Dunning collectively tilted The Stirring of a Thousand Bells (2014), released on DVD by the hipster Seattle, Washington label Sublime Frequencies. This fascinating niche publisher focuses exclusively on “acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers.” Its roster encompasses audio field recordings, repackaged folk and pop compilations, radio collages and DVDs, mostly from Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.

Dunning’s films take viewers on a musical-visual journey of life in Central Java, Indonesia, focussing on gamelan music, a regional orchestral practice unbroken – though continuously shifted geographically, refreshed stylistically and hybridized – for some four centuries. In the city of Solo, where a Sultan still reigns, gamelan and its meditative palace dances remain a part of everyday life. I’ve been to Java five times studying and playing gamelan, and still feel like a beginner in the face of the complex interactive music’s inner workings and emotional life. The director will be present to contextualize his own gamelan practice and his films.

Ensemble Polaris: January 18, 2015 at 2pm the Gallery Players of Niagara present Ensemble Polaris in “Definitely Not the Nutcracker” at the Silver Spire United Church, St. Catharines. This fun concert celebrates Tchaikovsky’s popular music for the ballet but with a whimsical twist. Arrangements by the Ensemble alternate with songs and instrumentals from the Russian folk tradition. The instrumentation gives a hint of what they’re up to. Marco Cera (guitar, jarana barroca); Kirk Elliott (violin, Celtic harp, mandolin); Margaret Gay (cello, guiro); Katherine Hill (voice, nyckelharpa); Alison Melville (baroque flute, recorders); Colin Savage (clarinet, bass clarinet); Debashis Sinha (percussion, birimbao) and Jeff Wilson (percussion, musical saw). This new year why not stretch your musical legs, travel to St. Catharines and experience something other than customary?

Master Shajarian: January 31, 2015 [postponed to the fall of 2015] Persian master singer, composer, teacher and instrument innovator Mohammad Reza Shajarian takes centre stage at Roy Thomson Hall. Shajarian has been widely celebrated and decorated at home and internationally. UNESCO in France presented him in 1999 with the prestigious Picasso Award, one of Europe’s highest honours. In 2006 he was decorated with the UNESCO Mozart Medal and he has twice been nominated for the Grammy for Best World Music album. I had the privilege of hearing him sing about a decade ago and was impressed with his mastery of the difficult classical dastgah idiom. His vocal performances are justly savoured for their technical beauty, power and strong emotional presence. This concert is another good way to celebrate your good luck in reaching 2015 in good nick.

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

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