No doubt about it, it’s a supremely busy time of year. It means not only attending to seasonal family rituals, as many of us are, but also for a returning grad student like me it means essays, seminars presentations, assignments and yet more papers to complete — but enough about me.

worldview labottinesourianteThe year end is not only about completion, but also about reflection. Leafing through my back pages it seems that the past year has been a thematically ambitious one in this column. Beginning with ruminations on what World Music can be and who its performers and concertgoers are, I went on to examine the many ways Torontonians celebrate Black History Month. In turn the spotlight rested on the World Music recorded music category at the Juno awards, on the annual celebration in honour of South India’s greatest composer St. Tyagaraja, and on the Lula Lounge’s 10th anniversary shows. Billy Bryans’ untimely death led me to re-consider Toronto’s pioneer generation of world music performers, producers, venues and audiences, while the wealth of programing at Luminato and Harbourfront Centre stole the limelight in the summer issues. Fall colours ushered in a meditation on John Cage’s Toronto composition for a veteran actor on this city’s concert and world music scenes: the Evergreen Club Gamelan. In the last issue I horned in on the edgy electronic-centric “avant world” universe covered by the Music Gallery’s X Avant Festival. It’s been a musically packed, theme-filled year here.

As for my picks for this season’s concerts, December for me usually means re-dipping into the history, mystery and magic of Christmas rituals. The Canadian “high energy Celtic World Beat quartet” Rant Maggie Rantputs their fans into the holiday mood with their programtitled “Frost & Fire — A Celtic Christmas Celebration” staged at numerous southern Ontario halls. Best check the WholeNote listings for details. Also, the high-energy La Bottine Souriante, Quebec’s purveyor of French-Canadian music with pronounced salsa, jazz and folk influences, plays Koerner Hall on December 8.

If saudade puts you in the mood however, then perhaps Jessie Lloyd and Louis Simao’s show “Fado, the Soul of Portugal” at the Green Door Cabaret will do the trick on December 1. On the other hand Amanda Martinez, our own Latin-Canadian singer-songwriter, might be the ticket to lifting your spirits at Koerner Hall on the same night.

At noon on December 5 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, four of Toronto’s finest gigging world musicians troll the season’s more whimsical global side in an all-ages concert titled “GrimmFest: Fairy Tales from Faraway Lands.” The musicians are vocalist Maryem Tollar, Roula Said, vocals/dance/percussion, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, and Waleed Abdulhamid on bass/percussion/vocals. Also at the Four Seasons Centre on December 13 the Jeng Yi Korean Drum and Dance Ensemble, featuring Joo Hyung Kim on Korean zither, perform a program with the enticing label “Drums, Strings and Ribbons.” If West Africa is where you’d rather be mid-December, then be there in spirit at the Dande Music Showcase’s CD release concert of Bongozozo, an Afro-Jazz band with Zimbabwean roots, at the May Café on the 15th.

worldview buika1stchoiceAs much as December is about reflection, January and the New Year means new beginnings for many of us. The month starts slowly, but by January 18 it is in full swing with the concert by the groups Soledad Barrio, Noche Flamenca and the Jorge Miguel Flamenco Ensemble at the Royal Conservatory of Music. More flamenco, this time with a decidedly jazz-infused flavour served up by Buika, graces Koerner Hall on January 25. Ending the month on the afternoon of the 27th is Soundstreams’ adventurous production of “The Three Faces of Jerusalem,” including music and poetry exploring the shared heritages of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Torontonian composer James Rolfe’s as yet unnamed new work will be unveiled. On the traditional side of the program: Sephardic songs, Arabic instrumental and vocal works, as well as Lauda Jerusalem, by the great Italian renaissance composer Monteverdi. I think it’s a fittingly optimistic way to greet the New Year. May yours be peaceful and filled with music. 

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

Perhaps one of the most unexpected venues for regular world music performance in our town is the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. As a performance space it is both casually chic and spatially flexible. This month, with two concerts scheduled, I thought it would be an opportune time to examine both the institutional framework and artistic talent which serves up this perennially bountiful world music smorgasbord.

The COC has hosted a noon hour World Music concert series since its inaugural season in 2006, an integral component of their larger series of free concerts. Its ambition as noted in a COC press communiqué is to “reflect in its programming the richness of Toronto’s cultural fabric and create an opportunity for people to experience the artistic excellence and cultural diversity of the city.” Over the past seven years it has become a dependable showcase for international music, very often performed by top musicians who make their home in the GTA.

If success can be measured by audience attendance then the World Music concert series is a runaway hit; whenever I’ve attended there has appeared to be a full house. COC stats show that some 15,000 people annually enjoy the various free concerts on offer from September to June. This is no mere fluke. Obvious care has been put into the curation of the series, reflecting both what our performing artists are producing today and what will convince audiences to make the trek at noon to witness in person. If success can be measured by community engagement then a compelling case can readily be made for the concerts’ collective breadth and depth. It’s personally satisfying to see that Nina Draganic, the programming director of the free World Music concert series, has not forgotten the often neglected “c” word — challenge — in the rush to maximize patron numbers.

This season the seriesencompasses nine diverse concerts embracing music blanketing the earth. I counted music from South Asia, East Asia, Western Europe, the Caucasus, North Africa, South America and the Caribbean.

On November 6 under the rubric “Many Strings Attached: Spotlight on Sarangi” Aruna Narayan, a pioneering sarangi virtuosa, headlines at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. The sarangi is a North Indian bowed 39-string instrument of considerable vintage, its playing technique challenging to tackle and supremely difficult to master. Ms. Narayan, the only woman to play this instrument professionally, is the daughter of the renowned sarangi master Pandit Ram Narayan. He single-handedly established the sarangi, formerly exclusively used to accompany vocalists, as a soloist in Hindustani classical music. She will perform in the classical khyal manner a concert of ragas selected from those appropriate to the time of day, accompanied by the drummed metric framework provided by the tabla and by the tambura, the plucked string instrument that establishes the indispensable drone throughout the performance.

What is she doing when not performing at the COC? Narayan maintains an active sarangi teaching atelier at her home just north of the city and teaches it at regional schools. She also keeps up an international concert career, having appeared in recent years with her father at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall and on India’s Doordarshan TV, as well as premiering the sarangi part in Nolan Ira Gasser’s World Cello for Cello and Orchestra with the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Nor has Narayan neglected home town audiences in her globetrotting. She’s appeared in the Music Gallery’s World Avant series, and crossed yet more musical borders in her 2007 performance with Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in a novel intercultural interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

28-29-worldview-darbaziDarbazi: November 13 the COC’s World Music concert series presents the Darbazi Georgian Choir directed by the charismatic tenor Shalva Makharashvili.The title of the concert,Gideli,”meansa grape harvest container. It’s not an unlikely thematic basket given that in Georgia fall is grape harvest season and the time to make the country’s favourite beverage from its juice. Many Georgian songs praise the vineyard, the grape and wine as divine gifts. Such songs are also characteristic of the supra–but more of that later. The Darbazi choir’s appearance in the COC series is a sharp counterpoint to the solo virtuoso concert tradition exemplified by Aruna Narayan, reflecting instead a kind of music making which is community based and polyphonic,

Founded 17 years ago in Toronto, the Darbazi ensemble passionately and exclusively focuses on performing the traditional polyphonic music of the various regions of Georgia, a mountainous country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Darbazi’s concerts typically mine rich repertoire which ranges from meditative sacred Orthodox ecclesiastical chants to exuberant songs meant for horse riding, field working, drinking, dancing and general partying. An exciting new feature of their recent Toronto performances has been the addition of the Georgian dance group, Kakheti, with their elegant couple dances and hyper-extended male leaps and spins fuelled by sheer machismo.

When not performing at the COC, Darbazi — the core of which is composed of three women and seven men — does its share of gigs which include Toronto’s Fete de la Musique and First Night, Montreal’s World Music Festival, concerts in St. John’s, Newfoundland and New York City. Yet over the years, no matter the gigs on the table, the choir has been on a quest for an ever deeper understanding of the place of music in Georgian heritage and identity. Furthering this key mission, Darbazi returned last month from its latest visit to the Georgian motherland where they learned new song repertoire from legendary Georgian cantors. They were also featured performers at the Recital Hall of the Conservatoire in the country’s capital, Tbilisi, appeared on the Georgian TV channel, Imedi, and were feted at several supras — that most Georgian of feasts — a key site for social and cultural interactions. Back in Toronto Darbazi also does weddings, baby showers and funerals. I’ve attended a number of Darbazi-powered Toronto supras. In fact an impromptu supra-like moment sprang up at one of my recent birthday parties. I always felt it was at these community events — after the staged concert — that these songs came to vivid, palpable life.

Other Concert Picks: At the top of the month is the Day of the Dead Festival, Mexico’s celebration of all that has passed, especially one’s ancestors — our Halloween. Harbourfront Centre is marking it with a wide range of daytime cultural events on November 3 and 4. Musical performers at the York Quay Centre include the guitarist Pedro Montejo, the Café Con Pan group, Jorge Salazar, Viva Mexico Mariachi and Jorge Lopez.

Also on November 3, Small World Music presents the well-known Cuban singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa at the Danforth Music Hall Theatre. First propelled to international attention as a member of the unlikely chart-topping Buena Vista Social Club, Ochoa is considered one of Cuba’s top soneros. Proudly displaying his guajiro roots, his folksy music exemplifies one of the streams which feed into the powerful current of Cuban music. His repertoire includes songs in the son, Afro-Cuban, bolero, changüi and guaracha genres.

Staying with Cuban music, on November 9 Alex Cuba performs at Koerner Hall. The Cuban-Canadian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is launching his latest album Ruida in el Sistema (Static in the System), combining tasty elements of rock, pop, soul and Latin funk. In 2010, Alex Cuba was awarded a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in addition to a nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Album, so we know he has studio and vocal chops galore. In his new CD, four tracks in English demonstrate that he is settling nicely into his adopted land — yes, really, in Smithers, B.C.

November 7 at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Anglican Church, Concerts at Middaypresents Viktor Kotov on the haunting sounding duduk, an Armenian double reed instrument, accompanied by Raisa Orshansky on tsimbaly, a trapezoidal hammer dulcimer from Belarus and Ukraine. Kotov’s arrangements of European classical instrumentals, jazz standards, blues, Broadway and film music serve as a basis for his improvisatory style of playing the duduk.

November 10 and 11 we move musically to an island at the other end of the globe, Japan. Toronto group Nagata Shachu, led by Kiyoshi Nagata, performs “Work Songs”at their 14th annual live show at the Enwave Theatre. Artistic director Kiyoshi Nagata, whose career spans 30 years, explains: “In Japan there is a saying, ‘Where there is work, there is song’ ... often cheerful and uplifting.” The concert, featuring many types of Japanese taiko, gongs, bells, wooden clappers, shakers, bamboo flutes and voice, is a tribute to labourers, farmers and fishermen.

The Métis Fiddler Quartet plays at the Alliance Française de Toronto on November 24. This young bilingual French-English group specialises in fresh and energetic interpretations of Canadian Métis and Native old style fiddle music passed down by elder masters from across Canada. This under-represented music chock full of wit, spirit and joy is worth searching out.

Touching on a few concerts early in December, on December 1 the Royal Conservatory presents Amanda Martinez at Koerner Hall. What more can I add to Metro’s assessment of Martinez’s Canadian-Latin singer-songwriter music, “reminiscent of the Latin songstress of days of old ... strong and defiant while soft and vulnerable.” In this concert, featuring influences of flamenco and Afro-Cuban rhythms, bossa nova and Mexican folk music, she collaborates with Spanish producer Javier Limón

December 6 the University of Toronto Faculty of Music stages its annual free “World Music Ensembles Concert” at the MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building. This year’s student ensembles include African Drumming and Dancing directed by Ghanaian master drummer Kwasi Dunyo, Klezmer by “klezpert” Brian Katz, and Japanese Taiko Drumming by sensei Kiyoshi Nagata. I used to attend this annual world music roundup eagerly when younger. Just two examples of my early discoveries were Balinese gamelan Semar Pegulingan and Southwest Iranian coastal folk music. What in the world will you discover? 

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


After a warm late summer, the nip is back in the air, just in time to herald the fall concert season. To Torontonians with adventurous musical tastes that signals the advent of another X Avant New Music Festival running from October 12 to 21and organized by the avant-garde presenter the Music Gallery. A fixture of the downtown scene for 36 years, its programing is dedicated to presenting “innovation and experimentation in all forms of music” as well as also encouraging “cross-pollination between genres, disciplines and audiences.” While this year’s theme, “Expanding Circuits,” focusses on music from laptops to home made junk shop sourced electronics to commercial synthesizers, incoming artistic director David Dacks has still skillfully managed to weave world music elements into his programming.

Suzuki + Dunn: The first world music concert at the Music Gallery this month, on October 4, is “New World Series: Akio Suzuki + Kyle Bobby Dunn.” While falling just prior to the X Avant festival, this concert exemplifies the risk taking attitude at the heart of the Music Gallery programing. Just what is “world music” about this concert? Examining the veteran instrument builder and psych-drone specialist musician Akio Suzuki’s ancestry and instrumentation reveals a few clues. His musical aesthetic is infused with wabi-sabi, a comprehensive Japanese world view of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Further characterized by asymmetry, asperity, austerity and intimacy, this aesthetic is permeated by a deep appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes. As for the instruments he plays, one of them, the ancient iwabue (stone flute), exemplifies those attributes. Having been passed down through his family for generations, this flute, made of naturally-formed large pebbles, is associated with Japanese Shinto ritual. The haunting, keening melodies Suzuki performs on it strike listeners as pure and simple — in the best way; antediluvian and contemporary at the same time. I witnessed a solo performance by this remarkable sound artist several decades ago and agree with the musician and author David Toop that “Akio Suzuki is a kind of magician.” Joining Suzuki is the rural Ontario-based minimalist composer Kyle Bobby Dunn, whose music is immersed in ambient, drone and post-classical composition genres.

Global bass:Commercial western record and concert production enterprises, specifically those headquartered in London, England, in the early 1980s, have often been cited as the origin of “World Music” as a marketing term. Ethnomusicologists such as Robert E. Brown and Peter Manuel, on the other hand, adapted it even earlier as an umbrella academic classification for a wide range of non-Western traditional musics. The general category has subsequently been redefined by both commercial and scholarly camps into numerous distinct regional subgenres primarily defined by geography, as well as hybrid sub-genres such asworldbeat, and fusion further described as world-, global- and ethnic-.

world view pages 28-29 chief boima option 1A concert on Friday October 12 titled “Global Bass Avant: Chief Boima, DJ Valeo and Daniel Vila” atthe Gladstone Ballroom on Queen St. W. reminds us that world music is an ever-evolving and highly contested notion. It also alerts us to the growing, energized role of the DJ and of the mashup and remix in this music. Part of the Music Gallery’s X Avant festival, this concert features three creative producer-DJs: NYC’s Chief Boima, Toronto-Montreal’s Valeo(aka Guillaume Decouflet), one of the founders of Montreal’s Masala radio show, and Daniel Vilawho isbehind the crypto-nightclub/art space, Double Double Land in Kensington Market, Toronto. All three musicians are active in cross-cultural musical experimentation as mediated by popular digital music technology. Taking the example of Chief Boima, his performances with the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars, Jahdan Blakkamoore and Los Rakas, plus his releases including African by the Bay (2009) and Techno Rumba (2010) demonstrate the increasingly central place of the DJ in world music of all stripes.

world view pages 28-29 john kameel farah option 2Farah: The last X Avant festival concert highlighted here is “From Carthage to Rome: John Kameel Farahscheduled forSunday October 21. Toronto-based award winning keyboardist and composer Farah is no stranger to the pages of The WholeNote. I’ve reviewed several of his CD releases including his Unfolding (2009), an ambitious composition which in style and musical language is a veritable musical alchemical amalgam, drawing from an incredibly varied range of Western and Middle Eastern contemporary and historical sources. In it, baroque musical instruments and forms rub musical shoulders with drum and bass dance beats, Arabic maqam-based improvising structuresand metres: all this presented as a ten movement piano concerto! “From Carthage to Romeis Farah’s segue, with more emphasis on Arabic song structures, instrumental samples and characteristic microtonal tunings, yet with his trademark bravura piano playing front and centre. In keeping with X Avant festival’s theme of “Expanding Circuits,laptopolist Matt Miller reinforces the concert’s North African content by reanimating his Moroccan field recordings through Ableton software, adding Berber, Gnawa and Jilala ethnic source music into the mix.

Other Picks

On October 7 Marcel Khalifé and the Al Mayadine Ensemble,presented by the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, perform musical settings of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish in the George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The late Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish was among the Arab world’s most revered poets. Translated into more than 25 languages his poetry touched on themes of exile, family, marginalization and identity. In the 1970s his poetry became a source of inspiration for the Lebanese composer, oud master and singer Marcel Khalifé, the recipient of many distinctions including the UNESCO Artist for Peace Award (2005). He is joined by the Al Mayadine Ensemble, an eight-piece group comprised of vocalists and musicians playing Middle Eastern and Western instruments. Their program, a fitting conclusion to the Palestine Film Festival, revisits and re-imagines the ties that bind the two powerful advocates of Arab culture: Darwish and Khalifé.

Despite the blustery fall weather outside, we may yet get another chance to experience the feel of summer this year at the second annual “Uma Nota Festival of Tropical Expressions.” Running October 19 to 21, Uma Nota, which primarily programs music concerts this year, imaginatively partners with the Brazil Film Fest, each supporting the other’s mandate. Friday, October 19 Uma Nota presents the Canadian debut of Stereo Maracanã from Rio de Janeiro, a popular four-piece band mixing electronic music, hip-hop, funk and capoeira percussion rhythms. Local Latin alternative and tropical bass experts Dos Mundos DJs and DJ Valeo join Stereo Maracanã at the El Mocambo. The party continues Saturday, October 20 at The Great Hall, with Uma Nota’s “World Funk” feast. Emerging Toronto bands including Sound One reproduce a 1950s Jamaican ska sound, while Mar Aberto Sound System merge Brazilian percussion-rich dub reggae, samba grooves and tropical funk. DJs General Eclectic and Jerus Nazdaq spin Afro-Brazilian remixes, ska, reggae, Afrobeat and Latin standards. For other events such as the fun World Roots Community Cultural Fair please check the festival website.

October 23 at noon, the Canadian Opera Company’s World Music Series stages “Pura Vida” in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The Venezuelan-born vocalist Eliana Cuevas is ably supported by Jeremy Ledbetter, piano, and Luis Orebgoso, percussion. World music producer Derek Andrews once called Cuevas, possessed of a samba and salsa jazz-inflected sexy voice, “a major new voice on the Canadian music landscape” and I am inclined to agree.

October 25 the York University Department of Music presents “Trichy Sankaran — Music of South India” on the Faculty Concert Series at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall, York University, Keele St. campus. The mrdangam (classical South Indian drum) virtuoso and York music professor Trichy Sankaran is joined by senior vina (seven-string classical South Indian plucked lute) guru Karakudi Subramanian, a ninth generation vina player, and Desi Narayanan on kanjira. While the remarkable 40-plus year Canadian teaching career of Sankaran has indelibly influenced several generations of Canadian and international students (including yours truly), he has made an equally important contribution to the art of mrdangam performance. This will be live Carnatic music performance at its most refined.

Sunday October 28, the Toronto interpreters of inter-cultural music Jaffa Road release their new CD, Where The Light Gets In at Hugh’s Room. The new album is Jaffa Road’s follow-up to their Juno Award nominated, debut CD Sunplace. The group, comprised of leading Toronto music innovators Aviva Chernick (vocalist), Aaron Lightstone (guitars, oud, saz, synthesizers), Sundar Viswanathan(sax), Chris Gartner (bass)and Jeff Wilson(percussion), blends jazz, Jewish, Arabic and South Asian music with electronics.

Also at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, on November 6 the World Music Series concert “Many Strings Attached: Spotlight on Sarangi” showcases Aruna Narayan, among the world’s premier sarangi players. The sarangi, a venerable Hindustani (North Indian) bowed string instrument is considered very difficult to master. Aruna Narayan, the daughter and artistic heir of renowned sarangi innovator and virtuoso Pandit Ram Narayan, is the only woman to play this “classical” instrument professionally. Narayan’s concerts, vehicles for her technical prowess and profound understanding of the performance practice of Hindustani ragas are all too rare. I for one therefore will not miss her brief concert of midday ragas.

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

14 world john cage  yokohama  1986  photographer -akira kinoshita  courtesy of the john cage trustReflecting on this month’s slew of anniversaries, I am marking on my calendar the 100th year of American composer John Cage’s birth, on September 5, and the 20th of his death. What does Cage the multi-faceted avant-garde modernist, the influential composer, music theorist, author, mycologist, poet, lecturer, musician and master of silence have to do with world music, our column’s purview? This is the subject of the present column’s lead story.

English musicologist David Nicholls, in his 1996 essay “Transethnicism and the American Experimental Tradition,” argues that the influence of musical transethnicism — a branch of experimental music allowing for mixing recognizable music genres often from differing cultures — on Cage’s compositions, is less overt than in the work of some his colleagues such as Lou Harrison, tending to be “ideological ... rather than the musical sounds or techniques.” For much of Cage’s career that may be the case; however there is a significant Cage work composed for a Toronto world music group in the last decade of his long and prolific career that may suggest differently.

My interest in Cage’s music is highly personal: it began in my last years of high school, mediated by shiny new LPs. During my undergrad years at York University this vinyl-based curiosity developed into an active interest. I studied and played his music under the tutelage of Cage’s students and colleagues such as composition professor James Tenney. In the 1970s and 1980s Cage’s avant-garde celebrity was growing and there seemed to be ample opportunity to see him here in person. New Music Concerts brought him to Toronto repeatedly. I also attended a performance of the touring Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, a company he was associated with for five decades as musician, composer and music director.

Canadian composer Udo Kasemets, an early Cage follower and adaptor, had performed Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano in 1963. Kasemets subsequently brought Cage and Marcel Duchamp to Toronto to perform at the Ryerson Theatre in 1968. By 1981, along with composer Miguel Frasconi, I felt well enough acquainted with Cage’s work to tackle an interview with him, published in Musicworks. My creative intersection with Cage and his work culminated in 1986/87. It was during that exciting time that I witnessed, firsthand, the genesis of Cage’s Haikai, participating in extensive rehearsals of the score and in the premiere performance.

Haikai was composed not for a new music group of Western concert instruments, but for the gamelan ensemble of the Toronto-based Evergreen Club, founded in 1983 by Canadian composer Jon Siddall. The group consisted of eight professional musicians who collectively played a particular type of gamelan called degung, indigenous to the West Javanese region of Indonesia. The Evergreen Club was Canada’s first performing gamelan and by the mid-1980s the group was beginning to make a name commissioning dozens of new works, performing them about town and recording them for broadcast on the CBC.

In 1986 John Cage was approached by Siddall, EC’s artistic director, to come visit its gamelan degung, Si Pawit, a name which in the Sundanese language of West Java means “honourable foundation.” James Tenney (still at York University) was already writing a piece for prepared piano and gamelan degung for an upcoming EC concert. Tenney was a former Cage student and Siddall took advantage of that personal connection to call Cage to inform him of his plan to combine Cage’s 1940 invention, the prepared piano, with gamelan. During Cage’s next lecture trip to Ontario, he visited the Beach neighbourhood of Queen St. E. where Siddall and his Si Pawit resided. I was to take part in Cage’s brief visit, and was on my way down Leslie St., but was unfortunately stuck in a minor gas-station fender bender. The following, therefore, is my, alas, second-hand account of John Cage’s only visit to Si Pawit, which I share with you for the first time, courtesy of my long-time friend and colleague Jon Siddall who served as Cage’s sole host and gamelan degung guide in my absence.

On arrival, Cage set to work exploring the individual characteristic sounds of the Si Pawit instruments with his own hands. In the Cageian spirit of playful experiment he turned the rows of gongs of two of the instruments, bonang and jengglong, upside-down and played their rims with mallets. The resulting unpredictable sounds so delighted him that he scored upended gongs, bowed and coaxed with mallets of graduated hardness, at the heart of his new work. His imagination wandered one step further: he wondered about spinning the gongs on the floor on their knobbed centres! Siddall knew then that Cage “was hooked.” Cage however stopped himself from taking that particular radical action, thinking out loud that it might not be beneficial for the instruments.

Cage worked on Haikai (1986) during a busy time in his career. He had begun work on his first opera project, Europeras 1 & 2, and I find it remarkable that he made the time to prepare a new work for a young, as yet little proven, gamelan group in Toronto. Perhaps it was Evergreen Club’s dedication to numerous rehearsals to finesse new compositions that secured Cage’s dedication to the project. In three weeks the beautifully hand written score — even the organic looking staff was drawn by Cage’s pen — was completed and sent. The work is dedicated “for Si Pawit, gamelan degung of the Evergreen Club.” This collegial dedication reveals Cage’s focus on the individual characteristics of this particular gamelan (Si Pawit), and also honours the performing group, the musicians who bring the score to life.

The commission didn’t go unnoticed by the local media. Toronto Star music critic William Littler, in his preview article “Ensemble to Debut Asian-influenced Cage Work,” takes a bemused, if friendly, stance. “There, in a second-floor Richmond St. studio the other night, sat eight men in stocking feet, squatting before a collection of bronze gongs and xylophones, wooden drums and a single flute ...”

For all of its innovation — the gongchimes turned upside down, bowed gong rims and what the score calls “Korean unison” (essentially chords of unmeasured entry, dynamic and duration) — the score reflects in its open spirit aspects of idiomatic gamelan practice with considerable sensitivity. This is a surprisingly canny achievement for a composer who had not formally studied any sort of gamelan instrumentation or had musical practice in it. Haikai does however bear the earmarks of two of the structural forms Cage adopted from Asian literary sources and repeatedly used in his compositional method: the I Ching, and haiku, the Japanese poetic form. The poetic haiku structure typically consists of the syllable count 5:7:5 spread over three lines. Cage adapted this structure in Haikai, through hand gestures indicating silences, notated in the score in the conventional manner, by fermata.

14 world eccgs gamelan degung at glenn gould studio  cbc  toronto  2010-11  1280x623 In Evergreen Club gamelan’s April 5, 1987, premiere performance at Toronto’s Premiere Dance Theatre, it is precisely during these fermata-marked moments in Haikai, when the performers are attentively “resting” yet actively listening, that the real Cageian magic emerges. It is only then that the customary invisible wall between performers and audience, and the physical one between the concert hall and the sounds of the outside world, become permeable, and are able to intermingle. The delighted group director Siddall acknowledged, “It is different from anything we have ever performed ... For me, it’s like nature, like a walk in the forest, where there is randomness but a sense of organization as well.”

The following morning, the music critic Ronald Hambleton of the Toronto Star was intrigued, if less delighted, writing in an ironic tone, “They used to praise the poet Coleridge, who could bore his friends by talking non-stop for hours, for his occasional ‘brilliant flashes of silence.’ But John Cage, the innovative 75-year old American composer, has a gift for prolonged silences broken by a few brilliant flashes of musical sound. He stretched that gift to a full 25 minutes of what he called ‘events’ in the eight parts of his Haikai ... ”

From today’s vantage point, what do we make of the legacy of this 26 year old work? For one thing, it marks a rare moment when the career modernist John Cage connected with a new/world music group, one of his few works dedicated to Canadian performers. For another, Haikai turns out to be Cage’s only composition for gamelan. Radios, turntables, electronics, conches, cacti and paper aside, in much of his extensive oeuvre Cage primarily composed for Western musical instruments and ensembles. In Haikai, however, he made a significant exception, expressly scoring for an Indonesian gamelan degung. The work stands up as an effective work for the gamelan instruments it was written for as well as accurately reflecting core mature Cageian philosophical notions.

As for the Evergreen Club (called the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan since 2000), it has not forgotten Haikai, Cage’s gift. This season, ECCG is celebrating not only its unique connection to John Cage on his 100th, but also surviving 30 years ourselves! ECCG is programming three concerts of works later this season, featuring works by Cage, Harrison, Tenney and Canadians including Gordon Monahan, to be performed by the emerging Toronto-based percussion ensemble TorQ along with ECCG’s gamelan.

Ashkenaz: Speaking of 30th anniversaries, mazel tov to Finjan, the Winnipeg klezmer revival pioneers! The well-known band plays in the Ashkenaz Festival, Harbourfront Centre, Saturday September 1 at 8pm on the Westjet stage. Ashkenaz, in this year’s programming, focuses on the diversity of Jewish music, art and artists from around the world, straddling the Labour Day weekend, a time which sparks atavistic fears of the end of summer! So visit Harbourfront and enjoy some of the best diasporic music this season before the summer fades altogether into a faint pleasant memory.

I can only list a few highlights here, so I will focus on music new to me. September 1: Veretski Pass, a trio from California, offers Carpathian, Romanian, Polish and Ottoman styles, mixed with dances from Moldavia and Bessarabia, Hutzul wedding music from Ruthenia, and Rebetic melodies from Smyrna, all woven together with original compositions; and Opa!, a hot post-Soviet “world music party band,” flavouring its vodka with klezmer, reggae, ska and funk, rocks out the night. September 2: the eight-member group Shashmaqam performing classical and folk music of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the liturgical repertoire of the Bukharan Jews; Abayudaya, representing the musical traditions of Uganda’s Jewish community; and Israeli Shye Ben Tzur whose music is pithily billed as “East Indian Jewish Qawwali.” The festival wraps on Monday September 3 with a performance by Mexico City’s Klezmerson, interpreting Jewish klezmer music from its Mexican viewpoint. Please visit The WholeNote listings and the Ashkenaz Festival’s own well-appointed website for details.

Two more: Moving on, Sunday September 9, the Music Gallery hosts a concert called Afro-European Soundscapes, featuring Werner Puntigam, Matchume Zango, Evelyn Mukwedeya and Memory Makuri. The latter two Zimbabwean musicians have performed with the stars Thomas Mapfumo, Stella Chiweshe, and many regional bands. Part of the Music Gallery’s New World Series, this concert is co-presented with Toronto’s Batuki Music Society. It is billed as “an interactive encounter between South and East African inspirations, European tonalities and electronic transformations accompanied by visual commentary.”

On Saturday September 22, the Brotherhood Concert Series presents two choruses, the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus (Detroit), and the Hoosli Ukrainian Male Chorus (Winnipeg) at the Ryerson Theatre. These Ukrainian male choruses, North America’s finest, have as an integral part of their sound an orchestra of banduras, the zither-lute which is often called “the voice of Ukraine.”

Small World Music: We have become so used to Small World Music’s Fall Festival ushering in the new season with an ambitious array of global talent that it is hard to believe this year marks the 11th iteration of the event. Consisting of ten concerts in six different venues, the 2012 Fall Festival launches September 20 at Lula Lounge with two groups: The Battle of Santiago mashes Afro-Cuban rhythms, rock guitar, dub bass and a sax and flute duo into what they call Afro-Cuban Post-Rock; and dance-party band Rambunctious, whose lineup is described as “Nine horns + one drummer = dance party” follows. Be prepared to dance!

The next day Fanfare Ciocarlia, a 12-piece Roma brass band takes The Hoxton stage. Beginning as a Romanian wedding band they have played over 1000 concerts in 50 countries, featuring an audience-winning formula of high velocity, high energy precision playing, enhanced by close miking and intense PA volumes, and wild virtuosic solos. Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra, our own “Balkan Klezmer Gypsy Party-Punk Super Band” opens.

September 22, Small World presents a daylong free “festival within the festival” at Dundas Square. Just a few of the acts: Jayme Stone, Bageshree Vaze, Aline Morales, Kendra Ray, Maracatu Mar Aberto, Lemon Bucket Orkestra and The Battle of Santiago.

September 23, the venue is the more intimate Glenn Gould Studio with a concert featuring Toronto’s Azalea Ray, only student of ghazal maestro Fareeda Khanum. Armed with North Indian classical vocal training, she performs in several Hindustani music genres. But it is her renditions of poetry-rich ghazal songs in her trademark rich alto that I am most looking forward to.

September 25 at the Lula Lounge the Lisbon quartet Deolinda delivers Portuguese fado music with a contemporary twist. They neither wear all black, use a Portuguese guitar, nor indulge exclusively in the untranslatable core ethos of “saudade.” In fact their often humorous and socially challenging songs and performances have been radically described as “happy.” There’s a concept!

Space permits even less detail on the rest: September 26, still at Lula, Toronto’s Jorge Miguel Flamenco Ensemble offers “Spanish Flamenco guitar with a Canadian accent.” The following day the young cimbalom soloist Yura Rafaliuk performs Ukrainian folk music, along with the ubiquitous Lemon Bucket Orkestra. Javier Estrada, among Mexico’s most in-demand electronic dance music producers, brings his “pre-Hispanic dubstep” to the Wrong Bar on September 27. Toronto-based Vesal Ensemble showcases their repertoire of Persian classical as well as Kurdish, Lori and Azeri ethnic music at the Glenn Gould Studio on September 28. And September 30 at the Lula Lounge the Small World Festival closes with rousing party music provided by Toronto’s practitioners of two Northeastern Brazilian song and dance genres: community group Maracatu Mar Aberto offers maracatu, a powerful living tradition of drum, shaker and bell rhythm laced with a through-line of song; and Maria Bonita & the Band perform forró, with its mix of vocals, accordion, fiddle, guitar, flute and percussion.

(I attended a party last night at which just a few members of Maracatu Mar Aberto played. While a friend there told me their powerfully loud drum sounds immediately corrected his previously upset stomach, I believe my ears are still ringing.)

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

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