By this time in late winter, I long for signs of lengthening days and gentle warm breezes. Snowy cold snaps alternating with warm thaws, the weather in the GTA has been a tease this season. Hoping for an early spring, I looked to the shadowy results of Groundhog Day, among our more lighthearted commercial calendric customs. The two celebrity rodent prognosticators on both sides of the border, Wiarton Willie in Bruce County, Ontario, and Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania, have forecast an early spring. Given that cold, slate-grey skies and frozen white ground continue to dominate our winter landscape, however, I remain unconvinced.

1806 world viewOne cheery and as yet un-commercialized signal of the promise of longer, warmer days is the striking sight of our resident northern cardinals. Often seen flittering in and out of protected backyard hedgerows and under dense parkland tangles, the imposing 22cm male birds brighten up our urban winter drabness with their crested crimson coats. But it’s the repeated brief whistling late winter call that has caught my attention today. Often transcribed as a high-pitched “whoit ... whoit,” the brief ascending glissando has about an octave range, twice sung per call. Later in the season cardinals add other melodic motifs (slow trills, chuffs, chirps and churrs) to their repertoire of 16 or more sounds. Both the cardinal male and the mixed olive-persimmon feathered female begin to call around Valentine’s Day, a clear signal of the approach of the vernal equinox, this year falling on March 20.

Read more: A World of Chuffs, Chirps and Churrs

February on toronto’s cultural and educational landscape has been for years associated with Black History Month (BHM). I don’t however recall commemorating it during my student years at Clinton St. Public School — which by the way is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year — so what’s the scoop here? I decided to snoop into the history of BHM to score some answers.

worldview  joel rubin  left  and uri caineThe seed for what is now widely known as BHM began in the USA in 1926 through the advocacy of the African-American historian, author and journalist Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), one of the first scholars to study African-American history. It was initially called “Negro History Week.” Designated for the second week in February, it was meant to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson aimed to increase awareness and understanding of the African experience in school curricula, as well as to foster self-reliance and racial respect. By the 1960s communities, as well as various school boards, in the USA began to formally observe BHM, their primary goal being to present a more balanced and accurate history of Africans throughout history.

Toronto, far from being a place exclusively populated by Europeans, has had an African population from its earliest period as a settlement. One early record shows that in July 1843 Toronto Council refused to let a circus perform “without assurances that it would not sing songs or perform acts that would be insulting to ‘the gentlemen of colour’ of the city.” Toronto native William Hubbard (1842–1935), the city’s first elected official of African descent, cut through the raw prejudice of his day to fashion an admirable career of public service over 20 years. His official portrait hangs in the mayor’s office, a tribute to his personal courage and public achievement.

Through the efforts of many, including the Ontario Black History Society, in 1979 Toronto became the first municipality in Canada to proclaim BHM. The act recognized past and present contributions African Canadians made and make to the life of Toronto in many areas including education, medicine, human rights and business, politics, public service and the arts.

Public and private institutions here participate in observing BHM. The Toronto Public Library for example is programming ten such events this year. These include “Drumming with Muhtadi” on Tuesday February 5 at 10am at the York Woods branch where you can “hear the rhythms and learn the history of traditional Caribbean and African drums” in a live performance by the master drummer Muhtadi. The next day at the same branch you can “dance to the beat of your own drum! Make your ... drum to keep and participate in an interactive story” at 4:30pm. Fittingly, the TPL’s logo for Black History Month is a hand on a drum skin, illustrating just how closely the drum is associated with African culture. Keeping with that theme, on February 9 “the king of kalimba,” Toronto’s Njacko Backo, performs at the TPL’s Morningside Branch (no time posted).

The Gladstone Hotel is also marking Black History Month with four concerts; the last on February 22 featuring a significant milestone, the release of Njacko Backo’s tenth album. It includes Mohamad Diaby’s djembe, two different banjos played by Ken Whiteley, Jane Bunnett’s soprano sax, trumpet by Larry Cramer plus support from Kalimba Kalimba.

Perhaps Toronto’s main BHM course is Harbourfront Centre’s “Kuumba Festival.” Swahili for “creativity,” Kuumba has over the years showcased leading local, national and international artists of African heritage. This year for three days, February 1 to 3, the festival offers a smorgasbord of hair fashion, storytelling, oware games, film, dance, food, exhibitions, children’s activities, drum circles and, of course, music concerts. Here are a few picks.

The “10th Anniversary Celebration of The Trane Studio,” the first African-Canadian-owned jazz venue in Toronto for generations, takes place February 2. Owned and managed by writer and programmer Frank Francis, and named after legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, the Bathurst Street jazz club would have turned ten years in February. Sadly for musicians and live music fans it closed last summer; the Harbourfront lineup of local and international acts showcases performers who have supported The Trane Studio including the powerful spoken word artist Ursula Rucker, trumpet player Alexander Brown, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Waleed Abdulhamid and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins.

February 3 at 4pm one of the treasures of African-American music — gospel — will be featured at the “Kuumba Gospel Lounge.” Billed as “a gospel extravaganza,” the Mount Zion Fellowship Choir, a 30-voice choir with a four-piece band, will share the stage with smaller vocal ensembles and four soloists including singer Karen Jewels and Jermaine Shakespeare, a “recognized worship leader, songwriter and minister of the gospel.” At the same time, unfortunately, Kuumba has scheduled the interesting “Hiplife Showcase.” Kobè from Ghana and Canadian Radio Music Award winner Stevano UGO put faces and voices to hiplife music, the latter a West African fusion of highlife and hip-hop with touches of reggaeton, dancehall and reggae.

One of last year’s Kuumba highlights was Dr. Jay De Soca Prince DJing at Harbourfront’s ice skating rink, a novel Toronto combination of Trini and “skate culture.” Judging from the dense crowd on the rink last year, evidently I was not the only one who thought the idea fun, so Harbourfront is holding it again, on February 2, promising it will be “this winter’s hottest night on ice.” I won’t disagree.

And last on the BHM front, February 15 at the intimate Musideum, Kobe Aquaa-Harrison presents “The Golden Tale of Jungle Bouti,” a program of storytelling and music. Video evidence found on the internet shows Aquaa-Harrison to be a formidable Ghanaian dagaarti gyil (marimba) player; hopefully some of his tasty playing will be on the Musideum menu. All that the slim but enticing online notes say is that the seprewa, a Ghanaian guitar-harp, is featured. Clearly, venturing into the unknown is at the heart of the enterprise, reminding me of the apt subtitle of an 1980s world music cassette: “no risk no fun.”

Elsewhere on the cultural map: The Sony Centre for the Performing Arts re-stakes its claim as the go-to house for national and transnational culturally themed extravaganzas for yet another year. February 9 and 10 “Bharati: The Wonder That Is India” returns for its annual visit filling the hall with spectacle armed with its large cast of acrobats, dancers, musicians and singers, all in glittering costumes. The show has been touring since 2006 doing for the subcontinent what “Riverdance” did for Ireland (and several other shows did for their own nations), managing to reduce a richly varied and perhaps unwieldy cultural landscape down to a manageable masala feast for the ears and eyes. Affirming the mega concept, “Celtic Woman: 2013 North American Tour” graces the Sony Centre stage again on February 23 and 24. This year’s headliners are Chloe Agnew, Lisa Lambe, Susan McFadden and Máiréad Nesbitt. It’s an all-female Irish musical ensemble show conceived and assembled by Sharon Browne and David Downes, a former musical director of the successful Riverdancefranchise. “Celtic Woman”has proven very successful itself since 2004 spinning off 13 themed CDs and seven DVDs as well as continuous international touring. Their PBS HD television special concert taped in 2009 included a 27-member orchestra, the Discovery Gospel choir, 12-member Aontas Choir, ten-member Extreme Rhythm Drummers plus an 11-piece bagpipe ensemble, intimating that sometimes bigger may just be better.

On a much more modest scale Jorge Miguel Flamenco presents “Una Vez, Cada Mes” on February 20 at the Lula Arts Centre. Toronto- based, Spanish Canadian guitarist and composer Jorge Miguel stars in a program of traditional and contemporary flamenco instrumental and vocal music plus dance. Continuing the Latin theme, February 23 the Jubilate Singers choir collaborates with Proyecto Altiplano in a concert called “Vida, Amor y Muerte” at the Grace Church on-the-Hill. The repertoire from Latin America features Violeta Parra’s and Luis Advis’ “Canto Para Una Semilla” made famous via the 1972 album of that name by the renowned Chilean folk band Inti-Illimani, and other songs. Isabel Bernaus and Claudio Saldivia conduct.

February 28 the York University Department of Music presents a Korean program in their World at Noon series, with Jeng Yi, Korean percussion and dance, and Joo Jyumg Kim on kayagum, at theMartin Family Lounge, Accolade East Bldg.

Saturday March 2, the Music Gallery co-presents with the Ashkenaz Foundation a concert by Joel Rubin and Uri Caine dubbed an exploration of “Klezmer’s outer limits and inner space.” American clarinetist Joel Rubin has long been recognized as a leader among North American Jewish klezmorim, his playing hailed by klezmer great Dave Tarras, avant garde composer John Zorn and Nobel Laureate poet Roald Hoffmann. Pianist and composer Uri Caine has played jazz with the older generation masters, as well as gigging with a younger generation (Don Byron, John Zorn, Dave Douglas and Arto Lindsay), recording 22 CDs as a leader along the way. Their joint album “Azoy Tsu Tsveyt” (2011) evokes the sort of exciting fusion spirit that’s found in the best of jazz, as they journey through a repertoire of Old and New World sacred cantorial songs, nigunim and secular klezmer tunes. Combining Jewish musical eclecticism, sheer instrumental virtuosity and elements of improvised music, this concert is sure to appeal to several audiences.

Finally, on February 24, London, Ontario world music producer Sunfest presents Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Aeolian Hall, London. The group has recorded 40 albums and sold over six million records since being internationally launched on Paul Simon’s Graceland recording in the mid 80s. Mambazo’s album Shaka Zulu (1987) won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. They continue to inspire international audiences with their core message of peace and reconciliation through the power of song. 

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

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


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