Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Toronto Artist Hugh Wilson on Encaustic Painting

Artist Hugh Wilson on Encaustic Painting

Encaustic painting is an ancient technique, used in ancient Egypt and notably in religious iconography in the early Middle Ages. (The image to the right of a bejewelled woman comes from the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history, about 100-110 AD.) "Rediscovered" in the early 20th century as a viable medium, it's gained in popularity over the last two decades or so. It's the luminous quality of the finished product that caught my eye one day, and I asked Toronto area artist Hugh Wilson about his work.

Alongside a longstanding career in television production, Hugh has also been a part-time working artist for about the last 13 years - an avocation he plans on retiring into. For the first dozen or so of those years, he focused almost exclusively on large format sculpture, often using trees and other objects that necessitated site specific installations. The largest of these was a pair of 15' dolphins made from a dead tree that currently leap over a swimming pool somewhere in the GTA. While ultimately rewarding, those types of projects are also physically demanding. "I was looking for something that had 'couch appeal'," he explains with a laugh. "I found encaustic - which I thought at first was stupid, but my wife loved it." We'll credit her wisdom, then, for the striking work he's produced over the last year or so.

What he'd found at first were mainly arts & crafts based projects, but then as he kept looking, his interest was piqued. "I found someone using it for landscapes," he says. "I wanted to use it in a painterly way."

Encaustic painting involves painting with beeswax to which pigment has been added. The resulting work is thick and textured, sometimes to 15 layers thick. The texture can also be worked with, both adding and subtracting from it. The whole process appealed to him as a sculptor. "That is the turn on - if you're a tactile artist," he says."Sometimes I'll scrape it right down to the bottom, on and off, until you get that Eureka! moment," he explains. "Sometimes you find it and then lose it, and have to find it all over again."

Hugh's works tend to be larger, and they tend to take about a year to cure properly. The end result can also be buffed to a ceramic-like shine, accentuating the richly saturated colours.

Hugh has just started to show his work in the Toronto area. While he doesn't currently have a website, if you're interested in his work, drop me a line or comment here and I can put you in touch with him.

Expressions of Brazil - Harbourfront July 16-18

Explore Brazil through music, dance, film, visual art and food at this first ever festival - and it's all FREE. From a media release.

Expressions of Brazil
July 16-18
Part of World Routes Summer Festivals 2010 at Harbourfront Centre

TORONTO, ON (June 24, 2010) –The first-ever Expressions of Brazil Festival brings sizzling Brazilian flavours to Harbourfront Centre from June 16-18 2010. This FREE three-day festival celebrates Brazil’s rich cultural traditions and multiculturalism through contemporary Brazilian music, food, film and art.

International concert highlights include performances from Brazil’s 25-year music veteran Laura Finocchiaro who gracefully combines bossa-nova, samba, jazz and funk, followed by 17-year-old pop sensation Mallu Magalhães and a late-night party with Brazil’s DJ Raul Vax (with local DJ Branko) spinning the hottest progressive and electro house music. Local musical contributions are provided by Toronto’s own Sinal Alberto, an exciting new jazz quartet featuring Luanda Jones and Gordon Sheard, newcomer Bruno Capinan who croons his sensual and provocative Portuguese prose and the vibrant high-energy beats of Baque de Bamba, lead by Aline Moralis, Sambacana, Roda de Samba, Batacuda Carioca, Mulambo Groove and Escola de Samba.

Founder Contra Mestre Bola presents Capoeira (ca-po-era), a form of martial art that combines self-defense with music and acrobatics. There is also a full three days of film screenings in partnership with the Brazilian Film Festival of Toronto (BRAFFT)., including both full length films and animated shorts.

Expressions of Brazil also showcases international and Canadian visual artists at the Brazil: Many Eyes, Different Visions exhibition. Renowned Brazilian artists Emilio Boschilia, Ivana Panizzi, Renato Soares, Soraya Montaheiro and Gabriela Greeb join with local artists Avi Neto and Chris Harrison to present a survey of contemporary Brazilian art.

Of course no Brazilian festival is complete without food programming. Chef Mario Cassini of Cajú Restaurant prepares delicious culinary offerings that represent the diverse tastes of Brazil. Families can also enjoy kid-friendly programming with special workshops including soccer by Brazilian Soccer Academy, pinhole photography by ImageMagica and drumming.

The big idea behind all programming in this year’s World Routes summer festivals is “globalocal”, or global to local, a theme programmed into each festival to bring together rich artistic traditions from around the corner to around the globe!

Check the link or call the Information Hotline at 416-973-4000 for times and full details.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Afrofest Toronto - July 10 & 11

No worries for FIFA/Afrofest fans - from a media release.

July 10 & 11
Queen's Park, Toronto

The final weekend of the World Cup, Africa’s first hosting of the most watched sporting event on the planet, falls on the same weekend as Afrofest. There’s no need to miss any of the action in South Africa or at Queen’s Park. The final will be shown live in the park on two big screens. Come and be part of the energy and excitement of both events! For more details check out the link.

This year marks the 22nd annual Afrofest, a free showcase of the richness and diversity of African culture.  Events include song, dance, drumming and theatre featuring world-renowned African music acts as well as dozens of highly-rated African musical groups based in Canada. With a bustling African marketplace, food and craft vendors, artistic displays, a Children’s Village, a drum stage, music and dance workshops, and organized fun and educational activities for youth and children, there really should be something for everyone.

Musical superstar Meiway will be one of the headline acts. ‘The Genius of Bassam’ hails from Côte d'Ivoire, but he rules dance floors all across Africa. With 9 albums to his name over a recording career spanning 15 years, the award-winning creator of “zoblazo” music will bring his gripping rhythms to the Afrofest main stage.

‘Zimbabwe's Rebel Woman’ Chiwiniso has already packed several lifetimes worth of honours and collaborations into her musical career. Fronting some of Southern Africa’s best musicians, she’ll perform the deeply uplifting songs that have made her one of the most exciting young talents in contemporary African music.


Other international acts include:
Also performing:

Those are just the highlights - there are many many more!!

Afrofest 2010 will be broadcast live on CIUT, 89.5 FM on both days of the festival.

Follow all the World Cup action on CBC Radio 99.1 FM (Also find out about their World Cup celebrations and street parties):   Your African World Cup station in Toronto.

Music Africa gratefully acknowledges the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council.

Harlem Meer Performance Festival - Central Park NYC

Harlem Meer Festival

Charles A. Dana Discovery Center
Located inside Central Park at 110th Street between 5th and Lenox Avenues
Sundays 2:00pm to 4:00pm to September 5

There are few better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon in the summer than outside with some great music. The 2010 Harlem Meer Performance Festival features a smorgasbord of music and dance that ranges from hot Brazilian jazz to Cuban salsa and gospel - and most styles between. They do provide some chairs, but you're best to bring a blanket, some food and drink and enjoy from the lawns.

All concerts take place at the Dana Discovery Center unless otherwise indicated.

Here's the remainder of their 2010 schedule:

Zon del Barrio
Latin jazz, classic salsa, bomba, plena, merengue and boogalu directly from the hood.
Sunday, July 4, 2010

A multi-ethnic all-female music and dance ensemble bringing you Latin-European to Afro-Caribbean traditions.
Sunday, July 11, 2010

Harlem Blues and Jazz Band
Classic Jazz & Blues from this ensemble that was founded in 1973.
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blindfold Test
This sextet specializes in Brazilian Jazz. Founder/drummer Vanderlei Pereira has played and recorded with the likes of Tito Puente, Emílio Santiago, Hendrik Meurkens and many more.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Note: This show will be in the Conservatory Garden

Sabor Brasil
High energy Brazilian Jazz with multi-talented leader/vocalist/percussionist/composer Susan Pereira and her ensemble.
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Something Positive
This performance arts organization is dedicated to the culture of the African diaspora. Their multi media performancesi nclude dance, poetry, storytelling, theatre and music.
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sumba Swing
Led by sax player Elliot Pineiro, you'll hear everything from Latin, funk and straight ahead jazz.
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dja Rara
Haitian roots and soul from this group dedicated to keeping Haitian culture alive in the Diaspora.
Sunday, August 22, 2010

These ladies may hail from Cuba, Israel, France, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Oregon and Wisconsin, but together and based in NYC, they play original Latin music with roots in Afro-Caribbean culture.
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sounds of Deliverance
Closing off the season with a dose of infectious Gospel music.
Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Georgia & Leona at Toronto Fringe

Part of the offerings at this year's Toronto Fringe Festival, running this year from June 30 to July 11. All the Fringe offerings are available at the link above.

From a media release.

We’d like to introduce you to Georgia & Leona, a new play that will be making its debut at this year's Toronto Fringe Festival.

In the Room Productions
Writer-In-Residence – Misha Bower
Artistic Director – Lara Mrkoci


Georgia & Leona are strangers with a lot in common, especially tonight, as each woman returns home from a bizarre and unexpected evening with the past.

“...It’s never made sense to me when people say the rest is history. What happened might be history, but the rest is actually happening right now...”

Check out a trailer here.

Georgia & Leona has multidisciplinary beginnings, having originated as two monologues that have both been previously performed at various musical events, including Sappyfest in 2008 and 2009.

Lara & Misha have been friends and collaborators since high school. In 2001, they co-founded their first company, Garage Band Productions. Unfortunately they had to relinquish the name when Apple, Inc. threatened to sue! Bummer, eh? Ah, what the hell... In the Room is a way better name anyways, don’t you think...?

Misha is in Toronto based folk band, Bruce Peninsula and also sings with Daniel Romano (Attack in Black; Daniel, Fred & Julie) - audio clips & more available at the In The Room link above.

Factory Theatre Founder Ken Gass Honoured



Toronto, ON – Thursday, June 17, 2010Factory Theatre’s Founder and Artistic Director, as well as acclaimed director, producer, playwright and advocate, Ken Gass is the 2010 winner of the Premier’s
Award for Excellence in the Arts.  The award ceremony, presided over by Premier Dalton McGuinty and Michael Chan, Minister of Tourism and Culture, was held at the Liberty Grand on June 10th.  The Ontario-wide Premier’s Award comes with a cash prize of $35,000 plus $15,000 to be awarded to an emerging artist of the winner’s choice.  Gass says that winning the Premier's Award was a humbling and moving experience. “To begin with, I felt privileged to be among such a remarkable group of finalists from several disciplines.  I also feel my award recognizes my commitment to our extraordinary theatre community, and I share the honour with the many superb collaborators who have contributed to the Factory Theatre's success over the past four decades.”

The Emerging Artist Award attached to the prize was given to Natasha Mytnowych, Artistic Director for Theatre Revolve and Company Theatre Crisis, and Associate Artist at Canadian Stage. Gass states, “I was very pleased to be able to select Natasha for the Emerging Artist Award, not only for her strong directorial vision of such works as The Russian Play by Hannah Moscovitch and Benu by d'bi young, but also for her commitment to community as evidenced by her work with young immigrant women at Theatre Revolve and her recent inspired leadership with the Festival of Ideas & Creation at Canadian Stage. I hope the Award will buy her time for her own creative endeavours.”

In 1970, Factory was the first theatre in the country to commit itself to producing only Canadian plays, sparking a revolution that effectively launched the Canadian playwriting movement as a major force in this country. Factory has also been a champion of cultural diversity, with numerous productions from aboriginal, Canadian-Asian, South-Asian and black playwrights.  Gass is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Dora Award for directing, the George Luscombe Award for Mentorship and the Toronto Arts Award. His current projects include directing George F. Walker’s Featuring Loretta, playing at the Factory Mainspace Theatre until June 20, and TOUGH!, playing until June 18 at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Kitchener-Waterloo.  Gass’s new play, Bethune Imagined, will premiere at Factory in November, 2010.

VSC Signs Canadian Distribution Deal With Cinema Libre Studio

Video Services Corp. – For Immediate Release

VSC Signs Canadian Distribution Deal With Cinema Libre Studio

Toronto, ON (June 21, 2010) – Video Services Corp. is thrilled to announce the signing of an exclusive all-rights Canadian distribution deal with Cinema Libre Studio of Los Angeles, California.

The first releases covered by the agreement are the health-themed documentaries Dying To Have Known, The Gerson Miracle, The Beautiful Truth and Healing Cancer. Other 2010 releases include Oliver Stone’s South of the Border and The End of Poverty?, a Cannes selection.

“We are excited to be working with Cinema Libre Studio and their catalogue of quality films,” declared VSC President Jonathan Gross, “they have an eye for films that examine the hot and important issues of the day and we’re looking forward to introducing these titles to the Canadian market.”

“We are eager to release our films to Canada through VSC”, said Philippe Diaz, Cinema Libre Studio chairman. “VSC is known for bringing quality niche product to market and working diligently to give the product exposure needed to gain consumer awareness.”

VSC will be rolling out key catalogue releases throughout the rest of the year. Other titles in the agreement are Fuel, a fast-paced road trip into North America’s obsession with fossil fuels that features Woody Harrelson, Neil Young and others, and The End of Poverty?, an Inconvenient Truth for global economics narrated by Martin Sheen.

About Video Service Corp.
Founded in 1993 by former rock critic Jonathan Gross, Video Service Corp. is a leading independent DVD distributor with offices in Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles. With a vast catalogue strong in television, sports and comedy, some of VSC's releases include Corner Gas, Kenny vs Spenny, The WHA Chronicles, Comedy Now! Starring Russell Peters  and Spectacle: Elvis Costello With.... VSC also owns the e-commerce websites, and Follow us on twitter: @vidserv

About Cinema Libre Studio
Cinema Libre Studio is a haven for independent filmmakers with one-stop shopping for production through distribution. The company has been a leader in distributing social issue and political documentaries as well as independent films. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the company is best known for distributing award-winning films that include: Outfoxed, Darfur Diaries, The Beautiful Truth, Participant Media’s Angels in the Dust and Oliver Stone’s South of the Border.  The company recently produced the critically acclaimed documentary, The End of Poverty?, which was released in US theatres in Fall 2009.

RCM & Alberta Gov't Team Up in Arts Education Initiative

For immediate release: June 22, 2010


Program funding focused on boosting high school completion rates for aboriginal students

Fort McMurray – The Royal Conservatory is pleased to announce a three-year, $1.3 million grant from Alberta Justice, provided through its Safe Communities Innovation Fund. The grant will be used to implement arts-based programming aimed at boosting the high school completion rates and life skills of aboriginal youth in the Fort McMurray area. The project will be undertaken by the Conservatory’s pioneering integrative arts program Learning Through the Arts (LTTA).

“We are grateful for this generous funding from the government of Alberta,” said Angela Elster, Vice President, Academic of the Conservatory. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the people of Fort McMurray and other northern Alberta communities to collaborate in creating outstanding opportunities for aboriginal youth to develop their full potential through music and the arts. The Conservatory has developed educational and social programs reflecting the learning traditions of First Nations peoples for nearly a decade. We are honoured to work with our many colleagues, friends, and partners in Fort McMurray, Fort McKay, and other northern Alberta communities to help make their vision for the future of youth and strong resilient communities a reality.”

The project will provide support to public school teachers in Fort McMurray and several additional communities in the region to adjust their teaching practice to align better with aboriginal learning traditions in which knowledge is acquired through storytelling, drawing, and dance. Additionally, the project will include arts-based after school programming that will provide a safe and supportive community for out of town students, enhance literacy and life skills, and keep youth engaged and out of trouble after school. The third component is a Grade 9 program to enhance understanding of, and respect for, aboriginal culture among non-aboriginal youth in the Fort McMurray Catholic Board of Education. The Academic Research Division of The Royal Conservatory will conduct a detailed assessment of all three programs in order to measure their impact on participants and the wider community.

These programs are further supported by TELUS, LTTA’s National Technology Sponsor since 2005, and the Suncor Energy Foundation, its Lead Aboriginal Partner since 2007. These organizations continue to help LTTA connect youth in Fort McMurray and across the country with innovative programs that make a difference in their lives.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Warfare - ASM Dance Company - June 25 & 26 Toronto

As the Spirit Moves Dance Company
A DanceWorks CoWorks Series Event
Choreography: Jasmyn Fyffe
June 25 & 26 - Dancemakers Centre, Toronto

Artistic Director Jasmyn Fyffe was kind enough to invite me to the company's dress rehearsal for this weekend's show in the Distillery District (full details below, along with the credits).

Warfare is an ambitious work in 10 short segments that incorporates dance, live and recorded music, opera and even spoken word in an exploration of the notion of war and conflict. The young ASM Company (founded in 2007) looks to add socially relevant content to dance performance, and in that vein, the piece is highly theatrical.

The choreographic vocabulary ranges from the agitated movements of Dry Cry, the first scene, to more meditative passages. In effect, it's a nicely varied programme that alternates solo and ensemble work, theatrical movement and passages of classic modern dance with an emotional range from sadness and anguish to hope.

Musical accompaniment was inspired and expressive, including original compositions that I'd describe as melodic avant garde and odd instruments I couldn't place (something like a  horn with strings that's played also as percussion?) Original pieces by ODD Opera and Pangea Sound Collective also use rhythmic whispers and operatic singing in a multi-layered web that was more than a simple backdrop to the dancers.

The various threads of dramaturgy and music come together in the talents of dancers who made the piece look effortless. Its multi-pronged approach works on all levels for performance I found quite absorbing.

Dancemakers Centre for Creation
55 Mill Street,
Case Goods Building (74) #304
Toronto, ON

Jasmyn Fyffe (Artistic Director, choreographer)
Sandra Clarke
Ashlee Deweerd
Kathy Lewis
Ashley Tyson
Kayla Tyson
Andrew Blackwood
Jasmine Graham
Colleen Phillips

Michelle Righetti
Stephen Targett
Laura-Beth Gray

All photographs by Omer Yukseker

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Global Divas & Global Blues - LuminaTO June 19

Global Divas & Global Blues
LuminaTO - Queen's Park June 19

It was hot, the G20 preps are getting insane downtown and I had to eat here and there (although the
schmancy vendors that closed down Queen's Park Circle had an incredible risotto with osso bucco - I got the
last one!) - so you'll have to forgive the partial coverage of yesterday's incredible musical event. You'll also have to forgive the haphazard pics and their sometimes odd colours and quality, since my camera seems to have a haphazard way of capturing images - or not. Hopefully, the vid clips will help! At any rate, this is what I checked out.

Carmen Souza is a native of Cape Verde, and her 4 piece band hails from Portugal, Italy and Nigeria. They came from London on their way to Paris on tour to promot her latest CD, Protegid. Her music is a sinuous and melodic blend of modern jazz and Cape Verde polyrhythms. Her songs and the rhythm itself sometimes inspired by the traditions of home, like the one that used the rhythm of how women separate the corn, good and bad. Deceptively swingy, the songs carry you along so you forget the complexities of the music. Her warm, rich and flexible voice pulls it all together.

Next up and ending the afternoon programme was Katanen "Cheka" Dioubaté, a native of Guinea and hailing from a traditonal griot lineage. She was backed up by a band of local all stars, including Rich Brown (of Rinsethealgorithm on bass,) the perfect backdrop to her strong, griot style vocals. The music was lit up by the infectious vitality of West Africa, and her big voice and stage presence left a definite impression.

I caught up to the evening's line up with Razia Said, backed up by a band that included hometown blues hero Madagascar Slim. Both natives of Madagascar, Razia is now NYC based. She presented a sexy and glamourous version of the modern African woman in rhythmic and expressive songs that made the most of her strong and sometimes raspy alto. She's on the road promoting her CD Zebu Nation

The crowd was insane by the time Salif Keita hit the
stage. Approaching 61, he's on the top of his game, with a voice that's still nimble and backed up by a band of
superb musicians. There's not much you can say about the Golden Voice of Africa that hasn't been said already, and the crowd loved, loved them to two encores. Polyrhythms and melody, the kind of West African guitar work that I just adore, a guy who can play the kobo behind his back, it all came together with a crowd that was dancing the whole time. The traditions of Mali come alive in a new century in his music, and his new CD La Difference was just released earlier this month.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Africa Trilogy - LuminaTO

A Look Behind the Scenes of The Africa Trilogy

Shine Your Eye
Written by Binyavanga Wainaina
Directed by Ross Manson

The programme and notes pose three succinct questions to frame this theatrical dialogue about Africa and the West:

Just who do they think they are?
Just who do they think we are?
Just who do we think we are?

All three plays present very different perspectives on the theme, from the white angst of Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God (by German theatre's rising star Roland Schimmelpfennig) to Amercian playwright Christina Anderson's GLO, about a young Kenyan writer in NYC, where everyone wants her to stand in for their very on African experience. (I'm doing a full review that will appear in next month's White Elephant Magazine.)

I spoke with Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Assistant Director of Shine Your Eye about what it was like to work on this huge project.

"It's a great play," she enthuses, "the first play by (this) fiction writer. It covers a lot of really important themes. It's a 1 hour play - with a lot of complex issues woven into it." Part of its impact lies in its perspective. It was written by an African about Africans - a Kenyan writer talking about Nigeria. "In the West, we don't usuually see plays written by Africans. It's really refreshing." Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina is currently New York based.

But to deliver its message, a play first has to succeed on its own creative terms. "You can read the script, it's so rich in poetry. The challenge for us is to bring that poetry to life." The piece involves elements like the arresting projections of Germany's renowned FettFilm, (they really added another dimension to the play,) movement and even dance sequences among unexpected elements. "You'll say - I haven't seen anything like this."

In contrast to virtually any other representation of Africans that I can think of, Shine Your Eye presents a thoroughly contemporary picture of life in Lagos. "It looks at the dilemma of youth. They're living in a very high tech, Western influenced world and they're having to carve out their own identity."

The script also touches on the 419 scams, not just as a criminal activity, but a look at how it's perceived - as a way of getting back that which has been stolen from Nigeria. Profits from a foreign owned oil industry are simply pumped out  right back out of the country. "They want to nationalize oil, but they can't do that without capital," she explains. Shine Your Eye puts the issue in human terms.

The internet itself has played an immeasurable role in literally connecting Africa to the rest of  the world. "It's the age of African high tech. It counters the popular view of Africa as a Stone Age society."

While I won't give away the ending, since there is still time to see the trilogy, I will say it's realistic in that it provides no definitive "answer" or direction to what is, in real life, an ongoing story. "The future of Africa is a powerful, unfinished work."

Visual artist Wengechi Mutu, another Kenyan who's currently Brooklyn based, (and whose show recently closed at the AGO btw,)  has designed the avatar used in the story. "The aim was to involve as many artists as possible." In the script, the avatar is designed by the main character, Beka. "The main character is a computer geek, a game designer," Mumbi says. She also points out that all the actors are either first or second generation African.

Rehearsals were a whirlwind. "A lot of work was done on script development. The script changed as they went along." Naturally, part of her job was to keep track of it all. "My own role has been like something of a chameleon, putting whatever hat on I need to - assisting in communications, keeping track of script changes." And it wasn't only their own production they had to take into account. "It has been a crazy process, with three plays and a rotating team."

The notion of producing three plays rather than one already underscores the underlying message that there is more than one single story about Africa to be told - it is a continent of 1 billion people and 54 odd countries, after all. Mumbi credits Shine Your Eye Director and Volcano founding Artistic Director Ross Manson for having the vision to see the Africa Trilogy from conception to stage. "I can't think of anyone else who could've done this."

Dienye Waboso as Beka
Binyavanga Wainaina
Ross Manson with Stephen Lewis (whose 2005 CBC Massey Lectures inspired the whole project) image by Kamil Bialous

Produced by Volcano Theatre
Presented by LuminaTO in association with Harbourfront Centre
Co-commissioned by LuminaTO and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Shine Your Eye
Written by Binyavanga Wainaina
Directed by Ross Manson

Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God
Written by Roland Schimmelpfennig
Directed by Liesl Tommy

Written by Christina Anderson
Directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo

Thursday, June 17, 2010

African Issues and the Challenge of Artistic Response (LuminaTO)

African Issues and the Challenge of Artistic Response
A LuminaTO event - June 13 (Toronto)

With renowned writer and scholar Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Binyavanga Wainaina, playwright of The Africa Trilogy’s Shine Your Eye and Director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Literature at Bard College and moderated by James Orbinski, writer, doctor, and former head of the Nobel-prize winning Médecins Sans Frontières.

The stated purpose of the event was to discuss African issues and the place of artistic response in an arena more often dominated by international development discourse. To what extent can art be a force for change? Should it be? Are some artworks more or less useful than others in such a context? The discussion itself was rather rambling at that, but always entertaining and instructive, with its contrast of the gracious elder statesman of Kenyan literature and the more strident voice of a younger generation.

I had the pleasure of seeing Ngugi wa Thiong'o speak a second time in as many days, and the event was well attended in the George Ignatieff Theatre at the University of Toronto's leafy campus. It began with some remarks by both Kenyan born writers.

Binyavanga Wainaina (pictured left) spoke about being influenced by Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Decolonizing the Mind. In a speech marked by his ascerbic wit and a sharp sense of observation, he described himself as being part of the first generation who had "to prostitute themselves to go to university because of some mysterious IMF thing," as he called it. He described modern Kenya as a country without a soul, so consumed with building a modern nation economically that they'd produced "a generation of mechanics. Then two years ago, that shit exploded!" In its haste to become a modern nation, Kenya had neglected its culture, and he found himself - along with many others - going back to what Decolonizing the Mind had been saying decades ago. Modernity and freedom as a nation begins in the mind, not with material assets. He mentioned language disparities that still exist, such as not being able to go to study at university in his own native tongue.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o in turn spoke of his admiration for the energy of young African writers and the importance of Binyavanga Wainaina's literary magazine Kwani?. He then went on to share his delight in a recent discovery of the richness of tradition in Kiswahili, and that his most prized recent accomplishment was a published book review that he'd written in that language - something he was more excited about than the publication of his book. He suggested that the key relationship was Africa's relationship to itself. "Language is like the key to rooms of treasure," he said. "The more keys you have, the more access you have to the treasures hidden there."

When it came to his language of preference in writing, while he began his career writing in English, Ngugi wa more recently writes in Gikuyu - he mentioned insisting that his novel Wizard of the Crow contain the citation "translated from the author from Gikuyu". His recently published memoir Dreams in a Time of War was written in English, however, something he said was mainly for its intended audience.

Binyavanga Wainaina is probably best known internationally for his How to Write About Africa rant that appeared in Granta Magazine. As he told the story, the essay was "spam that went viral". He described it as something of  an accident. Granta had come up with an Africa themed issue, and he was so incensed on reading it - "It was full of bukka bukka!" he complained; (he also blamed cold, damp weather in the UK) - that he fired off a 15 page email to the editor. Two years later, when they contemplated a similarly themed issue, he was asked to contribute, and so the email became the eventual piece as published.

He mentioned spending time in Lagos, a place he describes as creatively exciting, reminding him of his student days in 1989 in a Kenya dispossessed by the IMF. The 419 scams (those emails soliciting your bank account for transfers of money) are a particular manifestation of that creativity. "If people learned about African history in school properly, they wouldn't fall for these scams!" he laughed.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o described Joseph Conrad's Out of Africa as "one of the most dangerous books written about Africa" for its flawed perspective of disguised condescension. He mentioned the notion of critical thinking, when the artistic vision is a strong as Conrad's, the "danger" lies in taking in the message without critique. He praised George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, and mentioned also that the university in Nairobi was one of the first to teach Canadian literature internationally, in an effort to reach out to the rest of the world. While he speaks and acts against the notion of English as the national, universal default language, he also spoke about collapsing international boundaries in literature.

He underscored the importance of imagination. "Without it, nothing is possible. What nourishes the imagination? Art. When institutions downplay the importance of art, it's like starving the body."

Binyavanga Wainaina responded by commenting that the past 20 years had done much to strangle the imagination. "You go to a school drama festival, and the kids are regurgitating bullet points," he said. "There are kids writing great poetry who can't eat, and hey, I wrote some shit play about HIV and got $6,000." Against the idea of consciously trying to affect change via artistic response, his take was that change through art comes unintentionally.

In an earlier anecdote, he'd told a funny story about being approached by student activists at Bard on his first day with a campaign to "save the vaginas of the Congo - and they didn't know the capital of Congo!" His point about context was lost on an audience member who added the evening's only dramatic note when she took him to task for joking about mutilated vaginas when the Q&A portion started. His spirited response pointed out that his objection was to the whole monolithic representation of Africans and the dehumanization of the anonymous African vaginas on display. (Ngugi wa Thiong'o declined comment with a chuckle that sounded relieved "I come from a generation that didn't mention those words," he said.)

The last comments came from Ngugi wa. "Africa will continue to be viewed negatively until Africans can view themselves in a positive light," he said. "We conceive of our own people in anthropological terms - defining Africans by clothing worn in the 19th century. The African frozen in time." The importance of native languages lies in their self defining nature; they produce a view that is then projected on the rest of the world, rather thant he other way around. He mentioned Canada's relationship to its own First Nations as another example of the friction of dominant and dominated cultures.

And on international development vis a vis Africa, he had the last word. "Africa gives all the time and receives very little in return, a very little that is projected as a lot."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Caribbean Dance Theatre - Awakenings June 17-18

From a media release:

An Urban Musical story of a Dancer
Artistic Direction by Tamla Matthews

June 17-18
Toronto Centre for the Arts

Check out a bit of it at this link.

Toronto - ON, The journey of no two dancers is the same and therein lies a graphic and uncompromising story of a dancer.  Awakening is an urban musical dance theatre production based on the transformational journey of a dancer. A dubious love affair with dance, grounded in a supportive cocoon fuelled by culture and spirituality. Gripping in its historical content, a little girl dreams to be a successful dancer and learns that the hardest journey is not upward, but inward. Artistic maturity comes at a price few are really willing to pay. As the price takes a toll on the soul the dance becomes the foundation for resistance, solace and transformation. 

Awakening is reflective of human angst, dedication and ultimate triumph.  Born out of a true story, Awakening is a story of perseverance and the power to aspire; channelling ones
dreams. Live musical and spoken word accompaniment intricately reveals a world of diverse dance styles from gospel to reggae; where a 1st generation Canadian dancer finds connection to an old world leading to the discovery of personal strength. The show explores fears and the innate power of music and dance to fortify the human spirit in universal themes beyond class and race. Awakening hosts Educational Matinee performances geared at school audiences on Thursday June 17 and Friday June 18th at 1 pm.

Awakening: An Urban Musical Story of a Dancer
Thursday June 17th - 18th 2010 at 8pm,
Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge Street)
Tickets range from $25 - $40.

Tamla Matthews has been an active member of the Toronto dance community for over 22 years. An accomplished Artistic Director, Choreographer and dance artist of local and international acclaim, Tamla is a certified fitness instructor and creator of Reggaerobics. She is a mainstay judge at the annual York Region District School Board Dance competition and the Director of Caribbean Dance Theatre.

Caribbean Dance Theatre (CDT) is a 15-year-old dance company, specializing in Contemporary Caribbean based dance styles that celebrate the Caribbean contribution to the Canadian cultural mosaic. Caribbean Dance Theatre’s signature style honours the cultural root, celebrates the present and inspires possibilities for the future of dance in Canada.

Tasty Thursdays & People Project CD Release

Cheap and good eats and a free concert at lunchtime - Tasty Thursdays take over Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square in July and August - including this CD release event from People Project.

From a media release:

People Project CD Release
Canada-Mexico's bi-national/quadrilingual band, People Project, fuse folk and funk on "Natural" disc
Nathan Phillips Square, "Tasty Thursdays" Events, Toronto
Thursday, July 22  Noon - 2pm
Free public event

[Toronto ON]   What happens when a group of players drops the notion of borders to merge talent from Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad to play an innovative musical hybrid of funk, hip-hop, calypso, and Afro-Brazilian --- sung in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese no less?!   What happens is People Project and their new disc, "Natural"!

While co-founders Philippe Lafreniere from Canada (Souljazz) and Gabriel Bronfman from Mexico (Quem, Resorte), take the spirit of world music and advance the cross-cultural and musical ante, it’s quickly apparent that it doesn’t matter where the band members are from – indeed the thousands of miles which divide the songwriting duo are rendered meaningless and only to serve to reinforce the magic of artistic collaboration and intercultural exchange.

Unlike a band who may specialize in multiple genres, People Project is instantly distinguished by their ability to apply myriad influences concurrently. The sound they’ve birthed is entirely their own. A cursory tour across Natural’s 13 tracks reveals a wide-ranging degree of grooves identifying a true mélange – all the more innovative for its progressive, multicultural – yet borderless – stance.

“Ciudad” – a song reminiscent of writer Bronfman’s Latin American roots, adds a solid worldbeat groove to the jazzy allure of Souljazz sax powerhouse, Steve Patterson.  Or the Caribbean-spiced “Las Calles”, featuring Drew Gonsavles’ (Kobo Town) vocals and Pierre Chrétien’s (Souljazz) prominent keyboards, as Lafreniere adds percussive push.  The seductive “Sabado” with its South American swing or the more complex “7am” quickly get under your skin while the lively Manu Chao cover, “Mr. Bobby (Hey Bobby Marley)”, deftly merges jazz to reggae in near-pop proportions, while remaining loyal to their collective allegiances.

A strong jazz sense fires many of these compositions, yet Latin, Jamaican and African influences are present without ever sounding contrived or unnatural.  Surprisingly subtle yet wholly soulful, People Project is a product of the heart – each player is driven by an all-encompassing love – and hope – for humanity, as reinforced by their highly personal and philosophical lyrics.

People Project is by the people, for the people – and in celebration of people everywhere. The sincerity of their efforts to build bridges – creatively and otherwise – is the reason why this music matters. It’s also the reason why it sounds so great – ringing true and "natural" for a brave new world.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

African Literature - a LuminaTO Reading & Discussion

African Literature
A reading & discussion
LuminaTO - June 12 - Toronto

With  2009 Booker Prize nominee Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Brian Chikwava, winner of the 2004 Caine Prize & writer/novelist Carole Enahoro

Three very different authors gave brief readings and talked about African literature at this very interesting LuminaTO event last Saturday. The moderator was Toronto Poet Laureate and novelist Dionne Brand.

Brian Chikwava read from the opening of his novel Harrare North - a nickname for London, where he now makes his home. The story is told in patois through an unnamed narrator - a Robert Mugabe supporter and former member of his  Green Bombers, (a kind of ultra nationalist youth paramilitary organization). He arrives at Gatwick claiming asylym, only to find his relatives "lapsed Africans", less than eager to welcome him and even expecting him to pay his own train fare. His voice is sharply and wryly observant in its view from the bottom, and funny even in the unpleasant situation.

Next Carole Enahoro, a Nigerian/Canadian who divides her time between those two countries and the UK, read from her satiric debut novel Doing Dangerously Well. She describes the theme of the story as being about water - is it a human right or commodity to buy and sell? (Pretty much exactly the same terms as water warrior Maude Barlow, interestingly enough!) The story takes place in Nigeria after a water disaster wipes out much of the population, and the excerpt dealt with the machinations of those trying to get into power. The work has a satirical, almost farcical edge to it, and the excerpts revolved around the use of language - by politicians for example - in various situations.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o read from Dreams in a Time of War, a memoir of his childhood up to about high school age in Kenya under colonial rule. He described a system where, in terms of education, there were terminal exams at the end of virtually every academic year, meaning that one's education could be cut short at any juncture, and continuing to the end was "a triumph of luck". He credits his mother - a woman who herself could not read or write - for being key in constantly pushing him to do his academic best. The excerpt he read had to do with his rare questioning of her decision to accept life as the third wife in a polygamist household, something he says his sisters vowed never to do. It shared the illuminating lesson learned, and it's clear that her persistence ignited a love of language that has fueled his life's work.

The discussion and Q&A had a loose kind of framework. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o praised the younger generation of writers as being able to move across cultures in ways that his can't, being of the last generation born under colonial rule.

Dionne Brand remarked on the thread of satire that ran through all of their works.  Ngũgĩ wa remembered the initial euphoria after colonial rule finally ended. Then... "Absurdities begin to emerge - the normalization and nationalization of the absurdities of the colonial world," he said.

"When you have an absurd society - which is how I look at Nigerian society now - it's just what happens everyday," Carol observed. She also noted that sardonic humour was a common element in much of Nigerian culture to begin with. In Brian's novel, the humour comes as more subtle, a way of illuminating the narrator's experience.

When it comes to the use of language, the three writers tended to have different approaches on what it took to tell their stories. Brian, (a native of Zimbabwe,) first wrote the draft of his novel in standard English, only to find he disliked the stilted effect. "I tried a lot of things," he says of the flow of words that truly sounds effortless in its finished form. He reports borrowing elements from various places in order to come up with a voice "to carry the weight of the narrator's experience".

In Carol Enahoro's work, the language, (as her reading illustrated,) becomes relevant to both place and function - using corporate speak when called for, and playing with the Nigerian bent for experimentation with the English language.

Ngũgĩ wa began his career writing in English, then switching to various African languages, including Gĩkũyũ and more recently Kiswahili. "My own English is the language of books and schools," he noted. He sees African languages as the kind of new frontier, an exciting and unexplored territory as opposed to what he called "a voice which speaks through another voice". His recent memoir was written first in English, however.

Brian pointed to music as being really the current, contemporary voice of rural and traditional African culture and language, modernizing those traditions in ways literature has yet to explore.

Questions from the audience included a young man who'd been to a conference where Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's work had been critiqued as once being Marxist in nature, but now softened by his decades of exile in the West. It was a notion that made him chuckle, noting that the same work, Wizard of the Crow, that was mentioned as being less strident had simultaneously been "accused" of being overtly Marxist in tone by others. "We shy from any disucssions of class," he remarked, also noting that the majority of Africans do live in rural areas. "Marx didn't invent the Zimbabwean peasant," he declared.

When asked by another about his seminal work Decolonizing the Mind, and where he thought that notion stood now, he said "We still have a few miles to go!"

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rock the Casbah & An African Prom (LuminaTO June 12)

Rock the Casbah & An African Prom
June 12 - Queen's Park, Toronto

What with a rain delay in the afternoon and some other things I was attending, (and will report on at a later
date,) I got to Queen's Park late in the afternoon, in time to hear Montreal's Karim Saada. I was reading in the Toronto Star about how the crowds stayed away because of the wet weather, but they must have left pretty early - the people kept coming and the evening's audience was fairly sizeable.

Karim Saada is Algerian born, and his music reflects a kind of traditonal, rootsy take on the music. (It garnered him a Juno nomination in 2009.) It was his first Toronto appearance, and likely won't be the last. The crowd loved the infectious rhythms and multi-layered harmonies, and the large band included a fiddler while he himself played banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar.

The afternoon programme capped off with Rachid Taha, another Algerian ex-pat, but who's made France his home for decades. His take on Algerian chaabi pop mixes it with rai rock, guitar heavy punk and even techno, with two keyboard players on board. The mix of instrumentation was interesting, a true global fusion that included the bendir, (a North African hand drum,) and the mandolute, a North African stringed instrument that does resemble something between a mandolin and lute.

Taha is a character and a half, wiggling his bum at the audience, reading lyrics from a book on the stage at his feet, and with a lit cigarette that seemed to appear between his lips out of nowhere. (He discarded them, still lit, on the stage.) He peppered his performance with observations that were probably largely lost on the crowd - like saying (in French) that Toronto speaks English, like George Bush, or commenting on how Protestant we are. His set was great, building in intensity, and he wasn't the first of the day to complain about the short (hour to an hour and a half) set, even though it seems to have been what was planned all along.

The evenings' programme started with drum legend Tony Allen, a former collaborator of Fela Kuti. In fact, Fela said that there would be no Afrobeat without Tony. The music was of course technically impeccable, and the band an entertaining bunch of characters and dancers that get to fool around while Tony sits at the drum kit. He was also peeved at the length of the set, and probably the delay, remarking tersely that he wasn't going to talk so the brief time could focus on the music, but I think he was at least slightly mollified at the end by the crowd's ultra-enthusiastic response.

The evening ended off with the musical wizardry of banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni ba. If you're familiar with Bela or The Africa Project, you'll know that their collaborations came about as a result of Bela's search for the origins of his instrument in Africa. Bela began the set on his own, a humble kind of persona with technically brilliant playing.

Then Bassekou and Ngoni ba. The ngoni is a kind of plucked lutish instrument, a cousin of the banjo. From Mali, the group plays traditionally inspired music with that West African exuberance and abandon that had the crowd truly fired up and dancing. Another high note came from the impressive vocal acrobatics, in traditional griot style, from Ami Sacko (Bassekou's wife). Bela joined them for the last bit, (he even tried out the dance steps,) ending the evening with a real high note of energy and great music. It's clear these two have a deep and genuine mutual admiration of each other's talent, and seeing them jam together was a real treat.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Dark Star Requiem - LuminaTO (Continues Tonight)

Dark Star Requiem
World Premiere - June 11
Composed by Andrew Staniland
Libretto by Jill Battson
With soprano Neema Bickersteth, mezzo Krisztina Szabó, baritone Peter McGillivray and bass-baritone Marcus Nance.
Elmer Iseler Singers, the Gryphon Trio and percussionists Ryan Scott & Mark Duggan 
Tapestry New Opera music director Wayne Strongman

Continues tonight - June 12

Striking, beautiful, and wonderfully weird.

I know what you're thinking - a dramatic oratorio on the 25 year history of HIV/AIDS... what the hell could that possibly be like? I'm happy to report that it's all of the above. It's a production that uses a multiplicity of staging elements from lighting to projections, drama and movement along with the huge musical talents of the cast to bring various elements of the "story" to life, including scientific data, historic incidents, attitudes and scenarios.

The piece is divided into 14 short sections that flow into each other, dramatizing things like "Zero six One" - the numbers attributed to HIV-1 and HIV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses - Beauty Mark, or the lesions caused by Kaposi's Sarcoma, and Unworthy Prayers, where researchers pray to hit the jackpot of all jackpots of medical research funding. The singers are called upon not only to sing, but to speak, move and act, and they found four multi-talented artists that clearly invested themselves entirely in their roles.

A highlight (among many) was soprano Neema Bickersteth's seductive turn as the disease (Kaposi's Sarcoma), gradually enveloping baritone Peter McGillivray in a red banner with her as she sang about the "... the brand of your lovemaking ... I mark your wet membranes with the badge of my progression..." Each had a star turn, from bass-baritone Marcus Nance's highly dramatic solo in the second movement to Peter's wonderfully comic nastiness in the role of the virus as a kind of evil Elvis. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó has a gorgeous voice and multi-faceted dramatic talent that ranged from a solemn and disapproving nun to party girl.

The fact the musical accompaniment came from the brilliant playing of the Gryphon Trio and talented Elmer Iseler Singers naturally added to the effect of the whole. There were strictly musical passages, and when it came to the dramatics, the members of the Gryphon Trio (Annalee Patipatanakoon, Roman Borys & Jamie Parker,) and the Singers got into the act too, with costuming, lines and bit parts here and there.

The music of composer Andrew Staniland is modern and dissonant, but still accessible, with a kind of spare beauty that perfectly suits both the subject matter and Jill Battson's poetic libretto. ...his skin another layer of dust for the next four years... or ..onctuous rivulets dribbling... She clearly has a poet's love of language, interspersing more meditative passages with those that describe scientific phenomena and whimsical takes on the topic. There are even flashes of humour here and there, as in Polygyny, which neatly illustrates an understanding of the complexities involved in African social fabrics, rather than taking a facile approach.

I was truly swept away by the beauty of it and the enormous talents of the performers one and all. One thing - at the end, they simply flit off stage, not to return for curtain calls no matter how long or hard we clapped. Happily, I ran into soprano Neema Bickersteth and bass-baritone Marcus Nance at the opening night cocktail party later on, and was able to tell them I think we were disappointed in not being able to give them a standing ovation.

Check it out if you can!

Images, top to bottom:
Peter McGillivray
Krisztina Szabó
Gryphon Trio

Marcus Nance 
Sadly, none was available for Ms Bickersteth!