Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival 2010 Spotlights the Multicultural Morph and Jubilance of Pan-Jewish Culture

The Other Europeans
All roads lead to Canada’s Ashkenaz Festival, following the twists and turns of a boldly adaptive, constantly evolving Jewish culture. They are highways running from Klezmer hotspots like New York, Berkeley, and Berlin. They are medieval trade routes spanning from the Sephardic heartlands of Spain and Morocco to dusty desert trails of the Middle East. Some are faint, forgotten paths from unsung outposts like Florence, Sarajevo, Kishinev and Rio de Janeiro. Others run from imagined clubs where klezmorim jam with salseros, cantors croon with Afrobeat brass bands, and 80’s “hair” bands belt out Yiddish ditties accompanied by screeching guitars and synthesizers.

They come together at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre (and several other venues) for dozens of free performances and events August 31-September 6, 2010 . With more than 90 acts and 200 individual artists hailing from over a dozen countries, North America’s premier festival of Jewish music and culture is marking its 15th anniversary in an undertaking so ambitious that it has taken two years of planning to organize.

Originally created by and for Klezmer/Yiddish junkies, a perhaps surprising streak of rebelliousness is wired into Ashkenaz’s DNA. Recalling the “revivalist” impulse that gave birth to the festival, Artistic Director Eric Stein notes “the idea of resurrecting music and art rooted in east European Jewish traditions was actually pretty subversive in its day. The Festival founders were really counter-cultural insurgents, challenging the status quo of a fairly conservative Jewish community and angling for mainstream ‘world’ music respectability.”

Fifteen years and eight festivals later, subversion is now taking a new form at Ashkenaz with the expansion of the festival’s mandate beyond the horas, freylekhs and folksongs beloved by hardcore Yiddishists and Klez-heads. “Our festival now reflects a whole universe of cutting-edge contemporary Jewish music and art, whether it’s Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Mizrachi or cross-cultural.”

The Festival’s bold and constantly expanding vision resounds this year in the cutting-edge work of so many of its headline artists, including pan-Mediterranean funksters Balkan Beat Box (Sept 5), 14-piece Jewish/Romani (Gypsy) supergroup The Other Europeans (Sept 4), and the avant-garde opera of Frank London’s “Night in the Old Marketplace” (Sept 6), a theatrical Yiddish ghost story shaped as much by old world folklore as by Tom Waits-style musical satire. Juxtaposed with octogenarian headliners like Bosnian-Ladino legend Flory Jagoda (Sept 4) and 3rd-generation Philadelphia Klezmer drumming icon Elaine Hoffman-Watts (Sept 4), Ashkenaz audiences experience the past, present and future of Jewish music.

Musicians working in Jewish traditions have long been distinguished for their experimentalism, embracing a vibrant array of influences and eclectic sounds from across the globe. “It’s the same story the world over: wherever the Jewish diaspora reached, its musicians either borrowed from the host culture to develop new hybrids or assimilated so seamlessly that they became key figures in the transmission of local musical culture. Whether it’s a 19th century Polish village or the 21st century global village, that really is the true genius of Jewish musical creation.”

Gerard Edery
That creativity shines in a surprisingly vibrant young and hip generation of Jewish musicians appearing at Ashkenaz this summer. Cantorial tradition inspires the high-intensity indie rock of The Sway Machinery (Sept 5), while Yiddish song takes on a totally bizarre twist with Yiddish Princess (Sept 4), inspired by ’80s power pop and arena rock. Biblical texts and multi-lingual poetry gain a new voice with Mycale (Sept 6), an all-female vocal quartet interpreting the “Radical Jewish” music of John Zorn.

Along with pop, rock, and jazz, Jewish musicians draw on elements beyond the Eastern European-centric roots that once dominated the klezmer revival and lent the Festival its name. Ashkenaz features more Sephardic and Mizrachi music this summer than ever before, with the all-female, Persian/middle-Eastern fusion of Divahn (Sept 5), the all-star Sephardic and Moroccan wanderings of Gerard Edery and the Caravan Ensemble (Sept 5), and Iraqi-born, Israel-based oud and violin virtuoso Yair Dalal (Sept 4-6), Ashkenaz’s 2010 Artist-in-residence.

Balkan Beatbox
Given the porous, cosmopolitan, and flexible nature of Jewish music, it’s no surprise that Ashkenaz performers seem to conjure all manner of real and imagined cross-cultural musical encounters. In “Nightsongs from a Neighboring Village” (Sept 6), two Yiddish and Ukrainian musicians explore how the voices of Yiddish and Slavic folk bards once intertwined. More fantastical dialogues include Lenka Lichtenberg’s (Sept 4) fusion of Yiddish song with Indian classical music, while Odessa/Havana (Sept 5) slams mambo and matzo balls in a high-octane invocation of the wildly different spirits of two famous musical port cities.

Canada’s own young Jewish music creators feature prominently at Ashkenaz. “Canada is home to some of the most creative musicians in this scene today” says Stein, citing the global fusion of Jaffa Road (Sept 6), the Bulgarian gypsy funk of Kaba Horo (Sept 6), the hipster jazz of Zebrina (Sept 5), and the world premiere, festival commission of Les Batards du Bouche (Sept 5), four young Quebecois harmonica hotshots resurrecting the kitschy but musically-sophisticated sound of harmonica quartets to render an all-new repertoire of serious Jewish harmonica music. Stein himself gets into the act when he picks up his mandolin to front his newest ensemble Tio Chorinho (Sept 6), which will pay tribute to the great Jewish mandolin master of Brazil, Jacob do Bandolim.

The Sway Machinary
Toronto, Canada’s capital of multicultural exuberance, has proven to be the perfect crossroads for the traditionally innovative Jewish sounds of Ashkenaz. “Every year, nearly half of the 50,000-60,000 attendees are not Jewish,” Stein notes. “It’s an opportunity to share Jewish culture and values with the broader community and it’s incredibly gratifying to see so large and multicultural an audience enthusiastically embrace Jewish cultural forms.”

Rounding out its music-heavy program with a spate of lectures, panel discussions, films, family activities and hands-on dance and music workshops, Ashkenaz provides a rich context in which to immerse in the brilliance of Jewish art forms and celebrate their adaptability to varying cultural contexts. But all loftier goals aside, the heart of the Festival is the joyful synergy of connecting multicultural audiences with diverse performers. “It’s really a one-of-a-kind event,” concludes Stein, before adding “and it’s one helluva great party!”

Ashkenaz Festival Schedule

08/31/2010, Tuesday

Tribute to Avram Sutzkever, Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue

09/01/2010, Wednesday

Deli Duos, Caplansky’s Delicatessen
A Gilgul Fun a Nign (Metamorphosis of a Melody), Al Green Theatre

09/02/2010, Thursday

Binyumen Schaecter, Koffler Centre of the Arts
Deli Duos, Caplansky’s Delicatessen
Song of the Lodz Ghetto (2010), Sheppard Grande Theatre
Ashkenaz at Lula, Lula Lounge

09/03/2010, Friday

Deli Duos, Caplansky’s Delicatessen

09/04/2010, Saturday

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Artists, MBCS @ Harbourfront Centre
Michael Winograd Dance Band, Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Short Films From KlezKanada, Studio Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Flory Jagoda, Enwave Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Lenka Lichtenberg , Lakeside Terrace @ Harbourfront Centre
North End Klezmer Project , Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Elaine Hoffman Watts, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Havdallah, Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
The Other Europeans , Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Slichot, Miss Lou’s Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Sephardic and Mizrachi Cabaret, Lakeside Terrace @ Harbourfront Centre
Shtiller Tants, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Yiddish Princess , Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre

09/05/2010, Sunday

Bella Did Ya Eat Jewish Brunch, Free Times Cafe
Parade Crafts with Shadowland Theatre, ZOOM! Kids Tent @ Harbourfront Centre
Community Klezmer Bands, Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Michael Wex, Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre
The Other Europeans Panel Discussion, Miss Lou’s Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Sruli and Lisa, MBCS @ Harbourfront Centre
“You will Know us by the Trail of our Vinyl”, Studio Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Aubrey Davis, Lakeside Terrace Tent @ Harbourfront Centre
The Spirit of Sepharad, Enwave Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Klezmerata Fiorentina , Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre
The Schaecter Techter , Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Isacc Bashevis Singer and His Artists (w/ Laura Kruger), MBCS @ Harbourfront Centre
Red Hot Chachkas, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Efim Chorny and Susanna Ghergus , Lakeside Terrace @ Harbourfront Centre
Lorie Wolf “Mazl and Shlimazl”, Studio Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Sephardic Roundtable, Miss Lou’s Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Sruli and Lisa, Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Jewish Dance Band (w/ The Other Europeans), Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Zebrina, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Adrienne Cooper, Enwave Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Les Bâtards du Bouche, Lakeside Terrace @ Harbourfront Centre
Odessa / Havana, Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Paint What you Remember (2009), Studio Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Roma Dance Band (w/ The Other Europeans), Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
The House on Bainbridge Avenue (w/ Binyumen Schaecter), Miss Lou’s Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Divahn, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Glimpses of Yiddish Czernowitz (2010), Studio Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Balkan Beat Box, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Goldfaden’s Legacy (2004), Studio Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
The Sway Machinery, Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Shtiller Tants, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre

09/06/2010, Monday

Parade Crafts with Shadowland Theatre, ZOOM! Kids Tent @ Harbourfront Centre
Sruli and Lisa, Lakeside Terrace Tent @ Harbourfront Centre
A Night in the Old Marketplace, (2 showings) Enwave Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Bob Cohen, Miss Lou’s Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Gerard Edery , Studio Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Toronto Jewish Folk Choir, Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Brian Katz “YidRhythmics”, Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Jaffa Road, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Outwitting History (w/ Aaron Lansky), Miss Lou’s Room @ Harbourfront Centre
Tio Chorinho , Lakeside Terrace @ Harbourfront Centre
Alex Kontorovich Dance Band, Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Aubrey Davis , Lakeside Terrace Tent @ Harbourfront Centre
Mycale, Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre
The Kugel Valley Klezmer Band, Studio Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Ashkenaz Parade , Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Kaba Horo, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Sasha Luminsky and Martin Van de Ven with String Quartet, Lakeside Terrace @ Harbourfront Centre
Michael Alpert and Julian Kytasty, Brigantine Room @ Harbourfront Centre
The Fellowship of the Strings, Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
The Socalled Movie, Studio Theatre @ Harbourfront Centre
Acoustic Dance Band, Redpath Stage @ Harbourfront Centre
Best of the Fest Finale, Sirius Stage @ Harbourfront Centre

Full festival information at

Author: World Music Central News Department

World music news from the editors at World Music Central


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