Culture: Ontario’s Rich and Colourful World Music Scene

by Adrienne Robertson

They may not be on hit radio stations and their concerts might not garner a lot of attention from the media, but Ontario is home to a wide array of bands playing ethnic music. Ethnic, or world music, is a broad term referring to songs inspired by indigenous sounds and flavours. Musicians who play world music are inspired by other cultures and styles, most often by the music of their ancestors or from their country of origin.

If you look closely enough, you can find almost every type of world music in Ontario. We are home to musicians from Cuba, India, China, Brazil, Africa, Greece and so many other places.

Maza Mezé and Toronto Tabla Ensemble are two popular Toronto groups, but there are countless more across the province.

Maza Mezé

When many people think of other cultures, part of what defines them and demonstrates their uniqueness is the food they eat. This is, in part, the concept behind the name Maza Mezé.

The group’s website explains the Arabic (Maza) and Greek (Mezé) name as "terms that describe the assortment of appetizers served at the beginning of a meal in those cultures – think babaganoush, a plate of olives, a kebab or two…in the eastern Mediterranean these dishes tease the palate and either prepare the diner for more substantial fare to come or make up a meal on their own."

Maza Mezé will tease your senses in a different way – through music. The group is made up of Toronto musicians who all share a passion for Greek and Middle Eastern sounds. They came together in 1995 to explore traditional music and build on it to create something that is entirely their own.

"Some of us have direct connection to Greek and Arabic culture, some of us not, but we have been able to meet a lot of people from these cultures, study with them, make music and eat with them, and as a result I think we have a deeper understanding than we would have had without this exposure," says Deb Sinha, a percussionist with Maza Mezé.

Like many Ontario musicians playing world music who don’t get endorsements, sell out arenas or get played on "high rotation", Maza Mezé is supported by programs like the Canada Council for the Arts Touring program, which has allowed them to play at almost every major folk festival in Canada. The group has played all over British Columbia and at major festivals in cities like Calgary and Winnipeg.

The group’s sound is always evolving, just as cultures do over time. "It is very much more about interaction and collaboration now, and about trying to create something new that reflects a very quickly changing social and cultural reality, particularly in Canada," says Sinha.

Check out www.mazameze.com for Maza Mezé news and to find out when you can take in a show. "There are a lot of things you can find out about people by listening to and exposing yourself to their culture," says Sinha. Maza Mezé makes learning about Greek and Middle Eastern cultures a fun and beautiful experience.

Toronto Tabla Ensemble

The tabla is an expressive Indian percussion instrument – and just one layer of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s (TTE) rich sound.

Drawing on rhythms from India, TTE brings mallets, percussion, voice, violin, bass and dance together for a unique combination of traditional North Indian percussion and Canadian music and dance.

"My goal is, through music, to explore the similarities between cultures. It is important to me that people from around the world get the opportunity to hear the TTE’s music and hopefully relate to it from their own experience," says Ritesh Das, who founded TTE in 1991.

Das has studied tabla with gurus Pandit Shankar Ghosh, Ustad Zakir Hussain and most extensively with Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. He now teaches students of his own, passing on tradition and inspiring them to make their own distinct music.

"My foundation is the classical rhythmic system from North India, and I have studied with the best! These informed, creative artists have inspired me to listen deeply to my own voice, which is influenced by my childhood and young adulthood in India and my many years now living in the west. Through years of playing, you learn a lot about yourself, and find your own voice."

With nine other members of TTE (and many past members who have left their marks), it’s the variety of influences that make the group so special.

Das is enthusiastic about Toronto’s world music scene. "Ontario and specifically Toronto is now home to the whole world! Great musicians from across the globe now call Toronto home," he says.

For Toronto Tabla Ensemble performance dates and to find out who they might be collaborating with next, please visit www.tablaensemble.com.

Ontario’s Foreign Soundtrack

Looking for world music in your area? Check out the following resources for more on Ontario’s rich musical community and the acts who might be visiting our stages this year:

  • Worlds of Music Toronto – With a motto like “Listen globally, play locally” it’s obvious that Worlds of Music Toronto is dedicated to fostering positive relationships between musicians and audiences and supports ethnic music across the city of Toronto. www.worldsofmusic.ca
  • CHIN Radio – Broadcast in the Toronto, southern Ontario and Ottawa areas and available online, CHIN Radio is the first multicultural and multilingual station in Ontario. It reaches out in over 30 languages. www.chinradio.com
  • Ottawa Folk Festival – You can find lots of international flavour at the Ottawa Folk Festival every year. The 2008 festival will be held at Brittania Park from August 14th to 17th. www.ottawafolk.org
  • Colores Andinos – This group includes members from Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru and Canada. They perform regularly in the Ottawa area. www.coloresandinos.ca
  • Toronto-Lime.com – This is the most comprehensive listing of Caribbean music in Toronto. www.toronto-lime.com/music
  • My Bindi – Claiming to be “Your online destination for cool South Asian Stuff,” My Bindi is an excellent resource for South Asian music and entertainment in Canada. www.mybindi.com/arts-entertainment
  • MondoMix – Here, you can purchase and download music from your favourite musicians. Songs are organized by location: Africa, Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe. www.mondomix.com

CNM