Declared the “most diverse city in the world” by the BBC World Service in 2016, Toronto is a very special place. With more than half of its residents born outside Canada, over 230 languages are spoken daily, and though we have our own cultural conflict challenges, we are richer for this diversity, as these different identities are not only presented in traditional singularity, but also exponentially, in crossover synthesis.
Alison Mackay’s fifth curation with Tafelmusik, Safe Haven opens this week with guest musical artists Maryem Tollar (narrator/vocalist), Diely Mori Tounkara (kora), and Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion). It’s based on the topic of human migration, past and present.
The historical and social context of Western classical music has always been closely tied to international migration. Alison has long been fascinated by the flight of French refugees in 1685, as Louis XIV made the protestant church illegal: “By 1700, refugees made up a quarter of the population of Berlin, and 20% of the population of Amsterdam… The refugee experience lay at the heart of the history of Baroque music, and of course, it is very central to Canadian life today.”
The very existence of Canada is the result of such an immigration composite; apart from the First Nations of Canada, Alison is acutely aware that all of us are, or descended from, settlers and refugees: “The theme of looking for safety in a new home lies at the heart of so many Canadian stories… and I think it’s very important to be aware of the terrible things that can happen to asylum seekers if they are denied a safe haven.”
At first glance, it may seem a little strange to imagine Persian percussion and African kora alongside a baroque orchestra, but Tafelmusik has long been collaborating with diverse guests to mix with their own sound: the warm resonance and clarity of the Baroque ensemble. Since their first cross-cultural project in 2014, Four Seasons, A Cycle of the Sun, with guests Wen Zhao (Chinese pipa), Aruna Narayan (Indian sarangi) and two Inuit throat singers, the ensemble has enthused over such collaborations: both parties are greatly inspired by the virtuosity and dedication of each others’ disciplines. Alison is constantly amazed by the group’s acceptance and is looking forward presenting the program with Elisa Citterio in her first year as Music Director.
The two Toronto-based guests, Naghmeh and Maryem, both have been shaped significantly by their own immigration experience, and they now flourish in this city.
Naghmeh Farahmand studied Persian percussion as a young girl with her father, Mahmoud Farahmand. She was well-rooted in Iran with several Iranian traditional ensembles and television work, and her move to Canada in 2010 was not without reservation. Like all newcomers, she was concerned about the impact of immigration, but within a few short months of Toronto living, she found not only the opportunity to continue her Persian percussion music, but to extend her Iranian musical knowledge with others. Her own setup features Turkish bendir, African udu , Persian tonbak and daf – and she credits this open artistic atmosphere with the concept of no boundaries in Canada, and the absence of the gender-based obstacles that many female artists face in other countries.
Maryem Tollar had a slightly different experience; her family immigrated to Halifax in 1969 when she was only one year old: “Being the second Egyptian family to move to the neighbourhood, people regularly told me I wasn’t a real Canadian because I wasn’t born there. It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto in 1986 that I finally felt that I had found my true home. “
The cultural clash continued at home as well: “My father did try to forbid me from going into music because he didn’t feel it was a respectable career.” But, Maryem held on to her passion for music, and she is now flourishing in Toronto, feeding her interest in folk/pop/Arabic music. Mostly self-taught, Maryem first joined with Tafelmusik in 2008 for From the Song of Songs, and was integral to the Tales of Two Cities. This week, Maryem is excited about presenting a new side in Safe Haven: “I won’t actually be performing Arabic music – my main role will be as the narrator, and I will sing a couple of songs – one in French and one in Ladino.”
Diely Mori Tounkara, who comes from a rich musical tradition in Mali and now lives in Montreal, will be joining Tafelmusik for the first time.
It is good to see something that we know. It is exciting to see something that we do not know yet. In this city of migration, special things do happen. For women to be liberated to pursue their passions, for outsiders to become part of the community, to overcome challenges and to evolve: these are the daily lives of many Torontonians. With its proven track record of excellence and innovation, Tafelmusik and Guests cordially invite you to their Safe Haven:
“The narration and images in the concert will deepen our understanding of the music which we are trying to bring alive for our audience. But music expresses much more than words — it allows us to feel the emotions which strengthen our understanding of what all humans have in common: a desire for beauty and knowledge which needs the security of a safe haven in order to flourish.” — Alison Mackay