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Thursday, September 3, 2015

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Yemen Blues, Socalled headline Ashkenaz

Tags: Arts
Theatre Panik is staging a production of The Corpse Bride. [Paul Lambert photo]

Israeli world-music superstars Yemen Blues and Shye Ben Tzur, and Canadian Jewish-roots music innovators Socalled and Finjan are among the headliners at the ninth biennial Ashkenaz Festival, which kicks off Aug. 28 and runs through the Labour Day weekend.

 Late-night, east European blowouts with Russia’s Opa and Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra, plus a tour de force production of The Corpse Bride by Toronto’s Theatre Panik, are also among the highlights.

 “We want to be a giant tent that anyone – Jewish and non-Jewish – can sit under and enjoy and be entertained,” said Eric Stein, Ashkenaz Foundation’s artistic director.

“Originally a stage for Yiddish and klezmer revival artists to share their talents with other performers and the Jewish community at large, we’ve now broadened our mix of programming to include a vast range of pan-Jewish and cross-cultural art and performers. The festival reflects as much of our own city’s multicultural flavour, as it does the diversity and vibrancy in Jewish artistic creation worldwide.”

The Ashkenaz Festival is the largest Jewish cultural event in Canada where local and international artists come together to celebrate Toronto’s diverse cultural communities. 

The festival offers a world-class program of music, film, theatre, dance, literature, craft and visual arts, with nearly all the programming provided free. Ashkenaz draws an attendance of some 60,000 people from as far away as Europe, Israel and the United States.

The festival, co-produced with Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, celebrates the diversity of Jewish music, art and artists from places around the world. This year’s lineup includes more than 200 artists, some of them from Uganda, India, Central Asia, Argentina, Italy, Mexico and Australia.

Ashkenaz offers family-friendly, entertainment, including storytelling, crafts and interactive workshops and performances.

This year’s festival features two of North America’s pre-eminent family entertainers, Sharon Hampson and Bram Morrison, best known as two-thirds of the iconic trio Sharon, Lois and Bram.

 “Sharon and I are excited to be performing our usual family sing-along with a lot of familiar songs from our repertoire from previous years,” Morrison said.  “We’re going to be adding a certain number of songs that represent our Jewish background, such as the well-known and eternally beloved I’m a Little Latka, Der Rebbe Elimelech, Oy Vey, Oy Vey and more. We will be having our small but powerful band with us through the entire concert, and we also have plans to add some of the klezmer musicians who are playing with other bands to our show for a nice full freilich finale with real klezmer style.”

The word “klezmer” is derived from the Hebrew words klay (instrument) and zemer (music) and means “instrument of song.” The music has its roots centuries ago, in the shtetlach of eastern Europe, where it was originally meant to intimate the voice or music of the cantor in the synagogue.

The non-traditional klezmer music of present day is influenced not only by its eastern European roots, Gypsy melodies and Balkan music but also by Israeli horahs, jazz and the folk music of other lands.

The lead-up to the festival begins on Aug. 26 at the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media & Education, at 918 Bathurst St., with a community-wide workshop day with Shadowland Theatre. Led by Ashkenaz staff and Shadowland interns, participants will create a craft and celebrate their handiwork by joining the festival’s parade.

Programming goes dark on the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 31, for Shabbat, and will recommence early evening Saturday with performances at a dozen different stages going on simultaneously.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and his brother, JJ Keki, featured performers at the festival, are from Uganda. Their tribal name, the Abayudaya, means “people of Judah.” The Abayudaya live in rural villages in eastern Uganda and trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century. 

“Music has long been a motivating force for religion in Africa. The rhythm of drums, used to call people to prayer and an integral part of religious worship, is the heart of African music. I see our opportunity to reach people through our music at the Ashkenaz Festival and leading of the havdalah ceremony as a continuation of our tikkun olam efforts,” Rabbi Sizomu said.

The signature Ashkenaz Festival Parade, on Labour Day, is inspired by folkloric characters, superstitions and stories from Jewish and Yiddish culture. It features musicians, artists and stilt walkers.                   “The parade’s community band is open to anyone who can play an instrument and wants to participate and be inclusive of the musical delights led by a core of the festival’s musicians,” Stein said.

For a full list of programming, visit


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