“The Incredible Lightness of Being Jewish-A Taste of the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto”

This year’s Toronto based Ashkenaz festival went on for a full three days. It included music, theater, film, workshops, lectures and a parade. The festival has been around for decades and gets bigger and better with every passing year. Had I the time and the leisure to see it all, I would have, for the overall quality of the acts is fantastic, the organization is excellent and the sound systems and acoustics allow you to enjoy the music, rather than plug your ears to reduce the volume.

This year, in addition to a host of North American and European based musical acts, including various forms of Klezmer music, the festival featured two of Israel’s best performers, Dudu Tassa and Yair Dalal, each of whom have explored and reinvented the music of Israel’s ethnic groups who came from neighbouring Arab countries, and whose families have been involved in the performance of Arab classical music from early in the 20th century.

Given the move to culturally boycott Israel encouraged by such rock stars like Roger Waters of the rock band Pink Floyd, I am delighted that the organizers of Askhenaz maintain their Jewish sense of humor and defiantly invited and highlighted Israeli performers.

Maybe they had asked themselves, “Who is Roger Waters? What was his name before he changed it? Is his wife Jewish? Is he going to raise his kids as Jews if she isn’t? And what kind of name is Waters for a musician anyways? It has no substance!” I say this because the MC who announced the acts I saw, was a walking wealth of wonderful Jewish jokes and humor. He also turned out to be a fine singer of Yiddish. At Askhenaz I truly felt the “incredible lightness of being Jewish.”

And so Askhenaz has evolved into a Jewish themed music festival, which in its own buoyant manner moves along a continuum of Jews playing Jewish music, Jews playing non-Jewish music and non-Jewish musicians joining them in playing some of both. This should come as no surprise to students of Jewish ethnomusicology for over the last hundred years, Jewish and non-Jewish musicologists have yet to come up with a workable definition of Jewish music.

Regardless, at the end of the day, we all seem to know that each year, in Canada, the Askhenaz festival is where almost all and every aspect of the performance of Jewish music is happening. (Do not forget that Jews and Gypsies, the Roma, were often closely associated with each other back in the old country. One Gypsy/Roma tribe even had a large percentage of Yiddish words in its dialect, and Jews were often the preferred musicians at rural Polish Catholic weddings).

Last Sunday night the first act that I saw were three young Toronto Jews, a mandolin player, a guitarist and a stand up bass player. Like many members of the Toronto Jewish community they met at summer camp and remain big fans of David Grisman, an American Jew famous for his mandolin work with the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. They were pretty good and sang a piece by the American Jewish composer Irving Berlin, the great doyen of Tin Pan Alley and who is most famous for his song, White Christmas. As a New York Jewish sociologist once asked me, “Since when did Jews become white?” The answer, “Since Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas.”

They were followed by a husband and wife team who played Jazz influenced Yiddish songs. The wife is a fine pianist and gifted singer, the husband a fine clarinet player. Their artistry was superb. Had they been born eighty years earlier they would have been big in Tin Pan Alley. Times have changed and only Irving Berlin lost out on these two.

Then came Yair Dalal, dressed in his traditional white outfit. A fine singer, composer, oud player and violinist, Dalal has followed in the footsteps of his Iraqi Jewish musical ancestors and masters of the Arabian Maqam system. His prayer for peace, sung in accompaniment to his violin was followed by a marvelous series of ostinatos on the oud, which he hummed to in such a way that for me, conjured up our common ancestors’ exile to Babylon so many centuries ago, and from where his ancestors recently returned to Israel since its independence in 1948.

Photo of Yair Dalal

In the midst of all of this there was a short presentation by a young African Canadian singer with a voice that mixed Paul Robeson with the late cantor Moshe Koussevitzky. He literally wove in and out of Eastern European Chazzanut and old African American spirituals, and which had an almost shamanistic shape shifting affect on the audience. They just loved him.

Dalal was followed by a group of young, twenty and thirty something world music students, led by Tamar Ilana Cohen, a Canadian singer and dancer who has managed to merge traditional Sephardic songs from Morocco and the Balkans with contemporary Flamenco. Each musician and accompanying dancer of her ensemble are solid and creative, and Tamar manages to create a performance situation where she leads with gusto and brings out the best of her troupe.

Tamar has been immersed in this music since she was a child and often performs with her mother, gifted musicologist and instrumentalist, Dr. Judith Cohen. She is here to stay unless the people in Las Vegas start loosening up and hire her group. I am sure that we will be hearing more from her and her troupe in the very near future.

Finally, from Montreal, a young female violinist and singer held the stage with her band, performing what they playfully call Turbo folk music, something of a Balkan nature with the wacky stage feel of a Berthold Brecht play, all held together by the virtuosic and hilarious violin and singer with the stage name of Briga. One of her gimmicks is to raise her smart phone up and down while it plays Balkan improvisations against the wonderful cacophony of the drums that are common in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. The pure hysteria of her stage presence had me splitting my sides with laughter, knowing full well that it is no doubt part of her shtick and that in addition to her fine musicianship, her performance is quite tongue in cheek. I nearly died laughing.

As I left the show at one thirty in the morning I vowed to put aside a full three days next summer to visit and write about the Askhenaz festival. Forget about cottage country!

About the Author
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large. Having spent more than twenty years living and working in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he offers readers a cross cultural perspective on the pressing issues of our times. He has contributed numerous articles to the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the New York Post, the Brooklyn Rail, the American Thinker, Books in Canada, Minerva Magazine and is a Contributing Editor at the New English Review.