Tag: Palestine

Curry Conservatory

One of my strongest childhood memories involves being assigned to draw of a truism of life. The teacher was seeking a visual representation of folkoric wisdom that might illustrate our understanding of Something Really Important. I chose “Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth.” It may have been a tip-off to my future passion for the culinary arts – or perhaps my impatience with throwing too many things in one small space.

I drew a long line of chefs standing across a gleaming counter, a large, bubbling soup pot placed in the very middle with orange flames tickling its bottom. Each chef, with tall white hats pointing like spears, had large, goggly eyes and anxious “O”-shaped mouths. The further the chefs from the soup pot, the longer their spoons. The chefs at each end had absurdly long, spindly spoons, with handles like spider’s legs. In another panel, I drew a lady with fat round pearls and grey curls making a face, red tongue hanging over a green pallor, as she, spoon in hand, samples the chefs’ offerings. Too Many Chefs indeed. I got an A.

I thought of this drawing, along with the first time I ever tried curry, when I attended a concert recently. The second experience happened at the home of Indian friends of my family’s. Plied with naan and dahl, I initially kicked out at the strong tastes and colors, my eight year old palate not accustomed to the blend of spices or how to properly handle the spiky shock of chili on the tongue. Conversion to being a curry devotee was gradual, its progression running parallel to my curiosity and experience of Life Itself. Taken together, these two experiences, of drawings and preliminary taste tests, are the perfect metaphor for a concert I recently attended one rainy, warm night in Toronto. Titled “Andalusia To Toronto“, the show was the season-opener at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, a space built right into the creaky old Royal Conservatory building. No food, but lots of mixed stuff for the ear, some with too many chefs, some with spicing just right.
Koerner Hall is a beautiful, acoustically perfect venue that seamlessly blends old traditions with new visions. That old/new integration might well describe the show, curated by musician David Buchbinder, the Canadian musician behind the Odessa/Havana music project and, more recently, Diasporic Genius. Buchbinder is an active presence in the Toronto music scene, having founded an assortment of busy, popular jazz ensembles in the last two decades, including the celebrated Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band in 1988. He was joined by a myriad of musical talents, including Cuban-Canadian pianist Hilario Duran, Palestinian oud playing and vocalist Bassam Bishara, and Syrian-American violinist Fathi al Jarrah. The nine-man ensemble – violinists, percussionists, a reed/flute player, all told -produced a gloriously uplifting sound that drew upon Jewish, Arab, and Spanish musical traditions, performing music several centuries old and updating much of it with a modern, urban sensitivity.
It is unquestionably a matter of personal taste as to whether or not you jive with Buchbinder’s mad drive to integrate sounds from diverse (and distinct) traditions into a kind of pan-cultural sonic hybrid. I’ve never been entirely convinced melding Ashkenaz shtetl sounds with Cuban jazz works – not all minor chords are created equal to my ears -but that’s also because I have a penchant for enjoying and celebrating sounds as distinct entities. I don’t like too many chefs around my broth -but I do enjoy a good curry. And sometimes the blends Buchbinder oversaw were very beautiful. His skill as an arranger and bandleader can’t be discounted. The concert’s first piece, “Billadhi Askara (The One Who Intoxicates)”, a beautiful Muwashahat that offered a solemn start but soon shimmied into a luscious, lilting piece that recalled the best of Hossam Ramzy and His Egyptian Orchestra. ‘La Mujer de Terah (The Wife Of Terah)”, a Sephardic folk song, featured Israeli-Yemeni vocalist Michal Cohen, who, with her clear strong voice and perfectly-pitched high tones, cast a speel across the Hall as she sang of a woman “roaming on the fields and in the vineyards” and giving birth to “the servant of the blessed God” in a cave.
That’s not to say all the pieces were from a religious tradition. In fact, most of what was presented at “Andalusia To Toronto” were creative adaptions and re-workings of traditional folk pieces. Hilario Duran re-arranged two of the pieces featured, including Sephardic folk songs “Landarico” and “Conja (The Shell)”, and Buchbinder himself providing several adaptations and original compositions. It’s obvious he wants to demonstrate connections between cultures of the past, and to show how those connections can instruct us in the present, and possibly future. But some portions were lengthy and felt far too didactic. “Cadiz”, an original composition, was sonically frustrating. It sounded like a highly rhythmic effort at fitting square pegs into round holes, its “broth” a muddy mix that made appreciation of its influences damn near impossible. “Next One Rising” fared somewhat better, with its influences more fluidly integrated between instruments, but there remained a strange whiff of didacticism mixed with over-exuberant creativity. Too many chefs? Or too much spice? Either way, not my favorite dishes.
Buchbinder’s curious curry-paella-tagine mix did, however, offer a good metaphor of the Hall’s programming choices. Buchbinder’s choice of showcasing the sounds of Andalusia was an ideal symbol of the sheer breadth of vision at work here. Yes, the Conservatory Orchestra have dates (November 25th, February 17th, and April 13th), and there are other classical performers featured as part of the season; the lineup includes classical artists Louis Lortie, Angela Hewitt, and Emanuel Ax.
But Koerner Hall doesn’t stand solely on its classical music laurels. I was witness to the closing concert of Hugh Masekela’s last tour there in November of last year. And in 2012, the Hall will feature yet more great international artists: gospel great Mavis Staples in January, Mexican chanteuse Lila Downs in February, Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjjo in March, and German cabaret performer Ute Lemper in April. This is the kind of delicious curry I can get behind. Too many chefs? Not at Koerner. Their programming is simple: eat what you can, draw while you wait, and take the rest home in a doggy bag. You can’t ask for much more than that.

A Taste of Peace


Oral sex and peace. What do the two have in common?

Apparently plenty, according to the young protagonist of Jonathan Garfinkel‘s intriguing work, The House of Many Tongues, currently running at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre through to this Wednesday. Playing since the end of April, this magic realism-esque piece touches on sex, family, history, politics, fantasy, art, age, and… uh, toilets. All at once. It’s a tall order indeed, and it doesn’t always succeed, but it makes for some interesting, challenging viewing nonetheless.

The plot revolves around fifteen-year-old Alex, a sexually curious Israeli living with his ex-Army-officer father, Shimon. Alex thinks he has found a fail-proof method to bring peace in the Middle East: Jewish men should go down on Palestinian women, and Palestinian men should go down on Jewish women. He wants to test his theory on his cousin, Rivka, who’s set to enter the Israeli army. She doubts Alex’s theory and suggests he hold her instead, to which he earnestly responds, “Why?” (which elicited some telling guffaws from the male members of the audience). Into their lives comes the Arab Abu Dalo, who claims he once owned their house, and eventually, his angry fiften-year-old daughter, Suha. Before you can say salaam (or is that shalom?), the four are attempting a co-habitation, as Dalo methodically types out Shimon’s history, eventually incorporating the ugly bits he’d rather his son didn’t know.

The House of Many Tongues is clever on several levels; its title plays on the twin puns of oral sex and linguistics, and its writer, Garfinkel, has anthropomorphized the house itself -into the person of actor Fiona Highet. The house “speaks” to various characters without sides -it simply offers suggestions and ideas. House also seems particularly delighted by Dalo’s appreciation of her/its genuine cedar toilet seat, noting that few, if any, ever appreciate such trivialities. Enter a talking camel who tries to woo House, in the form of actor/musician Raoul Bheneja, and a bit about traveling to Paris that is shown via video clip. Camel has his own theories about peace, family, and love.

It’s all very cute, if equally disjointed and disconnected, and some of the best bits involve the scenes between Shimon and Dalo. Actors Howard Jerome and Hrant Alianak, (respectively) give wonderful, heartfelt performances, playing men who’ve been bent and twisted by tragedy and loss, and who only want the best for their children. As Suha, Erin MacKinnon captures all the spitting venom and aching rebellion of a daughter desperately seeking her father’s love and attention, while actor/playwright Daniel Karasik is deeply charming and affecting as the curious, probing son who is relentless in his pursuit of the truth about his past. Bheneja and Highet share a few memorable scenes, their flirtation a kind of dance for the ages, though with Bheneja’s considerable musical gifts, I sort of wished he’d been given more instruments with which to woo. Alas.

The House of Many Tongues is interesting for the ideas it presents in terms of the Middle East -some funny, some profane -but it isn’t the kind of show to bring your Gran to (unless she’s one of those really cool grannies). It also asks a bit of patience, a lot of suspension of disbelief, and an open heart with which to absorb the poetry and flow of Garfinkel’s words and ideas. Director Richard Rose gives a nice soundtrack to accompany while you’re chewing over the possibilities. There’s a lot that could still be done with a work like this -somehow, it doesn’t feel finished -but starting down the road feels like a good first step. It’s true in life, as in … um, oral sex, that the destination somehow isn’t as important as the journey getting there. Right?

Politics. Economy. Art.

One of my favourite pastimes is pouring over the weekend papers amidst steaming cups of tea, with Go or Michael Enright on in the background, nibbling away on bits of toast, egg, bacon or waffles. It was with great interest and more than a little sadness that I read the story of Zakariya Zubeidi in Saturday’s edition of The Globe and Mail:

It was the hardest decision of Zakariya Zubeidi’s life. Slightly more than a year ago, the powerful commander of Jenin’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, one of Israel’s most-wanted for plotting shooting attacks and suicide bombings, walked into a Palestinian security office and handed in his gun.

At 32, he had concluded bitterly that his fight had failed. And he had another ambition: to deter this poverty-stricken camp’s children away from the path of violence by rebuilding a children’s theatre destroyed in the last intifada.

Offered, along with other gunmen, a rare amnesty from Israel, he spent time in a Palestinian jail and swore to remain unarmed. On his release, he pledged to dedicate his time to the Freedom Theatre’s workshops and performances, trying to recreate his own boyhood experiences in drama thanks to the work of a Jewish-Israeli peace activist.

But today his past has caught up with him, illustrating the difficulty of starting a new life after one of violence. The theatre, now thriving under the direction of the original founder’s son, does not want him there for fear that he will scare off much-needed foreign donors in the theatre’s quest to expand.

I wonder if anyone in the Canadian theatre world could imagine this happening. We all understand the importance of keeping benefactors happy, and resorting to sometimes-questionable measures to keep its members happy. Juliano Mer Khamis’ has a point about fearing Zubeidi’s association with the theatre; it may truly harm their reputation, their chances of fundraising, and indeed, their physical safety. Still, to isolate someone whose whole being seems so entirely bound up with theatre feels… horribly sad. Isn’t part of art’s purpose to enlighten? Even re-reading it now, the story puts the role and significance of theatre –and its relationship to politics -in a whole new light.

At a time when artists need to stick together, cultivate community and spread awareness, it’s heartbreaking to see possibilities being ripped asunder by politics and nationalism. I don’t know what kind of a suggestion to offer here, but I’m so grateful to the Globe for publishing this story. Yet another example of how art impacts life, and life impacts art.

In that vein, it was with great interest that I read Mark Vallen’s blog this morning about the impact the global recession could have on the livelihoods and outputs of visual artists. While it’s tempting to tut-tut at art’s role in harsh economic times, it’s equally apt to suppose that (to twist a phrase) “art is the mother of necessity.” History would seem to bear out the fact that harsh economic reality tends to yield some wonderful stuff –and that stuff, whether it takes the form of painting, sculpture, performance, writing or otherwise, is a reflection, examination, and exploration of the economic reality we all face.

Hardship knows no bounds; conversely, its unbound nature allows its expression in many creative outlets. And there’s something reassuring about that.

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