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Sidebar: Canadian Music Straight Out of Africa


When Opiyo Oloya first came to Canada in 1981, he remembers there was little African music anywhere to be heard. Today, Toronto has become one of the world centres for the upbeat grooves of music that is straight out of Africa, but distinctly Canadian all the same.

For Oloya, African music remains an essential part of being African even with Canada as his home. Oloya hosts Karibuni, an African music show on CIUT radio in Toronto. Karibuni is a celebration of his African roots as well as a contribution. It allows him to share this essential part of the African culture, not just with music played over the air waves, but also broadcasting live from community activities like AfroFest:

We are live here at Queen' Park and your are listening to CIUT, 80.5 FM, and this is AfroFest '98. For those of you just joining us, the atmosphere is electric now as Queen's Park begins to swell with the audience coming in. I guess everybody now is in a festive mood and we are waiting for that. Later on we'll have Pat Thomas and High Life Stars. This is music from Ghana. And finally we'll end with Lorraine Klaasen bringing in a brand of music from the townships in South Africa, the township jive -- "Bakanda" as they call it down there.

The first AfroFest took place in 1989. Inspired by the increasing popularity of African music radio shows, it gathered a wide range of African musical groups and performers at clubs and concerts throughout Toronto.(1) The artistic vision behind AfroFest is to challenge stereotypes in perceptions of Africa by the sheer diversity of regional styles displayed through both traditional and contemporary music and dance. For AfroFest 1989, all but two of the scheduled acts had to be imported. The total attendance neared a respectable 2,000. Now, having celebrated its tenth year in 1998, the festival has developed a life of its own. AfroFest struggles to find the time and space to showcase all of the local African Canadian musicians and attendance has swelled to a consistent 10,000 plus.(2)

"It's always been a community event and it's grown as the African community ha grown," said Michael Stohr, out-going president of the non-profit Music Africa organization dedicated to the promotion of African music and culture that produces AfroFest (Mary Duku has just taken over as president for Music Africa for 1999)."We get some funding from the Toronto Arts Council but the rest of the budget is generated at the festival itself, from concessions for example." The monster marketplace of African arts, crafts, food, and clothing are big crowd pleasers. But the main attraction are the headlining performers -- the month-long extravaganza of concerts at local clubs such as the Bamboo Club and Karibu Bar and Restaurant, culminating in an all-day free concert on the grounds of Queen's Park. "At the core of what matters," explained Stohr, "is that this expression of local culture is a lifeline to home for many people."(3)

As more and more African immigrants make Canada their home, the African Canadian community has naturally grown, but so too has the general public's appreciation for African music. Each of Canada's three biggest cities -- Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver -- has at least one mainstream club regularly presenting African performers.(4) It is Toronto, however, that has gained a reputation for being the centre of African Music in North America. "It's generally accepted that Toronto is the heart of African music in all of North America," says Mozambican bandleader Jamisse Jamo. "What is happening at a certain level is a kind of pan-African sound that may be uniquely Torontonian." "No major African act on tour would think of passing up on Toronto. This last year every major act made stops here. It's a very exciting time and gives the community a lot of inspiration."(5)

What's being inspired is home-grown African Canadian musicians who are creating a very distinctive pan-African sound -- something uniquely Torontonian. It's a style of music with a wide diversity of cultural elements, mixing the different sounds native to the various regions in Africa. Hilife, for example, is the Nigerian, big-band sound with emphasis on the horn section. Makossa is West African music with heavy focus on the drums. Soukous comes from the Francophone countries like Zaire and is led by the guitar. Ugandan sounds are characterized by their traditional instruments such as the lukeme (thumb piano), nanga (stringed harp) and nyamulere (flute). What's distinctive about the African-Canadian sound is the crossover, or pan-African, style: assimilating, but at the same time not diluting a range of sounds native to Africa. Some musicians also adopt European or North American elements, while others prefer to remain pure to the African traditions. (6)

Despite the growth and popularity of African music in Canada, it is still really just coming into its own. Groups play monthly gigs at the selective mainstream outlets but otherwise they are hidden away in the backroom clubs of choice of their particular African-Canadian communities. The intersection of Bloor and Ossington in Toronto's downtown core is the closest thing the city has to a centralized scene of African music and culture. This three-block strip boasts six African restaurants, two with live music, specialty grocery stores and shops offering all kinds of goods, newspapers and magazines from home. On the surface it seems that this must be the thriving African cultural enclave.(7)

But the majority of Toronto's estimated 150,000 plus African population lives further uptown, in the north end and the suburbs of Scarborough, Etobicoke and Mississauga. The concrete knot of high rises and malls reveals nothing of the local talent -- making it hard to find, and exclusive for the entertainment of only the local communities themselves. "When the bands play there, it's usually at rented banquet halls, community centres, venues like that," says Parachute Club drummer and co-founder Bill Bryans, one of African music's major booster in Toronto and producer of albums by local groups Shego and Afro-Nubians. "Some bands make a living exclusively on the wedding circuit. But there's no one venue or area that feels African the way the Bloor-Ossington strip does."(8)

Nevertheless, African-Canadian music, especially in Toronto, is quickly coming of age. The trade used to be all one way from Africa -- the imports to fill the stage at Afrofest -- but now local groups are being exported from Canada to audiences all around the world. Bands like Yaw Boakye and Bishop Okele are making the charts in Ghana. Toronto artists are planning album releases straight out of Africa. And acts are touring internationally in places like England, France (Paris is the considered the current world-centre of African music) and the United States.(9).

Where it all started was with radio shows like Opiyo Oloya's. For Opiyo himself, it is through African music that the transaction between cultures -- his native Africa and his home Canada -- complete. Broadcasting his radio show Karibuni, meaning "voice of freedom," allows him to bring his African element, a part of himself, and share it with the wider Canadian audience. "When I play a piece of African music, this was also a part of me," Oloya says. "This was something that I was used to and I wanted to share it out there, and it was a way of not only expressing what is deep inside me but also a way of actually coming into contact with those out there, a way of connecting."

"Out of Africa: sounds of Africa are heating up the local music scene,"
by Errol Nazareth, Toronto Sun, September 22, 1996.

"A new music emerges: Mixing of regional styles could bring a pan-African sound that's uniquely Torontonian,"
by Lenny Stoute, The Toronto Star, January 11, 1997.

"Ugandan singer Oryema's Canadian connections deep,"
by Nicholas Jennings, The Toronto Star, July 3, 1996.

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