Their songs may not reflect our love of hockey, or namecheck Sault Ste Marie and Bobcaygeon, but KUNÉ is as Canadian as the “wicked prairie winds” that The Tragically Hip sang about in “The Darkest One.”
As the complexion of the Great White North changes rapidly, exciting, hard-to-categorize fusion is happening in our urban centres. It’s not just bands like Toronto’s So Long Seven, whose lineup includes a guitarist, a mandolin player, a violinist, a banjo player… and a tabla player. Look no further than Jessie Reyez and Lido Pimienta, both of whom have roots in Colombia, and have won a JUNO Award and a Polaris Prize, respectively, for uncompromising music informed by their heritage.
Now there’s KUNÉ – Canada’s Global Orchestra, in a class of its own.
Sure, Canada – and especially, Toronto – has seen African and Cuban super-groups, but nothing like this one, that features 12 virtuoso musicians who came to Canada from every corner of the globe – including one Métis Canadian whose ancestors have been here for centuries. The ensemble was conceived by Mervon Mehta, Executive Director of Performing Arts at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and formally came together in December of 2016 under the artistic direction of David Buchbinder.
Within two years, KUNÉ signed a record deal with Universal Music Canada, and a management deal with Opus 3 Artists, whose roster includes Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project, Roseanne Cash, and Béla Fleck.
The group plays a seamless, intriguing blend that combines many world-music styles. “Cante a la Tierra” (“Song for the Earth”), for example, offers a delightful mix of African instrumentation and Brazilian singing, while “Lahzeye Sokut” features Anwar Kurshid on the sitar, Padideh Ahrarnejad playing the tar (a long-necked Iranian lute), flautist Lasso, from Burkina Fasso, and Dora Wang playing the Chinese bamboo flute. That the music doesn’t sound forced, but rather completely accessible and enjoyable, is a testament to the virtuosity of the KUNÉ members.
Mehta says that he was inspired to assemble KUNÉ during the last federal election, when then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper used the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on his support of reduced health coverage for refugees. Like many, Mehta found Harper’s comment confusing and divisive.
“I’m an immigrant who came here in 1961,” he says. “So, am I new stock or old stock? Where does that put me, or my kid, who’s a mix of different ethnicities? So, I started to think, ‘What are we doing as a multi-cultural country, to really reflect our diversity – whether it’s in newsrooms, boards of directors, or on concert stages?’”
KUNÉ member Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, the Métis singer and violinist, says that as someone who comes from a classical music background, and who’s always been interested in traditional music from around the world, the opportunity to perform with KUNÉ came at a perfect time.
“I was looking for an idea for my next project, and this spoke to my interest in collaborating and learning from other world music traditions,” she says. “The other good thing was that I didn’t have any expectations, and there wasn’t this pressure to be successful.”
Asked what she brings to this world-music party, Delbaere-Sawchuk says, “I’m always trying to go beyond playing the notes, and to be present on stage. I’ve studied with many master musicians who’ve taught me how to think about harmonies and tension, and I’d like to bring that into a traditional music setting.”
KUNÉ Artistic Director Buchbinder says he and Mehta had been bouncing musical ideas off each other over the last few years, before Mehta shared his dream of putting together a Canadian global music orchestra.
“When Mervon told me what he wanted to do, one of the first things I said was, ‘We have to make original music, because if we don’t, we’ll have 12 mediocre bands with a star in each band,’” the award-winning trumpeter and composer says, laughing. “I believe that when you do something original, you’re expressing the voice of the composer. That, to me, is very important.”
One might imagine Buchbinder and Mehta locking all 12 composers in a big room for weeks on end, and giving them a deadline to make a record. But it wasn’t so. “There was a lot of talking and getting to know each other the first time we all met, and David did a great job making us feel like a family,” says Delbaere-Sawchuk. “When you have 12 strong personalities in a group, conflicts will inevitably come up, but that didn’t happen. We’re like one big, happy family.”
Buchbinder attributes the group’s organic, genre-bending music – that truly reflects the Canadian cultural mosaic – to the trust that developed among the members and the familial vibe to which Delbaere-Sawchuk refers.
But all this didn’t happen overnight. And that’s where Buchbinder expanded his role of artistic director. “I’ve been putting bands together for a long time, and I have a technique I’ve developed that includes working with people’s stories,” he explains. “We talked, we sang, we chanted, we ate together” and, Buchbinder adds, “We spent a day at a farm in the middle of winter. It was really beautiful, bonding and Canadian.”
While that sounds warm and fuzzy, there’s no escaping the massive challenge of creating music for a 12-strong band. There was the months-long audition process, which saw 150 musicians vying for a spot. Buchbinder said he was looking for the answers to four questions during the auditions: “Can you play? Can you learn something, like a jazz composition, that’s not from your tradition? Can you learn a traditional tune from a different culture? And can you work together?”
“By the end of that process, we could tell who would be a great candidate,” he says. Given the group’s size, Buchbinder adds, there was no way the journey from writing and rehearsing to recording and performing could be a collective process, because “we wouldn’t get there.”
During the actual process, Buchbinder says, “some artists who wrote their own pieces needed help arranging them. Others arranged their own songs. The musicians were given workshops in composing, and they all listened to each other’s melodies. It was a lesson in how to move from something traditional to something unique. And as the arrangements evolved, the question became, ‘How do we keep refining this?’
“They’re working together beautifully, and we’re all curious to see where this can go,” he says.
Delbaere-Sawchuk adds, “There are so many possibilities we haven’t explored yet. I’m very excited for the next phase of creating.”