In the first year of an annual song induction partnership between the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) and the East Coast Music Awards (ECMAs), “Song for the Mira,” by Allister MacGillivray, will be inducted into the CSHF at the 2018 ECMAs. Heather Rankin will perform the song live, and MacGillivray will receive the honour, during the awards ceremonies on Sunday, May 6, 2018, in the Nova Scotia Ballroom of the Halifax Marriott Harbourfront Hotel.

MacGillivray’s peaceful Celtic ballad “Song For the Mira” has been recognized by Billboard magazine as a folk classic, and is a favourite song with roots musicians and choirs in Atlantic Canada, and far beyond – having been translated into Scots Gaelic, Italian, Japanese, and several other languages. It has made the secluded, picturesque Cape Breton community of Marion Bridge and its Mira River famous the world over.

“‘Song for the Mira’ is a beautiful composition that embodies our East Coast culture, and we’re very proud to be a part of its induction into the Hall of Fame,” says ECMA Executive Director Andy McLean. Says CSHF Executive Director Vanessa Thomas, “We’re thrilled to induct MacGillivray’s iconic song into the Hall of Fame, and to be there to celebrate with him, and our partners at the ECMAs, in the province that inspired him.”

MacGillivray is a Cape Breton Islander, songwriter, guitarist, folklorist, author, and record producer, and has served as music director for various Celtic television programs out of St. John’s and Halifax. As an accompanist, he’s toured internationally with traditional musicians such as Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy, John Allan Cameron, and Ryan’s Fancy, and also worked for a short time with Canadian songwriter Gene MacLellan.

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.

Mervon Mehta

Mervon Mehta

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?’”

Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk

Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk (Photo: Kyle Burton)

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.”

David Buchbinder

David Buchbinder

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.”

KUNÉ Members
Padideh Ahrarnejad (Iran): Tar & Vocals
Sasha Boychouk (Ukraine): Woodwinds & Ethnic Ukrainian Flutes
Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk (Canada – Métis): Violin, Viola & Vocals
Luis Deniz (Cuba): Saxophone
Anwar Khurshid (Pakistan): Sitar & Vocals
Lasso (Salif Sanou) (Burkina Faso): Fulani flute, N’goni, Talking drum, Djembe, Doum-Doum & Vocals
Paco Luviano (Mexico): Acoustic & Electric Bass
Aline Morales (Brazil): Brazilian Percussion & Vocals
Demetrios Petsalakis (Greece): Oud, Lyra, Acoustic & Electric guitar
Matias Recharte (Peru): Cajón, Drums & Percussion
Selcuk Suna (Turkey): Clarinet
Dorjee Tsering (Tibet): Dranyen, Flute, Piwang & Vocals
Dora Wang (China): Bamboo Flute, Flute, Hulusi & Xiao















KUNÉ Music

Mélissa Laveaux“To me, each new album is an opportunity to go through an identity crisis of sorts,” says Mélissa Laveaux from Paris, where she’s been living for about a decade. For this Ottawa-raised young woman, self-examination is the heart of creativity. “On my first album, I was discovering who I really am, I was still looking for my own voice. The second one was about a rupture, and the difficulty of communicating – most notably with my parents, with whom I lived through a bona fide rupture when I came out as a lesbian.”

Born in Montréal, to parents who’d fled the Duvalier regime, Laveaux was raised in the nation’s capital. She split her musical education between her father’s Haitian records and Top 40 radio (“I’d listen to Kacey Kasem religiously,” she says), before moving on to Joni Mitchell’s folk and Broken Social Scene’s indie rock.

Signed to the No Format label (responsible for records by Oumou Sangaré, Nicolas Repac and Gonzales, to name a few), she released her first album, Camphor and Copper, in 2008. After tinkering with a blues-tinged, folk-rock sound, developing a signature style, and offering surprising cover versions – of songs by Elliott Smith to Eartha Kitt to Weezer – Laveaux was compelled to re-discover her roots after a trip to her homeland in 2016.

She dreams of re-visiting the songs she discovered on the albums of Martha Jean-Claude, a Haitian artist whose activism forced her to flee to Cuba in 1952. “Obviously, I can’t recreate the sound of Martha Jean-Claude, who used to work with an Afro-Cuban orchestra,” says Laveaux. “But I can play guitar, and I know how to make pop music, so I used my strengths to create something new.”

The artist – who confesses to singing in Creole “with a thick accent” – studied a repertoire of folkloric and popular melodies from the era of the American occupation of Haiti, around the beginning of the 1900s. This meant exploring vaudou (a.k.a. voodoo, or vodun) culture, a space of freedom and an instrument of resistance, both to Yankee imperialism and the social determinism of her family. “Even though part of Haitian culture, that of my parents, is quite conservative, there is a lot of freedom within vaudou, and even queer characters have their place in it,” she says, while referencing the documentary Des Hommes et des Dieux by Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire, which examined that subject.

The end result, her album Radyo Siwèl, presents a very personal vision of those songs, creating modern, guitar-based pop that’s respectful of tradition. “When I sing to an audience in the diaspora, whether it’s in London or Paris, people are very indulgent because they’re nostalgic,” she says. “The real test will be playing them in Port-au-Prince, this summer, for people who are likely going to be much more critical!”

That will be a first for Laveaux, who, in the wake of signing to Montréal’s Bonsound label, will also play Montréal, Toronto and New York, where she’s started creating a buzz. That’s thanks in part to the protest aspect of her art. “Let’s just say that the president is almost promoting my album by talking about ‘shithole countries,’” she says, laughing. Since her record came out, “I’ve been getting as many interview requests from political blogs than I have from music blogs!”

Does that mean Radyo Siwèl is a protest album? “It wasn’t meant that way initially, but the context has made it so,” says Laveaux. “I do feel a duty to remember, but I don’t want to become the flag-bearer of a cause. I’m not a historian or a politician, I’m a singer, and all I want is to place Haitian music on a podium.”