It’s summer festival time across Canada, and we at CBC Music thought we’d take a look at a festival that bills itself as the second largest music festival in Canada. While many festivals book one or two "world musicians" each year, TD Sunfest, in London Ont., almost exclusively specializes in a world music lineup. The free-admission festival has been filling Victoria Park in downtown London since 1995. Last year, the estimated attendance of the four-day weekend was 225,000 people.
I asked Brian Hannigan, the TD Sunfest communications coordinator, a few questions about Sunfest, beginning with the most obvious one.
Q: Why is London, which, according to a 2006 census, is more than 80 per cent white, such a receptive audience for a culturally diverse "world music" festival?
A: Long perceived as a WASPish community, London, Ontario, began to change significantly in the 1980s and 1990s when it became a major resettlement city for refugees and immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. In fact, at the height of the violence in Colombia, so many refugees kept arriving in London, the city earned the nickname "Londombia."
Ultimately, the secret to Sunfest’s success is that it articulates more profoundly than any other event the desire to participate in a human experience greater than ourselves. Distinguished Canadian band leader and saxophonist Jane Bunnett once observed, “Sunfest feels like community, but it’s bigger than community.”
Q: Sunfest was cofounded in 1994 by Herb Bayley and Alfredo Caxaj. How did Caxaj’s experience as an immigrant influence the vision for Sunfest?
A: Back in his homeland, Guatemala, the presentation and accessibility of music and the other arts was much more stratified according to class – jazz and classical music (considered elitist), folkloric music and commercial pop simply didn’t mix. The same was true of different cultural groups. So when [Sunfest artistic and executive director] Alfredo Caxaj first arrived in this country, he experienced the heterogeneity of Canadians and their forms of creative expression as a kind of epiphany.
In the 1990s, Alfredo worked at the Cross Cultural Learner Centre where many new Canadians passed through, and thus witnessed firsthand the wave of cultural diversity that was transforming his city irreversibly and preparing it for a major celebration like Sunfest.
From the start, Alfredo was adamant that Sunfest would only feature the very best professional musicians from every corner of the globe, thus distancing himself from the old school model of multiculturalism that had become mired in identity politics (festivals by and for only one particular cultural group) and rank amateurism (yes, complete with "canned music!"). From day one, Sunfest’s artistic antenna has been nothing short of brilliant, supporting deserving up-and-coming Canadian world music and jazz musicians like Alpha Yaya Diallo, Samba Squad, Le Vent du Nord, Amanda Martinez, Kellylee Evans, Pacifika and, most famously, Jesse Cook (as a solo artist, and earlier when he was still a member of the group Bongo Gypsy) and Sophie Milman (who still considers Sunfest her favourite festival).
Q: Who are some of the international artists you’ve had the pleasure of featuring?
A: Over the years, Sunfest has had the honour of presenting such international icons as Céu (Brazil), Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 (Nigeria), Rokia Traoré (Mali) and Andy Palacia & the Garifuna Collective (sadly, on the last summer before Andy died). What has changed over the years is that Sunfest committee is now well represented at major world music showcases in Europe (WOMEX), the Netherlands, Colombia, Mexico and the U.S., where it scouts compelling new talents.
Alfredo Caxaj enthuses: “The profile of the festival is tremendous. Every year we go to WOMEX, and every year there are way more people looking for us. Not us looking for them. Our name, our logo, is immediately recognized.”
Some of the featured performers this year include, Locos Por Juana, Calypso Rose, Alpha YaYa Diallo, Delhi 2 Dublin, Le Vent du Nord and many, many more. I’ll be going to TD Sunfest this year for the first time, and introducing a few of the performers.
Let us know your favourite Sunfest memories by leaving your comments below.
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on Jul 04, 2012