Ashkenaz Festival got its name from the pieces of Eastern European and Germanic Jewish culture that first made up its programming. In its ninth edition, on until Sept. 3, the biennial festival has more than 80 multidisciplinary acts influenced by all four corners of the world. Since 2006, artistic director Eric Stein has wanted the festival to reflect the global village as well as a changing definition of "Jewish" culture.
What are you trying to do with this year's festival?
What I'm really trying to accomplish is to draw into focus the diversity, vibrancy and interconnectedness of Jewish communities here and everywhere. Basically, to use the ability of art and culture to bring people together. To surprise, delight, entertain, shock and challenge people and push their expectations and preconceptions, and make them reevaluate what they think Jewish music is … and see Jewish music as a lens through which you can celebrate world culture.
With such diverse programming, how do you keep Ashkenaz's identity intact?
I think it helps define Ashkenaz's identity, or rather redefine is a better word. The name Ashkenaz has been problematic for us because it does confine people's expectations of what we're about. Hopefully the breadth of the programming will get them to get past the loaded definition that's in the word Ashkenaz. It's a concept, it's a way of life, it's a sensibility around Jewish art and culture that's very inclusive and very broad. But I like the name because it still grounds us in our core founding identity, which is Eastern European.
Would you ever just change the name of the festival?
It's always a heated discussion. There are all sorts of opinions. We try to be all things to all people, and it's really hard to encapsulate it all with one word.
You've said that only half of the Ashkenaz Festival audiences are Jewish, and also that not all of the performers are Jewish. How does that affect the festival's message?
The fact is that there are many non-Jewish artists that engage with this and treat it as raw material for their own artistic expressions. It just reinforces the idea that Jewish music, art, and culture doesn't necessarily need to be created by Jewish people. The Lemon Bucket Orkestra is this 14-piece insane band; not one of them is Jewish. And they play a lot of Klezmer music and engage with those artistic traditions.
That's really typical of the Ashkenazi Jewish cultural experience – it was completely mish-mashed with all the neighbouring people that Jews were living with in Eastern Europe.
Speaking of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, which is popular in any festival circuit – how are you keeping the festival unique as Jewish music becomes more mainstream?
We're actually going to be having a panel discussion on Saturday evening about how Jewish music and art is seeping into the general jazz and folk world – and how Jewish music and art curators are handling the crossover factor.
And how does fusion programming fit into that, for you?
It's my own personal and artistic sensibility to break down those artificial barriers that say that you have to enjoy this kind of music in this context, and others in another kind of context.
What has been the community reaction to your vision for the festival?
I try to keep a thick skin when it comes to the more staunch traditionalists who at times make me feel like some sort of Judas. I've betrayed Ashkenaz! I've betrayed Yiddish culture! But don't tell me were not paying homage to our roots and keeping those traditions alive. It's all there.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
WHAT TO SEE
The Jewish community of eastern Uganda was virtually wiped out by Idi Amin, but Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and JJ Keki are now leading approximately 1,500 Jews in the African country with prayer and music. Their performance at the Ashkenaz Festival will be the Candian debut of this Grammy Award-winning mix of African beats with Hebrew text.
Shye Ben Tzur
The Israeli composer will lead an eight-piece band in a concert of his unique blend of Hebrew poetry and Indian music in its North American premiere.
This band overlays traditional klezmer music with tones from their hometown of Mexico City – including the cha cha and charanga, instruments like the dobo, as well as some electronica, rock, funk and jazz improvisations for extra kick. Klezmerson is the first Mexican act ever to play at the Ashkenaz Festival.
Based in Queens, N.Y., the members of Shashmaqam learned the traditions of the Bukharan Jewish people, influenced by the cultures of surrounding Central Asian and Middle Eastern peoples, from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They will also see their Canadian debut.
Founder Ravid Kahalani, born and raised in Yemen, got his early musical education in styles ranging from African-American blues, to classical opera, to Serbian orthodox church music, to electronic music. Now combining these influences with Jewish song and poetry, the Yemen Blues collective is a festival highlight.
For more information visit ashkenazfestival.com.