The good news is that a top-notch docuseries will spotlight a number of talented underground musicians in Toronto. The bad news is that after the six-part New World Beat airs this month and next, those musicians will in all likelihood remain underground.
The problem is that the show exists only in the backwaters of the digital cable world, on the Portuguese-language station Camoes TV, which is carried by Bell and Rogers on their premium tiers. Singer-songwriter Charlotte Cornfield, one of the three featured artists in the first episode that aired earlier this week, was recently hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as, “Canada’s best kept secret.” Unfortunately, the secret may still be safe.
“We’re in the process of finding another home for the show on a larger Canadian broadcaster or streamer,” co-producer Matt Greyson says. “That’s the hope.”
Deserving of broader exposure, New World Beat is the brainchild of Michael Tobin, who is not only the showrunner but writer, director, co-producer and editor. The former indie musician answered a Facebook job posting to edit a Portuguese-singing reality-TV competition. He got the gig and developed a good rapport with the show’s production company, MDC Media Group, which then invited him to pitch his dream show.
Tobin had long harboured the idea for a series that celebrated and explored Toronto’s grassroots music scene, with a focus on emerging, risk-taking alternative artists. With nothing to lose, he made the pitch.
“To my surprise, they green-lit it,” he says.
The show is hosted by rising jazz-soul singer Lydia Persaud. Topics covered include the artistic process and the city’s music eco-system and incubators. Identity and religious issues are addressed, as are concerns about gigging and venue scarcity. According to Greyson, there is a common thread running through the decidedly diverse spotlighted musicians: “We focus on individuals with interesting stories.”
The first hour-long episode features Juno-winning music creator James Baley (who grew up in the church but only found acceptance in Toronto’s queer ballroom scene), Mingjia Chen (a Gen Z composer who uses visual art to sketch her song ideas) and Cornfield, a booking agent turned singer-songwriter who laments how the loss of small music rooms is hurting the local DIY scene.
The musicians – some better known than others – represent a range of genres. Acclaimed singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman (who works professionally as the Weather Station), the OBGMs (a Black-fronted punk band) and DijahSB (a non-binary rapper) carry name recognition. And while all the artists are interviewed and filmed performing in intimate circumstances, the show’s presentation is nuanced.
“What we’re doing is having deep and heartfelt conversations about this city itself and the music scene itself, and how one relates to the other,” Tobin says.
Moreover, the up close and personal New World Beat offers insight into how musicians hang and how they actually speak to each other. Fans of Drake and the Weeknd will learn how the other 99 per cent live, work and try to make a go of it under trying conditions.
The show is less a love letter to Toronto than it is an invitation for musicians who do not live in the country’s most populated city. “Toronto gets criticized for a having a superiority complex,” Tobin says. “We want people from all over the country, especially those who might feel othered, to watch our show and to recognize a community where they would be welcomed with open arms.”
And as for anyone in Toronto who wants to watch New World Beat without subscribing to Camoes TV, the first episode will be screened at the Revue Cinema on March 4.