Nur al-Din Muhammad Tahir Zuhuri, 1685: 12 musicians playing sarangi, kupuz, kamancha, drums, panpipes, flute, vina and tambourine. British Library collection: BL Or. 338 f.54v
Toronto is regularly cited as one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. While this is a wonderful fact and opportunity for those of us who live in the city, it is even more remarkable how recent this came to be. Thirty-five or forty years ago Toronto was thoroughly white-bread, wasp dominated. We live in fast times that now accelerate with every software update and new smart phone release.
World history features many previous hotbeds of cultural contact, though none of these come close to the complete global integration we now inhabit and that forms the fabric of daily lives in Toronto, London, New York, Singapore, Sydney, Sao Paolo, Dubai and other large cities. The Silk Road of the Middle Ages, which Yo-Yo Ma once likened to an early form of the Internet (with a really slow connection), was one of the most extensive and influential venues of cultural exchange, effectively linking Southern Europe and China.
The cultures exchanging goods, ideas, language, art, technology and genes were extremely diverse. Rooted in the Silk Road and progressing into contemporary times is an incredible continuity of musical expression stretching from North Africa, Southern and Eastern Europe, and clear across to Central Asia and Western China. This massively extended musical family shares similar social contexts for performance, aesthetics, philosophy, performance practice, instrumentation and musical structures—rhythmic cycles, forms and melodic modes (scales with particular behaviours or personalities).
These modes were designated by various names but one of the most common was the Arabic word maqam, literally “station, place.” The Sufis, who harnessed music for its potential for spiritual development, also used maqam to refer to a seeker’s baseline level of consciousness or initiation along the progressive path to spiritual realization.
While the underlying musical foundation was shared, the area was huge and the unfolding of history extremely convulsive. A rich array of varying musical traditions flowered, cross pollinated and withered through the centuries into our own time. Most of the musicians stayed in their particular sonic and social worlds, which were complex enough. Until the late 20th century.
One of the early pioneers of exploring the larger maqam family is Ross Daly, a multi-instrumentalist of Irish descent but citizen of the world (among his extensive travels, he lived in Toronto for a short period in his youth). Daley was particularly attracted to the lyra (fiddle) tradition of Crete, where he has lived for over forty years.
In the highly unlikely location of the town of Houdetsi on the island, Daly established a unique and highly successful series of workshops that brings together master teachers of myriad maqam traditions and keen students from around the world. Dal
y’s Labyrinth Workshops are intensive and serious but also informal and highly social—key ingredients in the original recipe and spirit of the extended modal family tradition throughout history.
Labyrinth Ontario was established in 2017 to further cultivate these venerable modal traditions in North America, kicking of its first season this May in Toronto with the remarkable and exciting residence of 11 masters of Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Iranian, Azerbaijani, Arabic, Kurdish and Afghani traditions who will conduct week-long workshops and perform concerts.
Toronto regularly hosts a dense parade of master musicians from around the world in concerts, festivals and one-off, short term workshops. Labyrinth Ontario takes this to entirely new level, focusing intensively on a fascinating array of modal cultures. Toronto is now a perfect location to carry this amazing, vibrant Eurasian cultural treasure to wherever it is heading in the 21st century.
-- Rob Simms is Associate Professor of Music at York University in Toronto, and a founding board member of Labyrinth Musical Workshop Ontario.