The Ashkenaz Festival, running for the 10th time since 1995, will expand its programming into York Region this year thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
“We’ve been talking about this since the last festival in 2012, just thinking about the demographics of the city and about the rapidly growing Jewish community in that part of the city, and trying to figure out how to serve [them],” said Eric Stein, the artistic and executive director of the Ashkenaz Festival.
Stein said he saw that the biennial festival, held at the Harbourfront Centre in the summer, wasn’t attracting many people from the GTA’s Jewish community.
“We started making connections in the community in Richmond Hill and in Vaughan through the Schwartz/Reisman Centre and with the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts,” he said, adding that last year, they brought three musical acts to the Richmond Hill venue.
“It was a huge success. I mean it was amazing to see not only [that] the local Jewish community was coming out and showing us that they were really starved for this kind of culture and content, but also that the non-Jewish community was excited to hear music they hadn’t heard before.”
With the grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Stein said he hopes to expand the “organization’s footprint” into York Region.
“As part of our York Region initiative, the two most identifiable target audiences we’re trying to reach are the Israeli community and the community of the former Soviet Union,” he said.
The Ashkenaz Festival will open with a concert by Israeli rock musician Dudu Tassa on Aug. 26 at the Richmond Hill Centre for Performing Arts, which Stein described as one of the best concert halls in the GTA.
“His grandfather and great-uncle [Daoud and Saleh Al Kuwaiti] were very famous musicians in Baghdad before World War II, and they were actually considered the creators of modern Iraqi music, which is pretty amazing considering they were Jewish musicians. When they immigrated to Israel after the creation of Israel, they were pretty much rejected by the cultural mainstream, because what they were doing didn’t really fit into the sort of national motivation of Israel,” Stein explained.
“Fast forward two generations, and [Daoud Al Kuwaiti’s] grandson, Dudu Tassa, over the last 10 years, has developed a successful career as one of Israel’s top rock musicians,” he said, adding that Tassa coined the term “Iraq ’n’ roll” music.
On Aug 27, there will be a film screening for the Russian community called Emil Gorovets: Russia, I Was Your Son.
“It’s a world premier documentary about a singer named Emil Gorovets, who was super famous in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in the former Soviet Union and was one of the only Soviet singers who was able to bring Yiddish to the mainstream without being repressed. He’s known as the Russian Sinatra,” Stein said.
Although Ashkenaz was founded to present eastern European culture and Yiddish klezmer music, organizers have been working to broaden its scope, in both the programming it offers and its reach.
“We’re certainly not abandoning what is at our core… but we want to make it something that is really inclusive to all aspects of the Jewish community, something that really conveys the diversity of the global Jewish experience to the non-Jewish community,” Stein said.
He said the festival has been featuring more Sephardi and Mizrachi music in recent years.
“There is a ton of cross-cultural fusion. I think that is probably one of the things that’s most exciting. If you can say there’s anything that’s been driving the contents in this scene of international Jewish art and culture for the last number of years, it’s been this trend of artists who are versed in Jewish traditions… reaching out to traditions beyond the Jewish world and mashing them together in one form or another,” he said.
Zion80, playing Aug. 31 at Harbourfront’s WestJet Stage, is a New York-based, 12-piece band.
“They do Jewish afrobeat. So they take melodies from Shlomo Carlebach or [musician and composer] John Zorn and mix them with the sort of rhythmic sensibilities of Fela Kuti, who is the creator of afrobeat music. Very, very cool fusion,” Stein said.
Another act to watch out for is Forshpil, a “Yiddish, psychedelic rock band” from Russia playing Aug. 31 at Harbourfront Centre’s Brigantine room.
“Their bio says something like, imagine if The Doors and Pink Floyd played at Janis Joplin’s bat mitzvah. Not that Janis Joplin was Jewish… but this would be the band she would have hired,” Stein said.
In addition to bringing the festival to the Jewish community north of the city for the first time, the organization has also developed a new mobile app for iPhones and Androids called Ashkenaz Festival.
The app provides scheduling information, maps and more.
“We’re hoping the app will help make people’s experience more manageable.”