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07 janvier 2008

Beating down barriers

Not-for-profit organization does world of good through music

When he was in his early teens, Alan Davis used to drive his family and neighbours crazy playing the drums. He had aspirations of being a rock star and would often play for hours on end in his family's Parkdale home. "Playing music is one of the greatest pleasures in my life," said Davis, who graduated from Ryerson University when it was still a Polytechnical Institute back in the '80s. "I'm still in an active band. We have a gig next month."

Davis has been in many incarnations of bands since his teenage years. His latest is called Beatmap. They've been together for about three years. Davis describes their music as "a worldly, funky, rock thing. It could be a real kick-ass band if I was younger and had the kind of energy needed to sustain the group properly," he said. "But it's hard to find the time to do things that aren't of an immediate concern."
What's of immediate concern to Davis right now is his Small World Music Society. That's where he spends most of his energy and time these days, and has for the past 20 years.

Small World Music is a Toronto-based, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the presentation of world music, community outreach and developing the careers of Canada's diverse music community. Small World Music promotes between 40 and 50 concerts a year, including the annual Small World Music Festival that takes place in the fall. They bring in an eclectic mix of musicians from around the world and often pair them with Canada's best world music artists.

In the past four months, Small World Music has staged concerts featuring singer-songwriter Mansa Sissoko from Mali, virtuoso oud player and composer Marcel Khalife from the Middle East, Zimbabwean superstar Oliver Mtukudzi and the Kalman Balogh Gypsy Cimbalom Band from Budapest.

"I think world music is universal and speaks to any culture and language," Davis said. "What resonates most with me is the spiritual quality of the music and that 30 years from now you can listen to it and it still sounds good."

Davis grew up a fan of 70s and 80s rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Genesis, music he says that still "blows him away." And it was the former lead singer of Genesis, Peter Gabriel, who turned Davis onto world music.

"I was in my 20s when Gabriel started his Real World label and the music he was putting out just opened my ears to a wonderful sound," Davis remembers. "Due to Toronto's multicultural nature, I was able to experience some of the music I was hearing from Gabriel. I would go into the various ethnic communities and see people playing in restaurants and cafes. I decided to take some of those people and put them on stage."

Davis acknowledges it was a financial struggle in the beginning, and he never figured he would still be doing world music concerts 20 years later. But Toronto is even more diverse than when he started and is now one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Within that multicultural diversity lays one of Davis' small frustrations with some the concerts he puts on.
"We would do an Iranian concert and 90% of the audience is Iranian, the same if we do an Indian or Portuguese show," Davis said. "It's slowly changing. And I think that's great because it's important that we experience each others cultures. From a societal point of view, it helps break down mental ghettoes. Plus, a lot of these musicians deserve to be heard by a wider audience."

So instead of being the rock star he dreamed of as a youth, Davis now dreams of making stars out of the diverse musicians that call Toronto home. On Jan. 20, Small World Music presents the Shoghaken Ensemble from Armenia at the Markham Theatre for the Performing Arts, 171 Town Centre Blvd.


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