What is HONK!?


“An irresistible spectacle of creative movement and sonic self-expression directed at making the world a better place.”

Originating in Somerville (near Boston), USA in 2006, HONK! is a musical and social movement featuring street brass bands and other collaborators. Various versions of so-inspired annual festivals have cropped up around the world…

[See honkfest.org for more details.]

…and the movement has finally reached Toronto: HONK! ON debuts in July 2019.


unQuartet (improvising strings)

An ancient art form here imbued with fresh and vibrant expression.

So much of free improvisation – of which I’m, generally, an advocate and avid practitioner – comes off as self-indulgent, wearisome noise. (I can tolerate a little noise, particularly when used sparsely, tastefully and creatively).

Absolutely NOT THE CASE with the music of Toronto’s unQuartet!

(see www.unQuartet.com)

These musicians are interested in creating a cogent, original statement that is meaningful to listeners. In other words, they appear to desire transmitting “spontaneous composition”, cultivating a craft that is as accessible as it is artistic.

The samples on their website immediately grabbed me AND, unlike so much recorded improvisation I’ve encountered, inspired repeated listenings – go figure!

Check out, for example, the gorgeous “Slow Water Improvisation” on SoundCloud.


Michael Franti, harbinger of hope

In the wake of horrific violence, it is difficult to find appropriate words to respond.  Such an atrocity can’t be ignored, yet how does one verbalize a reaction to something so senseless and incomprehensible?

The citizens of Toronto suffered an unimaginable assault yesterday afternoon when a young man decided to drive a van onto a sidewalk full of pedestrians, killing 10 people and injuring 15 others.  My heart goes out to those friends and families who now have to go through a living hell of sudden, devastating loss.

Apart from a distant mourning and the offering of condolences, I would elicit the power of music to heal our heartbreak and to raise hope for a more peaceful, loving world that is free of such heinous acts.

It’s time to begin curating a list of songs with positive, life-affirming messages.

One of the artists I most admire is the epitome of up-beat positivity: Michael Franti. Does this man ever slide into despair? I suppose it’s possible given he’s only human. However, he seems to possess a special talent for hope along with his musicality.

So, to start such a positivity playlist, I suggest a couple of Mr. Franti’s tracks:

“Once a Day”


“The Sound of Sunshine”

“Hey World (Don’t give Up)”

Amy Winehouse (R.I.P)

I’m going to jump right back in here, although it’s been a while since I last wrote.  Since 2018 began, I’ve been exploring ska music fairly heavily, even writing an encyclopedia article about it for one of my MA classes at York University.  Of course, this exploration led me back to The Specials, a band I first encountered on my initial forays into ska and reggae while preparing to join the now defunct Idlers on a Canadian tour in 2011.

And this brings me to Amy Winehouse.  I had no idea she had performed with The Specials, first of all, nor any clue she had recorded an EP with them.  Just do a search for “Amy Winehouse ska ep” and you’ll easily find it.  The version I’ve listened to repeatedly of late is the one that features the album cover art work, including a cartoon drawing of Ms. Winehouse.  All the tracks are awesome.  I find myself frequently singing “Monkey Man” with the beloved vocalist’s inflections, as best I can manage.  And I absolutely adore her version of Sam Cooke’s “Cupid.”  The band is groovy as fuck.

All this interest led me to the documentary Amy, which I watched on Netflix this afternoon.  It is superbly well-done but sooooo tragic.  Seeing her body being brought out of her London apartment as a bystander off camera shouts “Rest in peace, Amy!” is heartbreaking.

I’ve always admired her as an artist but hadn’t taken the time to really examine her music, to really dig deep with her.  And now she’s gone, having left us with only two albums.  So, while I’m up to my eyeballs with research and school work, I’ll be taking some time here and then to really listen. And to bask in her soulful sounds.

I suggest you do the same.

Summer of Street Music

Ok, been a while. After an extended bout of depression over the winter, I’ve recently begun getting back on my feet, as well as on the horn and on the drum.

Long story short: in April I joined two samba groups (Samba Squad and Samba Elegua), in which I play a snare drum called caixa (“kai-sha”); in May I joined up with Street Brass on alto sax.  My first gig was with Samba Squad on May 11 as part of a worker solidarity parade. But this musical summer really began with the first Pedestrian Sunday in Kensington Market on May 28th.  Early that afternoon I played a set with about 10 other members of Street Brass on the corner of Kensington and St. Andrew.  We collected enough money to buy a pitcher of beer at a nearby bar called Lola (good thing there were only four of us band members sticking around).  Later that day I played with Samba Elegua and the crowds were thicker and more intoxicated.  People danced in the street with us as we paraded around the market.  I’m having a blast with all this and I’ll be writing more about it.  Being involved in these community groups has been wonderful for my mental health and I feel warmly welcomed.  It’s interesting to note how members of a group bond around a gig much more so than in rehearsals.  Some meaningful friendships emerge.

On Saturday, June 3rd, Street Brass played as part of the Dundas Street West Festival.  What an amazing event.  The street is blocked off from Ossington to Lansdowne (about 1.5 km) and it’s lined with colourful vendors, food establishments, bars and music stages.  You can hear one kind of music fade into the next as you walk from end to end, all the while enjoying the scents of culinary delights and the colours of dancers, jugglers, puppeteers and so on.

Chris Butcher, the director of Street Brass put out a call to the city’s available horn players to join in for this event.  Some of us did a spot for the Friday 6pm news on CBC to promote it.  You can check out the clip here (it’ll give you a good idea about what the group is all about):



Spectrum Music

Last weekend Marion, my partner, and I attended a concert presented by Spectrum Music entitled “Tales of the Deep Blue.”

Spectrum is a Toronto-based composer collective formed in 2010 that presents “genre-defying,” themed concerts, this time the theme being ‘the ocean,’ a delectably wide open and inspiring theme if there ever was one.

The artistic director, Shannon Graham – also one of the composers on the program – is a classmate in the M.A. program at York.  I think she’s a part of something special on the local music scene and I was very happy to support her.

Shannon describes Spectrum’s focus as “chamber jazz” and, since the jazz-classical hybrid realm (itself as wide as the ocean) is the focus of my own research, the collective appeals to me on a very deep level (in this case on a deep blue level, wah wah).

Spectrum creates a theme for the concert – a very listener-friendly thing to do – then hires musicians, most often in an ad hoc instrumentation, and commissions composers to write for that ensemble.  This time around they recruited an established group, the Shaw Street Collective, formed in 2014.  Shaw Street is wonderfully poised and polished for a group so young, and also fresh and unusual for their set-up: marimba played by Anthony Savidge, cello by Alyssa Ramsay, trombone by Mikolaj Debowski and trumpet by Emma Rowlandson-O’Hara.

The concert was a spate of world premieres, six of the seven total being brand new.  Often one is wont to express what pieces come off as favourites but it was difficult here.  Perhaps, Shannon’s piece Azulada, Anthony’s Grasslands and Jay Vasquez’s La Sirena (Ventura) seemed the most polished and mature pieces, but, honestly, they were all engaging.  Overall, the music presented was accessible, yet refreshing, leaning towards the conservative side of things but avoiding cliché.  The exuberant cheers and whistles from the audience confirm my thinking.  This is music sought after and enjoyed by those who manage to ‘turn off’ both their passive access to music and their well-worn paths of seeking, and, instead, go out and give new stuff a chance.

I was struck by how many young people were in attendance in the (well chosen) theatre at the Alliance Francaise centre.  It appears “classical” music, if you can indeed call that, is alive and well (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).  The abundance of new music being churned out maybe doesn’t match the output of the pop music world but it’s robust and I hope it only expands as more and more people get exposed to the likes of Spectrum.

Next presentation is “Tales of the Unconscious” on March 4th at Knox Presbyterian Church, 8pm.  It features a chamber choir called Musicata – Hamilton’s Voices and a trio of improvising jazz musicians, including saxophonist Mike Murley.