August 18, 2001
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South Asian festival enthrals Toronto

Ajit Jain in Toronto

The organisers of the three-day musical extravaganza Masala! Mehndi! Masti! could not have chosen a better group than Ritesh Das's Tabla Ensemble for their opening evening at the Norigen Stage of the Harbourfront Centre, downtown Toronto, on Friday.

An enthralled audience responded with repeated standing ovations as they performed for an hour, non-stop. It was not just tabla. Director Ritesh Das, who established the group in 1991, first explained different notes, and how different tunes are produced, and then launched what he called "chatterbox".

All 11 tabla players stood in two groups without their instruments and started singing different notes as if it was a competition, with Das leading them.

Then a vocalist from Israel and a mandolin player from Lebanon joined the ensemble, and the effect on the audience was almost magical.

Waterfall, a number that involved playing bhangra dhols by two artists, accompanied by a tabla at the back, was also very powerful and out of the ordinary.

The three-day festival, which concludes on Sunday, is organised by a young artiste Abhisek Mathur, his wife Jyoti, both of Magic Feet Canada, and the Harbourfront Centre, a prestigious cultural complex with half-a-dozen auditoriums and open-air facilities on Toronto's waterfront that has now become the hub of cultural activities.

A group called Alms for Shanti is being flown specially from New York, Mathur said at the inaugural function.

These New York City-based former members of India's most successful rock band, Indus Creed, will mix traditional Indian melodies, textures and rhythms with contemporary Western sounds.

Rupinder Nagra's 'improv' [derived from improvised] comedy group Step Up will perform on Sunday. Their show is called Bollywood or Bust.

A spokesman said Step Up is a "unique blend of improv actors that each brings their own brand of comedic talent to form a chemistry reminiscent of the many popular groups hailing from the comedy hothouse that is Toronto".

There will be Gujarati, Tibetan, Afghani, Bengali and other traditional folk dances, Kathak with jazz and hip-hop to a backdrop of sitar, tabla, Western drums and synthesized music. Bollywood Bonanza, India's largest dance school in Toronto, will present work based on jazz and ballet, enmeshed with Indian dance styles, and a Bhangra challenge, where several highly acclaimed groups will vie for a trophy.

Internationally acclaimed Bharata Natyam dancer, choreographer and teacher Menkka Thakkar was also given a standing ovation when she appeared on stage. Mathur called her 'big sister' and explained that she was being recognised because of her contributions to the Indian classical dance over so many years.

The Tabla Ensemble is the first musical group of its kind in Canada. "I'm a tabla player and I can see and hear the vast amount of world music in Toronto. I'm trying to see how tabla fits with all music and exploring the many ways this can happen," said director Das.

By combining with jazz or other forms of music, "we're not diluting the basic approach [of tabla], we're expanding and mingling," he said. By doing this the Toronto Ensemble is creating a fresh, urban sound with an ancient instrument, he explained.

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