Ashkenaz Festival: For fans of the traditional and the ‘Balkan-klezmer-Gypsy-punk’ variety

The old world meets the new at the ninth Ashkenaz Festival, the largest Jewish music and cultural festival in the world.

“We’re paying homage to the old cultures but putting the spotlight on new acts,” says artistic director Eric Stein of the biennial Toronto festival, which attracts more than 60,000 spectators and features more than 200 artists.

Originally staged to celebrate Yiddish and “Klezmer revival” artists, over the years the Ashkenaz Festival has broadened its scope to include “pan-Jewish and cross-cultural art and performers” in music, film, theatre, dance, literature and visual arts.

“I wanted to ask, ‘Where else are there Jews in the world and what are they doing artistically and culturally?’ ” Stein says of the process that brought him to such countries as Australia, Brazil and Uganda.

“Who knew there was a Grammy-nominated Jewish community of just 1,500 in Uganda presenting a fusion of Jewish and Ugandan folk Music?” asks Stein of the Abayudaya, an East African community whose album Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda was nominated for a Grammy in 2005, and who will performing a free concert Sept. 2 at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

The Abayudaya community has no historical ties to Judaism, but they are still devout in their religious practice, even though that wasn’t a requirement to participate at Ashkenaz.

“There are so many people in the festival that aren’t Jewish and don’t speak Yiddish, but they find something about the music that inspires them,” Stein says.

A major component of the festival is, of course, the music, and this years’ event will feature free performances from artists such as Israeli acts Yemen Blues and Shye Ben Tzur; Canada’s Josh Dolgin, a.k.a. Socalled, who mixes hip hop and klezmer; klezmer revivalists Finjan; Russian party band Opa!; Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra, who describe themselves as a “Balkan-klezmer-Gypsy-punk-super-party-band”; and, for the kids, Sharon Hampson and Bram Morrison, who will mix Yiddish songs with classics from their Sharon, Lois and Bram days.

The festival will also feature the Canadian premiere of Leo Spellman’s Rhapsody 1939-1945, a music composition written in 1947 in occupied Poland, hidden, then rediscovered in 2002.

Plus, for the first time since 2006, Ashkenaz will feature a major theatrical performance, The Corpse Bride, which is based on shtetl folklore, although many will also remember the story from Tim Burton’s 2005 stop-motion adaptation of the same name.

With artists from more than a dozen countries, this year promises to be one of the Ashkenaz Festival’s biggest and most diverse.

“I wanted to try to make it as big as possible because it only comes around every other year,” Stein says.

The Ashkenaz Festival runs Aug. 28 to Sept. 3 at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. For tickets and more information, visit

(Tags: Jewish, Music, Diversity)