Exploring global identity through a Canadian lens

Photo by David Cooper

With many summer music festivals making their in-person return this year, audiences will discover a host of artists pulling from various styles, and making them all their own. Expect a whole new sound from Canadian artists, with international roots, such as: Yvonne Kushe, Pantayo, and Lache Cercel.

Kushe adds her own flair to a mix of R&B, alternative indie, house, EDM and more at Surrey Fusion Festival; Pantayo brings together contemporary Western music stylings with Filipino kulintang music at TD Coastal Jazz Fest, and at Vancouver Folk Fest. Lache Cercel and his Roma jazz group will showcase their blend of jazz, balkan music and more.

Yvonne Kushe: opportunities and challenges with a new sound

Kushe has surprised herself at the music she’s made in the last few years. For the Ugandan-Canadian singer-songwriter, making music in Canada has given her the chance to explore a blending of musical and cultural worlds in a free, curiosity-sating way.

Yvonne Kushe.| Photo by Caleigh Mayer

“I’ve decided over the years to marry the two worlds together. So my influences here, and back home, create a fusion of sorts to better adapt to this place that I live in now,” says Kushe.

Kushe hops between languages and genre influences in her music: composing lyrics in English, Nyankole, Luganda and Swahili, while collaborating with North American producers to make songs that draw on EDM, dance, ballads, R&B and more. She says the free flowing approach to music-making has allowed her to stay true to herself on both a musical and personal level.

“I’m leaning towards the fact that as an artist, my craft is to liberate myself constantly. To let myself go,” says Kushe. “It could be unorthodox in this industry: people need to label you so that they can find your music or relate to your music. But as an artist myself, I think my music is supposed to serve me first, before it serves others.”

However, one of the core tenets that does moor Kushe’s musical aims, is centring Black women’s experiences in her music. It’s not something that felt as necessary or essential before coming to Canada, but it’s proven valuable for grounding her music in a Canadian context.

“I probably came into that when I moved here, because obviously you’re not aware of your Blackness when you live in Africa. It’s not something that’s weighing on you until you move somewhere where you’re othered,” says Kushe. “And it’s such a deep space to crawl into, to just unpack all these things. But I feel like that’s what I want to express [right] now.”

Pantayo: engaging with history on all fronts

For Katrina Estacio, singer, multi-instrumentalist and cofounder of Pantayo, navigating a blend of R&B, pop and even rock music, and combining it with gong-based filipino kulintang music – whose musical history goes back at least hundreds of years – is a worthwhile cultural challenge for her band, Pantayo.

The group’s ear-catching sound has been an exciting thing to develop over time. But being Filipino-Canadian, a musical and cultural relationship with Western influence comes with navigating some challenging historical baggage.

Pantayo.| Photo by Emma McIntyre

“I think that curiosity [for kulintang music] has fueled us to where we are now. But then we are like, ‘Oh, but we grew up with pop music on the radio,’ because of the effects of imperialist U.S. And those ties are still pretty much alive right now,” says Estacio.

But both musical worlds are an important piece of Estacio’s hyphenated identity, and the group has been able to find joy, and meaning, in embracing their combination.

“As hyphenated people, both Filipino and Canadian, from Manila and Toronto, it’s these in-betweens that we’re trying to reconcile, and just live and ease together where we fit in the world,” says Estacio. “[We can] make it into something that’s a message, we can formulate it into a song, and then there’s something meaningful out of it.”

The all-women group has been grateful to learn more about kulintang music as they’ve acquired more opportunities. Estacio says that the guidance the group has found from culture-bearers has been encouraging, and allowed them to chart a course that embraces music and culture from both the Philippines and the West.

“They were encouraging us to keep learning more about the history, and how to make ourselves more proficient in playing kulintang, but also nourishing our own knowledge about the land where [we are] right now… from the music and the culture,” says Estacio.

Lache Cercel: igniting unity through Roma Jazz

Cercel is looking to draw greater attention to musical forms he says are under-studied and under-appreciated. He notes jazz manouche, an arpeggiating, guitar-led style that draws on the music of Django Reinhardt, while popular in itself, is only one iteration in a richer history of Roma music.

With roots in Rajasthan, and ties to flamenco rhythm, klezmer music and much more, it’s a history Cercel and his band hope to shed a light on via their own iteration of the sound: Roma Jazz.

“This genre of music was neglected. It’s similar to Black American music. They have huge similarities that people don’t really know about,” says Cercel. “We take the roots of Roma [music], and we adapt Western musicology to get this form.”

It’s a genre that comes from Cercel’s own movement, from his home country of Romania to Canada. He says he was inspired by how much people in Canada appeared to enjoy folk music from other places in the world, like the Balkans, and how much musical and cultural mixing and experimentation was encouraged.

“When you’re in Canada, everybody tries to bring their best knowledge of what they have [to] create something new,” says Cercel.

In that way, Cercel encourages a spirit of unity and cultural understanding, and hopes the music his band creates can serve as a reflection for the kind of world they want to see.

“Our meaning and our hope is to bring praise and harmony to the world,” says Cercel. “By collaborating and creating this Canadian sound, we have a very positive impact in society.”

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