Eastern and Western, a contemplation of identity through music

Award-winning composers and musicians Layale Chaker, Kinan Azmeh and Dinuk Wijeratne share a worldly musical mix that reflects on the ephemeral meaning of home at the Chan Centre on May 5.

The show, titled The Journeyed Compass, takes listeners through original compositions by the trio, blending Middle Eastern, South Asian and Western Classical music, as well as both composed and improvised elements.

For Wijeratne, the music is meant to allow the audience to reflect on home not as something constant, but instead as an ever-changing experience.

“Home is a kind of ephemeral window in time. And once you realize it has passed, then you feel that kind of bittersweet quality that people associate with the notion of home,” he says. “The Dubai that I grew up in is a very different place from the Dubai now, and I wouldn’t be able to get that back. And that’s just the way it is. I think that home is a kind of an ever-shifting definition.”

Moving through notions of home

Sri Lankan-born Canadian Dinuk Wijeratne is a JUNO and multi-award-winning composer, conductor, and pianist | Photo by Michelle Doucette

Born in Sri Lanka, raised in the Middle East, and having lived in both the U.K. and the U.S. before settling in Canada, Wijeratne has had a breadth of cultural and geographical life experience. Since the places he has lived have informed his identity and sense of home, Wijeratne says it hasn’t been simple to understand his cultural identity. Or at least, he hasn’t felt able to fit neatly into one cultural category or another.

For him, music has been essential to navigating these complicated cultural questions.

“Not a day goes by where I feel either fully Eastern or fully Western. There’s a permanent conflict, and I feel blessed that I’m able to find a certain balance through my art-making that possibly eludes me in daily life,” says Wijeratne.

In addition to being surrounded by South Asian and Middle Eastern music in his early years, Wijeratne studied Western Classical music growing up. He says that moving away from home, or at least one of his earlier homes, was the thing that prompted him to explore non-Western music further.

“South Asian and Middle Eastern music was going into my ears, and it had to come out at some point. And it sort of came out in the West,” says Wijeratne. “When you move away from where you come from, you start to sort of explore the notion of home.”

Off the beaten path

Speaking of moving off a set path, Wijeratne says his music aims to strike a balance between improvisation and composition. For him, composition is a great tool for music-making, but he feels a need for more freedom and room to explore things moment to moment in his performance.

“When I was being trained as a classical musician I was dying to get off the page,” he says. “We have, as humans, the need to improvise and go off the map.”

That spontaneity allows for an even greater level of expression in such a highly emotive topic like home. For the audience,Wijeratne says the performance is meant to create a space to tackle questions of identity through the emotions and nostalgia the music evokes.

“I think the music kind of creates the virtual space for you to contemplate,” he says. “Having heard the other pieces that [Azmeh and Chaker] are bringing as well, I know that kind of music will create that space for the audience.”

And as a performer, Wijeratne says he’s able to tap into those emotions and memories for himself, just as much, through the shared music-making process.

“I can travel to a city I’ve never been to, to play with people for one night, and feel at home,” he says. “So I think art gives you a different window into how you feel at home as well.”

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