Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ashkenaz 2010 (part 2 of 2)

After the previous day's experiences, and after hearing many of the amazing artists at the Mizrahi Cabaret thank Flory Jagoda, who was among the public, for her guidance and mentorship, we just couldn't wait to see her!   And who is this Flory Jagoda?  The Japanese, in the 1950's, created a term for this kind of people: Living National Treasures (人間国宝, or ningen kokuhō).  Flory, an 85 year old Jew from Sarajevo, gave us the honour of listening to her sing children songs she learned as a child in Vlasenica and Sarajevo.   We heard songs, passed from generation to generation after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, tinged with the sounds of the cultures they came across, and learned by Flory at a time and place that is no more.  And it was one fun early afternoon of song and stories. They gave us the lyrics  and, being children's songs, they were easy to follow, and soon we were all clapping and singing in Ladino!  The linguist in me was so thrilled so see how their language had evolved after leaving Spain, how similar it was to Spanish, and what interesting quirks it had kept or developed since.   I really, really enjoyed it.

After that delicious musical trip to the Balkans, we joined others for some Moldovan Roma dances, accompanied by a wonderful klezmer band, Steve Weintraub and the Other Europeans.  My respects to Steve, who had dozens of us up and dancing in no time, and to The Other Europeans for playing such an upbeat and fun music!

Dancing was, naturally, followed by food!  and my first ever taste of rugelach! (crudely put, the Jewish cousins of croissants?)   I had so many of those, loved them!

The pièce de résistance of the day was a double concert:  Divahn (remember this group of powerful female artists from my previous post?) accompanied by Yair Dalal, whose rythms and music at sundown were simply beyond extraordinarily beautiful, and Balkan Beat Box (like Yair Dalal, straight from Israel!).   I'm listening right now to this last's albums right now, as I write.  But that night, they had everyone, and that means EVERYONE, dancing, jumping, clapping, shouting... they had such energy on stage!   This double concert was simply the perfect end to a full and incredible day.

There's only one more event to talk about, and since I promised this would be a two-part post, here it goes!  On Monday (it was a holiday) there was a parade!  It was quite interesting, and it truely reflected the multiculturalism of the Jewish people, spread as they are all over the world.   Orient and Occident met, different musical traditions mingled, and we all followed the giant puppets of Shadowland Theatre around Harbourfront Centre, dancing, listening to stories, and all ending up with a huge Hora dance!

This festival was a fantastic surprise.  First of all, they had artists not only from Canada, but from many US cities, from Europe and, of course Israel!  And they were all really good artists.   How many times do you get such a treat, for free?  And second of all, we all felt welcome.  I'm not Jewish.  Neither is my habib.  And it was very clear that a good deal of those present were heirs to other cultures too.  And yet, we were all invited to join, to celebrate; even at the religious rituals everything was set as to welcome absolutely everyone.   It was a real, joyful, open, quality celebration of a culture, and so there was no way not to enjoy Ashkenaz tremendously, as hundreds of us did.  

Banana Shpeel!

Vaudeville, Cirque du Soleil style, at Toronto's Canon Theatre. Artistic and aesthetic circus acts, musical acts, comedy, and a hot Russian male pole-dancer. Two hours of a darn good show. Pas mal du tout!

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ashkenaz 2010 (part 1 of 2)

From August 30th to September 6th Toronto held a most interesting festival: Ashkenaz 2010, a festival of Jewish culture.  During 8 days there was music, food, talks, film, theatre, dance, celebrations, exhibitions... The last 3 days took place at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, and that's where we got a chance to experience the festival at its fullest.

I had been waiting for this festival for MONTHS.  I had never in my life seen something like that, and I was dying from curiosity, to be honest.  I planned in advance, made a list of the artists and activities that seemed interesting, and off we went on Saturday 4th... straight into a dancing lesson!   It was some sort of square dancing, with Avia Moore, a young energetic (and patient like few!) teacher, and the Michael Winograd Dance Band.  Now, you try to organise 6 groups of 8 people to engage in a dance that includes dancing in a circle, switching places and all the fun elements of square dancing and see if you achieve anything!  But Avia somehow managed, and soon we were all dancing to the band's klezmer music.   That was as much fun as it was embarrassing.  ;-)

And so our three day exposure to Jewish culture began.  After a quick pick-me-up of pelmeny, pirogie and poppy-seed rolls, we listened a bit of klezmer music from Philadelphia (!) courtesy of Elaine Hoffman Watts's band.  Elaine, the band's leader, is a 3rd generation klezmer musician, a sprightly 78 years old, and the band's drummer!   Go Philly!

After that tour through 19th century Jewish folk-music, we were in for a surprise at sundown:  Havdalah.  At the time, all I knew, and that was thanks to the program, was that it was some sort of ritual.  Period.  People started gathering at one of the centre's hall, and a group of musicians started playing while some people distributed candles and little bags with spices.  Then, the rabbi lead some sung praying, and at some points people followed.  This will sound strange but, to me, the cosiness emanating from the place, the calm, the warmth, it was all somehow reminiscent of Christmas.   You know? a bit of sadness, a feeling of togetherness, a feeling of the sacred... Soon, I managed to find out that Havdalah is the ritual that marks the end of Shabbat (the day of rest) and ushers in the new week.   And, to our delight, the transition was marked with a smooth switch to very lively music and, soon, to dancing, to lift the spirits for the coming week!   I guess, if you had to do that every week, maybe, just maybe, you could see it as a chore, but I was truely charmed by the idea of a ritual to symbolise the end of the week and which included a bit of partying. 

We ended the day with an extraordinary concert, called "Sephardic and Mizrachi Cabaret".  I don't know what I was expecting, but I was certainly not expecting the high quality performances we saw!  We had Moroccan-Jewish musician Gerard Edery, accompanied by an Iranian whose singing brought us immediate memories from Esfahan; Moroccan Aaron Bensoussan, who honoured us by letting us listen to prayer (again, in song) he used to hear as a boy at his synagogue in Morocco; Argentinian Susan Gaeta, Batsheva from Canada, and Judith Cohen and her daughter brought to us ladino songs in many different traditions; Yair Dalal and Aviva Chernick, from Israel, delighted us with extremely fine renderings of oriental Jewish music and song; and Galeet Dardashti (heir to Persian traditions) and her woman-only group, Divahn, captivated us with not only their unique voices, but with rhythms spanning diverse cultures, both modern and ancient.   I can't tell you how impressed we were; when on earth do you have the chance of having, in the same concert, an eclectic mix of some of the best artists of the genre?   

The festival offered way more than we expected.  Next day was as good as this one, with more dancing, eating, another two incredible concerts.  And the third day included a small, though very fun, parade.  But that shall be the subject of my next post.  

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

9 á Íslandi - the whole saga

Since the posts of our trip to Iceland are all interspersed with posts about other things that happened afterwards, I decided to do this simple, "housekeeping" post where all the posts on our trip appear in one single place, in order.  So, without further ado, here it is, the whole "saga"!  

(just click on the title under each photo and a new window with the corresponding post will open)

Monday, September 20, 2010

TIFF 2010: Film Socialisme

Socialisme. War.  Perte.  Loss.  Le croisière atteint. Les salopes sont de plus en plus honnêtes. Проживем, милая. فلسطين La justice passe devant la loi. We donotknow mystery. No hay vuelta atrás, el vórtice de la vida te empuja. ΕΛΛΑΣ. פלשתין Même votre connaissance des langues, d'histoire, du cinéma vous sert à peu. Unless itisvast. Other story cinema. Begreifen kann man doch. WATCH.

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TIFF 2010: Our day will come (Notre jour viendra)

What you get when two demential redheads set on... Well, what, revenge? A messianic dream? Their own separate but overlapping madness? Wow.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

more beer and food tasting at Smokeless Joe's

Péché Motel, Imperial Coffee Stout. From Québec. A must try.

Pesto pasta. Nice to have a place with 3-5 vegan options.

TIFF 2010: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Over 30,000 years ago... men, like us, create paintings, like us... music, sculpture, like us... And yet they remain so unfathomably remote from us, indecipherable as to their why's, their what-for's...

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

TIFF 2010: Poetry (시)

How much poetry
Born from great suffering
How many blows
Dealt randomly by life

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TIFF 2010: Bunraku

An entertaining, visually (and aurally) appealing comics/Japanese/swashbuckling action film. Nice.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

TIFF 2010: L.A. Zombie

Taken from the TIFF's site itself: "Let’s get a few things out of the way. L.A. Zombie is a hardcore gay porn film." And the next paragraph: "But L.A. Zombie is very much an art film, too. In fact, it is one of the most poignant films about dashed expectations and the ennui of poverty."

That was the TIFF's website's review.

This layman's review:

1. I come to the TIFF to see films I wouldn't see otherwise. Well, this one fits the bill, perfectly.
2. I can only hope the film's countless (as in TRUELY COUNTLESS) mistakes and inconsistencies were intentional. Is making a film as bad as humanely possible considered "art" nowadays?
3. By showing us the "soft-core" version, the festival probably deprived us from the film's ONLY saving grace: muscled men fucking.

I can only wonder why this 63 minute long torture made it to the festival.

Director Bruce LaBruce

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9 á Íslandi - from Hrauneyjar back to Reykjavík, and end of the trip of a lifetime...

Our last day on the road was going to take us to the three things that every tourist is taken to when they have a tour out of Reykjavík: "The Golden Circle".   I wasn't too excited.  Somehow, going to what EVERYBODY else gets to see, and thinking about countless crowds and tour buses didn't make me too happy.   And we almost didn't set off, actually, because I left the GPS on all night and the car's battery was dead!  LOL   Fortunately, one of the guys at the guesthouse was kind enough to give us a hand (and me, being completely mechanics-illiterate, required not just a hand but full service, so his kindness was even greater for that!) and we got on the road.

Our first two stops were not actually part of The Golden Circle, but since they were on the way... First, and after quite a stretch of a small gravel road, was Stöng, a Viking farm buried in ash from  mount Hekla in 1104.  We had seen similar ruins at a museum in Reykjavík, but this one was better preserved and let us imagine better how life could have been back then.  And not too far from that place, we reached Þjóðveldisbærinn (Thjodveldisbaer), a farm reconstructed based on Stöng's ruins.  Obviously, they were not going to reconstruct it at just any place:  the farm was atop a hill with a waterfall running off a mountainside nearby.   And at this one they had taken care to explain more about the "Viking lifestyle".  Not a must see, but definitely worth it and interesting if you happen to be nearby.

After those small detours, we took the wide (two full lanes!) paved (!!!) road to our first stop on "The Golden Circle" route, their biggest waterfall:   Gullfoss.   I was impressed.  First of all, like at all other natural spots, the parking lot (and adjoining restaurant and gift shop) was a very wise distance from the falls so it didn't detract AT ALL from the setting.  Also, as we walked from the parking lot to the falls, we could see in the distance Langjökull glacier and its many outlets. (by now, you should have noted how much I adored Iceland's glaciers).  And the waterfall itself... well, simply beautiful.  Powerful.  Pristine.  I mean, they didn't even build railings to keep people from getting too  close, all you had was a rope!  They really mean it when they try to keep a place in as natural state as possible.  And yes, there were more tourists than we'd seen so far, but the place was so inspiring and, well, BIG, that we could all fit very comfortably.

Our second "Golden Circle" stop had to do with water too, but boiling:  Geysir!   Geysir is both the name of the most important geyser and of the park.   The park had several hot springs of different sizes, and everywhere you could see vapour rising from them.   Geysir doesn't erupt very often  anymore;  apparently, people used to drop rocks in to provoke eruptions, until they finally clogged it up; some quakes seem to have shifted the rocks, so now it may erupt up to three times a day... not often enough when you're just visiting!   But there is another one that every 7 minutes or so gives quite a show:  Strokkur.   I think we watched it shoot steam some 4-5 times!  It was fascinating, the water in the centre bubbled constantly, then it would start getting more violent and, all of a sudden, you'd have this light blue bubble rise quickly and explode into a jet of steam some 30 metres high!  Awesome.   And once you had seen your share of eruptions, you could head over to some hot springs a bit further away, one of them with very clear water that let you see the entry to an underwater cave, and the other one blue as the sky.   It was definitely one weird, beautiful place.  

Our third and final stop, and the thought of visiting this one didn't excite me too much because I though I was only going to see some point of historical significance but nothing to see per se, was Þingvellir (Thingvellir).  Fortunately I was wrong again.  The place IS definitely important, for here it was that the first Icelandic Parliament was formed and, in a way, marks the foundation of the Icelandic nation too.  But, like many places chosen for important things, the setting was chosen carefully too.  First thing we noticed was an imposing ridge, rising from the depths of the earth, long, a sort of natural fortress.  In fact, it IS a ridge, the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, separating the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate.  Wow.  Not only that, as we climbed the crest, we caught view of a majestic body of water, Iceland's largest lake:  Þingvallavatn.  Well, if you wanted a magical place to found a nation, this one was it.  And, in case you also needed a building to complete your visit, there is a church, Þingvallakirkja, nestled gently in the valley next to a river.   This may be one of the most visited spots in Iceland.  And for good reason.  

We drove back to Reykjavík.  Tired, but happy.  We had seem more, way, way more, than we could have ever imagined.  And without a single scratch, though the car did have a generous covering of dried red mud all over, LOL.   

Next day we flew back home, but not without taking another stroll around Tjörnin (it's just such a peaceful, pleasant pond...) and having, what else, coffee and chocolate cake at a bookshop with views of downtown... It was a strange feeling, like when you're saying farewell to a person you've recently fallen in love with, knowing you definitely want to see them again, hoping to be back together soon, and feeling sad all the same for the separation...   And guess what, even the flight back home offered one last parting surprise:  incredible views of Greenland!  Maybe a suggestion...?

We are going back.  For sure.  

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

TIFF 2010: The Sleeping Beauty

A fairy tale. Of sorts. But also maybe a metaphor for a childhood quest that ends with finding your dream-prince... or, more accurately, a dream that ends?

Not for everybody. Quite a few left the theatre before the end. But an interesting tale, with lots of (at sometimes difficult to understand) symbolism.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

TIFF 2010: Little Sister (妹妹)

A somewhat too-long, not-engaging-enough Chinese story that partially and superficially resembles Cinderella but which aims, unsuccessfully, at higher values like gender-equality.(your opinion may differ, of course, and visually there is some value to the film)

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When killing the young of other species and roasting their carcasses to exhibit them is considered "nice".

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

the TIFF Bell Lightbox opens today

and the area around John and King prepare to celebrate!

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TIFF 2010 - Crying Out

"À l'origine d'un cri", a Quebecois film about the violence of love, of ignorance, of hate, of booze, of death, and a trip that, unintendedly, redresses some of those wrongs.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

9 á Íslandi - from Hof to Hrauneyjar

Our third day on the road was a day I had been expecting for a long time.  I don't know why.  We had already seen awesome sights, but I think the idea of travelling on rougher, mountain roads, was sort of romantic and adventurous. 

But, before we reached mountain road F208 (roads with an F meant "do not even think of it if you're not on a 4WD, and we'll fine you generously if we catch you") we still had our share of sights, like Hofskirkja, a lovely turf-roofed church with a grass covered cemetery; we also caught sight of Svinafellsjökull, which looked gorgeous with what sunlight reached through the clouds; and some weird stone formations near Nupar.   But once we got to Ytri-Ásar, where we'd turn right towards F208, I got REALLY excited, almost like a child.

What can I say.  The road had a certain magic to it.  From where we started, we could see tons of streams crisscrossing the valley, reflecting the sunlight beautifully.  We drove on a 1.5 lane (it wasn't as narrow as 1 lane, but not quite 2 lanes wide) gravel road, past riverbeds with blue-gray clay, past lava fields, past moss-covered volcanic-earth hills... where some of those hills had what resembled fissures (from quakes?) the contrast of the black earth inside and the bright green moss on top was mesmerising...  And so we drove, slowly (the speed limit was between 40 and 60 kmph), until we reached our first "obstacle", a river we needed to ford through!

I feared that moment as much as I was looking forward to it.  And there was no other way through.  So I followed the instructions our travel agent had given us, put the car in neutral, and forded the river not through the center, but through one of the sides.   It wasn't that deep after all, but it being our first time, it felt like such an adventure!   Needless to say, we crossed without trouble, and drove on to a road so full of charm we had to stop almost every 10 minutes to take a photo!

We first stopped at Eldgjá (Fire Canyon), actually a small detour from our original route, but well worth the stop for a nice walk along the river at the bottom of the canyon.

Then, we found fields of pale-white cotton-grass, wide splendid views from the top of the hills, surrounded by moss-covered mountains, the Torfajökull glacier in the distance, tiny violet Eyrarós (Arctic river beauty) flowers shining with dew drops, and absolute silence.  Really, there was nobody else, as far as the eye could see, there were no trees whose leaves the wind could rustle, the streams were far below: absolute, total, unbroken, awe-inspiring silence.

... then more river-fording, driving on then-passable river-banks, with more views of the glaciers in the distance and almost fluorescent green moss, up to one of the most beautiful lakes we had ever seen, with the mountains clearly reflecting in the water and, once more, total tranquility: no people, no sounds, nothing but water, mountains and sky to admire for as long as one could want.  Funnily, we haven't been able to find the name of the lake, except that it lies between lakes Kirkjufellsvatn and Frostastaðavatn.

Finally, but only after a difficult drive over what seemed an endless stretch of red mud-filled potholes with bits of road and not the other way around, where no matter how we drove we ended splashing red mud all over the car, and after fording what was our deepest river so far (the water covered the tires completely), we arrived to Landmannalaugar:   a valley with hot springs which serves as a base for numerous fascinating hikes.  To be honest, even though the springs were quite a sight, we were used to lots of quiet and, all of a sudden, we were in the midst of an enormous camp, with tons of people bathing in the springs, camping, exploring, socialising... all fine and well per se, but after a walk around the place, we decided to leave that valley for less crowded views somewhere else.

The road from Landmannalaugar to our guesthouse in Hrauneyjar was a mixed experience.   Half of it was stunning, past more beautiful placid lakes, through mountain roads which followed paths akin to roller coasters, including lots of "blindhæð", stretches where the road slanted up in a way that didn't let you see what was behind (a steep descent? a sharp curve? a steeply descending sharp curve? a car coming your way on said narrow steep sharp curve?).   Fun, actually.  What wasn't fun was the second half:  we drove through extremely arid volcanic landscapes, lots of dust, and a road so uneven we felt we were driving on speed bumpers.  All the time.  For what felt like an eternity.  You could try driving slow, or fast, it was all equally annoying.  

After about an hour and a half of that we were frankly fed up and I couldn't even joke about it anymore.  But we made it, and we finally got to Hrauneyjar in time for dinner, a shower, and a well deserved rest, in the middle of volcanic nowhere, so prepare for our next and last day on the road...

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Ashkenaz 2010 - Parade!

Loads of fun, with mizrachi and klezmer music and, at the end, a hora for everyone!

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Another two interesting beers to try at Smokeless Joe's

from France: XO Cognac
from Belgium: Bacchus Bruin

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2nd day of Ashkenaz 2010 @ Harbourfront Centre

some djudyo (ladino) songs from pre WWII Yugoslavia with Flory Jagoda, some burekas, some Moldovan Roma dances with Steve Weintraub and the Other Europeans, some Mizrachi songs with Duvahn and some Israeli Mediterranean funk with Balkan Beat Box. What a day!

If you've missed it so far, you've still got one more chance to come to the festival on Monday!

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