Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival Shines Global Spotlight on a Diverse Cross Section of Female Artists

In the heart of the world’s most diverse city lives a biennial celebration of the evolution of Jewish cultural arts known as the Ashkenaz Festival. From August 28 through to September 3, 2018, over 250 international artists gather in Toronto to showcase an eclectic spectrum of live music, theatre, and multidisciplinary art and culture. Ambitiously and meticulously curated, this year’s festival shines a spotlight on the role of women as prominent performers, innovators and key custodians of various musical traditions from around the globe.

“Women have always been central to creating and maintaining Jewish cultural and musical traditions,” says Artistic Director Eric Stein. “We are proud to make the vibrant and powerful work of female artists a focal point of this year’s festival.”

Celebrating its twenty third year with its 12th biennial Festival, Ashkenaz will host events at venues across the GTA, including Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Koerner Hall (273 Bloor Street West), Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas Street West), and the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts (10268 Yonge Street). With over 90% of its programming free to the public, the festival will feature artists from countries as varied as India, Italy, Russia, Brazil, Australia, and Israel.

The festival’s Opening Night show, Yiddish Glory (August 28, Koerner Hall), is based on rare songs and poetry from the Holocaust era, discovered recently in an overlooked archive in Kiev. Hailed as a triumph by over 100 critics and journalists around the world, this gripping and emotional concert experience features the talents of Canadian Jazz-chanteuse-turned-Yiddish-diva, Sophie Milman, along with Russia’s Psoy KorolenkoTrio Loyko, and many more.

Another highlight of this year’s slate is If It Be Your Will: An All Canadian Tribute to Leonard Cohen (August 30, Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts). Boasting a lineup of artists from within and beyond the Jewish music scene, the iconic Cohen’s writing is lovingly reinterpreted with particular attention paid to the Jewish themes in his works. Featured artists include Kevin BreitLori CullenAviva ChernickThe Barrel Boys, to name but a few.

Ashkenaz’s free evening mainstage concerts at Harbourfront Centre on Labour Day weekend are often the highlight of the Festival and this year is no exception. On Saturday night (Sept 1, 8-11pm) the Festival focuses on its roots in east European Jewish culture with a double bill of cutting-edge 21st century Yiddish music. Singer and actress Eleanor Reissa teams up with Grammy-winner Frank London (The Klezmatics) and his Klezmer Brass All-Stars for a sultry and incendiary set of new Yiddish song with downtown NYC avant garde attitude. They will be followed by the North American premiere of Australia’s pile-driving 22-piece YID!, inspired as much by Parliament/Funkadelic and Talking Heads as they are by old-school big band and old-world klezmer.

The Festival’s free Sunday evening mainstage (September 2, Harbourfront Centre, 8-11pm) will feature two powerhouse Israeli world music groups who draw on African and Arabic sources to forge soul-stirring global fusion. Ethiopian-Israeli reggae-roots-rocker Gili Yalo will make his North American debut, followed by the infectious grooves of A-WA, a trio of Yemenite-Israeli sisters who use the ancient women’s music traditions of Yemen as raw material for their cutting-edge sound. A-Wa scored the first ever Arabic-language number one on the Israeli music charts with “Habib Galbi,” the video for which has over 10M hits on YouTube. The group has even developed a fan base across the Arab world.

The ground-breaking Salomé: Woman of Valor (September 2, Harbourfront Centre Theatre) is a “total art experience” from the creative minds of Grammy-winner Frank London (The Klezmatics) and Canadian poet Adeena Karasick. Their powerful new take on the Biblical tale combines poetry, music, theatre, film and dance, recasting Salomé as a revolutionary matriarch, translating this famous tale into a parable of female empowerment, socio-politic, erotic and aesthetic transgression.

Renowned Yiddish theatre actor Avi Hoffman returns, following his 2016 Ashkenaz Festival tour de force portrayal of Willy Loman in the Yiddish-language version of Death of a Salesman. This year, Hoffman will present two shows, one a loving one-man tribute to the iconic Yiddish poet Itsik Manger, and the other a chilling staged reading of Katherine Kressman Taylor’s “Address Unknown.”

Ashkenaz is also pleased to welcome for the first time world-renowned violinist Lara St. John with a creative and personal program drawing on Jewish and other east European repertoire. Based on her album “Shiksa” (the Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman), the program features the classical virtuoso making loving light of her non-Jewish heritage while demonstrating the ways in which great Jewish music intersects multiple cultural traditions, and often has little to do with the heritage of the performer.

Ashkenaz will also present a number of musicians, speakers and films exploring the Polish-Jewish experience from multiple perspectives. Poland was once home to the largest Jewish population in the world and produced some of the greatest artists and cultural movements in Jewish history. While Polish-Jewish relations have frayed in the wake of recent political developments in Poland, this year marks a number of significant anniversaries related to that history. “It’s a time to re-engage, not disengage with this relationship,” says Stein. “It should not be undone by politicians and black and white narratives.” Ashkenaz’s focus on Poland will emphasize the deep and intertwined cultural legacies of Poles and Jews, and will include, among others, Warsaw-based singer Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk presenting a program of interwar Polish cabaret and tango music composed by Jewish musicians, Columbia University professor Agi Legutko lecturing on “Women, Gender and Sexuality in Yiddish Literature,” and a presentation from the music director of Warsaw’s POLIN Museum, Kajetan Prochyra.

While Ashkenaz is undoubtedly an international affair, it is also the preeminent stage for Canadian musicians working within the Jewish music and culture scene to share their work. Ashkenaz will feature a number of homegrown talents, including Montreal beat renegade Socalled, recent JUNO nominee Briga, and, one of the most surprising additions to this year’s lineup, Canadian folk music iconoclast Ben Caplan. Known as much for his distinctive beard as his growly voice, Halifax’s Caplan has only recently crossed over into the Jewish music realm, following his acclaimed starring role in the Hannah Moscovitch play “Old Stock,” for which he composed the klezmer-tinged songs laced with social commentary. Caplan will present a live concert of the music from the show, which is a very timely allegorical tale related to the immigration experience. Old Stock received rave reviews off-broadway and at the Edinburgh FringeFest, and will have an extended theatrical run in Toronto next year at Tarragon.

While being a mecca for global music and theatre, Ashkenaz Festival is more than a musical showcase. This year’s festival rounds out with literary talks, Yiddish dance programs, cabarets, films, kids and family programs, and an integrated visual arts program. Nowhere in the world will you find so many people from diverse cultures come together to experience this cutting edge offering of contemporary Jewish music and art. For a full schedule of events, visit

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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