Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending one of Ken Whiteley’s gospel matinees at the new Hugh’s Room located at 296 Broadview Avenue in Toronto, which included traditional gospel music along with Middle Eastern performances and a wonderful interplay between the styles.
On stage with Ken were gospel singer Sharon Riley; bassist George Koller; members of Jaffa Road, including Aaron Lightstone on oud and guitar, Rakesh Tewari on percussion, Sundar Viswanathan on flute and sax; and Tamar Ilana on vocals. Jaffa Road is a world music group known for their strong following and unique addition of Middle Eastern elements. Also adding her voice was Aviva Chernick, a founding member of Jaffa Road now leading her own ensemble.
Ken began putting together the gospel matinee series back in 2002 and has continued the tradition ever since. These shows follow a multi-artist, in-the-round format that allows for Ken and each of the invited guests to make their own impression on the audience.
As you would expect, the assembled artists interact with each other much as you would see at a folk festival workshop, creating the kind of magic we have all come to know and appreciate in these sorts of collaborations.
For those of us who have been around the Ontario and Canadian folk scenes over the past many years, Ken Whitely needs no introduction. He has been playing folk, blues, gospel, and other roots traditions for well over 50 years. He has received a Canadian Folk Music Award, seven Juno nominations, 18 Maple Blues nominations, a Genie Award (for Best Song in a Canadian film) and Lifetime Achievement Awards form the Mariposa Folk Festival, the Maple Blues Awards, and Folk Music Ontario. On top of that, a show with Ken Whitely usually includes Ken sharing his knowledge on various aspects of history, culture, and spirituality – always a special treat.
There is a lot more to know about Ken, like the fact that he has made over 32 albums, with the most recent, So Glad I’m Here, just released. It’s described as celebrating connections across cultural, spiritual and music traditions, which makes for a perfect segueway to the show Ken put together on Nov. 12.
Things opened up with a gospel sing-a-long led by Ken and got going from there. When members of Jaffa Road took their turn, their selections frequently focussed on spirituality as it is expressed in Middle Eastern culture, as was also the case with Aviva Chernick. Sharon Riley sang a few traditional gospel songs like “Wade in the Water,” and then it was back to Ken to sing songs both in the North American gospel tradition and in the Eastern tradition. As always, everyone on stage participated in what was going on, whether it was on guitar, saxophone, percussion or stunning vocals.
There was something powerful about the recognition that spirituality is expressed in different ways around the world, but that what is common about it allows us to share in other people’s experiences and expressions. It was a wonderful afternoon.
This is the first time I had been to Hugh’s Room’s new location for a show. Executive director Michael Booth mentioned that it was the first matinee since the move. It was great to see a good-sized and enthusiastic crowd. The sound was great; everything seemed well-run, and I look forward to more shows of all different sorts.