Ottawa Citizen: KUNÉ Canada's Global Orchestra embraces multiculturalism with its music

Until 2017, “kuné” was just the word in Esperanto that means “together.”

But after performances that year at Koerner Hall, the National Arts Centre and beyond, KUNÉ has come to refer to a diverse group of Toronto musicians who bring the instruments and musical traditions of their homelands to the stage to perform a unique and distinctively multicultural repertoire.

The group, which now consists of 11 musicians from Peru, Burkina Faso, Cuba, Ukraine, Greece and Pakistan, to name a few, was the brainchild of Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

As Mehta says below in advance of KUNÉ’s Chamberfest concert on Saturday night, politics and social issues were very much on his mind when he launched this project. The burning issues of the day will remain top of mind for KUNÉ when the band gives its first U.S. concerts later this year.

Q: What inspired you to create KUNÉ?

A: I had been thinking about this project for many years and our sesquicentennial seemed to be the perfect time to do it. There was also a moment in the last federal election when Harper, Trudeau and Mulcair were locked in a debate. Harper had been floating a policy of “tiered” citizenship and used the phrase “old stock Canadian,” which shocked me. Trudeau famously replied “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” a phrase he recently reused in response to Trump’s latest racist dog whistle.

Q: How did you select the members of the band?

A: Canada is filled with wonderful musicians from all over the world. I would often hire one or two as needed to fill in with international touring bands. Many of these musicians were working in jobs unrelated to their music to make ends meet, so we decided to find those “unknown” artists. We spread the word and 150 came to the audition. they hailed from 47 countries. We wanted talent and a wide diversity of cultures and genres. And they all needed to be musically curious. We picked 12 from 12 different countries. Alas, one member, Dorjee Tsering from Tibet, passed away last year.

Q: This is a project with considerable sponsorships and grants behind it. How were those funds used?

A: Due to the sesquicentennial, there was additional funding available from Heritage and Canada Council. We needed six months to put the band together, write material, polish a show. So we used every penny we got from government along with some funds from a few generous individuals who loved the concept.

Q: What was your reaction when you heard the first music that KUNÉ made?

A: It was a long process of figuring out how to make the instruments, voices and languages work. Lots of experimenting, a few tears, some exhilarating moments of discovery. It wasn’t until our first concert in June 2017 that we knew we were on to something that had value and had potential.

Q: Tell me more about the challenges KUNÉ faced for its first performance?

A: No one involved had ever done such a project, so we figured it out as we went. We spent weeks just getting to know each other and our traditions. Some musicians do not read Western (musical) notation, some don’t speak English. Some rhythmic structures that came naturally to a few were completely foreign to other. So all of that takes time and a huge amount of trust. We spent a lot of time without instruments, eating, talking. We had an artistic director, David Buchbinder, who helped shape the music.

But we had a deadline and had to get a concert prepared. Tickets were selling and we could not fail. That led to a certain amount of tension and nerves, but we got there. Where we are now, two years, later is a whole other level of musical ease.

Q: Given recent political events and xenophobic feelings in the U.S. and elsewhere, do you feel there is an extra urgency for KUNÉ’s music to be heard now?

A: Absolutely, which is why our U.S. tour in November has been so interesting to put together. Americans are either fascinated about what we are doing in Canada or very skeptical. Trudeau remains a rock star in the U.S. and some people are eager to see what pluralism really means.

Q: What do you hope listeners will take away from the experience of hearing KUNE?

A: At its simplest, I hope people get to hear new sounds. We are a band that just wants to play music. If, as a side effect, we show how 11 cultures can co-exist and speak one musical language, then we are all happy.

Q. What does the future hold for the band?

A: More dates in Ontario in September, then a U.S. tour in November including New York City, our first dates playing with symphony orchestras in January and February, more U.S. dates in January. The band is writing new material all the time, so we’ll keep going as long as we can.

KUNÉ: Canada’s Global Orchestra
When and where: Saturday, July 27, 7 p.m., Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
Info and tickets:chamberfest.com

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