Local Hero: The Music Gallery’s David Dacks

The experimental-music cheerleader explains why it's important to give Toronto musicians headlining spots, what it means to be a Music City and more

The Music Gallery presents Emergents 1: Volur and Wapiti at the Music Gallery (197 John), Thursday (November 17), 8 pm, $12 and Micro-Ritmia Ensemble at the Tranzac (292 Brunswick), Sunday (November 20), 9 pm, $15. musicgallery.org.

David Dacks has been a staple of Toronto’s music industry for over 25 years. Inspired by the city’s rich 1980s reggae scene and the rise of DJ and turntable culture during the golden age of hip-hop, Dacks began his career as the host of CIUT FM’s radio show The Abstract Index.

Since then he’s been active as a performing musician and a maker of CBC music documentaries. He’s currently the creative director of the Music Gallery, the experimental-music-focused venue that brought artists like Lido Pimienta and Kaytranada – the recent Polaris Music Prize winner’s first Toronto gig was during X Avant 2012 – to the attention of music lovers.

We spoke to Dacks about championing grassroots artists, Canada’s Black diasporic music and more.

What inspired 17-year-old David Dacks to take to the airwaves? Was hip-hop a major reason?

Yeah, definitely. In Toronto, before Michie Mee started recording in 87, 88, Toronto was all about reggae. Since CIUT was a campus radio station, we had most of those records, so I loved reggae to start with. But then in 86, 87, at the beginning of the “golden age of hip-hop,” how could I not be inspired by De La Soul and Public Enemy?

Had the Music Gallery been part of your life prior to becoming its artistic director in 2012?

A little bit. The first time I heard of it was when my parents went to see Gil Evans in 1984, not long before he died. At CIUT I came across Music Gallery recordings through Musicworks magazine and the Music Gallery Editions label, which lasted for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s. In the mid-1990s my band recorded our first demo at the former recording space of the Music Gallery, the Great Hall.

I started going more when Jonny Dovercourt, now of Wavelength, was the artistic director. I did a couple of DJ benefits. Wavelength use to do part of its festival here, and I was involved in a panel discussion. Around 2006, 2007 Jonny appointed me to the [Music Gallery’s] artistic advisory council. Then I became a guest curator for the New World Series, the World X Avant.

The Music Gallery is a unique space for music. What makes it so special? 

When people get in here they sit, they watch and they pay attention. They open their ears no matter what kind of music it is, and that’s something performers are looking for.

Has the Music Gallery helped other T.O. venues become more open to showcasing experimental music?

Not directly, but we’ve been established for 40-plus years now. People have an opportunity to play here in front of people they might not otherwise [play for]. It’s still very much a springboard for certain musicians, [moving them] from the grassroots levels into something beyond that.

It’s really important to give Toronto musicians headlining slots. If we’re saying we’re ready for the world, then let’s put our money where our mouth is. I’m not going to be that programmer who watches somebody go to Berlin in frustration and then beckons them back once they’re famous. I’d rather be supporting them before they leave. Pouring more resources into somebody’s show because they need it unlocks international destinations and notoriety for them.

Today we’re called a Music City, but have we always been one? 

Yeah, definitely. If the music city initiative came out of NXNE, that’s great, but that’s never really been my slice of Toronto music. If it were up to me, anything to do with Caribana would be the centre of the Toronto calendar, because in terms of cultural and economic impact it absolutely dwarfs anything else, though certainly not in terms of media coverage. This is what I think of when I think of Toronto. The events that are only now starting to get more coverage and analysis – “Black diasporic music,” as Norman Otis Richmond used to say – I’ve always thought were Toronto’s most unique and vital musical ecosystem. So it’s great that it’s becoming more known worldwide.

What’s been your most exciting MG moments to date?

Dublab from California for the season finale in 2011. It was an all-night thing in the courtyard. To pull that off was pretty amazing. We’ve brought legendary musicians that I’ve admired from afar: Pauline Oliveros Roscoe Mitchell, one of the great founders of Chicago music in the last 50 years. To see him at the top of his game was absolutely thrilling. He played sopranino sax for a 15-minute, continuous circular breathing solo. He’s 76! At the end, everyone leapt to their feet. Instant standing ovation. 

What keeps you connected to music?

There was a time when I thought I was done with music, that it had run its course in my life. But I am community-oriented and interested in new sounds, so helping contribute to the scene and to the city is what’s kept me going. I always keep an open ear and an open mind. I don’t think Toronto’s diversity is ever fully captured. You never know who you’re going to meet in this city. You don’t know what their backstory is. Don’t make assumptions, just listen and be amazed. Continually amazed.    

music@nowtoronto.com | @chakavgrier

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