Festival of Arabic Music & Arts: Five shows to check out

The inaugural festival features over 100 musicians and artists over the course of two weeks. We narrowed it down to five shows you won't want to miss


Lamees Audeh and her husband, Wafa Al Zaghal, have ambitious plans for the Arabic music scene in the GTA. “We want to become the go-to place for Arabic music, maybe in Canada – and hopefully in all of North America,” Audeh says.

Their inaugural Festival of Arabic Music & Arts, running from October 28 to November 12, is the couple’s latest project to this end. Previously, they founded the Canadian Arabic Orchestra and the Mississauga-based Canadian Arabic Conservatory of Music. “As soon as we start exposing this Arabic music more, and showing it to the Canadian public, more and more people will start to attend the concerts,” Audeh says.

The festival brings together international and local artists, both Arab and non-Arab, for concerts, stand-up comedy, theatre and more. Audeh, who calls this two-week festival a “dream come true,” runs us through five performances you won’t want to miss.

Ilham Al-Madfai & Sultans of String

Three-time Juno nominees Sultans of String will no doubt be a familiar name to some. But Ilham Al-Madfai, an Iraqi guitarist and singer, has also built a considerable following abroad. “He modernized folkloric Iraqi music,” says Audeh, comparing his sound to what you might hear on a Gypsy Kings record. “If… you don’t understand a single word of what he’s saying, you will still enjoy it because it has those rhythms.”

Saturday, October 28 at Koerner Hall (273 Bloor West), 7:30 pm. $50-$65. canadianarabicorchestra.ca/fama

Charbel Rouhana with the Canadian Arabic Orchestra

A personal favourite of Audeh, Rouhana is one of many performers at the festival to master the oud, the popular Middle Eastern stringed instrument resembling a lute. “Charbel should catch the ear of anybody listening because of how light-hearted he is,” says Audeh of the Lebanese musician. Light as his sound is, the singer/songwriter’s lyrics address serious subjects, such as Arabs losing touch with their native tongue. 

Friday, November 3 at Jane Mallett Theatre (27 Front East), 7:30 pm. $45-$65. canadianarabicorchestra.ca/fama.

Origins by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra

Origins melds Arabic and Indigenous music. Audeh sees parallels between colonialism experienced by Indigenous peoples and the occupation of Palestinian lands, but politics aren’t this production’s focus. “It’s about being part of the mosaic that makes up the Canadian culture in general,” says Audeh, whose orchestra will be playing with Indigenous artist Laura Grizzlypaws from BC. Whirling dervishes meet throat singing in the percussion-heavy debut performance, which the orchestra later plans to take on the road.

Thursday, November 9 at the Aga Khan Museum (77 Wynford), 7 pm. $30. canadianarabicorchestra.ca/fama.

Rana Hatmal and Faia Younan

Sweden-based Syrian singer Faia Younan, who lent vocals to the latest Gorillaz album, is among the festival’s first concerts to sell out. However, Syrian visual artist Rana Hatmal, residing in Montreal since 2015, is also showing her work at the theatre, no admission required. “They stand for the same thing. They love their country,” says Audeh of the pairing. Immigration is the central theme of Hatmal’s art exhibit, and her colourful acrylic paintings convey movement through their depiction of birds, feet and hands.

Friday, November 10 at Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles West), exhibit 6:30 pm, free concert 7:30 pm, $35-$45. canadianarabicorchestra.ca/faia-younan.

Naseer Shamma

Audeh considers Shamma one of the world’s best oud players. “What will grab your attention is the amazing technique that he has,” she says. “He does amazing things that are not conventional at all.” That sounds like a good fit for the backing band, which will be made up of members of the Canadian Arabic Orchestra, a group known to combine traditional Arabic instrumentation with clarinet, cello and accordion.

Sunday, November 12 at the Living Arts Centre (4141 Living Arts, Mississauga), 6 pm. $55-$65. canadianarabicorchestra.ca/naseer-shamma.

music@nowtoronto.com | @joshuaxsherman

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