An impactful message from Canada's Global Orchestra

The musicians in the Canadian music ensemble Kuné come from a diverse array of traditions and cultures. On their new album, they share their concern for our planet's future in a collection of glorious tracks. By Richard Marcus

By Richard Marcus

The members of Toronto-based ensemble Kuné come from all over the world. Europe, China, South and North America, Africa and the Middle East are all represented in the ensemble.

So what does a Métis – a person with mixed Indigenous and French ancestry, usually from Canada's Prairie provinces – (Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, violin) have in common with musicians from Iraq (Ahmed Moneka, darbuka and vocals) or Burkina Faso (Salif Sanou, vocals, djembe, n'goni, peul flute and tama)? Well quite a lot apparently as the ensemble's latest release, Universal Echoes shows.

Aline Morales (vocals and percussion), Demetri Petsalakis (guitar and oud), Dora Wang (dizi, xiao and alto flute), Lusis Deniz (alto saxophone), Matias Recharte (drums and percussion), Paco Luviano (acoustic and electric bass), Padideh Ahrarnejad (tar) and Selcuk Suna (vocals, clarinet and tenor saxophone) complete the line up of this remarkable group, which refers to itself as Canada's Global Orchestra.

Raising awareness of the threat of climate change

Kuné is a word in Esperanto, the attempt to build a universal language, that means together. It sums up the band nicely as it brings this collection of diverse individuals together as a single entity.

What ties these musicians from multiple traditions and cultures together is a shared concern for our planet's future. Universal Echoes is not just an album of unrelated songs, it is a composition in twelve pieces created in response to the deteriorating state of the world's climate.

Ten of the tracks are named for the planet's four major elements – fire, water, air and earth. Yet this is not just a collection bemoaning "what's going to happen to us?" The lyrics cover a range of subjects relating to climate change as diverse as the band's musical roots.

The four elements

The album's opening track, "Sarena", is a perfect example. In the notes on the song, the band points out that climate change is rapidly emerging as one of the biggest reasons why people become refugees. Floods and extreme heat contribute to an area that is becoming uninhabitable. "Sarena" talks about the experience of having to uproot yourself and move to another country. While the end result may be positive, it doesn't mean there are no regrets.

Sung in both Arabic and Portuguese by its co-composers, Moneka and Morales (Iraqi and Brazilian respectively), the song reflects that poignancy both lyrically and musically. "From the bow of the boat I saw / a mermaid singing / it was a song / it was sadness / it was a tear of salt / They left without saying goodbye / They left an empty home".

It's only fitting that the next song on the disc is about water. "Agua" was written by Morales and is rooted firmly in Brazilian Indigenous history. Morales' notes on the song recount how she always gives thanks to Leminiua – the Brazilian goddess of the sea – whenever she goes out on the water. The song extols the gifts water gives us all. "It washes and purifies (water) / The secret of life (water) / Satisfies my thirst (water) / My pure joy (water)". With its joyful and uplifting music, this song is a true celebration of water and makes the listener think how awful the world would be without a thriving ocean life.

After three tracks about the giving nature of water, the album moves to a different element, namely fire. While the songs about water were in direct reference to the gifts we receive from the element, this song is more allegorical.

Lyricist and lead vocalist Moneka describes the song as being about the fire that burns in our hearts, the fire ignited by the pain of racism that is born from anger and grief. "O teardrops rolling down my cheeks / A calamity like mine / Has never struck a soul / The Fire, my friend has caught / And left a scar / The wound on my heart".

The burning hatred of racism

As an Arab refugee in North America, Moneka has probably come in for his share of direct or indirect racism, but his story brings extra depth to this song about the power of hate to burn us. He and his family were forced to flee Iraq after he received death threats for portraying one half of a gay couple in a film. As the song implies, that sort of hate burns deep holes in a person's soul.

In "Wind II" and "Earth III", writers Sanou (Burkina Faso) and Ahrarneiad (Iran) draw on spiritual traditions to emphasise their connections to each element. In Sanou's case, he talks about how the gifts given to us by the Creator are disappearing. The obvious inference is that humankind is disrespecting Creation by despoiling its gifts. This is a far cry from those who would use religion as an excuse to exploit  the world.

Ahrarneiad has created a Zikr – the music used by Sufis to enter trance-like states through repeating the names of God. With Sufis, the idea is to enter into a state of being that allows them to connect directly to their God. In this case, Ahrarneiad's song seeks to help us reconnect to our inner cores in order to find a way through the trials of our times in order to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground – in earth.

An appeal to protect our common home

The lyrics of the album's final song, "Zendeghi", were written by Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri - who died of cancer in 1980. Ahrarneiad, who wrote the music for this piece and who went through treatment for cancer herself, says our bodies have become sick as we have contaminated our planet.

The poem's lyrics are a searing appeal to humankind to take care of the planet, of what is right in front of us in the present moment: "Life is not living in the past or the future / the future is a vision and the past is a lesson / Life is happiness but sometimes we forget / Life is understanding, and being in the moment."

Kuné have been together for several years, and Universal Echoes is an example of just how tight the ensemble has become. Not only are the song's lyrics beautiful and intelligent, the music is an incredible mixture of sounds and rhythms. Somehow this melange of sounds and cultures from all over the world creates a language that speaks to all of us. In fact, one could say that Kuné's performances are a living, breathing example of the spirit of Esperanto. This is an album of glorious music with an impactful message that will speak to people all over the world.

Richard Marcus

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