I have attended Sunfest nearly every year since its 1995 inception; I have taken the personal memories from various years. Some wander far afield; I'm trying to interject among the definition of what the festival is a sense of how the festival feels. Skip the shrunken text if that subjective element doesn't suit your tastes. Some days I would do the same.
A stylized, smiley sun spreads points of light that we recognize, on second glance, as stylized, fiery dancers and musicians. That's the sun we first know; rays spread out and touch us, warm us. Later, we might learn something about the source, realize the power behind it. It's a pretty good symbol, the Sunfest insignia. People know the festival first for the music. The festival's source, its intention, is something else: a dream of bringing people together.
Alfredo Caxaj fled 1980s Guatemala after both of his brothers were murdered for their human rights activities. He had a desire to promote harmony in his new home of London, Ontario, Canada. Caxaj founded the Sunfest organization in 1994 to create a free music festival, with the intention of bringing different people from different cultures together.
The festival takes place during the month of July in Victoria Park, though some years have seen showcase performances at other venues. Admission is free; a small army of volunteers hawk programmes and paraphernalia and collect donations. Vendors rent space, in return for which they appear to make handsome profits from crafts, souvenirs, and ethnic food. Various sources provide seed money; the festival in turn draws substantial revenue to the city of London. The Sunfest runs 3-4 days; attendance for each day measures in the tens of thousands.
The number of stages has grown over time. During the daytime, the park's large bandshell stands empty, and musicians play on smaller, more intimate stages spread throughout, and a larger beer garden stage set on a closed section of Wellington Street. Once evening falls, the licensed stage and the bandshell run a steady line-up of acts for more concentrated crowds.
Stella Chiweshe has been dubbed the "Queen of the Mbira". She started playing in 1964, in days when the government of Rhodesia had criminalized the small instrument and her own tradition considered its playing unseemly for a girl. She's backed by traditional drums and electric guitars; by 2003, she had released 7 internationally-acclaimed albums.
Most of the crowd would not know this if we hadn't read it in the publicity. Many still don't. I learn after the fact. The music draws us in.
The festival promotes many kinds of musical diversity. Guinea-born worldbeat guitar hero Alpha Ya Ya Diallo plays his jazz/ju-ju/R&B fusion on the same stage that the locally-based Piche Family play Celtic folk and country standards. Lotus Ensemble blends classical Asian music with jazz, Appalachian, and other traditions. Toronto-based Samba Squad drops a rap atop the drumbeat. I've heard Japanese kodo drummers and Cuban Salsa musicians, didgeridoo players from the Australian bush and African bands from Montreal. East Indian sacred music blends with North American gospel. The same year heard the Afro-Caribbean-inspired rhythmic jigsaw of Bayuba Cante's South American/Cuban/Maltese/Germanic/Middle Eastern dance-fusion and the dreamlike sound of Yu Pin Chen's traditional Chinese yangqin.
In 2003, 65-year-old Petrona Martinez proves a highlight, playing highly-danceable Columbian Bullerengue, a musical style developed in the past by shut-in pregnant women. I do not know where else I would have heard that.
A woman in motley overalls rises up and begins dancing, barefoot. She soon finds herself joined by couples in love and women in sarongs, young mothers with their children and teenage girls with low-slung shorts. My wife and I sit with a couple and their two daughters; the woman wistfully complains that the girls have grown too old to dance with their mother on the grass.
Some musicians have worked with translators to speak to the audience. Yu Ping Chen tries her halting, new tongue. With elegant voice she apologies because she fears her "English sucks."
The vendors' rent helps pay the bills and they become part of the attraction; a lot of people really like looking through rainsticks and didgeridoos, Tolkienesque goblets and patent eyeglass holders, saris, tie-dyed underwear, and bikini bottoms from Bali.
Ten Thousand Villages always runs a large tent; they are a non-profit, non-government organization that sells third world handcrafts made from sustainable resources to first world consumers at prices which run at least half of what the same goods cost in trendy stores. One finds there a beguiling range of woodwind and percussion instruments, among other wares.
My youthful sidekick has one of those temporary tattoos, a cat suggestively placed just above her waistline. She's saving for a real one; an artist friend is designing a one-of- a-kind Titania. "You know what I like?" she asks. "You can find, like, these amazing crafts, and then right beside them, the tackiest stuff." Painted ocarinas and hand-made drums coexist with velvet Harley paintings and celebrity posters. We've been browsing the crafts but she's drawn now to a dealer of the other sort, to an image of Angelina Jolie.
I want to buy her something to commemorate her first real, full-time job, but she's already got an Angelina poster. She expresses an interest in a lacquer box further down. It's reduced in price; the dealer explains it's "hurricane-damaged" from the night before, but we can't find anything wrong with it.
"The storm just blew in and the tables along this row overturned. We were chasing down our merchandise...."
With the possible exception of Oceania, every region of the world has been represented at the food stands. People eat samosa and french fries, Jamaican Jerk Chicken and pakora, anticucho and Thai fried noodle, pizza and goat's meat patties, Vietnamese spring rolls and samboosak. I'm especially fond of the people who have been selling East Indian food since the start of the festival-- or, at least, of their food. They recognize me now.
I'm sitting in the grass, still tasting the hot spice of Indian cuisine. Huun-Huur-Tu from Tannu Tuva perform traditional throat-singing. Although their presentation has been influenced by more recent musical genres, the style remains deeply traditional, rooted in Tuvan animism and the interest in presenting the natural world through imitative sound.
During a latter number I put my head back and close my eyes; when I awake I'm staring into the visual lattice-work of the old elm, which seems to stretch forever upward, ashen branches and green leaves. Squirrels pass to and fro above me like travelers on a Hugo Gernsback freeway.
A thousand secondary things become entangled with the festival. Kids climb atop the Holy Roller, a World War II tank that rests in the park, to get a better view of the northern stage. Someone places a waterbottle in the hand of the symbolic woman who adorns the monument to veterans of the Boer War. Four owners of husky puppies, coming from separate directions, converge. Local character Bill Paul, clad in his town crier outfit, paints children's faces, clowns and cats and spider-man mimics. Two little girls, black and blonde, dressed in nearly-identical little outfits, peruse tribal carvings, oblivious to the photographer who sees either heavy symbolism or a possible sale to Benetton.
The event sometimes overlaps with London's Gay Pride events. One year, the parade falls on the closing Sunday of Sunfest, and its route runs along the park. A counter-march has been planned by a tiny group having the audacity to call themselves Straight Pride. Their signs nearly all sport specifically anti-gay slogans, which I've never regarded as intrinsic to pride in heterosexuality.
The two marches cross directly in front of London watering hole Joe Kool's, conveniently near the park. The bar is hosting a beach volleyball tournament on their patio (now occupied by Jim Bob Ray's)
The Kool loudspeakers blare YMCA as a bunch of inebriated jocks begin performing the traditional dance. The leader of the countermarch wears a hardhat, to protect himself against assaults that do not, in fact, come to pass. He succeeds in looking uncomfortably like one of the Village People.
Although ostensibly unconnected, this event becomes part of the Sunfest legend, owing to the sheer number of patrons who by this point have lined up streetside.
Sunfest has grown larger with each year, bringing people together.