The 2006 Toronto Street Festival and Afrofest

So many festivals to choose from, so little time….. This weekend Toronto had so many special events to offer, there simply wasn’t enough time to attend them all. Here are just a few samples of some of the major events offered on the July 7 to 9 weekend:

– Afrofest, a celebration of African culture, located at Queen’s Park
– The Bud Light Beats, Breaks & Culture ,Toronto’s Electronic Music Festival at Harbourfront Centre
– Italian food and lots of live music at the Corso Italia Toronto Fiesta
– Toronto’s best known theatre festival: the Fringe of Toronto Theatre Festival
– High-speed high-octane fun at the Molson Grand Prix of Toronto at Exhibition Place
– The Canada Dry Festival of Fireworks at Ontario Place
– The Taste of Lawrence Festival on Lawrence Street East, and
– The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition features more than 500 artists at Nathan Phillips Square.

The number of choices is virtually endless and with limited time it’s sometimes difficult to choose which event to attend. I had a few hours today and decided to hop on my bike to check out the Celebrate Toronto Street Festival, and if there was any time left over I would also drop by at Afrofest.

Equipped with my camera and a big backpack I cycled in through Toronto’s ravine and park system. On my way in I was able to almost completely avoid regular roads and enjoy the serenity of some of Toronto’s many nature areas. In Sunnybrook Park huge groups of people were unloading entire regular-sized barbecues from their minivans for a day in the park. Through the tranquil tree-framed streets of Leaside I made my way west to finally arrive on Yonge Street, just north of Eglinton.


I love it: Toronto invites you to “walk on the grass”

It wasn’t quite noon yet and the big street party hadn’t yet fully gotten off the ground. A variety of rides were set up for kids and slowly but surely lineups started to form in front of each high-adrenaline attraction. Various restaurants had set up booths featuring samples of their menu at reasonable prices and a big concert stage would showcase a variety of talent throughout the day.


The rides are getting underway

I stopped at the Fit One booth which was going to hold a cheerleading competition at 12 noon. An emcee picked out three moms and three dads from the crowd. The moms were going to rehearse the Fit One Cheer, while the men were learning a brief sequence of dance steps that would be judged by the growing audience. The three men gave it their best and the winning contestant added a few additional flashy dance steps to his performance and definitely managed to charm the crowd.

Then the ladies came on the stage and they got to perform their cheer as a group and then individually. Again, the winner would win a prize for their performance. With the amateur portion of this contest complete, two young men and a young women came on to show off their acrobatic cheerleading act. The two guys kept twirling the girl around, lifting her up so she would stand upright on their hands. They had had several years of training for this performance.


Acrobatics at the Fitness One stage

It was time for me to move on, and as I pushed my bike on the sidewalk, I saw three generously proportioned “ladies” doing poses and hamming it up. At one point one of them fell over with her legs up in the air, and an audience member was asked to join in to help her up. I am not quite sure if they were indeed ladies, but the members of “Cie Colbok: “Niki” have been enchanting crowds at street festivals in France, Germany, Spain, Great Britain and many more with their flirtatious clowning around.


“Cie Colbok – Niki” are clowning around

My ride on Yonge Street, usually one of Toronto’s busiest streets, was extremely peaceful and tranquil since the majority of motorists had decided to avoid the Yonge Street corridor altogether due to the street closures of the Celebrate Toronto Street Festival. It’s a strangely empowering feeling cycling down one of Toronto’s main thoroughfares without having to worry about getting pushed off by sometimes inconsiderate drivers.


The “drumheads”, Ela Lamblin and Leah Mann

St. Clair was the next festival location and the Scotiabank Big Band Stage was going to feature a variety of jazz, big band and even operetta music. I happened upon the highly unusual and innovative performance of “Lelavision”, composed of Ela Lamblin and Leah Mann – two musicians and performance artists from Seattle. When I arrived they were wearing drums on their heads, hips and knees and were performing a playful drumming act with one another. Shortly after they pulled out an instrument called the “Violcano”, a cone-shaped metal drum equipped with strings, apparently a mixture between a viola and a volcano. The two artists played the instrument with strings, plucked it and even climbed in and out of it, adding an element of physical acrobatics to this unusual way of producing music.


Full-body music by Lelavision

Finally, they played the “Longwave”, a horizontal harp with strings that are not plucked but brushed with gloved hands. Some of the music even sounded like Irish folk music and the polyphonic harmonies were very pleasing to the ear. This innovative combination of music, unusual instruments, dance and physical performance was highly extraordinary yet extremely aesthetic, and Lelavision attracted a sizeable crowd of fans who stayed behind after the performance to chat and find out more about this unique art form.

Inspired from this creative performance I got hungry and rode a bit further south along Yonge Street until I landed at the Scotiabank Jazz Café that featured a sitting area with tables, followed by a variety of restaurant booths that were providing samples of their cuisine. I ordered a butter chicken with basmati rice from the Bombay Bhel restaurant and sat down to listen for a few minutes to the pleasant sounds of the Donna Barber Trio. I joined a retired gentleman at a table, who looked at my bike and started a pleasant conversation about biking in the city. We both agreed that Toronto offers superb biking opportunities all throughout the city. After almost 50 years of marriage his wife had passed away last year, but he has been working on adjusting to his new life and likes to come out and enjoy Toronto’s outdoor festivals and events. Just recently he had attended a free outdoor performance of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Harbourfront. After I had finished my lunch he said goodbye since he was going to catch a performance at the Big Band Stage.


Improvsied comedy by the Monkey Toast Players

My next stop was at the “Comedy Stop”, at a stage featuring the “Monkey Toast Players”: Lisa Merchant (of “Train 48” fame), David Shore (an instructor at the Second City Training Centre) and Carolyn Taylor (a Second City alumna). Together with several other performers they make up an award-winning group of standup comedians that performs regularly at the Drake Hotel. Today they were performing a variety of improvised sketches that involved various elements of audience participation. For one sketch two audience members had to come on stage and finish the comedians’ sentence on cue. For another sketch two audience members got to move the comedians’ limbs and bodies to provide the physical backdrop to the conversation. Finally, audience members got to choose a location which would fit on the stage (“New York City”, I guess if you try hard enough NYC will fit on the stage after all) and they had written down a variety of phrases that the comedians had to integrate into their performance which featured a scene involving a hot dog vendor in New York City. The show was very much along the lines of “Whose Line Is This Anyway?” and the crew’s improvisational talents were quite impressive.


Afrofest – a big lawn party for everyone…

Now it was time to cycle further south so I went past Bloor Street, where the sidewalks on the east and west side of Yonge Street really started to fill up with regular shoppers and weekend revelers. I went west on Wellesley until I hit my final destination: Queen’s Park, which was hosting “Afrofest”, Toronto’s celebration of African culture and music. The festival is in its 18th year and is now officially North America’s largest and longest running African music festival. The audience was very colourful and virtually every ethnic group in Toronto was represented in the audience somewhere.


Enchanting the crowd on stilts

A big stage was designated for the feature performers and several other areas were set up for drummers and other musicians. A multitude of booths was selling African clothing, arts and crafts, and a big area was dedicated to children that featured dance performances and a variety of arts activities for children. Young ones were receiving body paintings and a huge food court served a variety of tasty African and Caribbean delicacies. I had a chat with several women from Congo who were sitting together peeling and cutting plantains. Right next door several young girls who originally came from Zambia and were selling their local delicacies at a stand. The crowd had spread out their blankets on the lawn and the festival was truly an event for the whole family.


Body art

By about 4 pm it was time for me to head home and I started cycling east on the Danforth. Traffic was fairly light, I guess many people were glued to their television screens to watch the Soccer World Cup finals between France and Italy. Sure enough, at about 4:30 pm I started to hear horns honking, people screaming with joy and crowds streaming out of some of the cafes and bars on the eastern part of the Danforth: Italy had won the World Cup!!!!! Hundreds of people were coming out into the street, cheering, chanting “Italy” and waving flags.

Proof after all, that Toronto’s vibrant multicultural mosaic is alive and well, and everyone is invited to party….


Italy won!!!

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