Jews, Africans and Muslims unite through music

Denise Williams (Amina Abena Alfred photo)

Piggybacking off the success of her black and Jewish concerts, Toronto-based soprano Denise Williams is bringing together talent from the Jewish, African and Muslim communities, to present an evening of song, dance and art.

Walk Together Children: A Cross-Cultural Concert Celebration will take place on Oct. 14 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts and will feature “songs of joy, longing, inspiration and humour in many languages.” It will be headlined by Williams, who was born in Antigua and has forged a musical career spanning three decades.

Williams told The CJN that her experience as a soprano soloist in the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir in the early 1990s, as well as the controversy that surrounded the 1993 production of the musical Show Boat, inspired her to organize cross-cultural concerts for the black and Jewish communities in 1995 and 2005.

She said that during her stint with the Jewish choir, she learned that, like some Afrocentric diasporas, Jews have a long history of feeling like they didn’t have a home.

“I was identifying with certain aspects of the culture that spoke of longing, that spoke of home displacement a little bit,” Williams said. “They were living on borrowed territory and adopting things, and then moving and adopting.”

When a petition began circulating in 1993 over a production of Show Boat because of its racially sensitive content, Williams felt that, “There’s this great piece of music. Yeah, the composers were Jewish … and some people felt they were making a lot of money on our culture and our cultural oppression, and asking, ‘Where are we?’ But I felt for the first time in Toronto, many black people can get lead roles.”

Williams felt that the disparity between the two cultures was “preposterous,” and thought there were many reasons the two communities should unite, “especially stemming from the civil rights movement back in the ’50s … when a lot of Jewish people were marching right there.”

Williams subsequently put on a number of concerts that brought together black and Jewish musicians. After meeting Salima Dhanani, co-director of an Ismaili Muslim choir, she decided to put on a show that would bring Muslim culture and music into the fold.

Joining Williams and Dhanani’s Muslim choir will be pianists Brahm Goldhamer and Nina Shapilsky, percussionists Sam Donkoh and Daniel Barnes, as well as winds player Ben MacDonald. Guests include tenor Mitch Smolkin, sitar player and composer Anwar Khurshid, tabla player Jaswinder Sraa, pianist Babak Naseri and dancers Shakeil Rollock and Geneviève Beaulieu. Canada’s First Nations will also be represented by singer/songwriter Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone.


“I have a piece called Between Darkness and Light and it includes Hebrew, Arabic and English. It was a Jewish person who composed the piece … it brings a feeling of peace and harmony,” Williams said. “I’m putting it together with a song called Woyaya, which is an Africa song by Osibisa. Woyaya is saying: We are going. We don’t know how we’re getting there, but we’re going to get there.”

Williams added that one of the performers, Babak Naseri, composed a piece for her that reflects his Persian descent. Initially, Williams was nervous about whether she’d be able to sing that genre of music and whether it would be well-received by the Muslim community.

“The people themselves had no issues with the fact that I had to begin to learn about the background of the culture, and they were very welcoming and saying, ‘We’re so pleased and honoured that you’re doing this,’ ” Williams said.


Tickets are $55 (or $30 for children, students, seniors and freelance artists) and are on sale at all Civic Theatres Toronto box offices and via Ticketmaster.