Traveling The World Without Leaving The Room - The Experience Of Cultural Mosaic
On October 13th, 2018, Autumn was in full force. The sky was gray, and the weather in Toronto was cold and windy. But in Studio N, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. Studio N is a small, charming theatre, located in North York, and on this night, it served as the stage for the Cultural Mosaic, which commemorated the sixth anniversary of Club Et Cetera. Club Et Cetera is a community organization founded by Vita Shtivelman, aimed at bringing arts and sciences together, and a year and a half ago, it also launched its first Cultural Mosaic event. While Club Et Cetera itself is primarily comprised of members from the Russian community in Toronto, the purpose of the Cultural Mosaic is to open its doors to people from other communities, to bring different cultures together to educate and entertain each other. It is Vita’s strong belief that learning about other cultures can help preserve their rich histories all the while unifying people and encouraging diversity. Last year, the first Cultural Mosaic was held in Spring in commemoration of Victory Day (a Russian holiday that celebrates World War II veterans, not to be confused with the Canadian Victoria Day), and featured an artist who performed in six different languages. Since then, there have been several Cultural Mosaic events, which manifested themselves in various forms, including a casual cabaret, a feature in a rock festival, and Canada Day celebrations held at the Rogers Center.
The most recent event was a balanced combination of musical performances and spoken word presentations. The atmosphere was casual and friendly. Guests were invited to bring a food item for a potluck, which resulted in a literal smorgasbord at the front of the auditorium. The potluck itself was a cultural mosaic of sorts, containing cuisines from many different cultures, including Russian, Jewish, Georgian, Mediterranean, and Korean.
The event started with the potluck itself. As the audience members and performers alike lined up to sample the various foods, it seemed like no dish was left neglected. The people were fully in the spirit of the event, enthusiastic about tasting the different dishes, even unfamiliar ones. The potluck was accompanied by a video reel of various musical performances from all around the world, projected onto the screen at the back of the stage.
The show commenced with a musical performance by Sofia Leslie, a young songstress represented by Rocking Youth Production. She performed Derniere Danse, a French song, originally by Indila. Although Sofia is only 10 years old, she displayed professional quality stage presence and musical skill, and served as a strong opener for the event.
The second performer of the evening was Inga Spatari. She spoke about her own life, being born and growing up in Moldova, and pursuing Chinese medicine as a career by moving to China for 8 years. She spoke about the various cultural intricacies of China and how they differ from most Western cultures, and about the places she had visited. She led a truly fascinating life, well worth sharing.
Elena Melnikova, an author and poet, followed, with a short story reading. She read a story about immigration, told from the perspective of a child in a large family. It was relatable to anyone who has ever had to uproot in hopes of finding a better life elsewhere.
Roufat Amiraliev took the stage next and spoke about his love of Azerbaijani music, talking about its history, its influences, and its evolution. His enthusiastic lecture was followed by a live demonstration as he performed a musical piece on his violin, delighting the audience with his virtuosic skill and leaving them wanting more.
Semon Safro followed, with a passionate presentation on Georgian culture. He is a sociologist, linguist and translator, who has lived in Georgia for 17 years. With the aid of the projector, he showcased the paintings of the Georgian artist, Niko Pirosmani, and his influence on Georgian art history. Semon also recited two poems, one of them in Georgian, Russian, and English. He concluded his presentation with an upbeat music video which showcased Georgia’s beautiful landscape.
The event continued with a musical performance by Irena Litchou, who performed a rendition of Melancholie, a Romanian song originally performed by Sofia Rotaru. Irena beckoned audience participation, and those who were familiar with the song happily obliged and sang along.
The next presenter was Marina Dessiatkina, a documentary filmmaker who showcased two projects and talked about how they led her to connect to people of different cultures. One is a documentary film called Dream Big | Lucy Loizzo, about an Italian baker who managed to open a successful business in Canada. Her other project is an upcoming film about life in Kyrgyzstan. Marina spoke very passionately about the Italian and Kyrgyz cultures and the kinship she found among these people, despite being of Eastern Russian origin herself.
The headliner of the event was a musical set, performed by the Javorovy Ludzi ensemble - a choral septet performing folk songs from Belarus. The set included A Cappella performances, as well as numbers accompanied by a pre-recorded backing track. The choir performed masterfully, but the undisputed highlight of their performance was when they handed out percussive instruments to the audience and got them to participate by playing along to the rhythm, while the ensemble did the singing. In a truly appropriate manner for the Cultural Mosaic, these percussion instruments were from all corners of the world. They included common instruments, such as tambourines and shakers, but among them were some very interesting pieces. One was a croaking frog guiro, an instrument from Thailand, shaped like a frog with a serrated surface that, when scraped with a wooden stick, is meant to mimic croaking. Another interesting instrument from the lot was a den-den daiko, a Japanese pellet drum. The audience seemed to really enjoy this portion of the show, since it required no knowledge of words or melodies, just a basic sense of rhythm. Even those whose rhythm wasn’t quite perfect didn’t detract from the song or the overall experience. It was a truly universal moment of cultural unity.
Once all the performances concluded, there was a small award ceremony, which awarded the youngest performer, the tastiest potluck contributions, the best performance, the best traditional garb, and an award to the person who brought the most guests with them. These weren’t mere accolades either, and the winners took home a variety of prizes, such as concert tickets and photo sessions.
Although the presenters and performers were almost entirely Russian or Russian speaking, the ultimate goal of the Cultural Mosaic is to have an entirely diverse cast of participants from all around the world. Vita Shtivelman has expressed the difficulty of reaching out to other communities, since most ethnic communities in Toronto tend to keep to themselves. However, this isn’t going to stop her from continuing the pursuit of true cultural enlightenment, and striving for the diversification of the event in the coming years.
If the Cultural Mosaic, in its current state, is considered to be primarily a Russian event, what I saw this evening was very clear evidence that the Russian community in Toronto is actively interested in learning and experiencing the arts, traditions, and customs of cultures from all around the world. It is an active invitation extended to other communities in Toronto. The goal isn’t to dissolve all foreign communities into one big melting pot; it is simply to have one recurring event where we take the opportunity to learn about one another through education and entertainment.