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Divine vocalizations

By LI ROBBINS Special to The Globe and Mail Friday, March 26, 2004 - Page R10

Global Divas: International Celebration of Women and Song

At Kool Haus

In Toronto on Wednesday

Define diva. The choices are few -- either she's an operatic prima donna or a sultry singer of torch songs. Or perhaps an arrogant temperamental shrew. The "global" divas performing on Wednesday night added another shade of meaning, based on origins of the word, the Latin divus meaning divine.

These divas, performing at a fundraising gala for St. Stephen's Community House in Toronto, looked divine and sang divinely, in a setting not necessarily calculated to bring out the best in a musician. Each had about three songs in which to unleash her musical best, with minimal pregame rehearsal.

Unleash they did, starting with Suba Sankaran, who has an endearing way with both South Indian music and jazz. The latter featured Sankaran the scat singer, possessing a startlingly pure upper register never hinted at in her husky-voiced South Indian material.

Brazilian-born Monica Freire was up next. Singing music shaped by Bahia, the Brazilian state where Africa's musical footprint is most pronounced, Freire's performance was all velvety voice, marvellous percussive vocalizing, and a stage presence that was one part sweet, one part sensual.

One of the most anticipated performers in the lineup was Caridad Cruz, relative of the late Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. Based on this Canadian debut performance, Caridad Cruz seems well on her way to royal status herself, with a warm ocean of a voice that ignited the "house band," Jane Bunnett's Spirits of Havana. (Who proved that, along with their leader, they are also the spirits of any number of other capital cities, supporting each singer's material with deft, empathetic backing.)

Although most of these Canadian-based divas have immigration tales, Oumou Soumare probably has come the farthest, culturally speaking -- her journey taking her from Mali to Moncton. Soumare's grace and voice are perfectly suited to the compelling groove of her music, a groove the band slipped into part way through one number that sounded like a Malian take on South African township jive crossed with Thelonious Monk.

Catarina Cardeal followed Soumare with fado and fado-influenced Portuguese song, moving from jaunty to emotion-drenched, all sung in a supple, commanding voice. An equally strong performer rounded out the evening, the award-winning Haitian-born Emeline Michel. Her voice can move from earthy to operatic -- and did. Michel also spoke of the troubles in her birthplace, and performed one piece she described as a reminder that what ties people together is love.

What tied these six disparate singers together was a notable degree of talent and professionalism (and great outfits). Perhaps love as well, for in the end all singers returned to the stage for one final cross-cultural jam. Fitting for a "global" diva.


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