Many of the genre-based Juno Award categories toil away in relative obscurity, far away from the bright spotlight occupied by the major stars showcased on the annual televised show. For nominees in these categories, however, a Juno win remains a major accomplishment, and a career-changing one.
That is certainly the case for Toronto-based nine-piece ensemble Okavango African Orchestra, who took home the Juno Award for World Music Album of the Year in Ottawa on Saturday night, for their self-titled debut release.
The group’s manager, booking agent and artistic director Nadine McNulty confirmed to FYI that the win will have a real impact. “Offers to perform are already starting to come in,” she explains. “We are hopeful that we can get enough dates and offers to organize a tour across Canada and abroad.
“We are hopeful that there will be increased media attention for both the group and also for other artists who perform global music, especially those of African heritage. “
Percussionist/vocalist Kofi Ackah notes that “the fact that we were nominated was already a great success and to be selected from these nominees for the award was huge!”
En route to Ottawa, the group performed three songs on the special Juno train from Ottawa. “That was so much fun and a great way to connect with other nominees who were on board,” says McNulty.
In an interview with Juno TV after their win on Saturday night, the band members wore beaming smiles, clearly relishing the moment. Vocalist and krar player Daniel Nebiat stated that “we can enjoy tonight, then on Monday I’ll be back at work, driving my taxi.”
That occupation helped bring Okavango African Orchestra major media attention back when the Juno nominations press conference was held in Toronto in February. A Toronto Star reporter hailed Nebiat’s cab after the event, then wrote a human interest piece about the fact that one of the musicians honoured there turned out to be her driver.
FYI interviewed McNulty there, and she explained the project. “The Orchestra represents nine countries in Africa, with 12 languages, representing 10 cultures. There are five composers in the group, and it took a year to work on all the songs together. I’m so proud of them.”
Orchestra member Tichaona Maredza recalls that “We had to learn how to get the instruments to work together, and once we figured that out we are very happy with how it turned out.”
McNulty has long been active on the Toronto world music scene through the Batuki Music Society, an incorporated non-profit community-based organization that promotes African music and art through performances. She is responsible for putting the group together, and she acted as executive producer of the album.
She knew and had worked with the musicians individually, and felt there would be potential in having these players begin to collaborate musically, combining their diverse musical backgrounds and varied instrumentation. That intuition has certainly paid off with Okavango African Orchestra’s Juno win.
The group comprises nine accomplished African-born musicians: Daniel Nebiat (krar, vocals-Eritrea), Tichaona Maredza (marimba, nyunga-nyunga, vocals-Zimbabwe), Donne Roberts (guitar, vocals-Madagascar), Kooshin (kaban, vocals-Somalia), Ebenezer Agyekum (bass-Ghana), Sadio Sissokho (kora, djembe, vocals-Senegal), Nicolas Simbananiye (vocals-Burundi), Aron Nitunga (guitar, vocals-Burundi) and Kofi Ackah (percussion-Ghana).
Their press bio states that “Okavango African Orchestra brings together the traditional music and instruments of several major African cultures that historically have had little or no interaction. The musicians have created a common meeting place for these disparate cultures, and a new musical language that harmonizes their different tuning systems, rhythms, and timbres.
"The musicians and instruments of Okavango represent a continuum of traditions and cultures from time immemorial to the present day. The multicultural spirit of modern-day Canada bridges ancient African solitudes. The ensemble looks ahead on its continuing journey to an “Africa without borders… before the borders were created."