On beautiful Friday evenings in July, there's nowhere I'd rather be than with you in Mel Lastman Square. For more than 10 years, it's been my joy to be there on those nights, satisfying my creative urges by bringing you the unusual concoction of music, busking, film and food known as the Cultura Festival.
This year, after a two-year Covid-induced hiatus, Cultura is back with our strongest-ever roster of performers, programmed by four outstanding local arts organizations. It kicks off July 8 with the Tirgan Festival, followed by Toronto Downtown Jazz (July 15), Uma Nota Culture (July 22), and Small World Music (July 29).
You'll be able to experience four nights of exceptional performances. In your neighbourhood. For free.
After two years in which we were unable to come together to let the arts nourish our souls, presenting partner North York Arts and I were determined to offer you a very special experience. Starting up again hasn't been easy, but it forced us to partially reinvent ourselves. In a good way.
Each evening kicks off at 6:00 near Yonge St. with a performance by our main busker. A series of other musical and busking performances also take place on the top part of the Square until 8:00, when the action shifts to the main stage at the lower level for our headline musical performance - a combination of great international acts on tour and some of our best Toronto talent.
At 9:00, it's time for the main busker performance in front of the stage, including Toronto's best acts, such as Nemesis (violinist Dr. Draw paired with beat boxer Scott Jackson) on Week 2 and perennial Cultura crowd favourite Brant "The Fire Guy" Mathews on Week 3.
Each evening closes with a feature film, starting around 9:30.
Throughout the evening – from before 6:00 until 10:00, you can buy small delicious meals from Willowdale's FLIP Kitchens vendors. We'll also have ice cream and churros for sale.
Staging an arts festival is certainly not part of my job description. It arose out of my indignation, one morning in 2009, at looking out my office window and seeing a City truck stored in the Square. Nobody was using the space anyway, staff explained, so the truck wasn't bothering anyone.
But having a public square used that way did bother me, so the next day I took out a permit and started Cultura. Had I known how complicated it was to put on a festival, I might never have started.
Luckily, I learned by trial and error. After a shaky start – a first year in which I booked the same musical headliner two weeks in a row because I got a better price that way - several people who did know what they were doing volunteered to help. World music expert Derek Andrews started picking the main stage acts. "The Fire Guy" began booking the buskers – something he later turned into a successful business.
And North York Arts, which I'd had a hand in creating, came on board to handle sponsorship, contracts, and the logistics of running a festival which, as it evolved, became increasingly more complex to stage. This year in particular, l could not have restarted Cultura without NYA.
Sadly, Cultura's most ambitious year may also be its last. It costs well over $100,000 to bring you the festival - not counting the volunteer time that I, North York Arts, and others contribute. A lot of people think Cultura is put on by the City. It isn't, but confusion over that has perhaps made it more difficult to find sponsors.
Over the years, we've been supported by a large number of community-minded businesses and a few individuals, but as sponsors drop out they are increasingly difficult to replace.
For now, though, I'm focussed only on making this year's Cultura the best it can be. I'll be sending out emails each week with that Friday's full lineup. And you can find information on our website, which will be updated as everything is finalized.
I'm looking forward to seeing you there.