July 1, 2020
Mercedes Caxaj, Co-artistic Director of one of Canada’s largest world music festivals, speaks to Last Draft’s Hillary Watson about how she is navigating her way through a pandemic and a civil right’s movement.
Sunfest is “not just a festival.” As one of the country’s largest world music festivals, Sunfest aims to present diversity, be an educational platform, promote inclusivity, and above all, bridge the gaps that exist between the City of London and the culture that lives there.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with the co-artistic director and vendor coordinator of a festival that I, myself, grew up with as a 90’s child born and raised in London, Ontario.
Memories of warm summer days, dancing through rain or shine, tasting delicious food that I had never tried before, and hearing bands for the first time that I continue to love decades later — this is my experience of Sunfest. The event began as a festival in 1994 but started before that as an organization: London Committee for Cross Cultural Arts in 1989.
Mercedes Caxaj, daughter of festival founder Alfredo Caxaj, grew up with Sunfest in a much more immersive way. “It’s funny because it doesn’t matter where my personal life leads me, I always come back to it, it’s always my anchor. I’ve never missed a single edition. Even at the very first one, I think I was like seven or eight, I was still going around with the donation box.”
The festival began as a desire to showcase or “mirror the diversity” of cultures that existed and still exist in London today.
According to a census conducted in 2011, just over a fifth of London’s population are people who have emigrated to Canada. This does not include first- or second-generation citizens that maintain close ties to their culture.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger vehicle to bridge people together than music and art,” Mercedes insists. Today, the organization hosts multiple live music and art events that continue to educate Londoners and out-of-town attendees about music and culture that is often underrepresented. The event also works to show how much we can learn from human connection.
“In every single culture, there’s art, there’s music. So that’s a commonality that we all share. There’s always a rhythm, a beat that we can all relate to,” Mercedes continues. Sunfest creates an environment that celebrates the diversity that exists on stage, at the vendor booths stocked with food and art, and, of course, in the audience.
There’s a reason Sunfest is an award-winning festival. It has become one of the largest festivals in London attracting more than 225,000 people to the annual summer event that is free to attend. And while London is known for being a regional centre of education and healthcare, it is certainly not known for being at the forefront of cultural inclusivity.
But the Caxaj family sees the diversity that exists here. And they want others to see it too.
Creating safe spaces of inclusion and expression is something that is always important and always necessary. However, as the Black Lives Matter movement returned to international headlines and continues to explode across social media, this conversation is now on the tip of many people’s tongues.
“I’ve had a really tough time this past weekend,” Mercedes shares. “It comes with a lot of emotion behind it. It’s always been there. We’ve always been yelling it from the rooftops, but no one’s been listening. And so for me, that brings a lot of frustration.” Mercedes continues, expressing her fear around the longevity of this movement maintaining its place in the forefront of our minds as well as sharing frustration with the fresh eyes on a topic that many voices have been speaking to (and have subsequently been quieted around) for far too long,
The world is currently in upheaval as we move through protests, re-evaluation of systems and laws, learning about our own internalized biases, all in the midst of a pandemic. The music industry is not removed from this upheaval. Sunfest, as the vibrant outdoor festival we know, is not occurring in person for the first time in 26 years. We are in a time where we both look to creativity for innovation and help in finding answers, as well as being a way we can work through some of the chaos we’re feeling. “Art is what’s keeping us sane right now,” Mercedes states.
We talk about what this all means for the future of music. How do we learn, how do we rebuild? Is there hope? Mercedes says we will have to work together to find a solution.
“There’s just so many questions. There are so many ifs. I think in the end we just have to be creative. Just have this mutual understanding that we’re all struggling together.” She feels that we are currently in a kind of limbo, “like we’re all just kind of floating.”
No one knows what the new normal is going to look like. How do we innovate and create new opportunities out of challenging situations while still maintaining accessibility?
“I’m in a position of privilege right now because I’m talking to you on an iPad with a high-speed internet connection. Like that’s amazing! But not everybody’s in that position right now. So that’s what I think is one of the biggest barriers for the live music industry right now.”
Replacing in-person access to live music with online streaming options is not accessible to people who don’t have a computer or an internet connection. Especially with a lack of spaces open to the public offering access to free WIFI. Mercedes told me that this is something the Sunfest committee has been putting a lot of thought into. This adds to the many barriers that Sunfest (and Mercedes) face on an annual basis, including financial, acceptance, and advocating for a culturally diverse event as a person of colour in a city that hasn’t historically advocated for its marginalized residents.
Running for a quarter of a century, Sunfest continues to be at the forefront of culturally supportive initiatives in London. This is an obvious testament to the hope for an inclusive future that exists. One in which diverse residents can loudly celebrate the beautiful mosaic of cultures that coexist in London.
Last Draft Inc. describes itself as a story company. We believe that stories are all around us, influencing almost all aspects of our lives. In reference to this, I asked Mercedes if she sees the work that Sunfest is doing as sharing stories. She spoke to the way that Sunfest aims to provide a stage for stories told by the underrepresented.
“I think we’re relaying stories of happiness, of sadness, of political turmoil, of everything, because [the people on stage] are influenced by everything in their surroundings.”
Mercedes says Sunfest wants to create a platform where all perspectives have a place and are respected, and it’s not always easy to provide that balance. She told me of a Palestinian band taking the stage at Sunfest and resulting with a question of whether Sunfest has room for politics.
“In the end there is room. If that’s what influenced their music, if that’s what’s influencing their message… there’s room. We by no means want to promote hate or divide or anything like that, but simply they’re telling their side of the story.” She went on to say, “I think there will always be contradictory arguments to each other or perhaps just differing views, but the music and art component will continue to be how Sunfest can really bring people together. That’s telling each other people’s stories, you know what I mean? That’s showing people’s stories.”
And as for what can come out of this period of upheaval and turmoil for the music industry?
“I’m hoping that it’ll maybe get the creative juices flowing. I have a feeling that really amazing music is going to come in the next couple of years.” It seems that at the end of the day, music and community is what can be the light at the end of the tunnel. Sunfest is a hub for both of those things. Sunfest aims to be a home for everyone. It aims to be so much more than just a festival. “Whatever way you want to interpret the festival, go for it. I hope it’s positive. I think people come, they discover, they learn”.
Sunfest just announced the 26th edition of the world music and jazz festival as a two-day online, live-streamed event taking place July 10 and 11 and featuring 15 national and international music acts. The live-stream will take place on Sunfest’s YouTube and Facebook pages.
Illustrator behind Last Draft’s instagram art and organizer of the music video series, Living Room Sessions. Member of London-based group The Pairs.