Ken Whiteley is a unique performer in the Canadian music scene. The seven-time Juno Award nominee is at home in folk, blues, swing, jazz, jug band and many other musical genres, which have taken him to every major folk festival in the country. In many ways, Ken is a one-man folk festival. But it’s gospel music, which holds a special place in his heart.
Ken grew up going to the Presbyterian church, and in his 20s was part of an “intentional Christian community,” living on an organic farm. It was there he learned how gospel singing can bring a room full of people together and experience something that’s greater than themselves.
2004 saw the release of his live album, Gospel Music Makes Me Feel Alright, recorded at Hugh’s Room in Toronto, the site of many of his “gospel brunch” performances.
Ken’s latest album, So Glad I’m Here, is another album of spiritual songs, albeit with a twist. While at the Shivananda Yoga Ashram Retreat in the Bahamas for a devotional singing festival, Ken met Sufi musician Davod Azad from Iran. The two of them played some music together, hit it off and soon contemplated recording some music. Davod is a very well-known musician in Iran who plays the tar, which Ken describes as having a banjo-like quality, and the oud which is a fretless lute-like instrument.
As it turned out, Davod was going to be in Toronto for a concert so they arranged for him to arrive a couple of days ahead of time to do some recording. Along with George Koller on bass, they recorded a number of songs, without any practice beforehand.
“It was very freewheeling”, Ken said. “Sometimes we would do a song twice. That was a big concession on Davod’s part.”
In the end, they captured some magical moments, along with a few wonky ones, and that was it. Until the pandemic arrived. That gave Ken time to revisit the recordings and reduce an eight-minute song into a more manageable six minutes.
“I was able to edit out the funky bits and leave the little moments of magic.”
Once that was done Ken overdubbed some additional instruments, added the voices of Amoy and Cecil Levy — plus Sharon Riley — and finished things off with Bucky Berger and Iranian percussionist Nagmeh Farahmand. Some additional recording was done later in the Bahamas with Davod, and Ken’s son Ben.
So Glad I’m Here is a collection of Ken’s original songs, one of which was inspired by a poem by 13th Century Persian poet Rumi, and a number of traditional songs, like ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. Ken and Davod’s version of the song starts with what’s called the toxem, a free-form call and response, improvised introduction before launching into the heart of the song.
“It wasn’t hard to find a lot of common ground with Davod’s Iranian influences,” Ken said.
To celebrate the release of So Glad I’m Here, Ken assembled the players from the album at the new location of Hugh’s Room in Toronto’s east end. Davod was unable to take part so Ken enlisted the talents of the Toronto ensemble Jaffa Road plus Faith Chorale, lead by Sharon Riley. For Ken, the concert was an affirmation of the universal desire for peace and goodwill, even during these difficult times politically.
“In these times, to be singing about these universal themes, it was quite powerful. So I felt blessed to be a vehicle to allow that to happen,” he said.
Looking towards 2024, Ken has more gospel matinees scheduled for Hugh’s Room. While he would love to do some touring with Davod in support of So Glad I’m Here, it all depends on Davod’s very busy schedule.
“The whole spirit of this album is breaking down the barriers that separate us,” Ken said. “Barriers of religion, barriers of culture, and recognizing the common ground we share.”
For more on Ken Whiteley and So Glad I’m Here, go to https://www.kenwhiteley.com.