Launched in 1995, London, Ontario’s TD Sunfest is now one of the largest music festivals in Canada. Over 225,000 people – 25 per cent of them tourists – gather in Victoria Park for four days of world music performances, complemented by hundreds of culturally diverse food, craft and visual art exhibitors. 2014 marks Sunfest’s 20th Anniversary, with more than 35 renowned musical acts scheduled to perform, free to the public, on five stages from July 3rd through 6th. 

Thumb untitledTD Sunfest Artistic Director Alfredo Caxaj Speaks To Its Evolution

TD is pleased to have sponsored Sunfest for the past seven years. As the bank now marks a milestone of its own - 150 years of service to the London community – TD celebrates by also supporting Sunfest’s presentation of legendary Cuban band Los Van Van in an extended performance (Saturday July 5, 9-11p.m.). 

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Here, we speak with musician and Sunfest Artistic Director Alfredo Caxaj about the festival’s growth, and the evolution of London itself. 

TD LIVE MUSIC: Why is music so important to you? 

ALFREDO CAXAJ: I think that music, and art in general, is very powerful in bringing people together. That’s one of the greatest inspirations. Also, playing music is almost like mental therapy for me. I came from Guatemala as a political refugee with my wife and son in 1985. At that time, the country was in the midst of civil war. We left Guatemala one day, and arrived in London the next; you can imagine the cultural shock. Music was a way to acclimatize. 

How did you come to produce live music events in London?

As part of my work at the Cross Cultural Learner Centre in the early 1990s, I helped produce a number of visual art and poetry events, and was encouraged to also include music. We produced a series, featuring everything from Japanese taiko drummers to South Indian groups and salsa bands. I think this was initially quite shocking for people in London, but they seemed eager to digest this music. In 1995, I had the thought to also include a summer music festival that would showcase professional artists and the richness of different cultures. 

Did you have concerns about launching this initiative in a city not then known for cultural diversity? 

Absolutely. So many people said ‘You want to do this thing in London, Ontario?’ The predictions were that we would do it for one year and disappear. But even we were surprised. The reaction was so positive even though the festival launched on a very cold, rainy weekend. We had only one international act - a largely unknown Cuban band - but still had about 5,000 people over the course of three days.

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20 years later, what do you consider to be the festival’s biggest achievements? 

Sunfest is, I believe, the only World Music focused festival in Canada at this point in time. We’re proud of the numbers of people we attract, and the incredible artistic quality that we present, but one of the main principles in establishing a festival like this in London was to bring people together socially. Sunfest brings together people from all walks of life, from all levels of economic and social status, and of all ages. 

How do you maintain Sunfest as a free festival? 

One of the main sources of income for us is the fees that all of the food and crafts vendors pay. With almost 
300 exhibitors, we have one of the largest markets of food, arts, crafts and artifacts of any festival. The food has become one of the main attractions because there are so many communities here that don’t necessarily have their own restaurants. 

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On that note, what changes or growth have you noticed in London’s population? 

London is so diverse now. One of the fastest growing communities is Latin American, but we have also seen an incredible growth in communities from Africa, a lot of people from the Middle East, and many from Bosnia. There is no question that London has changed, and is continuing to.

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Sunfest’s 20th anniversary programming is incredibly diverse. Please share some highlights. 

This year, with the support from TD, we are able to present the popular Cuban band Los Van Van for their first time at the festival. Also coming from Cuba is 
Conjunto Chappottin Y Sus Estrellas. They are an iconic group of generations, and apparently this is their first North American tour during 58 years of existence. Another act from the Latin diaspora is Plena Libre, a first class group from Puerto Rico.Mokoomba is an exciting new band of six young musicians from Zimbabwe. They’re a real World Music sensation, mixing traditional music with contemporary sounds like hip-hop. One of the most exciting groups for me personally is Escalandrum, from Argentina. Their leader is the grandson of Ástor Piazzolla. They are coming to Canada to play only two events – the Montreal Jazz Festival and Sunfest. 

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Le Vent du Nord

We also consistently present a lot of music from Quebec. This time, we have Le Vent Du Nord, a popular group in French Quebecois music, as well as Sagapool. We’re excited about bringing Lorraine Klaasen for her first time in London, and young groups such as Vox Sambou

And then we also have festival favourites 
Delhi 2 Dublin and Five Alarm Funk, among others. When you look at the lineup, there is something for everyone. The whole world comes to London during our global village.