By Michael BarclayIt’s 2.30 on a humid Friday morning, Trinity Bellwoods Park in the heart of Toronto. Seventy people gather around a shadow show, listening to three musical saws emanate ghostly sounds while a frail singer bows his banjo. It’s followed by a bizarre performance by seven men in loincloths playing recorders, jaw harps and bowls. The clandestine performance closes with two droning acoustic guitarists singing of "wyrd visions.” Their attempts to fade out a song by walking away are thwarted when the entire audience follows them. This is Torontopia.
It’s a hot summer night by the water, Harbourfront Centre. Thousands of people from across the cultural spectrum have come to pay homage to a bunch of old Jamaican guys who ruled the soul scene on the Yonge Street strip back in the ’60s; nowadays they’re all retired barbers. But for one night, at a free show before a fervent crowd, they are the toast of the town, finally getting overdue recognition from a city that’s ready to celebrate its own. This is Torontopia.
The Hidden Cameras play the main stage at Guelph’s Hillside Festival in front of thousands of people. The band that started as more of a Queen Street art project has not only survived, but prospered and evolved. They now tour the world, and their fourth full-length is getting an international release on Broken Social Scene’s Arts and Crafts label. Today’s line-up features original members and people they met yesterday, along with veteran Gentleman Reg, newcomer Laura Barrett, all of Torontopian advocates Republic of Safety, and most of young upstarts Spiral Beach, not to mention the founder of the activist Public Space Committee. This is Torontopia.
Three years ago, in the midst of the city’s current cultural renaissance, the term "Torontopia” started appearing on posters, on flyers, in blogs and song titles. What began as a sly wink in the indie music scene soon evolved into a genuine philosophy applied to larger civic engagement. Torontopia was/is about re-imagining your city, creating new models, forging new communities, building sustainable institutions, celebrating diversity. It’s not foolish enough to boast of a perfect society; it relishes the imperfections, the mundane, the everyday, and in the process inspires art that could be either ephemeral or epic — or both, in the case of its most mainstream manifestation, Broken Social Scene.
Katarina Collins is a vocal Torontopia champion, who knew nothing of the Toronto music scene when she was asked by Steve Kado to join the Barcelona Pavilion in 2001, a band that epitomised the city’s newfound DIY spirit and fondness for conceptual art.
"To me, it seemed that Toronto was this wonderland of fantastic creativity,” says Collins. "Everyone was so open to new ideas and so positive, so interested in collaborating and being productive and active. The term Torontopia seemed like a fantastic shorthand for all the things I had been experiencing. It really signified this new attitude I had about the city, which was not in fact a utopia, but it had the potential to be whatever any of us wanted to mould it into.”
Steve Kado is credited with popularising the term, but he didn’t invent it. Kado heard it from someone he met playing Fototag — along with Manhunt, a popular game that has helped Torontopians re-engage with their urban space. "This guy whose name I forget had this idea for a hilarious magazine called Torontopia. It would be about how awesome Toronto was, but it would be about really boring stuff. It would be based on Japanese magazines that freak out about ‘stuff,’ about the corner of Grace and Dundas or something, which has a church and a convenience store and nothing else.”
Kado put the term on a show poster and it took off from there. "The way people talked about Torontopia wasn’t in purely musical terms,” says Republic of Safety’s Jonny Dovercourt. "We talked about how one lives in the city, your personal relationship to where you’re from as an artist and a citizen. It becomes more universal in that sense, and not something that only musicians can take a lesson from.”
Naturally, the term’s geo-centrism is somewhat troublesome — especially when Kado recorded, compiled and released the 2004 compilation Toronto is the Best! Torontonians have always been terrified of expressing pride in their city in case someone else in Canada takes offence. But the city you love to hate finally grew tired of self-loathing. No one in the rest of Canada wants to think of Toronto as any kind of underdog, but that’s how Kado felt in the face of the city’s reputation.