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August 14, 2000

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The king of mix 'n' match

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Firdaus Ali

His name is a collage of cultures and his music follows suit.

Cyrus Sundar Singh, a local musician from Toronto is named after Cyrus, the king of Persia, and Sundar Singh, a popular Indian folk hero. And, if you've got used to Bhangra fusion, tablatronics and techno rap, it still takes time to get used to Cyrus, whose music crosses borders of cultures, bringing a very south Asian beat to the west.

He has composed music for the Canadian film that won the Genie Award, Moving Day, and the Emmy award-winning Twisted Sheets. He performed along with the likes of Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan -- nephews of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan -- at a four-day music festival held at Toronto's Harbour Front Centre from August 10-13.

Entitled Rhythms of the World, intended to, and did, provide an aural adventure for music lovers offering ethnic diversity in sounds, instrumental workshops, films, drum circles, dance, theatre and food and is Toronto's signature event for music aficionados.

Cyrus has won critical acclaim for his unique style of music, best described as poetic images, utopian sentiments, global perspectives, shivery melodies and more.

"I am a story-teller. I spin a lyric and build tales for a living, adding beats to it along the way," he says. And this could take him from reggae to pop to tablatronics, even classical devotional music.

"I take to any form of music that serves as an expression. An expression of love, solitude, belonging but more importantly something that stirs the inner you," he says.

He says he was initially inspired by the music of Jim Reeves.

"I am as cool as he is," says Cyrus with a smile. But these, days critics take to fondly describing him as, "a Cat Stevens meets Bob Marley meets Ravi Shankar." In reality, Cyrus is a Generation X artiste reluctant to be branded. A singer, composer and songwriter, his music can be best described as an organic mix of guitar-driven topsy-tabla pop.

Born and raised in Madras, Cyrus came to Canada along with immigrating parents. He remembers the sounds of the bylanes in Madras, sounds that have stayed with him for over the years and are subconsciously merged with western beats in his album now.

"I also remember the smell of fish and jasmine in the small lanes of Madras," reminisces Cyrus who links colour, ceremony and food with the Great East. He still remembers one pivotal night, while watching a late show he saw Bob Marley and the Wailers for the first time. Hearing a style of music he'd never come across before with Marley singing about a shantytown in Jamaica transported him back to Madras. Hooked onto the easy soft-flowing rhythm and well-meaning words, Marley's music left an indelible impact and Cyrus' music changed forever.

Music to him is not a job or a nine-to-five routine; "It's something that comes easily to me. It promises to take me to places I had never been to. Places that were new and alluring," says Cyrus.

Naturally then, his musical journeys have taken him to India, USA and the UK. Besides music, Cyrus has the urge to dabble with films too. He recently won the second annual National Film Board Reel Diversity Competition which got him CA $ 100,000 to direct a documentary to be produced by the NFB.

He is currently busy directing the documentary, Film Club 2000.

"I was in grade six or seven when some friends got together and made a film, Ohh, Canada , a series of vignettes of Canadian culturalism seen from a child's point of view.

The present documentary takes off from there and tracing those same kids some 25 years later and finding out if they have blended into and now belong into what is popularly called to the Canadian mosaic.

But back to music, his first love. His recent solo music album, 'From Sun to Star,' has haunting lyrics, relying on the guitar and, to some extent, the sitar and the tabla.

The intrinsic back-up voices make it all the more appealing and one can describe the album as a true-vintage pop album. The album is distributed as an independent label at local music stores across Canada.

"This itself is an achievement for any music artiste, considering the fund restrictions," says Cyrus, who has been on the Canadian music scene for over a decade. He was 11 years old, when his family migrated to Canada. "I knew that I go into music even when I was six to seven years old. I am the first to take to music and it is not a family heirloom," he says.

He took to the accordion at an early age but it was the guitar that entranced it. Other than a few classical lessons he is self-taught and learnt most of his stuff on the streets. As a teenager, he experimented with different instruments and jammed with the kids of the blue-collared neighbourhood. He even put together a band with fellow "outcastes" and performed for local clubs. This was to be a punk-rock band and he later shifted to a reggae band called Sunforce.

"I often did odd-jobs as music did not pay too well and often had no time for rehearsals. So it was almost always a spontaneous show up on stage. Either you hit rock bottom or you grooved," says Cyrus.

His parents did not understand his form of music, which was neither western nor the popular Hindi pop. But they were supportive.

"Today, they can't see me doing anything else but my kind of music," smiles Cyrus. Moving away from previous bands and preferring to do it solo, Cyrus has developed a unique form of music called the Happy Fish, a sitar-like sound created on the electronic guitar, with the tabla and mridangam accompanying. He introduced this style at the 1994 Rhythms of the World Festival, turning the show into a live album that he put out independently.

Over the years Cyrus has acquired his signature style, which he refers to as "pop. Contemporary pop". And he is happy playing his music, singing and composing and getting compared to Cat Stevens and Bob Marley while at it.

"These are my gods. And, these are definitely good gods to be compared with."

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