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Toronto artists get set to enchant Games

Pan Am Games 2015

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I was trying to make sense of the things I was doing, getting in trouble at school and the things going on in my community; people were dying."Mustafa The Poet

By Francine Buchner

As Toronto gears up to host the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in the summer, two African Canadian artists are busy developing their commissioned works for PANAMANIA, the cultural arm of the Games.

Mustafa Ahmad, widely known as Mustafa The Poet, and Nicole Brooks, a composer, will feature their commissioned works in the multidisciplinary performing arts program showcasing the rich cultures of Canada, the Caribbean and the Americas.



Recognizing that her younger brother, Mustafa, was having trouble communicating what his eyes were seeing, his ears were hearing, and his heart was telling him in his Regent Park community, Namarig started to introduce different means of communications to him.

“I was trying to make sense of the things I was doing, getting in trouble at school and the things going on in my community; people were dying. All you know is what you’re surrounded by,” says Mustafa in an interview with the Black Pages.

The children in his Regent Park community were dying – literally – and others, like him, were dying figuratively.

His sister was 20 years old then and Mustafa only 10. She called him to write paragraphs but there was no response.

She made a similar effort with comics, since she was a good illustrator and they could chart out situations, the choices in those settings, the final outcomes of the options – success or fatality – but there was still no response.

Namariq tried poetry, and to Mustafa’s surprise, he responded back in poetry.

“I was able to create my own perspective; have my own voice. I felt like this was me,” says Mustafa.

He admits that leaving his comfort zone and showing his raw emotions while reading poetry, in those early days, in front of his sister, was not easy for him. “It was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been. Because for me, it also came from a place [of discovering self].”

Mustafa credits the mentorship of his sister for ensuring that he did not choose the wrong path in life. “When mentorship is done properly, it can change your life,” he says.

Mustafa is the son of Sudanese immigrant parents and says there is a lot of love in his family, but emotions of love, happiness, anger, frustration and fear are not expressed, especially on a world stage.

“It’s about giving myself some self-worth. No one is asking the youth their opinion. Sometimes it’s not them, they are a victim of circumstances,” says the poet whose poetry has garnered the attention of singer, Nelly Furtado, and author, Margaret Atwood, with whom he has shared the stage. He has also performed in Manhattan, New York and across Toronto.

Mustafa is currently working on a poem about risk and imagination. It is about taking the risk of putting your dreams into the air, “people may laugh, but it’s important to be living on the edge if you are to live to your full potential,” he says.

The poem is also about the ability to stretch and allow the power of the mind to achieve, whether it is that Pan Am Games world record or a thought that produces a world-class poem. “Remain open. Keep your mind open and allow it to inspire you.” 

He is also working on another poem about pain and anxiety, “how we are losing touch with each other and nature,” says the 18-year-old poet who has exploded onto the world stage and is making a name for himself.



Obeah Opera was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Musical Opera in 2012, but it is not finished, says Nicole Brooks, creator, composer/playwright, librettist and performer.

“My ancestors won’t rest, my spirit won’t rest until it’s done,” explains Brooks who has been working on this production since 2009.

It started out as a 10-minute piece, then in 2012, a two-act 90-minute piece and by the summer of 2015 Obeah Opera will have its world-premiere at the Games.

Brooks went “underground” in May of 2013, worked on her vision for the production some more and when she re-surfaced, she pitched it to TO2015, organizers of the international event, who bought her pitch and commissioned her to stage it.

She connected her pitch to the themes of the Games – the connection of water (the Caribbean Sea of the Atlantic Ocean) and the 41 countries that will be participating in the Games.

“I’m writing a Caribbean story placed in an American town,” says Brooks, noting that oftentimes stories about Black African slaves do not look at the slavery of the Caribbean people and their distribution to the Americas.

Obeah Opera is the story of the legendary Salem Witch Trials, from the unique perspective of enslaved African women. Tituba, the protagonist, struggles to save Salem’s young girls from the ravages of Puritanism. Tituba’s ancient African spiritual practice draws accusations of witchcraft from the reverend’s wife, Elizabeth Parris. Ultimately, Tituba must choose between preserving her spirituality or her life.

The musical asks the questions, who were the Caribbean peoples of today before Christianity and what were they doing?

 “Any cultural practice was beaten out of us. I’m not making a judgment to say obeah is good or bad. I’m just saying it is,” says Brooks, “a lot of my people don’t want to come out and see a play called, “obeah.””

Brooks asserts further that knowing the medicinal ways to use plants and herbs is in the Caribbean peoples’ DNA. “It’s what we know inherently. Who said its bad? You’re basing it on what you see in Hollywood. There are two sides to every story.”

The title, Obeah Opera, is also metaphorical in that “obeah” relates to the Caribbean and “opera” to the European.

 “It is the meeting of the two worlds,” says Brooks, and the musical genres that you will experience range from spirituals, calypsos, Caribbean folk, and tango.

For this production, Brooks tried a new successful process of singing the music she envisioned/heard into a microphone from which, her musical director, Andrew Craig, was able to translate and write the music for it.           

The 2015 Pan Am Games runs from July 10 to 26 and the Parapan Am Games from August 7 to 14.

In Spring 2015, tickets and schedule information for the performances will be available on the website.


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