They Are the World

Winter 2020

Mervon Mehta ’81 creates cultural harmony with Kuné

Mervon Mehta headshot
Photo by Nicola Betts

It’s 1978, and stage right in Brehmer Theater, Mervon Mehta ’81 delivers an impassioned monologue as Jeff Douglas from the musical Brigadoon

Four decades later, he was back, this time center stage to introduce his project, Kuné, Canada’s Global Orchestra.

Reverberating sounds from the West African djembe drums married tunes from a Métis fiddle; other world instruments joined in to create a one-of-a-kind performance for the Colgate community on Nov. 17. Meaning “together” in the language Esperanto, Kuné was organized in 2017 by Mehta, who’s now executive director of performing arts at the Royal Conservatory. 

He’d been ruminating on the idea for years, so when it came time to honor Canada at its sesquicentennial, Mehta seized the opportunity. He auditioned more than 150 musicians for a dozen spots in the band.

“I found that there were so many brilliant musicians living in Toronto who came from all over the place, but they were ghettoized in playing for their own communities,” he says. “We have an Iranian tar player, and she’d be playing Iranian weddings in hotel ballrooms, but not for the mainstream audience or in the bigger venues. She didn’t have the infrastructure, she didn’t have the resources.” 

Mehta decided to get those resources. With government grants and private donations, he put together a band “that represents the four corners of the world.” A sampling of that group: a sitar player from Pakistan, a Cuban-born saxophonist, and a Chinese flutist. Each wrote a song representing his or her background and, together for months, they prepared for a one-time performance at the conservatory. “We were going to celebrate the sesquicentennial and say, ‘Thank you very much,’” Mehta says.  

One night with a packed house turned into months of events and celebrations. Then came a record deal with Universal and a multi-city tour, including a stop at Colgate. The success was thrilling for both the group and Mehta, who wanted his idea to come to fruition for a more personal reason. 

His father, the famed conductor Zubin, and his mother, soprano Carmen Lasky, emigrated to Montreal in 1962, when Mervon was just 2 years old. Zubin, in particular, received backlash, because it wasn’t the norm to have a person of color as the high-profile music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. “I always grew up with a sense of being very much Canadian, but also being very much an immigrant from an immigrant family,” Mervon says. He wanted to convey that experience, and the Canadian people’s many others, to celebrate the diverse backgrounds and life experiences of the Great White North.  

If the applause in Brehmer Theater was any indication, he has.