Countless Journeys

Visionaries Past & Present – Yousuf Karsh & Dinuk Wijeratne

Episode Summary

Season 3 of Countless Journeys from the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 celebrates the contributions of Canadian immigrants to the performing and visual arts. We begin with a celebration of the life and work of legendary photographer Yousuf Karsh. Karsh was 13 years old when his family fled the Armenian Genocide, escaping to Syria. Two years later, his family sent Karsh, alone, to Halifax, where he was met by an uncle who brought him to his home in Sherbrooke Quebec. Karsh’s life story, from refugee to world-class photographer, unfolds, along with more than 100 of his portraits, in a wonderful exhibit featured at the Canadian Museum of Immigration, The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence. We speak with Dr. Hilliard Goldfarb, who is senior curator emeritus with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the lead curator of the exhibit. “By the time of his closing the studio in Ottawa in 1993, he had literally photographed most of the famous people in the world: Churchill, Castro, Trudeau, Khrushchev, Jacqueline and John Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, Einstein, Picasso,” says Goldfarb. And Dinuk Wijeratne is a Juno award winning composer and performer whose music blurs boundaries and shakes up traditional approaches to classical music. Born in Sri Lanka, raised in Dubai, Dinuk came to Canada in 2004 after landing a job with Symphony Nova Scotia. Dinuk has performed on the biggest stages, like Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Centre and the Opera Bastille, alongside musical luminaries like Yo Yo Ma and Zakir Hussain. Dinuk Wijeratne speaks with host Paolo Pietropaolo about his life and musical journey, and his devotion to eliminating barriers in the world of classical music. “Classical music has a very traditional past, it has a very centralised past, but I firmly believe that it should be accessible to everyone. I think that everyone, every single artist who says they engage with classical music should feel totally free to express and explore their own identity.”

Episode Transcription




The human impulse to create art is powerful. You could even say it’s more than impulse. It’s a need. And it’s evident in every culture across time.

Whether through words, music, painting, sculpture, dance…

All of these art forms stir ideas and emotions, engage the personal and the political, and offer the possibility to bring people together.  Or to drive us apart.

I’m Paolo Pietropaolo, and on this season of Countless Journeys you’ll have a chance to get to know some of the incredibly talented artists in the creative and performing arts who also happen to be immigrants to Canada.

People like Yousuf Karsh, who fled the Armenian Genocide with his family in 1922, when he was 13 years old. 

Karsh landed in Halifax, alone, two years later.

He would go on to become one of the most famous and influential photographers of the 20th Century.

Hilliard Goldfarb

By the time of his closing the studio in Ottawa in 1993, he had literally photographed most of the famous people in the world.

Churchill, Castro, Trudeau, Khrushchev, Jacqueline and John Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, Einstein, Picasso.


That’s Hilliard Goldfarb, senior curator emeritus with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Goldfarb  curated a wonderful exhibit of Karsh’s photographs that is currently being hosted by The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. 


And this beautiful music that you’re hearing is called “Homecoming”.  It was composed by Dinuk Wijeratne for the Canadian Museum of Immigration back in 2015, to commemorate the Museum’s official re-opening. 

Dinuk is a Juno award winning composer and performer whose music blurs boundaries and shakes up traditional approaches to classical music.

Dinuk Wijeratne

Classical music has a very traditional past, it has a very centralised past, but I firmly believe that it should be accessible to everyone.

I think that everyone, every single artist who says they engage with classical music should feel totally free to express and explore their own identity. 


Dinuk Wijeratne was born in Sri Lanka and now calls Ottawa home. And that’s where I caught up with him for our conversation.

All of that is up next, on Countless Journeys.






Earlier this spring the Canadian Museum of Immigration was honoured to welcome visitors to the opening of an exhibit celebrating the work of legendary photographer Yousuf Karsh.

It’s called The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence. It features over 100 of Karsh’s portraits, and the stories behind them, in Karsh’s own words.

Yousuf Karsh fled the Armenian Genocide with his family in 1922. They made their way to Aleppo, in Syria with nothing but the clothes on their backs.


Karsh’s mother had a brother in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and after saving their money for two years, the family was able to send one child to Canada. Yousuf arrived alone in Halifax.


The Museum of Immigration is not far from where Karsh landed, on the snowy night of January 1, 1924, at age 15. 


Dan Conlin is a curator at the Museum.


Dan Conlin


Karsh, like many refugees, had a very challenging voyage to, um, to Canada.


He arrivedall alone speaking no English, just Arabic and French, on New Year's day, 1924. And because he was alone and had very little money with him he was actually detained by immigration authorities who were suspicious of this minor without any money. For three days. And, um, it was only when his uncle Nakash arrived from  Sherbrooke to vouch for him that he was then released into his uncle's care. And could resume his journey to Canadian citizenship. 


In spite of that, uh, Karsh remembered for the rest of his life, the snowy streets of Halifax and his ride in a horse-drawn sleigh, which acted as the taxi to take him to the railway station in Halifax.


And he always thought the sound of the horse bells, the brightly lit, um, um, shop windows decorated for Christmas were an auspicious sign of his arrival and his beginning of a new life in Canada.



Exhibit curator Dr. Hilliard Goldfarb:


Hilliard Goldfarb

His uncle was a photographer, but a local, you know, a local photographer, and he gave him as a gift, a Brownie camera. And it was simply, you know, you turn the dial, you take the picture, no focussing and you send in the film. And they were very popular. 

And this was back in 1924-25. He was learning English. He was gaining friends in school, and one of his friends, without him knowing, had taken a landscape photograph, sent it in for a contest. He won first prize, which was $50, almost all of which he sent back to Aleppo. But his uncle sort of, so to speak, went "aha." 



Karsh’s Uncle Nakash knew a prominent Armenian photographer living in Boston. His name was John Garo. It’s said he looked like Mark Twain. Nakash sent young Yousuf to apprentice with Garo. And thus ended Karsh’s ambitions to practice medicine.


Karsh became enthralled with photography. Garo taught him about lighting and darkroom technique. But Garo also taught him something more important. Karsh later wrote, “Garo taught me to see, and to remember what I saw.”.


In 1931, Karsh left Boston and set up a studio in Ottawa. Why Ottawa? One of the reasons was the opportunity to photograph famous people who came through the capital.


He also joined a community theatre group... and that led to a fateful meeting.

Hilliard Goldfarb


He also was interested in theatrical lighting, and he met the son of the Governor General, who played, you know, all the young handsome male roles, Lord Bessborough. And through that son, he got to do the 1935 official portrait of Lord Bessborough, the Governor General. 


And then he got to meet Mackenzie King, photographing him with FDR in Quebec City in 1935. And King really took a shine to him, and got him the commissions that ultimately led to the photograph that changed his entire career.


The image of Winston Churchill.




You may have seen this photo. Churchill looks formidable. Pugnacious. Not happy. It’s a truly iconic image, and it has a great backstory. The Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was a champion of the young Karsh. King gave Karsh the chance to shoot a portrait of Winston Churchill. An amazing opportunity. The only trouble was... King hadn’t told Churchill. Here’s Dr. Goldfarb with the story:


Hilliard Goldfarb


Mackenzie King had him set up his lights and cameras in the speaker's office, OK? And this is 1941, the summer when he comes over to try to raise support for Great Britain. And during the war and before America's official entry. 


And he comes back and lo and behold, with. Churchill on his arm a few minutes later and Churchill had not been told there'd be a photograph. And he was not happy. He was extremely grumpy, in fact. And so they set him up. Nonetheless, he begrudgingly agrees, of course.He sets him up for the photograph. 


And Churchill is smoking a large cigar and so very politely, Karsh goes up to him with an ashtray, says please, sir. And he clearly indicates he's not going to remove the cigar. So Karsh went back, made some token gestures with the lens, raced up, pulled the cigar out of his mouth, went back and took the photograph while Churchill was still furious, fuming. 


And it came out as this magnificent image of showing formidable assertiveness and determination. 

Churchill, when he saw it, loved it. He actually photographed Churchill later on several occasions. And the photograph instantly went around the world, making this extraordinary reputation for Karsh. By 1943. He was already summoned, so to speak, to Britain, where he photographed King George VI as well as George Bernard Shaw and other leading literary and social figures in London.




The photographs featured in the exhibit are silver gelatin prints made by Karsh himself. Sharp, striking, with so much depth. They have so much more power than the tiny images we are used to looking at on our phones.


Photographers don’t necessarily do all their own printing. But these images are from the master’s own hand – exactly as he wanted them.


Dr. Goldfarb personally selected more than 100 prints for this show. They were all made by Karsh himself.


They were provided by his widow, Estrellita Karsh, who is in her 90s now and lives in Boston. 


Karsh wasn’t content to just photograph politicians and celebrities. He also photographed leaders of civil rights and anti-oppression movements. That makes sense, for someone whose early years were marked by persecution. 


Karsh’s images of  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela are instantly recognizable. 


There is a stunning portrait in the exhibit of trailblazing singer Portia White, a descendant of Black Loyalists who settled in Nova Scotia. White became the first world-renowned Black Canadian singer – and the first Canadian to sing at New York’s venerated Town Hall, back in 1944.


PP:                              Dan Conlin


Dan Conlin:


Karsh is of tremendous interest to us at the Canadian Museum at pier 21. His work and accomplishments are an outstanding example of immigrant contributions, you know, all that he gave to Canadian culture and world culture show you, a stunning example of what many immigrants contribute.


But also his experience as a refugee coming to Canada is very relevant to the challenges that refugees face today coming to Canada under dire circumstances, fleeing persecution all over the world.


And so we were delighted to be able to present Karsh’s's work and his story as a refugee, um, uh, uh, in partnership with the Montreal museum of fine arts in this terrific exhibit.



The Karsh exhibit in Halifax opened March 12, and runs until October 16, 2022.




This piece of music is called Homecoming. It’s by the Juno award winning composer Dinuk Wijeratne, Wijeratne refers to it as perhaps the most meaningful piece he’s ever written.

He wrote it for the official reopening of the Canadian Museum of Immigration in 2015, coincidentally the year Wijeratne became a Canadian citizen.

Dinuk was born in Sri Lanka, and raised in Dubai in a creative family environment. His mother was a ballet teacher, and his father could play a pretty good jazz piano. 

Dinuk has performed on the biggest stages, like Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Centre and the Opera Bastille, alongside musical luminaries like Yo Yo Ma and Zakir Hussain.

I spoke recently with Dinuk from Ottawa, where he is Artistic Director of the University of Ottawa Orchestra and Assistant Professor of Orchestral Studies. I began our conversation by asking him when he knew that music would be a big part of his life.


I had that sort of epiphany when I was 12 years old. And that was, I think the moment I decided I wanted music in my life was when I heard a piece -a piano concerto by Mozart. And, and I remember thinking this is just the most glorious thing I've ever heard and whatever it is, whatever this is, I just want, wanted to become closer to it, you know. 

But of course you, at that point, you don't know anything about the person who's writing it and you don't know where it's coming from.

You just hear it to sound, you know? Um, so I mean, that i would say it was some kind of spiritual experience before, before I knew anything about religion, but then all the other great discoveries about music were more sort of subtle, you know, there's a kind of organic, uh, move in a direction where you just think, oh, okay.

But I know I'm being trained in one kind of music, but I have all these sounds of, of, of, uh, south Asian and middle Eastern cultures in my ear. Um, how can I discover them? And that, that was a more gradual approach.


So your sound world, your, your music world was extremely rich and varied.


Very much so.

And, um, what I loved about growing up in Dubai was that while I was actually studying in Western schools and taking Western music classes, I was also, you know, early on I was studying mridangam, whichis a Indian south Indian percussion instrument. I was hearing Arabic music all around me. I was hearing Indian classical music Srilankan music, of course.

Um, and I think without having someone necessarily say, you should be listening to this or that, that ended up being very positive, you know, as opposed to someone, you know, really trying to curate your playlist for you. Um, I was just left to my own devices musically.


I'm trying to imagine what it was like for you to, to go to go through, you know, growing up in, in a big multicultural city, like Dubai to then going to study in a big multicultural city, like Manchester, and then going to study in a big multicultural city, like New York city.

And not that Halifax isn't multicultural. It is, but it's not quite as big as the others. So what was it like for you to arrive in a new country, new job? In Halifax.


It was, it was interesting. It was, um, a combination of very opposing things because on the one hand I was going from New York city and I was at this point, I considered myself a new Yorker and I would, you know, on the streets of Halifax, I would, I would cut people up and walk in a very rude way, right.

While the lovely people of Halifax. So smiling at me for no reason. Right and thinking, why is that person smiling at me? I don't know who they are and now it's the other way. Like I go to New York and I smile at people for no reason. Right. So, um, um, so, so on the one hand, it was this shift to us, uh, I would say, uh, a slower pace of life just in terms of a sort of city feel, which I appreciated.


Yeah. You come to a country like Canada and you, and you enter this world of classical music. Traditionally and still is predominantly white, um, as a conductor and as a composer, two fields in classical music, which are dominated by these revered dead white male figures.

What's that been like for you to come into that world as a Sri Lankan- born Canadian?


Yeah. Paolo, this is a great question. And that leads, this leads to a big discussion that everyone wants to have, you know, because. Classical music has a very traditional past, uh, it has a very centralised past, but I firmly believe that now it should be accessible to everyone.

And I think that everyone, every single artist who says they engage with classical music should feel totally free to express and explore their own identity. I have been lucky enough to do that. Just one example is, you know, a career- making piece for me was my 2011 Tabla Concerto, which was simply an idea I had where I just thought, you know, I'm in love with this instrument, which comes from south Asia.

And, um, I just thought, well, you know what? If this instrument can have a platform, um, And be showcased in dialogue with this other instrument that I love passionately, which is the Western classical symphony orchestra. And it just simply began with an idea like that. And I just thought, well, I was lucky enough that no one really stood in my way.

Just people wanted to find, help, find solutions to try and get the piece off the ground. And, you know, it's just one example of some kind of artistic product that one would come up with. If one just wants to tell a story, right? It's an autobiographical story. I'm, you know, I'm in love with the cultural exchange between east and west.

And, and I guess that is just one example of some kind of musical embodiment of that. And I just think now, you know, if I have been lucky enough to be able to tell that kind of story, think of how many other stories there that could be told through the lens of classical music and that, and that forum.


I wonder if you've had any encounters recently with younger musicians who are coming from non traditional classical music backgrounds.

I put it in quotation marks. Uh, have you, have you had an opportunity to, to, to share some of your experience with, with younger up and coming musicians like that?


I have, and you know, I really tried to empower them. I want them to feel that no one should be telling them how to find a way to tell their story using this medium.

You know, I think it is a wonderful media. I mean, we have to respect the tradition in the sense that we have to respect the fact that all of these great artists, Mozart included, you know, he's still a hero of mine. I hear his music, and I'm happy to hear it as sound as an expression of the human spirit.

And you know, it just happened, I think all of this music happened to come from, you could say it very sort of centralised place, but now it is spread across the world. And, the canvas is wide open for anyone to tell their story. I do my best to try and empower young artists to feel it is a blank canvas. It's just waiting for your ideas and you can use the same sounds that, uh, all of your, um, all of these past musicians have used.


That's a lovely analogy. I like that analogy. Uh, you mentioned your Tabla Concerto. I want to ask you about another piece of yours that we're gonna hear a little bit of in the podcast.

Homecoming, this wonderful piece that you composed in 2015 for the Canadian museum of immigration at pier 21 in Halifax, uh, you've called that piece, your most meaningful commission. Why was it so meaningful?


Yeah. And do you know, and this is in comparison to commissions, which have, which were for very large forces, very big pieces, you know, that took years and years, uh, to, to write.

Um, but this piece literally fits on two pages, right? It's a two page score, it's very, very simple, but it's so meaningful for me because the, because the, uh, the museum commissioned it, uh, for the opening and I think maybe two months after I had got my citizenship. So I think it was 2015. And so it was just, you know, that the timing was perfect and I really sort of poured my heart out into this piece and, um, it gets played a lot and I'm, I'm very, very fond of it.


Tell me about the piece. What do you want people to hear in it?


I am fascinated by how people define the word home because to some people it is defined by some kind of geographical coordinate. It could be, um, the place where your loved ones live. Uh, it could be a place that, uh, you know, you feel compelled to contribute to in a significant way.

But I think my definition is that home is actually some kind of ephemeral window into. You know, when I think about my childhood - and many places, I've called many places home -  but I'm aware that that window of time has passed. Right. And then I try to accept the, the beauty of this new window that I'm currently in, right at the present, knowing that that will change.

And, and I guess this is the way I look at it because I think it explains to me this sort of bittersweet quality that home has for everyone. You know, it's always a bittersweet thing. People won't say it's 100% happy or 100% sad. Somewhere in between deliciously in between. Right. And, but I'm quite happy to accept that there are so many definitions and I, I, maybe I'm writing these pieces just to get to the point where I get to speak to the audience and ask them what their ideas are, but it, um, I know that the notion of home is, is very provocative.


Do you ever grapple with nostalgia for your own previous definitions of home?


Yeah, but I think, and, and, you know, I think I had the kind of life where, um, I was sort of moving around a lot or rather there was always a feeling of transience. Right. And transience is something that is embedded in music.

I mean, you could argue that every musical moment is just a transition to get somewhere else. Totally. So, so in a sense, you know, if you are trying to be comfortable making music, you have to be actually ironically to be comfortable with being in transition all the time. You're always in motion. Um, and so, so I've, I guess I've tried to sort of reframe in that sense.

I try to look at it like, you know, enjoy the moment because it's always shapeshifting.


I want to ask you a bit about your definition, or understanding, your personal relationship to the idea of citizenship? Because a lot of people don't know that in the United Arab Emirates, non Emirati are unable to become citizens.

So you grew up in a place where you couldn't become a citizen. And now here, uh, years later you became a Canadian citizen, you wrote this piece of music. Can you walk me through your idea of what citizenship means to you?


Hmm. I wonder whether I would have different ways of answering that question depending on where I was, you know, maybe that maybe citizenship is relative to how we perceive freedom. Right. And of course it's a very sort of hot topic at the moment, but I think, you know, that, that's another thing. This dichotomy between freedom and structure is something which is also always in music, you know, and how we express ourselves as, as human beings we're always grappling with that.

But for me, yes, I grew up in a country where essentially, you know, it felt like home and as a child that really embraced it. And I was so in love with all of the influences that came my way, but at the same time, as I grew up with. As a teenager, I started to become aware of the fact that, yes, I didn't have a passport, you know, there was always this feeling of transience.

And so I had to get used to that. That was, that caused a certain kind of, uh, feeling. Um, and so I think it was very, very powerful for me to get citizenship here in 2015. And maybe I can't separate citizenship from artistic expression. Maybe it's just who I am. I think maybe I'm trying to put out into the world.

if I can do that with respect and, and be genuine and sincere, maybe that is a good form of citizenship. And I think, you know, because music is very interactive, you do collaborate with people, you do meet people.

And it has been a way for me to meet all kinds of people and exchange ideas. And that is an important aspect of citizenship. Trying to understand all the other stories around you and how you connect with other people.


You've called so many different places home. How do you present yourself to somebody?

How do you say this is who I am and where I'm from with, with such a varied story?


Well, first of all, it depends on how much time I have right. To tell the story. But as a quick snapshot, you know, I don't know here I am. I'm very happy to be Canadian now. I'm trying to be an artist and I'm trying to be a proficient musician and, and that is a lifelong journey.

So I, yeah, I guess that's my answer.


Well, in a way, in a way that's a great answer because how can you encapsulate? I love how you've described the act of engaging with music as, as giving you a way through those moments of grappling with identity and tension, do you think it's given you an edge? Is that a super power for you to have had all of that wonderful mix in your life? And then to, to be able to, to let it flow into your art?


I wouldn't call it a superpower, but I think, you know, it's an edge in the sense that I can't imagine people not having access to music or the arts. Um, so I just feel fortunate that I get to, um, Escape or understand different worlds through sound and I, and I would say the same if I watched a very provocative film, something inspiring or saw a painting from that was hundreds of years old.

I just can't imagine people not having that. Or, having access to that. And I think, you know, going back to this notion of educating people in the arts. And I think what you're doing is you're not trying to say, well, I'm not trying to create an army of professional artists. Not at all. I'm just trying to allow people greater access to something with a bit more understanding.

So, you know, that piece I heard when I was 12 I heard it first, purely intuitively, but the more you understand something, I think that the more depth there is.


Tell me a bit about your work with orchestras, Canada, what you do there and what you hope to achieve there.


Yes, at the moment, I'm very happy to be on the board of equity and diversity with orchestras, Canada. And, um, at the moment we're just, uh, trying to assess, you know, how. Um, create as many resources for the Canadian orchestral scene as possible in terms, in terms of how they can continue along on their journey of increasing, uh, diversity of artistic expression, uh, for everyone in the sector. 


How do, how can you achieve that? How does that look like?


As a pedagogue, um, I think going back to what I said before, I think the best I can do is to make young artists feel free enough and unhindered enough to be able to tell their story.

I've been blessed to be, I was very lucky. No one really got in my way, but I know that that's not the same for a lot of my colleagues. 

And, and no one should be telling them, “oh, well, you know, if you imagined this sound because you want to tell your story and music,” Well, I don't know. I don't think it's the right time. I mean, that's just complete rubbish, right? Like I said, the canvas is blank and it's ready for your story. 


I love that sentiment. I think for many people who grow up studying classical music, it can feel quite restrictive. And prescriptive, there is a way to be, and there are certain things that ought to be done in a certain way to do them. And, and, and hearing you speak about freedom to express your own story, whatever it may be, wherever you may be from, to me, that's a beautiful idea. The fact that you had that freedom is a wonderful thing  and that's great to see you share that with. 


Thank you. Well, I've been lucky to have it and I will keep trying to pass on that sentiment.


Do you think that that problem, and do you think that is still a problem in, in classical music that restrictive nature?


Of course, I think. And not just in classical music though, because I think, you know, as humans, um, you know, we love the art because art is this beautiful dance of patterns, right? We, we thrive on pattern recognition, right? And we say like, if, if there were no pattern recognition, you a composer couldn't do anything interesting with music, right. Or a painter couldn't do anything interesting on a canvas, but the patterns are a blessing and a curse because what the patterns do or rather what we do with the patterns is give us a pattern and we'll very easily become ingrained or set in our ways. 

And so in, in any industry, We risk seeing a pattern as something that should be done the way it's done right.

Or, or as it was done. Right. And so the question, the question is, can we always have fun with disrupting patterns, making interesting commentary on a tradition for the sake of freshness, you know, all of these things, um, that we are happy to label as traditions. I mean, they were innovative. So it's important to realise that in the arts, you know, we are always in motion. There is no such thing as a fixed point.

PP:  A lovely philosophy. Dinuk Wijeratne, thanks so much for speaking with me.

Dinuk:   Thank you Paolo.