Filimone Mabjaia is one of the biggest champions of artistic diversity Hamilton has at its disposal — but that doesn’t mean he was immune to the perils of being a shortsighted teenager.

His father was a musician, and often prodded his young son to learn the music of his native Mozambique. But he refused, clinging to the western songs that resonated with his friends at the time.

'This is the kind of music that will take you on an adventure.' - Filimone Mabjaia, Matapa executive director

“But as you grow, you ask yourself — who are you? You want to find out where you really come from,” Mabjaia told CBC Hamilton. He soon opened himself to the sounds of the Southeastern African republic through father’s playing, and found a love for music — both as art for art’s sake, and as a tool to bring people together.

Fast-forward to 2010, and Mabjaia moved to Hamilton to be with his wife, who is a PhD student at McMaster University. “I fell in love with Hamilton,” he said. “The vibe, the possibilities and the energy.”

But he saw a gap in the city’s vibrant art scene. “And it was for world music.”

While learning the intricacies of a new country, Mabjaia created Matapa, a nonprofit music and arts company that has been organizing world music concerts in Hamilton for just over two years.

Hedging bets on a new festival

“There is this empty space for world music, and there are people who want to fill it and connect with their ethnicity,” he said. “I don’t want to have to go to Toronto to see world music.”

Matapa has hosted a host of successful world music acts in the city, like Wazimbo from Mozambique, Cheri Maracle from Six Nations and Trinity Mpho from Botswana. Now, Mabjaia is expanding his scope, and creating the Hamilton World Music Festival, which will run for three days this July at Gage Park. The hope is the festival can make inroads with the city’s burgeoning festival scene and promote Hamilton as a vibrant cultural city that hosts music and arts from around the globe.

The festival lineup won’t be announced until next month, but Mabjaia promises a large cross section of artists from many ethnicities performing. That sort of widespread offering can be jarring for those who aren’t used to a multitude of musical styles, he says.

That’s the thing about music — for as much as it has the ability to bring communities together, people tend to gravitate to what they know and grew up with. Popular western music tends to stick pretty rigidly to major and minor tonal options and 4/4 and 3/4 time signature variations — which is a far cry from Indian music with its undulating time signatures or Arabic music’s quarter tones.

Going on an adventure

Those kinds of intricacies might seem jarring to Western ears, Mabjaia says. “But just open your mind. You might feel like they’re out of time, but they’re not out of time. You might feel like they’re out of tune, but they’re not out of tune.”

“This is the kind of music that will take you on an adventure.”

Matapa and the festival haven’t yet received any help from the city in their endeavour, save for Coun. Brian McHattie, Mabjaia says. Instead, they’re pushing forward with support from groups like the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion and the Immigrant Cultural Association.

Supercrawl, by contrast, received $60,000 in municipal funding in 2013. The Festival of Friends was set to receive an $85,270 grant before Coun. Brad Clark moved Thursday to withhold the money until the city got full financial statements.

Mabjaia says he isn't expecting that kind of funding as an unproven entity, but does think it's difficult for immigrants to get their start within the city's arts community at the outset, he says.

But as council has officially approved the concept of Hamilton being a sanctuary city — which means undocumented immigrants can access city services without fear of being questioned on their immigration status – the diversity of the city’s music scene also needs to grow to accurately reflect Hamilton’s diverse population, Mabjaia says.

“There is just so much talent here,” he said. “And with the right ideas, the world can see Hamilton as a hub for music and art.”