Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 12, No. 3, 2013
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Louis René Beres
Lynda Renée
Betsy L. Chunko
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors Serge Gamache
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward





© Chantal Levesque

There is nothing quite like Montreal’s Festival International Nuits d’Afrique music festival, now in its 27th year. It gathers together an ear-bending multiplicity of music without ever betraying the spirit and continent that is Africa.

For many years now, the festival has been a sounding board for an Africa © Chantal Levesquethat has absorbed influences from around the world and in turn has significantly influenced music outside its borders. But this year, Frédéric Kervadec, who programs the international concerts, wanted to get back to the source of sounds that are synonymous with the Sahara, and encourage the listener to accomodate music that makes its permanent home in the minor scale. The interval and permutations are strange and it's tough going, but for those who stay the course and follow the "shadow of the sun," they will discover that what is non-negotiable in tribal music is its authenticity, that its piercing sounds and lulling rhythms play by their own rules, which is a direct issue of the conditions of life and the imagination in response.

The opening concert appropriately featured Hasna El Becharia, who specializes in gnawa music, which combines the spiritual and celebratory (wedding). © Chantal LevesqueHasna, a descendent of ancient slaves, was born in the southern desert region of Algeria . Her raspy, dirt “too tough” voice is chiseled and chipped out of broken rock and sand. She began her long career on the gumbri, but now plays the electric guitar to be better heard by larger crowds who come from far to pay homage to this living legend. Where the womenfolk are traditionally in the shadow of their men, simply playing guitar makes her a revolutionary figure and a role model ‘extraordinaire’ for her gender.

From Ethiopia, the Krar Collective introduced audiences to the unique pitch of the krar. In shape, it resembles a miniature lyre and is tuned (pentatonically) to the black keys of the piano. Its shortened strings produce a sharp, penetrating sound, as if to awaken the world to the fate of Eritreans, too many of whom are born on the wrong side of the distribution curve.

In the memorable Caravan of Peace concert, which featured the Mali group Tartit, three women were seated playing percussion while the men performed on stringed instruments.© Chantal Levesque As with the Krar Collective, the music is based on a single unvarying harmonic and the songs are long. As such, the ever restless western ear is likely to be dismissive of sequences of notes that repeat endlessly, despite the mesmerizing weave of complex rhythms that erupt out of its palpitating core.

Approaching desert or tribal music from the binary of either liking it or not is to completely miss the point, and is where the musical tourist shows himself bereft of both imagination and empathy.

The question to be asked of any music is what causes it to come into being? We already know in advance that Touareg music isn’t composed to be entered into prime-time TV competitions or top the charts. Like the all important fire at night, village music enjoys a status that is equal to its precious herbal medicines, and every time it plays it asks: do you have enough of yourself left over to catch on to and connect to that one note -- and then ride it for as long and far as you can, because when the day breaks and the music stops it’s back to calloused feet and another long day in the fields of iniquity. The concept of alt-music is a joke for a people who out of necessity must create short-lived alternative worlds in order to temporarily stay the real one. Tartit’s third song of the evening, instinctively conceived in 13/12 time, was nothing less than a revelation, its hypnotic tempo serving as a gateway to a better place.

Fast forwarding to the present, Abou Diarra made a compelling case that the kamale ngoni (first cousin of the kora), which usually sets the emotional tone for the other instruments, doesn’t have to default to its traditional healing and calming character. In a rhythm and blues context, Diarra made his ngoni sound like a digitally spiked lead guitar, pinching and snapping his long runs and bursts of single notes to great effect.© Chantal Levesque His was a rousing concert and a festival highlight.

As usual, Nuits d’Afrique doesn’t come into its own until the last four days, when it moves outside into the open air for free shows which begin in the early afternoon and run well into the evening. Taking place in the city center (Quartier des Spectacles), both immigrants and indigens converge on the African food stands, percussion jams and the now famous Timbuktu market place; it is a feast for the senses. Walking from the main stage to the market, one passes ten shades of skin colour and a Joyce N'sana © Robert J. Lewisthrong of languages and dares to ask why it can't be like this everywhere everyday on the planet.

Among the highlights from the outdoor shows was the emergence of Joyce N’sana, originally from the Congo. She’s got a voice that can splinter glass and put it together again with a whisper, and enough melancholy in her quotidian to kickstart a career that is already out of the blocks.

If it’s the goal of every group to float its audience on the music it creates, H’Sao (Tchad), all of whom are highly competent musicians, created their effects through complex, syncopated counterpoint that for good measure was ripped and flipped such that you weren’t sure if you were ahead or behind the beat, but you were left feeling giddy and that was better than good. Entered into the mix were timely infusions of sophisticated vocal harmony that weaved their way in and out of the melodies. H'Sao's original music nibbled at the fringes of pop, Tchad-gospel, jazz and reggae, but with a edge all to its own.

The final indoor concert was brilliantly conceived and executed by Aziz Sahmaoui and his stellar University of Gnawa band. Sahmaoui, who plays both the traditional ngoni and guitar, and used to play with the late and legendary founder of the group Weather Report (Joe Zawinul), forges the feel of gnawa, the Mahgreb, jazz and even strains of Freddy Mercury in the fires of his awesome creation. A typical Sahmaoui song begins quietly, almost inaudibly, as if it’s coming from the basement of a Mosque, his plucky ngoni evoking the ghost (the god) of Farid al-Atrach, and then, imperceptibly, some of the minor notes slip into their majors, and before the ear has adjusted, Sahmaoui has already shifted centuries and performed a musical time-warp, all within and around a profusion of counter rhythms that provide the frenzied background for the very deliberate and exquisitely lyrical guitar solos of Hervé Samb. The incantatory chanting that © Chantal Levesqueperiodically breaks into song keeps the work grounded, but it’s rendered in impeccable four-part harmony that tantalizes the ear like mint tea on a dry tongue. At some epiphanic moment during the concert, you realize that you are listening to music unlike anything you’ve ever heard and that your rapture and gratitude are one love.

We learn from Aziz Sahmaoui, that fusion, as it was originally intended in the McLaughlin-Shakti tradition, best renews itself when different cultures and borders meet and intermingle, and that the once much ballyhooed rock-jazz concept is for the most part a dead horse that no whipping can revive.

If humility is born in anguish, Nuits d’Afrique teaches us that music has no center, that no country (slick marketing notwithstanding) has a monopoly on its inspiration and production, and that music speaks in many tongues, most of which we don’t understand. Nuits is therefore an opportunity to make ourselves available to this musical polyglot, and for the serious music listener to resolve to attend, if only once in his life, the festival in its entirety, because whatever music means or can mean, by the time the last note has been played, it will mean that much more – and then some.

So until 2014 and 28th edition, here’s to the music and the gods that create it and to making ourselves better listeners.

© Chantal Levesque

© Chantal Levesque

© Chantal Levesque

© Chantal Levesque

Photos © Chantal Levesque
Joyce N'Sana © Robert J. Lewis

2012 Nuit d'Afrique
Nuit d'Afrique
Nuit d'Afrique
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