Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 13, No. 3, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Nancy Snipper
Louis René Beres
Daniel Charchuk
Lynda Renée
Nick Catalano
Farzana Hassan
Betsy L. Chunko
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
  Music Editors
Nancy Snipper
Serge Gamache
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
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



photography: HANNA DONATO



It is with enormous emotion and respect
that I have chosen to dedicate this 28th annual festival
to the late Nelson Mandela.
Lamine Touré, President & Founder

Now in its 28th year, Montreal’s Festival International Nuits d’Afrique is uniquely (epicentrically) positioned to showcase some of the latest developments in music, which is why it is arguably the most distinguished happenings of its kind.

Perhaps more than any other place or continent, Africa’s music is about its relationship with the rest of the world and vice versa. So in a world that is becoming increasingly inter-connected, where borders are dissolving and unlike cultures are mixing it up, we can expect African music to both reflect and be at the forefront of these developments.

The concert by Banda Kakana was a highlight case in point. During the set break, there were whispers that her sound wasn’t African enough, especially for an opening concert. Which begs the question: Is not her first obligation to be herself in her music? To her major credit, she felt no qualms in acknowledging that her influences have taken her a long way from Mozambique; she refused to conform to the straight-laced stereotype of what African music should sound like, and instead offered up a heartfelt evening of mostly original music influenced by soul and R & B.

On July 14th, while France was celebrating the 1789 storming of the Bastille, Montreal, by special invitation, was stormed by Cote d’Ivoire slammer Fabrice Koffy. Accompanied by a first-rate, jazz-influenced guitarist (Guillaume Soucy), together they broke all sorts of rules in a very agreeable, ear-opening concert. Koffy sang/spoke in a quiet mellifluous voice such that I was able to understand 80% of the lyrics -- in my second language (French) no less. This opening act was followed by Fefe, a hyper, energetic hip-hopper from France whose large, bellowing voice had the venue hopping and the floor buckling. As if in answer to a basic requirement of melody, most of his rap and hip-hop were inflected with soul and reggae.

It didn’t require more than 16 bars for Casuarina, an award winning samba group from Rio, to win over a jam-packed Club Mile End venue. The group’s cohesion and invention (sorely missing on pitch just days earlier), was tweaked by complex vocal harmonies and the tickly, prickly use of the cavaquinho (think mandolin) and the bandolim (a bit like a banjo).

One of the large questions this unique music festival asks is what are the differences, if any, between American and African rap and hip-hop? In America and in France, the rap is predominantly mean and angry, it carries a gun and wants a revolution. But anger alone cannot sustain the human spirit. African rap, which is also angry, recognizes that there is a primordial desideratum for melody that cannot be indefinitely postponed or denied. Everyday, people are fleeing the continent, taking to the seas and risking their lives because they are destitute and suffering. African rap, which is more complex than its American counterpart, offers not only an outlet for the anger but a respite from the suffering. There isn’t one of us who doesn’t long for the solace that only melody can provide, the roots of which go back to those unremembered lullabies sung to us out of the womb and into the hard-scrabble, indifferent world. It could very well be that the African take on rap and hip-hop not only fulfills the promise of the genres but brings each to its apogee. From slam to rap to hip-hop, there is an unbroken evolution towards melody and Africa is spearheading this on-going development.

In its outdoor program, which begins at noon and runs non-stop until late in the evening, the festival mostly serves as a staging ground for up-and-coming, under-appreciated musicians and groups. The voluptuous, deftly controlled voice of Cameroon’s Veeby was an A-major discovery. Black Bazar and Zekuhl were among the highlights, as were Guinea/Mali’s Doussou Koulibaly, who plays the kamalé n’goni, and the urbane Senegalese group Gokh Bi System, both of whom relied heavily on their rock influenced guitarists.

© Robert J. Lewis of Doussou KoulibalyPlaying her harp sounding n’goni like a rhythm instrument, Koulibaly’s distinctly mellow African vibe was accompanied by a hard driving rhythm section and the versatile guitar work of Aboulaye Koné, who drew upon hard rock for most of his filling in and solos. This deliberate mixing of unlike musical genres is a natural consequence of diasporic communities looking to find their vital center. In the spirit of homage, let us recall that the fusion of lead rock guitar with elemental African music can be traced back to the ground breaking solo in Peter Tosh’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

One of the essential general differences between the African and western guitar solo is in the duration of the notes. The African notes are very distinct and separate from each other, are of shorter duration and disappear quickly, mirroring the evanescence and impermanence that characterizes so much of Africa in terms of its weather and politics. All this in sharp contrast to the western solo, whose notes are electrically extended and often, for effect, bleed into each other. The typical (can you feel my pain) western solo is self-referential while the plucky African one evokes acceptance and resignation.

After an absence of two years, Madagascar Wake Up (Razia Said) was back with a madly inspired evening of music. The multi-talented group makes no bones about its political views as it concerns runaway deforestation at the hands of big industry. The music is a call to action, which began with the group’s gifted guitarist Charles Kely, whose dazzling finger work and invention is nothing less than mind boggling. That he is still not on anybody’s radar screen is a mystery and music industry shame. In a world where it’s not unusual to find iPods in Berber tents, it is high time Kely become a household name.

What distinguishes Nuits from the competition is its programming. Never in the history of music has programming been such a challenge. Nowadays, thanks to availability of state-of-the-art, basement-friendly recording equipment, almost everyone who aspires to music has a CD (my 27th is in the works), which makes the programmers’ work more difficult than ever. Their near impossible challenge is to comprehensively listen to not hundreds but thousands of CDs from around the world and weed out the pretenders. And no one does it better than Frédéric Kervadec and his team. They do our homework and make it easy for us to discover the latest and best in music, and enjoy a festival that is in equal parts a listening pleasure and education.

* * * * * * * * *

Between an ideal world and the reality falls the music that wants to bridge the gap.

Between the music we know and music that wants to make us better than what we are is Nuits d’Afrique.

So until 2015, “This music always rescues me, there's a melody for every malady.” (Passing Strange).


Photos © Hanna Donato
Flutist, Doussou Koulibaly, Lorraine Klassen © Robert J. Lewis

2013 Nuit d'Afrique
Nuit d'Afrique
Nuit d'Afrique
Nuit d'Afrique
Nuit d'Afrique
Nuit d'Afrique


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