Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 14, No. 3, 2015
  Current Issue  
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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



Music was my refuge
I could crawl into the spaces between the notes
and curl my back to loneliness.
Maya Angelou

Affixing a single concept to the whole of Africa is as laughable (indictable) as referring to a single American culture – the first resort of the lazy or uninformed mind. From its Arabic speaking north, to the formidable Sahara, to the ample tropical distend southward, to which we add countless dialects and languages, the whole of which has been woofed and warped by colonialism (and post-colonialism), Africa is as diverse as any place on the planet -- a fact which has not been lost on Montreal’s Nuits d’Afrique world famous music festival and its always resourceful programming team led by the resolute Fréderic Kervadec.

If there was a common theme or rallying point to this year’s 29th edition, it would be the celebration of diversity that was concentrated in the waves of music that pulsate from the heart of Africa to the rest of the world through its diasporic communities, and an acknowledgement that music’s vast and varied catalogue of genres and sub-genres is not so much a taxonomy but opportunity.

Hybrid or fusion music was very much the point of reference for the group H’Sao, originally from Chad (average January temperature = 22 Celsuis) but now ‘comfortably’ settled in Montreal (January = -13 Celsuis). If at first listening it sounds as if their music hasn’t been affected by 14 consecutive winters, listen again: their plaintive 4-part harmonies left no doubt that Chad as home and roots are very much on the minds of this talented foursome who are belatedly getting the recognition that is their due. With uncommon facility, they navigate between gospel-influenced acapella and electric reggae mixed with R & B.

Among Latin America’s huge presence, Columbia’s Ondatropica (tropical wave) was a festival highlight. Their precision-tight sound consisted of kick-ass, hip-rolling bass lines, catchy melodies, a horn duo with taste for tectonic dissonance, and a rhythm section that took its cue from the effects of nitroglycerin. Wisely, the Fairmount Theatre brain trust removed the tables and chairs away from the stage, anticipating that no one would be able to stay put in their seats for very long. Not only the floor but the entire building was shaking on its girders.

From Germany, the unassuming but much adored Patrice (father from Sierra Leone) began his set with a succinct sartorial statement that was unambiguously anti-popstar-glitter-and-flash. Think of the Spike Lee character in Do The Right Thing. Patrice, stealth-like, arrived at the mike wearing flat white running shoes, skin-coloured socks, shapeless shorts, a throw away shirt, and in his one concession to celebrity, a orange tuque which he didn’t wear over his ears (it was 34 Celsius earlier in the day). “I don’t want you to look at me but listen to me,” he implicitly intones in no uncertain terms of endearment.

With the first opening thud of the bass and a sharp rim shot to the snare, it was instant karma as the audience and singer became one love. His fans knew what they came for and got more than what they wanted. Mixing reggae, Genesis-like rock and folk-rock, Patrice makes the case that while rap and hip-hop rule the charts, there is no circumventing our innate craving for melody. From beginning to end his playlist was all about song, and the crowd joined him on every occasion. It was his first visit to Montreal, and based on the 1000 leagues deep of love he received, not only will he be back, he probably end up wintering here.

The festival's most edifying evening belonged to Sousou and Maher Cissoko @Club Balattou and Famalé @Fairmount Theatre. Cissoko’s kora was contoured to speak the same language as Nordic pop while Famale’s kora (played by Zal Sissokho) was stretched to accommodate the Brazilian interval. There were moments when the spirit of Senegal combined with the haunting violin of Marcus Viana made mockery of our preconceptions of what music should be or sound like: they took the music to a new place, a higher ground and no one wanted to leave. Both concerts exemplify the dynamism and the unlimited possibilities of world music for whom all sounds are valid choices. We usually think of the kora as the mood setter, synonymous with calm and serenity, but in both concerts the instrument was also played like a lead guitar as the thumb nail attacked the strings with spirited bite and pinch.

The following night, to thunderous applause, Mali-born Awa Sangho not only brought her incomparable voice to the stage but her band featured one of the best rhythm sections of the festival: Mao Otayek on bass and Daniel Moreno: percussion. Conventional times signatures (6/4, 4/4) were turned on their heads such that you weren’t sure what rhythm you were following except that it felt good and you wanted more of the same.

One of the festival’s pleasant surprises was the infectious music of Maya Kamaty, from Ile de la Réunion -- a mere 1000 kms east of Madagascar. She was accompanied by two excellent guitarists who, like jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke, use classical strings when they play electric; they also brought first rate vocal harmonies to a set of music that is infused with the winds that define the island. Kamaty, who sings mostly in French, is a songwriter who has absorbed many influences to which she adds her own highly original, haunting introductions that like mushrooms after a hot rain burst into melodies that are carried away on waves of percussive counterpoint. Consistent invention and engaging dynamic range make her someone to keep an ear out for.

Great indoor programming notwithstanding, the real festival doesn’t begin until it moves to the great outdoors (for the last five days) to the Quartier des Spectacles where the legendary Timbuktu market sets up shop and you can feel the grass under your feet (and in the air) and your nose twitch under the onslaught of African cuisine at its very authentic best as red hot Cuban salsa and Senegalese sauces compete with non-stop free music that begins in the early afternoon until late at night.

For those of us who mark the passage of our short summers with music, Les Nuits d’Afrique is much more than the sum of its concerts and the hundreds of thousands of notes that are played. It is a cultural event that transcends culture in the sense that it blesses and rewards what conventional culture abhors: mixing and exogamy. If we agree that the best and most enlightened response to adversity is diversity, the Les Nuits d'Afrique music festival is the inspired messenger and ambassador. Nuits, in its global outreach, is simply and indisputably the best there is out there and more: it is the best we can be, and it is not an accident that it is happening in Montreal. Montrealers make it happen because the city has become a multi-cultural hub for attracting not only African musicians but Africans from all walks of life. Once swept up by the ferment here there is no looking elsewhere, even in the longest and darkest days of winter, because when unlike cultures predispose themselves to rubbing shoulders and sharing the same space, the recombinant creative possibilities are endless, and we’re all the richer for it.

All of which predicts that next year’s special 30th anniversary will offer more of the same along with what’s baking in the oven at this very moment – something new and extraordinary. And for that, 2016 Nuits d’Afrique can’t come soon enough.

Photos © Hanna Donato
Photo #1 © Robert J. Lewis


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