Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No. 3, 2016
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
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


Behind every successful music festival there is an invisible from-the-top-down methodology that gives the event both its amplitude and anchor. When it comes to Top Rankin’ ergonomics, Montreal’s Nuits d’Afrique, now in its unprecedented 30th year, has become a template festival in the way it gets results in both the drawing room and the big stage.


There was once a time when a jazz critic could listen to and review every jazz album that was released in a given year (1950s). Today, hundreds of albums are released daily, and in the genre of World Music, hundreds are released weekly, so it’s impossible for one person to be up to date on the latest, which is why festival programmers are so important. They, along with our radio and webshow hosts, do our listening, our selecting and de-selecting. They separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad and the ugly. That Nuits d’Afrique is the biggest and best festival of its kind in North America is in large part thanks to the dedication and nuanced ear of Frédéric Kervadec and his team. No surprise that this year’s 30th anniversary festival was a runaway success, despite a couple of days of inclement weather.

Speaking of the tops, mention must be made of the festival’s two off-the-cuff masters of ceremony: the effervescent Willy B. Rose and charismatic Eric M’Boua. In the latter’s case, what’s to be done when you’re suffering from mal au Drogba? You accept an invitation to fly from Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire) to Montreal and become part of a team spirit that knows how to get things done. Willy and Eric are a class act, quick on the wit, indefatigably creative and infectiously catalystic. During a period of heavy rain, they came up with this nugget:

Il ne faut jamais oublier qu’on a besoin des pluies d’Afrique
Pour remplir les puits d’Afrique

One must never forget that we need the rains of Africa
To water the plains of Africa.
Translation provided by Hieronymous Breche

Just as important as the work up front is their behind the scenes rapport with the musicians. I spent five fun-filled days and magic nights with these guys back stage and without fail, they individually welcomed all the performing musicians, made them feel comfortable, encouraged them, hyped them up, so by the time they hit the stage they were primed to give their very best. And that’s exactly what Montreal got for 13 days and nights of music – nothing but the best.

In terms of locality, an interesting addition to this year’s festival was an area dedicated to a small food court and intimate stage, where throughout the day guest musicians would explain and demonstrate their native instruments. The mostly African food court was located in front of the musicians’ quarters and back of the stage so the area in-between quickly turned into a quasi behind-the-scenes meeting place for the musicians, and an informal fashion runway featuring traditional African dress in its myriad colours and time-tested combinations, which of course attracted the general public who were only too happy for the occasion to mingle with and iPhoto or iVideo their favourite performers.

Togo’s Vaudou Game opened the festival with a rousing first set, which included, from their last CD, Apiafo, the very haunting “Dangerous Bees.”

The following night, the BKO Quintet from Mali provided a lesson on what you can coax out of a stringed instrument as Abdoulaye Kone created a 21st century home-away-from-home for the djelingoni. In his sure hands and mercurial fingers, the sound he produced was at once frenzied and foreboding, as well as reflecting the general African preference for the clipped ( as opposed to held) note – one that disappears almost as soon as it is plucked, like a drop of rain on hot sand.

Taking liberties with a Stevie Wonder song title, Inna Modja’s meticulously distorted, hyper-synthesized, post-post-hip sonic preferences were a “zillion light years away” from Mali. Her only connection to her roots -- as if to appease her consummate disaffection -- was the non-stop video streaming in the background that showed off her pulchritude and willowy figure as she self-consciously made a point of getting her feet down and dirty in the back streets of Bamako. Based on the music, all of which was programmed and pumped through the latest sound technology, including her voice-boxed voice which was split into four – none of which belonged to her – one suspects she can’t wait for the next techno-gimmick to hit the market. But, it must be said, and for all of the above reasons, everyone I spoke to loved her show, regarded it as an unqualified festival highlight, which meant that I (unapologetically) was the odd-ear-out.

Among the newer groups on the cusp of discovery is Proyecto Iré, winner of the prestigious Sylvie d’Or. Blending Cuban, groove and soul, their original music combines compelling rhythms and slick horn arrangements in support of arresting melodies memorably delivered by the unforgettable presence and vocals of frontman Oscar Fuentes. His voice, fat and oleaginous like Alberta crude, can shoot out tongues of hot bitumen on the one hand and chunks of gravel on the other. Keep an ear out for this group; they have a winning formula and were a festival surprise, but no surprise if you have already seen them.

After years of problematic experimentation with sound and composition, Montreal’s Nomadic Massive has finally put it all together with a more refined and ear-friendly re-invention, without sacrificing the energy and spontaneity that characterize their live performance. They are a caffeine-stoked, 12-person, polygot collective that seamlessly meld soul, rap and hip-hip. They now wisely leave a lot more space in their attack-dog format, and their compositions are much more likely to include very welcome key changes and timely modulations in texture and volume. The ‘bad plus’ in this group is the ever so pristine, controlled and highly emotive voice of singer Meduza Ma’at (think of Om Kalsoum in a higher octave). Since there’s no telling how far this group can go, make sure you hitch a wagon to their star – and hold on for dear life.

The final day fittingly belonged to Morocco’s Labess, which is an informal greeting in Arabic = (what happening, man)? Arabic music is arguably the saddest music in the Milky Way. Its undeviating loyalty to the minor key is born in the swelter and fry of the Sahara and the strict laws of its culture. Theirs is a music that takes its shape from the camel trails that twist and coil and convulse as they approach the roaring traffic's boom of the big city before shuddering to a halt, which is when Labess takes over, with Nedjim Bouizzoul on a plaintive guitar, working out a catchy flamenco riff as the tempo imperceptively picks up and intensifies; the djelllaba comes off, jeans are donned, a cool, serene brass duo enters the fray, and then, hewed out of granite and tempered in hot dry wind, the human voice begins its ascension, joined by rousing percussion, and suddenly, magically, a tragic music is transmuted into riotous joy, as the audience jumps to its feet and claps its hands – and the celebration is on.

The music of Labess surely encapsulates the deeper meaning and message of Nuits d’Afrique, the idea that music, above and beyond its signatures and sounds, as it takes on the world of hard facts and consequences, is an irrepressibly transcendent force that unites people from all walks of life and provides -- for as along as the music plays -- essential alternative worlds, if not the very best of all worlds.

After the last note had sounded and disappeared into the Montreal firmament, we were already looking fast-forward to the 2017 edition of Nuits d’Afrique.

Jai-rruh-jef (merci) Lamine Touré.




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


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