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Vol. 16, No. 3, 2017
 
     
 
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montreal's

Stella GonisZal SissokhoIvy Jalta

 

2017 NUITS D'AFRIQUE MUSIC FESTIVAL

report: ROBERT J. LEWIS

______________________________________________________

 

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

 

Despite changes at the top – Colin Rigaud takes over some of the programming responsibilities of Frédéric Kervadec – the song (the template) remains the same, just as Montreal’s Nuits d’Afrique music festival remains perhaps the biggest and best festival of its kind in the world. For 12 days and nights, Africa puts on a show that celebrates diversity through music and culture.

Never in the history of the planet have there been so many migrations of people and mixing of cultures. Music has especially profited from this synergy and reminds us that when borders disappear, the energy of creation is always there to fill the void. The manifest ease in which unlike musics mix and marry often inspire the same in people who refuse to see the world in terms of race and ethnicity. Les Nuits d’Afrique is a lesson in progress on just how much world music owes to Africa, and how open Africa is to the huge catalogue of the world’s musics.

Like a burst of radiant light in a starless solar system, the tone of the festival takes its cue from the boundless energy and enthusiasm of its inimitable master of ceremonies (MC) the ever effervescent, incandescent welcoming and witty Willy B. Rose. As an astrophysical phenomenon, Willy is the equivalent of the Big-Bang from which the entire festival draws its energy and animation. He embodies the dynamism and diversity that makes Montreal the world’s foremost “yes we can” city of festivals.

Opening the 31st edition of Nuits d’Afrique with a rousing two sets at the legendary Club Balattou was The Delgres Trio, featuring Pascal Danae on guitar and vocals. No surprise that he’s played with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Gilberto Gil and Youssou N‘Dour. He combines the swampy Mississippi delta sound with the malaise and ennui of post-modernism answered in full with some foot stomping reggae. But it is his rich and resonant voice that you can’t get enough of, as well as his keen understanding that you can say more by playing less: all the solos, from guitar to trumpet to drums (yes drums) were spare but inspiring, without a trace particle of virtuosity. All the egos were in service of the music, and “that’s the way I (and everyone) like it.”

What I admired in Kae Sun in 2012 (@Balattou) and again this year’s 2017 edition of Les Nuits was that he’s not beholding to the musical or cultural tyrannies of his Ghanese roots. He’s his own person, his own appointment and pointman, a friendly lightening rod for the angst, despair and joy that is the urban sprawl of Toronto in 21st century. We look to artists like Kae Sun to find ourselves, to help us articulate the challenge of growing roots and finding that fugitive equipoise in a largely indifferent world where tribal loyalties have been reduced to one’s relationship with his iPhone, where the young generation doesn’t even look up to see who’s walking by because it is too busy texting. More than any act in this year’s festival, Kae Sun allows his music to breathe; he understands that the note we can’t miss is the silence between the notes. Kae Sun is already good and he’s going to get better.

To a packed house at the Metropolis, Amadou & Mariam delivered their patent and very polished set of West Wing influenced rock that sets itself apart with that now familiar and always ingratiating high-pitched, generic African sounding vocalese that issues from at the upper back of the throat. Audiences lapped it up as the legends lived up to their reputation.

One of the many great festival voices belonged to Jamaica’s Jesse Royal who rocked the Fairmount with a crowd pleasing evening of progressive reggae. For some, if the brain doesn’t properly shut down, reggae can become repetitive (code for narcoleptic, lobotomizing), but Royal produced a wide range of rhythms and emotions, including several tracks of nervous, almost rap-like reggae that were informed by, with a nod to Mr. Marley, revolution rousing, anti-disestablishment lyrics. To the A-major relief of the fat cats at the top, Canada’s gun laws held sway.

The best male voice of the festival belonged to the incomparable Ben l’Oncle Soul: he combines the smooth avocado richness of Marley with the resonance of John Legend and delivered a set of music that can only be described as off the wall. Playing most of the tracks from his latest CD, Under My Skin -- the ‘soulman’s favourite Frank Sinatra standards – he methodically, and sometimes brilliantly, puts the old material through the shredder, then picks up the pieces, soaks them in rocket fuel and sends them and his adoring audience into another orbit – except for the slow stuff such as Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight" and the blissfully transcendental “It Was a Very Good Year.” (Observing Stanley Paen -- the city's voice of jazz --- from a 'safe' distance, I could swear he was levitating during the concert). Not since the Vanilla Fudge (You Keep Me Hanging On) have we heard such a reworking of standard material, taking base metal and transmuting it into diamonds in the sky. Whether Ben l’Oncle Soul’s arresting alchemies can stand up to repeated listening remains to be heard. For Ivan Nonveiller's insightful review (in French) of both the venue and the vedette (the star), click here.

The opening act introduced us to the ear-opening interpretations and catchy songwriting of Tamara Weber-Fillion: her plaintive voice is ideal for her mostly confessional material. Once she learns to stay away from the high notes which she can’t quite reach and dress up her compositions with additional hooks and timely changes in tempo, she’ll be quickly compared to the best.

Tunisia’s post-modern Emel Mathlouthi, one of the voices and daughters of the Arab Spring, created a very special ambience that kept the faith with the tragic Arabic minor key. Her very powerful, and Om K-clean and haunting voice was backed up by keyboards and drums blow-dried out of a synthesizer to the effect that the music sounded like it originated in a digitalized Mosque orbiting around Jupitor, with the ‘chanteuse’ serving as chief iMama. Her message was distinctly political, sympathetic to the plight of the Syrians, and the thousands of nameless victims of the aborted Arab Spring. Implicit in her relentlessly minor key compositions is that Chapter II of that spring is simply a question of turning the page, and that it's a personal source of pride that she won't be invited to perform for the Saudi Prince in the near future. Her heart rendering music is a reminder that the beating heart that is Africa speaks to all people for whom the cry of freedom is a universal cry.

As usual, the festival concludes with the free outdoor concerts at the Quartier de Spectacle, in the heart of downtown Montreal. This year’s edition of Les Nuits featured an unprecedented six days of activities and festivities, with concerts beginning in the afternoon and running well into the evening. Among the many musical highlights were Zimbabwe’s Mokoomba, the kora-rock mix of Zal Sissokho, who was the surprise special guest of Jean-Francois Leger for his homage to the Bossa Nova; and Martinique’s pulchritudinous Stella Gonis who introduced her set with the creative blowing of the conches before her magnificent voice filled the sky with love and light. For the young and curious, throughout the day there were instructive mini-concerts, workshops and ateliers on the origins and intricacies of the many African instruments that were highlighted during the festival, as well as lessons on dance, art and mask making.

Reducing Les Nuits to its existentials, it is a trip and half and more to places and spaces that would otherwise remain journeys never taken. Those who came, left happier and wiser and better.


 

 

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COMMENTS

J’aimerais prendre le temps de vous remercier, au nom de toute l’équipe, pour l’excellent reportage que vous avez écrit dans Arts & Opinion. Votre style de rédaction est vraiment agréable à lire et vos commentaires, tous très élogieux, nous confirment que ce Festival est nécessaire et vivifiant, que ce soit pour les artistes qui y performent que pour le public et nous-mêmes qui y travaillons.
 
Merci de faire rayonner le festival via votre plume et votre média. Au plaisir de collaborer de nouveau avec vous.
 
Diane Ouellet
Communication et relations de presse
communications@festivalnuitsdafrique.com


 

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