Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 22, No. 4, 2023
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Jason McDonald
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Louis René Beres
David Solway
Nick Catalano
Don Dewey
Chris Barry
Howard Richler
Gary Olson
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editor
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
  Photographer Jerry Prindle
Chantal Levesque
Emanuel Pordes
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Mark Kingwell
Charles Tayler
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Arundhati Roy
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Stephen Lewis
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Irshad Manji
Glenn Loury
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: JERRY PRINDLE



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

Without music, life would be a mistake.



Based on the numbers and crowd ebullience indices, the 37th edition of Montreal’s Festival International Nuits d’Afrique was the best ever. For this result, a full orchestra of praise goes to chief programmer Sépopo Galley who understood that the 13-day festival playlist would have to speak directly to a generation of listeners raised on Rap and hip-hop. Her task was to find music that seamlessly straddled the traditional and the new -- the desert Berber chant and the hip-hop rant, the former born in the hot winds and shifting sands of the nomadic life, the latter a product of the malaises of modernity and state-of-the-art digital technology. And while the traditionalists might have felt somewhat shortchanged in respect to the emphasis on high tech effects and over reliance on pre-recorded tracks and looping, many of the ancient acoustic instruments (mbira, balafon, nbgoni, marimba, kora) and their distinctive sounds could be heard in the various groups and combos.

In fashioning a success music festival, mention must be made of the animators that introduce and contextualize the music. They are the vital bridges between the programming and the final product: the live music. I've attended dozens of festivals in my life that and nothing quite approaches the acumen and enthusiasm generated by the festival's dynamic Emcees (animateurs): to mention a few names: Anis Bourbia, Annabelle Picker and veteran Willie B. Rose. They set the tonic for the team and the tunes and didn't miss a beat.

Perhaps better than any festival of its kind, the 13-day event is a showcase for the influence of Africa's native music on the world 's music, and as such, it is as much a cultural as a music happening.

This year's mega-event featured Benin's Angelique Kidjo. Following in the footsteps of trail blazer Tina Turner, she was living proof that life, indeed and in deed, begins at 60. A living legend and recipient of numerous awards and distinctions, she brought her boundless energy and a tightly knit and talented band to the MTELUS (formerly the Metropolis) that was packed to the gills. A perpetual motion machine, Angelique gave it her all and it was all returned in love and devotion. Her powerful and singularly pristine voice is not the kind that shatters glass but pours out like a precious liquid. It was the driving force behind music that reflected the many influences she has absorbed over a long career that began Benin, then Paris and around the world. On stage, her foot work was something to behold, filling in the musical pauses like a blues guitarist between the lyrics: she was at once lithe and limber, evoking the gravity-defying footwork of Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson.

The cadence and energy generated by her band owed much to her two superb percussionists: Magatte Sow on congas and Yayo Serka on drums. Where on far too many occasions percussionists end up competing with each other, Sow and Serka were in perfect sync, in large part because they were listening to each other in the context of how to best serve the music. If what we ask of music is that it take us -- if only temporarily -- to a better place, Angelique Kidjo and band achieved their goal and more. Based on the applause meter, she'll be back for more in the near future.

Combining retrograde hip-hop with a variety of modern unorthodox sounds and effects, singer-songwriter Jinj put on a show at Club Balattou -- the permanent home of the festival -- that few will forget. She successfully married Armenian folk music to foot-stomping rhythms that somehow reconciled tradition and no-holds-barred innovation. And when the multi-talented flutist took the lead, the music went into another dimension. It was nothing less than a ticket-to-ride on the serpentine lines of the punji -- the clarinet-like sound one expects to hear from a snake charmer -- backed up by a beat box, over which a vagrant voice gone rhapsodic was wending its way from the village to the 3 am rave party. Got to bring back this group back.

Pascal Delgres's trio initiated a musical odyssey that began in the bluesy swamplands of Louisiana before morphing into progressive rock that recalled Emerson, Lake and Palmer and especially Peter Gabriel. As a composer, Delgres is his own person, owing nothing to the protocols of popular taste. His powerfully evoked indigo moods and modulations wrere full of creative surprises. His voice – think of a well gushing olive oil -- was easily among the very best at this year's festival. Rich and resonant, confident and strong and with an exceptional range, Delgres hit all the highs and honoured the lows. Kudos go to his highly inventive drummer Baptiste Brondy and sousaphonist Rafgee who supplied the low notes.

In the spirit of the string acoustic that best represents Africa, The Night of the Kora concert, featuring Zal Sissokho and the inimitable Seckou Keita, was a festival highlight. One of the unacknowledged keys to the wonderfully delicate and precious ambience created by the kora is the absence of percussion -- and there is much to be learned from this. Senegalese-born Montrealer Zal Sossokho opened the evening, displaying remarkable thumb-finger coordination and counterpoint, on top of which he sang in a voice that washed over the body like warm bath water. He was followed by one of the best kora players on the planet, Seckou Keita, also of Senegalese origin. Not only is he technically astounding, demonstrating remarkable separation of both hands and voice, he is arguably the instruments greatest innovator. He combined four chordings to create a reserve of permutations that provided him with more melodic intervals. And while the kora is traditionally synonymous with the calm and repose called upon to counter the hard scrabble life out of which issues the music, Keita turned the tables and strings and somehow produced a quasi percussive funk sound; the audience lapped it up. The highlight of the evening was reserved for the finale, when Sossokho and Keita were joined by one of the great voices out of Malia, Djely Tapa, whose soulful performance guaranteed that this would be a concert none would forget.

This year, the programmers wisely decided to dedicate a time slot for the feminine voice, a decision that, based on the applause scale, begs to become a regular feature of the festival. In all there were five concerts, beginning at 7 pm at the Loto Quebec stage,

Noé Lira and her 5-women band regaled both the eye and ear. If world beat and hip-hop ere beginning to wear thinner than rice paper, Lira's highly original music and theatrical presence were as refreshing as they were exhilarating. Her voice is clean and assured and her tongue-and-cheek stage gestures were spell-binding.

No less captivating was Thaynara Peri from Brazil. She successfully combined pop and hip-hop with bossa nova and samba. Backed up by a voice that can scale mountains and walk on water, she poured herself into original material that was punctuated with creative twists and turns that kept the huge crowd on its dancing toes.

On the big stage, Gambian-born Sona Jobarteh, the high priestess of the kora, provided a set of music that recognized no borders. Her unique brand of fusion recalled the novelty of John McLaughlin’s Shakti period in the 1970s. It has been said that no matter what music you surround it or mix into it you cannot take Africa out of the kora. Jobarteh reminded us that nothing is written in stone. Backed up by a hard driving band and preternaturally creative rhythm section that had the exultant crowd moving in unison, she used the kora to dialogue with her vocals as well as a vehicle for extended jazz-like solos. If music is constantly evolving, Jobarteh is surely one of the prime movers.

For many of the festival goers, the experience and attendant satisfactions are no less cultural then musical. One of the unintended consequences in bringing together people of different backgrounds is the unspoken but deeply felt ennoblement one experience in being part of a tapestry whose theme is dedicated to the one-world concept. Facilitating this reaching out to the other is the now famous Timbuktu festival market place relocated from its foot-friendly grassy confines to an area just behind one of the main stages. With significantly more space, shops and kiosks, the place was bustling with energy and a dazzling array of African staples: native garments, musical instruments, hand-made jewelry, artifacts, and herbs and spices.

For those who come to experience the visuals in all their diversity, les Nuits d'Afrique, a veritable festival of colours and colour combinations, is without equal. In the midst of a profusion of tints and hues and colour tones, we quickly realize – lament -- how impoverished are our own tastes and how relentless are the social and sartorial protocols that bid us to conform. Among the eye-arresting highlights were the exotic hairstyles: from frond-length tresses to cornbraids interlaced with beads and glitter; cylinder propped top-buns to tower shaped updos all of which brought this hirsute-challenged Saskatchewaner to his knees in envy and awe.

Last but not least, occupying the former home of the Timbuktu market were an assortment of sizzling African food kiosks; and located nearby were instructional ateliers and workshops. And for those who find extended standing difficult, there was more general seating than ever before.

To the festival organizers and dedicated team -- Jëf-jëf yu rafet ak.

Suffice to say, the 2024 edition can't come soon enough.

All photos ©Jerry Prindle










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