In 1987, Lamine Touré, owner of the 150-seat Club Balattou (which derives from bal à tous, roughly translated as “dance for everyone”), organized several nights of concerts and dubbed it “Festival Nuits d’Afrique.” “The recipe for success was already there, in the programming,” cofounder Suzanne Rousseau told the Montreal Suburban.
But as visionary as Touré and Rousseau were then, there was no way they could have envisioned the festival would go on for another 30 editions, becoming the premiere festival for music of the African diaspora in North America, and would grow to welcome over a half-million music fans over 13 days and nights, featuring 110 concerts at six indoor venues, as well as six days of free outdoor concerts and activities.
For this anniversary celebration, running July 12-24, the festival added several more concerts, as well as a sixth day of outdoor concerts. They also expanded the outdoor festival with a kid-friendly area, more workshops, and a larger marketplace, selling everything from food, jewelry, clothing, and of course, CDs and musical instruments.
The festival also inaugurated a new annual award, Le Prix Nuits d’Afrique pour la Francophonie (The African Nights Francophone Prize), which was presented to the legendary Manu Dibango. The 82-year old Dibango, known as the “Lion of Cameroon,” has previously performed twice at the festival. He received the award in person, and also participated in a tribute to his music.
The first part of the tribute brought out some local performers—Élété (Chad/Quebec), Veeby (Cameroon/Quebec) and Rookie Rook (France/Quebec)—as well as a representative of the new generation of Cameroonian stars, Karyce Fotso, on stage to cover some of their favorite Dibango tunes.
Then, this year’s Syli d’Or winners (the annual awards for new local bands who vie to perform at the festival), the Afro-Cuban ensemble Proyecto Iré came on stage for a few tunes.
Finally, they were joined by Dibango who played a solo, then left the stage. The crowd was a bit stunned by the short appearance. But the Lion returned, accompanied only by a keyboardist, to perform a couple of his most beloved pieces. He joked he would play some songs that the mostly younger audience may have heard their parents or grandparents listen to. But as the audience joined in, singing along with him, it was clear Dibango’s music is as beloved today as to the older generations.
Speaking of awards, this year marked the second for Afropop Worldwide’s prize for one of the competitors of the Syli D’or competition. It was given to Javi Mendez, in recognition of his inventive salsa, merengue, reggaeton, and pop Latin songs. “We were particularly impressed by the band’s charisma and ability to rally an audience on the dance floor,” wrote Afropop Senior Editor Banning Eyre.
“Now is the moment to show people what I have been doing,” Javi told us after receiving his award on the outdoor stage. “I want to thank Afropop Worldwide and Syli d’Or. I’m really happy and continuing to work really hard.”
Another tribute was a performance by Groupe Musical Cour des Grands to the music and life of the late great Papa Wemba. Wemba, who passed away earlier this year, had played here back in 2005. “Papa Wemba’s first time in Montreal, we did two shows with him at Balattou,” festival cofounder Touré recalled in an interview with the Montreal Gazette. “We signed a contract for one show, but there were so many people, we did a second show the same night. I am saddened he died, because I knew him a little bit. That’s what hurts—his journey wasn’t over. There was still much he wanted to do.”
This year’s headliners at the outdoor stage saw the return of several other all-time favorites, including Cuba’s Orquesta Aragón, and the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, who brought on stage Montreal musician Chris Velan, who was one of the trio who first discovered them in 2005. Velan played guitar on several songs with the band to cheers from the crowd. Indoor concerts saw the return of Algerian superstar Rachid Taha and Haiti’s kompa legends Tabou Combo.
Coming to Montreal for their first time this year and also headlining the outdoor stage was Mexican Institute of Sound, who had the crowd bopping madly to their electro-cumbia beats.
The closing night outdoor show saw the largest audience of the festival to hear Ivory Coast superstars Meiway and Zo Gang. The crowd was ready to spend the rest of the night listening to the band who just killed it from the moment they walked on stage.
While one can often find oneself running to catch one set of one performer at one venue and then to another venue for the second set of another, it’s impossible to catch them all.
Several relative newcomers we were impressed by included the aforementioned, Karyce Fotso from Cameroon. She put on a marvelous solo performance, playing various instruments, telling stories, and getting the audience at Club Balattou to laugh and sing along with her. Then there was the Italian-Tuareg guitarist/singer Faris, who mesmerized the audience with his Sahara-meets-Mississippi Delta blues; the stunning modern soul sounds of Malian Inna Modja; and the brilliant Afrofunk of Vaudou Game.
It was certainly impossible to not be completely satiated by all the incredible music featured at this year’s Nuits d’Afrique, and we look forward to returning and continuing our association with the festival in the coming years.
Featured image: Afrique en Cirque. Photo by Elaine Graham, courtesy of Festival Nuits d’Afrique