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Nuits D’Afriques: 26 Years of Afro-bliss in Montreal

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It’s summer in Montreal and once again African music is in the air. Twenty-six years ago, a young nightclub owner from Guinea–Lamine Touré–and a small team of African music enthusiasts mounted the first Nuits d’Afrique festival on a single stage, set up on Saint Laurent Street, out in front of Toure’s club, Balatou. In 2012, the festival is staging 91 shows over 2 weeks, using 7 indoor venues, and culminating in 4 days of free outdoor concerts (July 19-22)  in a virtual African village constructed in downtown Montreal. Nuits D’Afrique has a reputation as one of the world’s best African music festivals–an amalgam of the best in pan-African talent, and also an expression of a truly cosmopolitan city that is now home to an impressive cast of international musicians, and some of the most enthusiastic audiences you will find anywhere.

Afropop made a long-overdue pilgrimage to this historic festival catching this year’s early shows, and I am happy to report that Nuits d’Afrique lives up to its billing. The musical curation was consistently excellent. The venues were comfortable with good sight-lines and superb sound every time. And the ambiance of this singularly international city–like a de-stressed New York–completed the experience with an easy flow of culture and languge. Afropop gathered material for a number of future broadcasts–on Algeria, Zimbabwe and Afro-Montreal. The only hard part was leaving early, “without completing the race,” as Lamine Touré playfully scolded me. But it might not be too late for you. As I write, the festival has a great week to go. Here’s a report on Afropop’s Montreal experience. Click here for full details on the 26th Festival International Nuits d’Afrique.

Kateb Amazigh

I hadn’t been in town an hour before I found myself basking in the afternoon sun on a fire escape outside the Metropolis nightclub, chatting with Kateb Amazigh, leader of Gnawa Diffusion. Amazigh left his native Algeria to study in France and wound up founding a trail-blazing band whose topical songs fuse north African traditions–including Gnawa and Berber (Amazight) music–with reggae, dub, rock, funk and whatever else moves these intrepid musicians. The band is a lot of fun onstage, creating a rousing spirit party fueled by positive vibes and revolutionary urges. Amazigh’s famous father, Kateb Yacine, has been called the father of modern Algerian literature, and when discussing Gnawa Diffusion’s music, Amazigh too goes deep. He told me that in our time, political discourse has declined to the point of absurdity and media voices have lost credibility. He said, “Today I think the only real vector for ideas is culture–music, painting, theater, cinema.” It was an apt thought to begin a whirlwind of concerts that would unfold the histories and current challenges faced by countries like Algeria, Zimbabwe, Colombia and Congo more vividly than any newscast could hope to.

Gnawa Diffusion at Metropolis, Montreal: July 11, 2012

Take Gnawa Diffusion’s show. A local Montreal band called Syncop opened the show with a spirited set that mixed north Africa rai and shaabi with reggae, hip hop, and even flashes of Congolese soukous and Mande music–Senegalese kora man Zal Cissoko sat in–Quebec cosmopolitanism under the direction of Algerian-Montrealer Karim Benzaid. Then the Gnawa Diffusion juggernaut took the stage, with Amazigh rousing a crowd peppered with north Africans from the first note. The band’s nearly-three-hour-long set included soulful Gnawa breakdows, slamming dub and dancehall grooves, and hybrid songs that channel the hopes and frustrations of north Africans in France, holding onto identity and culture while drinking in all musical flavors of the urban soundscape. Nothing could more perfectly have captured the north African immigrant experience in France–a mix of pride, nostalgia, freedom and frustration, with a deep flow and a mesmerizing beat.

Montreal responded with clapping, chanting, ecstatic dancing with arms raised high.  Montrealers are lucky to have this band visit regularly. Gnawa Diffusion has never performed in the United States. (One tour was scuttled by visa complications.) On stage, the low thud of Amazigh’s guimbri (deep-toned Gnawa lute) and the hypnotic clinking of metal castanets were a constant refrain in a set that shifted moods masterfully between melodious ballads featuring the Amazight lute (mandole) and edgy urban jams and, always, the rocking spiritual chant and cry of the Gnawa. Amazigh greeted the crowd like old friends–and clearly many were–and, after the band’s last long encore, he left the stage triumphantly, holding his castanets in the air and proclaming, “Long live love. Long live the revolution.”

Kateb Amazigh

The next night, I caught the soundcheck for a fine young  singer-songwriter from the northeast of Brazil, now resident in Montreal. Rommel Ribiero leads a tight, multinational band–another fine fruit of this city’s rich global mix. I loved Ribeiro’s voice, his guitar chops, his songs and the bright-eyed energy he brings to his work, but, alas, I could not stay long.  The Congo beckoned!

Rommel Ribiero

For over ten years, we’ve been hearing reports about an amazing percussion ensemble from Brazzaville. Les Tambours de Brazza combine rhythms from various parts of the Republic of Congo with elements of soukous, reggae, rap and whatever else moves them. In a passionate interview (to be published later) leader Emile Biayenda laid out a vision that was equal parts defense and uplift of tradition and a bold embrace of modernization. The ensemble’s pieces blend and update rhythms and also incorporate guitar, bass and Biayenda himself on trap drums, keeping it all together with commanding prowess. Les Tambours’ Montreal debut at Le Tulipe was not to be missed.

It is hard to imagine a more engaging stage presentation of African percussion music. These men of the Congo–some with the rounded girth of Sumo wrestlers, others sculpted and buff–play tall drums that become extensions of their impressive bodies. When each one solos, the power and precision of the rhythms and the playing become more fundamentally expressions of character. Each song is a drama–competition, pursuit, confrontation, seduction (the front section of the crowd was nearly all women–many agog at what they were seeing and hearing).

Les Tambours de Brazza at La Tulipe in Montreal: July 12, 2012

Les Tambours’ integration of a Congolese guitarist and a Malagasy bass player worked beautifully, garnishing thunderous grooves with a frosting of melody and a pumping undertow of bass. At one point, the traditional drums were swept from the stage, and what remained–bass, drums, guitar and a singer–was a spare soukous band, cranking briefly before the sound and spirit of the forest subsumed them once again.  It was like a metaphor for modern African music–no matter how polished and fused the presentation, everything is rooted in drums and rhythm. When at last Les Tambours left the stage, this venerable old hall fairly shook with roars of appreciation from a packed, sweaty and totally satisfied house.

Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi–known to his fans at Tuku–is an old friend of  Nuits d’Afrique, having appeared at the festival a number of times over the years, once closing it at a well-remembered outdoor show.  This year Tuku brought a small, sharp 5-piece band and delivered two masterfully paced sets–full of old chestnuts and some new songs–at the Cabaret de Mile End (formerly the Kola Note).

In a nightclub atmosphere,  Tuku began with ballads, tickling melodic arpeggios from his nylon-stringed guitar, easing up to foot-stomping, singalong classics like the poignant “Todi” and the joyous “Dzoka Uyamwe” and gospel tinged “Hear Me Lord.”  Tuku’s burly, soul-man voice is perfectly in tact as he nears his 60th year. But when the music heats up, you need to watch Tuku’s feet and legs. He has some of the subtlest and most expressive stage moves of any African singer.

Also fascinating was to watch the crowd at this show. There were a few Zimbabweans with flags, and knee-hoisting Shona dance moves to prove it. But among this very mixed crowd were also a number of West Africans–Tuku fans via the diaspora in Montreal. Across borders of language, culture and history these Francophone Africans were bonafide Tuku supporters, even if their shoulder-shifting dances would have been alien in a Harare beerhall.

Oliver Mtukudzi at Cafe de Mile End, Montreal: July 13, 2012

My final Nuits d’Afrique (African night, of course!) was a double shot of diaspora delight. First, from Miami, Locos Por Juana are a Grammy-nominated band that fuses the loveable lope of cumbia with the Afro-pumped energy of champeta, and liberal doses of reggae, ska, dancehall, afrobeat and various Latin styles. Basically, it’s a wild Miami mixup. My interview with the three principles–Itagui Correa, Mark Kondrat and Javier Delgado–was nearly as much fun as the show itself, full of stories of street life in Miami, discovering the music of their parents, being starstruck at the Grammys, and, memorably, the time Prince showed up at one of their gigs and asked to sit in.

Locos por Juana at Cafe de Mile End, July 14, 2012

Correa and Delgado were born in Colombia, but, like Kondrat, grew up in Miami. That history makes their interest in, and facility with, folksy styles like cumbia and champeta all the more impressive. These musicians bring terrific musicianship and drive to everything they do, and create stylistic mash-ups that make sense and move dancing feet immediately.

Onstage for their Montreal debut, Correa broadcasted warmth and positivity, giving the crowd love and getting plenty back. “Don’t be afraid to dance,” he shouted often, and people sure weren’t.  Kondrat is a fine guitarist whether pumping out bright rhythm chords or tearing into a rock solo or tickling Congolese riffs from his freboards. But most of the band’s solos came from Lasim Richards on trombone.  Richards makes an imposing impression onstage, and his fat, blustery lines hit the spot every time. The band’s opening set charted a steep trajectory from hot to hotter, leaving the audience sweat-drenched and starry-eyed. It was difficult to leave, but I had one more Nuits d’Afrique…

Loco por Juana

Given the Francophone connection, it’s little surprise that the Mande diaspora is strong in Quebec. Zal Cissoko is a kora player and singer-songwriter from the south of Senegal, Cassamance. For some years, Cissoko has been a fixture of Montreal’s African music scene, collaborating with musicians from other cultures, playing solo, and leading a superb 5-piece band, featuring a charismatic jelimusow (female griot singer) named Tapa Diarra. I caught the group’s set at a gorgeous east Montreal club called Lion D’Or. Before a rapt audience, Cissoko moved easily between acoustic tradition–just he and Diarra–to full-on Mande boogie with his band.  In our interview Cissoko had told me he made a clear distinction between playing traditional songs and composing new music of his own. In other words, he avoids turning traditional pieces into new compositions with new names–a common practice in West Africa. I thought about this as I listened to him intersperse familiar Mande pieces like “Kaira” and “Massane Cissé” with fresh material marked by strong, original melodies and, often, highly danceable rhythms. Cissoko is an exemplar of an august African tradition. He’s also a fine contemporary singer songwriter–a rare mix!

The crowd at Lion D’Or demanded an encore from Zal Cissoko and his band. Clearly the man is loved in this town. I though about Lamine Touré’s scolding for leaving the festival without “completing the race.” As I told him, Afropop will be back. The Nuits d’Afrique festival is a gem, in part because 26 years have made them splendid judges of the best in African and African diaspora music and experts in putting on a great urban music festival. But also, all concerned are graced to live in one of the most worldly and welcoming cities in North America, with one proviso every Afro-Montrealer will note: as long as it’s not winter!

Lamine Touré, founder of the Nuits d’Afrique festival

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