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L’Afrique avant tout: Se souvenir du 31ème Festival International Nuits d’Afrique



31st Festival International Nuits d'Afrique in progress with Sidi Wacho. Photo: Danilo Navas

Memories are apparently rampant especially in Montréal, Quebec. After all every licence plate on a motorcar contains a registration number and the words “Québec… Je me souviens”. This, after all, is the motto of this beautiful province of Québec and justifiably so. It seems that you cannot abide here and not leave without memories, glorious ones, I might add. Our stay this time appeared was all too brief, although we’d spent but a day more the last time we were in Montréal, but two weeks to the day we arrived again on the 21st of July, 2017. This time was also a little bittersweet. We were here to bid goodbye to the 31st edition of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique. At an event like this you never know what to expect. Happily so. And we were not disappointed…

Mandinka master musician Zal Sissokho and Buntalo of Senegal and Québec. Photo by Danilo Navas
Mandinka master musician Zal Sissokho and Buntalo of Senegal and Québec. Photo by Danilo Navas

The rain – a terrific downpour – arrived shortly after were billeted in our caravanserai, Hôtel Travelodge Montréal Centre, on Boulevard René-Lévesque to be precise. It was construction day in the city and the rock-drills and jack-hammers were yammering and bell-ringing. I found myself having to shout my comments and questions at Danilo Navas, Publisher and Editor of our group, Global Music Media and Photographe extraordinaire who was going to and did, indeed cover (again) the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique with pictures, while I was chastened by the challenge of bringing another cultural event to life with words. How difficult is that, you might think? Or as the American cousins might ask: “How sweet is that!?” Either way it has taken me a week or so of false-starts to get going. None of these I have wished to preserve but despite the ‘Delete’ key on a computer keyboard, I know each of my vain attempts to get going are still there, somewhere in the ether surrounding this monster that pretends to sit innocently on my study table.

I listened daily to a compilation of music by the artists who appeared at this 31st Festival International Nuits d’Afrique hoping for a leg up to vault over the first hurdle, namely a suitable title for the piece, but it was all in vain despite the fact that each song I heard conjured a hologram-like image of the performers on Scène TD-ICI Musique who graced the square between the 18th and the 23rd of July, 2017 and En Salle between the 11th and the 23rd of July, 2017. The marvels of sound engineering, happily as good on disc as on stage, brought the music alive once more and made for a vivid reminder of what had gone by not a week before this day, the 29th of July, 2017. Still no title until 3 o’clock in the morning when I awoke to a singular ping from my mobile telephone telling me I had an email message from one of my teachers at St. Xavier’s College, Professor Adil Jussawalla. The news was bad: his colleague and my teacher, Eunice De Souza had passed suddenly in Bombay. “Painlessly,” his email said. I, however, was hurting – and have been hurting all day.

Funny how pain can enable the secretion of enzymes in the brain? Mine were unlocked in that part of my brain where memories are stored. I was thinking about Miss De Souza; vivid memories… Memories? By 6 o’clock in the evening I was able to channel the flow towards Montréal. The death of someone I loved and revered had vaulted me from the hole I was in, over the hump and into the City of Montréal, where it was no longer today, but the 21st of July, at about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Outside the window of our 6th floor room at Hôtel Travelodge Montréal Centre, the sky was darkening. By the time we took the lift down to the foyer of the hotel, it was coming down as if the angry sky had opened like a sluice-gate and an Antediluvian downpour ensued, forcing us back through the doors and into the now-crowded, steamy foyer of the Hôtel Travelodge.

Mohamed Mohamed Idabbou and Fourat Koyo with Abdel Grooz. Photo by Peter Graham courtesy Grooz

It was still dark even as the rain stopped, at 5 o’clock in the evening but we hurried to the Media Tent by Scène TD-ICI Musique to pick up our accreditation documents and lanyards for the festival. Our hostess, Charlotte Arlen, listed in the programme as “Responsable Communications – Relations de Presse” had been utterly charming when we met two weeks or so ago on a prior trip to the city. So we decided to have a wander around the soggy grass around the stage, explore the various tents and their colourful fare – dashikis, African drums, mementoes – and drink in the aroma of barbeques and other robust and delicate cuisines that were driving us insane with hunger as we’d had nothing but the sandwiches Danilo had prepared for our bus-trip to Montréal. Then Danilo spotted Miss Arlen across the square and we headed over to meet her. Distracted by Grooz, the Algerian-Quebec ensemble and the deep groove that bassist and vocalist Abdelhak Benmedjebari was creating through a series of throbbing notes that were exploding from the giant speakers on stage, I was still reminded of how to properly greet a lady, European-style, holding out hands as if to embrace and we were well-met with extraordinary warmth and generosity by Miss Arlen. Now to get away and focus on the stage…

Nothing was coming easy to us – me especially – hungry and tired from an uncomfortable, six-hour journey. However, we had but twenty minutes left by now to capture some of the magic of the music being played by Grooz before they wrapped it up in time for Zal Sissokho, the griot from Senegal to tune up, kick off and carry us away to the red heat of Dakar and elsewhere in Senegal. Meanwhile Abdelhak Benmedjebari bass or not was on song, leaping on stage as he was being accompanied by the other members of Grooz. You could not help being riveted by Mohamed Mohamed Idabbou and Fourat Koyo, the two garagab players from Essaouira, Morocco, who were seemingly in flight, leaping as if weightless, and in turn twirling their orange and gold shashiyas (Gnawa skull-caps with tassels) bedecked with cowries and other finery, accoutered with fabulously coloured garments and wearing magnetic smiles, with garagab a-chatter and reminiscing in tempo as they took my eyes away momentarily from Abdelhak Benmedjebari’s vocals and the rest of Grooz. But this was a near to Essaouira as I was going to get and I stood transfixed.

Bandidas' Bïa and Mamselle Ruiz. Photo by Danilo Navas
Bandidas’ Bïa and Mamselle Ruiz. Photo by Danilo Navas

Zal Sissokho and Buntalo were, by comparison, a quieter although they did also create a furious desire to dance at some point. We had to break away for an introduction to Lamine Touré, the founder of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique and Club Balattou, where it all began. He seemed not to understand why someone from Toronto would be at this event; perhaps wondered of what relevance this event would have in Ontario (outside Québec at any rate), to which Mr Navas was at pains to explain that the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique was well known in more places than Québec, parts of Africa and France. Our conversation was (predictably) short; cut short also because Zal Sissokho was calling us to “Abaraka, merci” a rather spiritual experience that he sang in a mixture of Wolof and French. Zal Sissokho is not only a skilled kora player, but is descended from a legendary Mandinka family, whose ancestors have sat around the iconic baobab tree, often in the centre of West African Villages and enchanted their audiences with stories of valour and hope. These griots to whom Zal Sissokho can justifiably claim ancestry are guardians of the history and culture of their people, often going beyond the village – indeed Dakar and Senegal itself – to other parts of West Africa. It was hard to leave the Sissokho concert, but leave we must in order to catch Bandidas.

The quintet Bandidas (literally, “bandits”) is a group fronted by two of truly gifted vocalists from Quebec: the Brasilian-born Bïa and the Mexican-born Mamselle Ruiz together with Sheila Hannigan on cello, Dan Gigon on bass and Sacha Daoud, drums and percussion. Outwardly it Bïa and Mamselle Ruiz might seem odd bedfellows. Brought together in this profound performance, however, they prove mutually illuminating. Teasing each other and flirting with the audience packed to the rafters at the beautiful Théâtre Fairmount on Park Avenue in the Mile End district. The starting point of the programme is really feminist in theme and content – and why not? If the machismo of society knows no bounds, why not find numerous ways to hit back? The duo, fortified by a sublimely virtuoso cellist, Sheila Hannigan often played off the poignant and bittersweet tones of her instrument, telling stories with visceral energy, great fire and exuberant pomp and circumstance. Their performance, featuring much original work, must surely count as a touchstone for the next generation of women musicians. Both Bïa and Mamselle Ruiz revealed themselves here as vocalists and storytellers of the first order. Their instruments were gorgeous: lustrous, precise and feather-light. As the vocal baton passed from one to the other, the musicianship of each was revealed in all its fierceness as both dug into the lyrical expression of each word, bringing ceaseless variety to soft dynamics, ultimately giving every phrase a particular grace.

Members of the “kompa-happy” Full Sèvis. Photo by Danilo Navas

The evening of Friday the 21st of July could hardly be dissolved into the bottle-green darkness of the cool Montréal night without a proverbial doffing of the hat to the Moroccan pop-star, Abdel Kadiri, who brought his picture-perfect act to the main stage, complete with a DJ and beautiful dancers who sent his show heavenward and his audiences, who were singing along with him, into such rapturous applause it’s a wonder that he could complete even one of his songs. However, with a bottomless reserve of patience and charm and a disarmingly crocked smile, Mr Kadiri made it truly an evening to remember. A multiple award winner at the latest Sylis d’or de la musique du monde, Abdel Kadiri belongs to the same raï tradition that gave us the famous Algerian, Cheb Khaled and true to form also pulled off a memorable version “Didi” the raï anthem with which Khaled rocked the world in the summer of 1991. Abdel Kadiri also showed how versatile a singer he is, singing old and new songs in Arabic and French as well with his singular, natural mode of expression. Mr Kadiri also deserves credit for firm, intelligent shaping of this enterprising and rewarding recital, a major factor in the success of the evening at the Scène TD-ICI Musique venue.

Raï music star Abdel Kadiri. Photo by Danilo Navas
Raï music star Abdel Kadiri. Photo by Danilo Navas

Montréal is the most populous municipality in the province of Quebec and the second-most populous in Canada. Originally the city was called “Ville-Marie”, or “City of Mary”. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that First Nations native people en route from Africa, of course, making the torturous route over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years from there, hugging the northern and southern European coastline they finally occupied the island of Montreal as early as 4,000 years ago. By the year AD 1000, from essentially fishermen, they had turned agriculturalists and started to cultivate maize. Within a few hundred years, they had built fortified villages. The Saint Lawrence Iroquoians, an ethnicity distinct from the Iroquois nations of the Haudenosaunee then based in present-day New York, established the village of Hochelaga at the foot of Mount Royal two centuries before the French arrived. Archeologists have found evidence of their habitation there and at other locations in the valley since at least the 14th century. The French explorer Jacques Cartier visited Hochelaga on October 2, 1535, and estimated the population of the native people at Hochelaga to be “over a thousand people”.

This year (2017), Montréal is celebrating 375 years since its founding by the French traveller and colonist. But in a sense the city owes a very large part of its cultural riches to the African, whose travels date back to Homo ergaster who may have been the first human species to leave Africa and fossil remains show this species had expanded its range into southern Eurasia by 1.75 million years ago. According to paleontologists Spenser Wells and Mark Read who published The Journey of Man – A Genetic Odyssey in 2002 (Random House, ISBN 0-8129-7146-9), Paleo-Indians originated from Central Asia, crossing the Beringia land bridge between eastern Siberia and present-day Alaska. Humans lived throughout the Americas by the end of the last glacial period, or more specifically what is known as the late glacial maximum, no earlier than 23,000 years before present. Details of Paleo-Indian migration to and throughout the American continent, including the dates and the routes traveled, are subject to ongoing research and discussion. However, until new information is accepted we must accept these dates. Estimates range from 40,000 to around 16,500 years ago. The routes of migration are also debated.

The traditional theory was proposed by Ds William Fitzhugh, Ives Goddard, Steve Ousley, Doug Owsley and Dennis Stafford who’s “Paleoamerican” palimpsest has been archived in the Smithsonian Institution Anthropology Outreach Office. The doctors suggest that these early migrants moved when sea levels were significantly lowered due to the Quaternary glaciation, following herds of now-extinct pleistocene megafauna along ice-free corridors that stretched between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets. Another route proposed (in The Scientific American) is that, either on foot or using primitive boats, they migrated down the Pacific coast to South America as far as Chile. Any archaeological evidence of coastal occupation during the last Ice Age would now have been covered by the sea level rise, up to a hundred metres since then. The recent finding of Australoid genetic markers in Amazonia supports the coastal route hypothesis by Ewen Callaway in “‘Ghost population’ hints at long-lost migration to the Americas: Present-day Amazonians share an unexpected genetic link with Asian islanders, hinting at an ancient trek” (Nature News, 2015).

L'afrique avant tout: Se souvenir du 31ème Festival International Nuits D'Afrique
Burkina Faso-Québécois griot Bonsa. Photo by Danilo Navas

What has this elaborate aside got to do with the 31st edition of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique? Everything; simply because if the origin of all humanity can be traced back to Africa, then any celebration, including the 375th birthday of the City of Montréal must include a celebration of its Mother Africa. Almost too magically to be a coincidence France features importantly in the emerging Africa as well as in the colonial birth of Montréal. It is why the 22nd of July featured some extraordinary music by Ensemble Afrovibes which comprises musicians from Haiti, Argentina, and England, now based in Québec. It also featured Bonsa, a miraculous koami-playing griot from Burkina Faso, who travelled all over West Africa before settling in Québec and who, like his Mandinka cousins melds the traditional Bissa music with popular styles in the Anglophone and Francophone realms.

Our choking by gold continued with a viscerally exciting music and dance romp through Haiti with the Kompa music of Full Sèvis, now based in Québec, followed by the crackling fire of Kandia Kora, son of the legendary griot M’baly Kouyaté from Guinée. The day’s riches also included the incredible Algerian band, Djmawi Africa and the pen-ultimate act of the night, Sidi Wacho, a French-Chilean duo who certainly raised the temperature thanks to Saïdou, a rapper from the French hip hop group Ministère des Affaires Populaires (MAP), and Juanito Ayala, Chilean Cumbia musician and vocalist and their strident call for social justice through singularly stylish rap in Spanish and French, melded in with glorious percussion and the hauntingly alive button-accordion played with enormous flair by Jeoffrey Arnone. The tremendous heat was only cooled down in the darkness of La Sala Rossa by the seemingly ubiquitous Tunisian rapper, King Abid.

Mathieu da Costa, (sometimes d’Acosta) is the first recorded free black person in Canada

One cannot countenance an interest in the culture of a nation without an abiding passion for the knowledge of its origins; all of which – quite apart from anything – fosters a depth of understanding of our collective human ancestry. And, so delving deeper into the history of Black Canada, if only for a day – the final day of Festival International Nuits d’Afrique – it paid to venture in search of one of Black Canada’s most famous sons, the great jazz musician, pianist and Québécois, Oscar Peterson. Although the search for Oscar Peterson’s history led us down many blind alleys and derelict boulevards, avenues, roads and cul de sacs, it led us to many breathtaking discoveries, which, however, are the subject (sadly or otherwise) of an altogether different feature. However, it is important to note that Black Canada is not comprised by Afro-Caribbean peoples alone – although this group constitutes a majority – but, in fact African-Americans who came to Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries to escape slavery in the Deep South. Most interestingly, the first African to come ashore was a free man named Mathieu da Costa. Although said to have been travelling with navigator Samuel de Champlain, da Costa might have arrived earlier and is known to have acted as a translator between the Micmac natives and De Champlain and also for the French explorer Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Monts who arrived later (probably 1608) in Nova Scotia. Why Nova Scotia? This is not surprising, of course, for ports in Nova Scotia were the nearest Canadian ports for European tall ships cutting through the hostile Trade Winds. Da Costa was “free man” no less, we are told. Still the fact that words can be used to describe a person from Africa certainly sting me as they preclude that a “slavery” was imminent at some point in time or even in existence.

However, our story at the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique took an altogether different turn later in the evening. A morning expedition took us to Place St. Henri, in search of Black Canada’s roots and also to see where Oscar Peterson was born, the mural that celebrated him, Parc Oscar-Peterson, which we ultimately found at the corner of rue St. Jacques and rue des Seigneurs between Little Burgundy and Griffintown, Montréal and the virtually thumb-nail sized Parc des Jazzmen, where we also found some historic markers of Black Canada including the first settlement of Yoruba in Canada and a wonderful mural paying homage to another great Québécois musician and pianist Oliver Jones. Although not altogether futile, the sojourn meant we missed performances by Tanti Rebecca, the mighty Yigo Coulibaly Awouna from Burkina Faso, the prize-winning Ibnou Ndiaye and his Afro-acoustic Nourbi Trio from Senegal (now firmly settled in Québec) as well as the sensational Stella Goins from Martineque, as well as the Haitian-Québécois Wesli. Whatever little was put on by Javi Mendez y Su Sandunga, the Cuban-Québécois seemed to fall well short of musicians, although they were replaced by dancers and a Dj. Choosing instead to catch Jean-François Léger meant we would also have to miss part of the closing act, an exciting performance by the Colombian group Tribu Baharú, from Colombia’s Pacific Coast who brought their raucous blend of Champeta and Afro-Caribbean reggae. However, we were able to catch most of their performance.

Jean-François Léger telling the story of 50 ans de Bossa Nova at Lion d’or. Photo by Danilo Navas

The Lion d’Or is a theater and an ‘old style’ almost “noir” cabaret located at 1676, rue Ontario East, Montréal, Québec, Canada. It was founded in 1930, at the beginning of the emergence Of Montréal cabarets. Several artists of the time performed there including Jean-Louis Trintignant, Vic Vogel, Peggy Lee, the McGarrigle sisters, Alys Robi, Willie Lamothe and others. The establishment enjoyed a period of great splendor until the end of the fifties but was closed in the 70’s by the then self-styled “Defender of Public Morality” mayor Jean Drapeau. In 1987, the owners of the restaurant Petit Extra, located in the same building, bought the cabaret. It was renovated and seems now restored to its former glory. On the 23rd of July, the final night of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, Jean-François Léger occupied its considerably enlarged stage, off and on cloaked in darkness or bathed in blood-red and indigo-blue spotlights. His voice alternating between a tremulous countertenor and a soaring falsetto Leger launched into his fabulous story “50 ans de Bossa Nova”. The concert was a series of “highs”, two of the most memorable were probably the story of how Frank Sinatra got his full name on the cover of the album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim: Arranged and Conducted by Claus Ogerman and, of course the explosive performance of a samba squad led by Michel Dupire.

Percussionist Michel Dupire, who later led a samba squad. Photo by Danilo Navas
Percussionist Michel Dupire, who later led a samba squad. Photo by Danilo Navas

The Festival International Nuits d’Afrique can only get bigger and better. With some timely changes to feature a greater degree of thematic architecture in its artistic programming it could go places and catch up with other major cultural events not only in Canada, but in the world as a whole. To assess the success of this 31st version of the festival we must return to back of a promise from its 2017 spokesperson, the Brasilian-Québécoise star Bïa, who promised that “From Madagascan punk, to Malian disco, from ragamuffin to soul, Nuits d’Afrique takes us on camelback, by rowboat, jet or rocket, across the fertile and eclectic fruit of baobab pollen, magical cures and the mother of all beats…” But listen with bigger ears now. Africa is always calling and will never stop calling us home. Perhaps it’s time to step up to a larger cultural stage and not only occupy greater space geographically, but maybe even slim down into a more sinuous event with a multi-layered cultural platform built on our oldest culture, the culture of our ancestors in Mother Africa, from whose womb we all really came.

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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