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

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    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

    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.

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