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

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    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.

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