Montreal's Festival International Nuits d’Afrique is a Haven For World Music Artists
Representing 35 countries, the festival was a masterclass in showcasing some of the best international artists.
All photos by Sharonne Cohen
Festival International Nuits d’Afrique—"the North American gateway for music from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America"—celebrated its 30th edition in Montreal mid-July. The largest African/World Music festival in the world fulfilled its mission: getting audiences to discover leading and emerging international and local artists rarely included in other types of festivals. It was a 13-day marathon with over 110 concerts—many of which were free and open to the public at the Quartier des spectacles, in the heart of downtown Montreal. The festival included artists representing 35 countries, offering special events and activities, and open-air workshops introducing traditional instruments as well as African and Latin dance. The diverse program included eight series taking place at six venues, highlighting emerging voice while presenting legendary artists including Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Algerian icon Rachid Taha, and Cuba’s famous Orquesta Aragón.
One of the festival's main events was a tribute to international star Manu Dibango, who ranks among the leading African saxophonists of his generation, and is considered the father of World Music (his song "Soul Makossa," recorded in 1971, sold in the millions worldwide, and was sampled by Michael Jackson and Rihanna). The 82 year-old Cameroonian developed a musical style fusing traditional African music, jazz and funk, bringing African music to the West and presenting a unifying vision of the French-speaking world and of cultural diversity—a vision clearly shared by Nuits d’Afrique. The festival honored Dibango with its first-ever Prix Nuits d’Afrique pour la francophonie, and a tribute concert at the Fairmount Theatre featuring several young artists, as well as Cuban group Proyecto Iré, winner of the 2016 Syli d’Or—the people's choice award, giving artists the tools to develop their careers nationally and internationally. It was as if Dibango passed the world music torch to a new generation of Montreal musicians, including singer-songwriter-guitarist Élété (Chad), Afro-soul / r&b vocalist Veeby (Cameroon), and French reggae fusion singer Rookie Rook, all accompanied by Caribbean trio Jab Jab. The audience went wild when Dibango finally hit the stage, the entire theater breaking into song on "Soir au village."
A similar passing-of-the-torch theme was evident at the Metropolis during the performance of legendary Haitian band Tabou Combo, founded in 1968; original bandleader Albert Chancy occasionally took a back seat, as drummer Jonas Imbert took center stage and lead vocals. Drawing Montreal's large Haitian community, the band delivered beloved 'kompa' hits flavored with merengue, funk and soul influences (New York City, Rumba liberté), its energy and passion feeding the adoring crowd. The festival also highlighted an eclectic array of up-and-coming African artists. With influences ranging from electro-pop to soul to hip hop, singer Inna Modja (Mali) performed music from her third album, Motel Bamako—check out "Tombouctou," addressing the vulnerability of women during times of war, and the desire of Malagasi women to be free and strong.
Singer-guitarist-storyteller Kareyce Fotso (Cameroon), whose mission is to share the cultural wealth of her homeland with the world, captivated a packed Balattou with stories of love (Ndolo), and raised important social issues, addressing the challenges faced by women in Cameroon. With her husky voice, accompanying herself with a guitar / thumb piano / percussion, she blended diverse Cameroonian traditions with blues, jazz and soul, engaging the audience with call-and response on the chorus of "Lomdieu" ("mariage forcé, c'est pas bon" - i.e., forced marriage is no good). Senegalese singer-songwriter ILAM (b. Karim Tall) delivered his unique fusion of reggae, blues Afro-folk, soul, pop and rock, brewing the influences of the nomadic griots traditions into a contemporary cultural mélange. Winner of the 2016-2017 Radio-Canada Revelation award for world music, his soulful vocals and high energy were infectious. Introducing the bluesy "Mi Soussi Misousani" (I'm afraid, I'm not afraid, in his mother tongue, Poulaar) ILAM shared music from his EP along with his father's parting words before he left his homeland: that the strength of a nomad is in confronting fear—fear of the unknown, of, loneliness, of the other; he later spoke about the importance of remembering our origins and heritage, and being happy with what we have.
One highlight was the performance of Afrique en Cirque (Guinea/Québec)— explosive drumming, dance routines, and bold acrobatics displaying a range of African arts. With a non-stop, dizzying pace, the group delivered mind-blowing acrobatic sequences with extraordinary precision, made all the more dramatic by hypnotic percussion. Led by Yamoussa Bangoura—an acrobat, dancer and musician—the troupe is part of Les Productions Kalabanté, a performing arts company which leads a humanitarian project, channeling its profits into the construction and operation of a circus school near Conakry (Guinea's capital). Closing day included performances by Jamaican-Canadian singer-songwriter Takeyce (daughter of Claudelle Clarke, the legendary queen of Jamaican gospel), blending reggae with funk, soul and Afrobeat; the infectious traditional Guadeloupean beats of K’Koustik; and a free, outdoor mega-concert featuring Meiway and his band Zo Gang. Mixing various traditions from Côte d’Ivoire with contemporary influences, Meiway had the crowd dancing and singing his familiar hits, like "Zoblazo."
The highlight of this final night was an intimate, spellbinding concert celebrating the centuries-old musical legacy of the kora—a majestic 21-string West African instrument, known as the African harp. Taking the stage were two kora masters: first Montreal-based Senegalese Zal Sissokho, descendant of the first kora player in history, followed by his uncle—New Orleans-based, seventh-generation griot Morikeba Kouyaté. With melodies taking the audience to faraway lands, the two offered a master class in the history and cultural significance of the instrument, ending this festive 30th edition on a high note.
Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.