White People with Dreads

Quebec Subculture or Real Mainstream Potential?

By Sophie Pascal © 25.6.03

This Tuesday’s St-Jean Baptiste Day was yet another opportunity to hear the World in the streets of the Mile End district. For years the celebration has been the opportunity to put on the stage at the corner of St-Urbain and St-Viateur the most worthy of developping Montreal World Beat acts. To name a few, Guinnean Lilison Di Kinaro and Brazilian Niko Beki graced that stage years back (97/98); Lilison went on to record a magnificent CD with a local label and earn a Felix while Niko Beki still can’t believe the impact she has had since organizing, with other Brazilian musicians 5 years ago, les dimanches brésiliens at Les Bobards on St-Laurent Boulevard, still going strong as the place to be to hear Brazilian music in Montreal.

So this year Mile End residents, or just plain World Beat enthusiasts (which one comes first remains to be determined), got to see several new acts, some of which were playing on stage as a group for the first time! Perhaps because of the limited means of the production as well as the time to set up (a 10-minute sound check immediately before the show!), musicians and party goers alike don’t tend to expect too much and the stage becomes the perfect testing ground for new groups. To my delight, this year’s line-up was a true pleasure. I was nothing less than captivated by the quality of the bands that chose to showcase their stuff to the St-Jean crowd from noon to 11 p.m. Tuesday.

The first group that caught this writer’s ear was Z’wa, newly formed by the talented Ivory Coast drummer Mohamed Coulibaly, whose repertroire stretches from traditional West African to Reggae, Brazilian and French Carribean rhythms, and to Jazz, Classic Rock and Pop Québecois! Comprised of Cameroun-born bassist Guy Langué, young Haitian guitarist Wesley Louissaint who is known to look and play like Jimmy Hendrix (!), dreadlocked Québecois saxophone wonderboy André Desilets, and two other Québécois, Hans (?) on percussions and (?) at the keyboards, the group delivered a strong West-African/Jazz/Reggae sound heavy on percussion. Even at 1:30 in the afternoon, under a searing sun, the crowd demanded to hear more.

The next group was equally mesmerizing, although based on the strings of only three instruments: a West African kora, a guitar and a violin. Nathalie Cora was formed by Montrealer Nathalie Dusseault, who is amoung the rare non-Africans to have learned to play the kora from genuine African griots. The sound generated by the trio was well balanced and as remiscent of traditional Senegalese music as of some more ethereal new age sounds. All in all, a nicely engaging and soothing new sound. The CD is due out this fall. A sure bet. Who would have known that Tuesday was their first time in front of an audience?

Then came Follow Follow, a happy bunch of middle aged white guys who belted out, behind world renowned Jazz and musique actuelle saxophone guru Jean Derome, the most authentic Afro Beat this side of Nigeria. There’s no mistake, the group is named after one of Fela Kuti’s cult pieces from the 80’s, Mister Follow Follow. What a snazzy ensemble.

Lo and behold, the ecclectic musicians merge!: The guitarist just seen in Nathlie Cora jumps on stage with the saxo dread head from Z’wa! Together Bruno Rouyère and André Desilets look like a Montreal version of the Blues Brothers and spearhead Malade Mantra, a cool Guthrie/folkish Afro/Reggae/Techno musical substance with original and conscious lyrics delivered with passion and savoir faire. What a surprise to find out that they were testing out the show for the first time too!

What more is there to say about the two hip Montreal girls on djembes (West African drum), bongas, calabasse and shekeres, Dorianne and Carol, who have led Dobacaracol for the past three years and who have just recently added a keyboard player, bassist, and a fabulous drummer from Ivory Coast to their now popular band. The drummer, who else but Mohamed Coulibaly, who has played now only twice with the group, delivered the riveting African rhythm in perfect harmony with those of the uninhibited white girls with dreads who seem to have been born with an innate sense of rhythm! A pleasure to watch.

When I left to get some dinner, more Québécois white dudes, of La Galère, were playing some ska on that same stage where Afro-Peruvians Mandinga eventually finished off this St-Jean Baptiste’s amazing World Beat fest.

Whoever thought up this program knew it would work. But you gotta wonder if all this attention is strictly a function of the neighbourhood or if there really is a trend going on here that maintream heavy hitters haven’t yet figured out how to cash in on. Is World Beat still just the fact of a small niche market, too small to be commercialized in a cost efficient, financially viable manner?

Whatever the answer, the quality of the music heard at the St-Jean’s Mile End block party made you feel that you had discovered a yet uncharted tropical island, an unadulterated, banana republic smelling of mangos, disorganized and flawed, but emanating a beauty only those who recognize it can enjoy, regardless of age and ethnic identity. And then you find yourself hoping nobody else ever discovers where you found it.

Local bands to check out at the Jazz Fest this year (2003):

Lucky Dube June 26

Gran Orquesta Cubana w/ Convoy Cubano June 26

Toto Laraque June 27

H’Sao June 27

Ya Kengué June 28

Gaïa June 29

Many Ways* June 29

Wazobia June 30

Catherine Potter and the Duniya Project July 2

Afrodizz July 3

Jab Jab July 4

Carlos Placeres July 5

Intakto July 5

Canada Raï July 6

* Headed by Juno winner Eval Manigat and Lazaro René