I was short on cash and my fun-o-meter was running dangerously low, so I did what any resourceful writer would do: I called the Nuits D’Afrique festival organizers and explained that I am an illustrious well-known writer with the hugely acclaimed magazine Rover Arts. I want to go to this show, I said, and this one, and this one, picking out the most expensive I could find and scheduling myself a three-day romp through Montreal.
Some numbers: now in its 26th year, the Festival international Nuits d’Afrique comprises 91 shows and workshops from over 500 artists representing 32 countries in 7 venues and more percussion then you can shake a drumstick at. Festival-goers may profit from either of two ticket packages (that’s $70 for three shows, or $100 for 5 if you’re not a broke writer squirreling away press passes).
I strapped my festival buddy to my bike and headed to the first show with glowing expectations.
Day 1 : Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
Lead man Reuben Koroma sang with a pleasant gap-toothed smile and told us to hang onto happiness, even in the face of war. The 6-man group is formed of refugees who were displaced to Guinea during Sierra Leone’s civil war, where they performed for other refugees in need of solace. Their accolades include a 2005 documentary, a song on the Blood Diamond soundtrack, a show opening for Aerosmith, and–yes, it’s true– an Oprah appearance.
The Refugees’ reggae sound is upbeat and infectiously danceable. We danced like fiends and floated to that happy plane where there are no bloody civil wars or pudgy Prime Ministers with questionable environmental policies. I flew into near-transcendental heights, spinning and jumping and jiving until I almost entered a spiritual trance. If I had danced just a little longer I might have unlocked the secrets of the universe, but I had to work early the next morning.
Day 2 : Danse sans frontières
The troupe from Danse sans frontières span various African countries including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Senegal, with Mexico thrown in for good measure. The host kicked off the show and when she sang her voice felt like an ice cube dropped down my back, haunting and resonant. A band at the back of the stage kept the beats coming.
The show was nothing like the awkward contortions of my African dance class. These women can dance. They alternately looked like they were having epileptic fits or experiencing an Exorcist-like possession. Limbs kept flying across the room and hitting unsuspecting bystanders; how the dancers held onto their heads remains a mystery.
All in all the performances were stunning and intense. Towards the end of the show, they brought members of the audience onstage to dance with them, who managed to keep up surprisingly well.
Day 3 : Alpha Thiam and Tambours de Brazza
Alpha Thiam’s music is the sound of smiling. His aesthetic is gorgeous melodies and understated drumming free of the violent percussives of Danse sans frontières. A combination of guitar, bass, kora, and percussion, his music is a current running through the audience, an electric socket you plug into. “This is not the Africa you hear about on the news. This is our Africa we bring to you, a positive Africa,” he said to thunderous applause.
Tambours de Brazza followed and brought out the percussion in spades. Founder Emile Biayenda cavorted about the stage drumming like a happy little boy. The rest of the 10-odd drummers loved every minute of their time onstage and it showed.
By this point I was exhausted from a grueling week of of 9-5ing, festival-frequenting, dancing and Bixiing with reckless abandon from one end of town to the other. Buddy and I retreated to the balconies of La Tulipe and drank in each note with quiet reverence, drunk on free tickets, limitless possibility, and Cheval Blanc.
This is les Nuits d’Afrique, and it runs until July 22. Go.