Les Nuits d’Afrique burst into Montreal on Wednesday night with French reggae act Danakil, proving once again that no festival need feel held back by its name. With singer Natty Jean sporting the most bizarre incarnation of a Nike shirt I have yet seen, and his co-singer Balik bearing a backwards cap featuring the African continent over his dreads, I made do with the relative lack of percussion and tried not to inhale too deeply as clouds of smoke wafted back from the front rows.
Danakil is, as it happens, the top reggae act in France, with a devout following in spite of being relatively unknown outside their native country. The divide was evidenced by the incredible enthusiasm of the French half of the crowd. They pumped their fists into the air and sang louder than the singers at points, and what I suspect were Montrealers skulking out of La Tulipe early to fit in one more drink on a work night.
Danakil’s sound is a melange of French/Jamaican/international/incomprehensible, with the highlight being an Edith Piaf cover that commanded the audience. Non, je ne regrette rien – there’s something so instructive and so comforting about singing those words along with a crowd of boisterous strangers. Throughout the night the band clearly had a grand ol’ time on stage, and while the sax and trumpet player did their jobs well enough from the backs of the stage, they should be admitted into an Emergency Dance Rehabilitation program. Immediately.
Opening act Afrikelektro was notably less pleasing to the ears, with off-key singing and an afro-beat that felt more headache-inducing than dance-inspiring. It was a nice opportunity however to grab a beer and catch up with Concert Companion. We were not the only ones guiltily talking over the music from the back of La Tulipe. So yeah, work on the vocals, guys.
More Nuits d’Afrique highlights to come as the festival continues through July 21.