Culture & Conversation

Music to bridge the divides

When Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate met at Nuits Métis in Marseilles – a festival that matches Western and African musicians – it was, Driscoll told the Rover before the show, “musical love at first sight.”

Anyone hoping to see that love at Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate’s show on Sunday at Club Balattou had to contend with a bit of heartbreak. Due to immigration and border issues, Kouyate was unable to get into Canada, leaving Driscoll to perform without his better half.

The disappointment did, however, allow us a glimpse into what their first meeting may have been like. Just a few hours before the show, kora player Zal Sissoko, meeting Driscoll, his guitarist and drummer for the first time, stepped in and saved the day, playing Kouyate’s kora parts. It was a last-minute collaboration that seemed to echo Driscoll and Keyouate’s story.

When Driscoll and Kouyate met at the Nuits Métis festival in 2010, they couldn’t communicate with one another. Driscoll, a New Yorker, spoke no French, and Keyouate, Guinean, spoke no English. But their musical styles and tastes – their touring road trip soundtrack includes A Tribe Called Quest, Bill Withers, Youssou N’ Dour and Miles Davis – were so perfectly matched that they decided to keep collaborating.

The result of that collaboration is Faya, their debut album released in 2012 to much acclaim. Their genre defies categorization, and the album may be considered a fusion of world, Afrobeat, hip-hop, reggae and folk, featuring Kouyate’s legendary kora playing (he has been nicknamed the Jimi Hendrix of the kora), Driscoll’s impressive multi-instrumental talents and beatboxing, and both their vocals. Driscoll likens their partnership to “a comedian/straight man relationship,” with Driscoll “laying down the grooves and Seykou ripping over the top.”

Driscoll developed an interest in African culture and music from an early age. When he was seven, he found a Bob Marley tape on his school bus, and played it, along with his mother’s “Graceland” album, over and over.  He dreamed of going to Africa, imagining it as a place where he would be embraced by local musicians and invited to jam with them. When he finally went in 2006, road tripping from Johannesburg up to Malawi, stopping in cities, towns and villages along the way, it was exactly as he’d imagined it, and it cemented his  “life-long love for African music.”

When asked about his expectations for the show (before news of Kouyate’s border rejection had reached) he said they were hoping their first North American show would go well, and that they were excited to be in Montreal for Nuits d’Afrique. We talked about Montreal audiences and their openness to world music. As it turned out, the show proved that Montreal audiences are not only open to different fusions of world music; we’re also a pretty understanding, sympathetic bunch.

After the disappointing news, the audience recovered quickly, cheering and clapping for last-minute rescuer Zal Sissoko and for Driscoll. Fittingly, they opened with Passport, a song about music, travel and crossing borders. Sissoko seemed comfortable on stage playing songs he had just learned in the past hour, and the band all seemed to communicate with ease.

Driscoll’s earnest enthusiasm glows on stage. Natural and sincere, he is immensely likeable on stage and in person. He immediately endeared himself to the audience, thanking them, and Sissoko, profusely – and speaking the French he’s been learning (“I got Rosetta Stone now”). Apologizing, en français, for his limited French, audience members shouted back “Non, c’est très bon!

The newly formed band, and Driscoll himself, warmed up by about the fourth song in the set. “Mixtape Champs,” from Driscoll’s solo work, was a great performance, with Driscoll rapping the funny and sweet lyrics. The band seemed to relax into their groove a little more and the crowd’s energy picked up. They kept it going with the rest of the set, with impressive deliveries of “Wonomati,” “New York” and “Faya,” ending the set with the album’s title track.

Sissoko returned to the stage for some beautiful kora work, and then the band rejoined to jam together, because, as Driscoll said “Pourquoi pas?!”  With the crowd fully into it, the cosmic joke on Driscoll continued as the power went out. As the mikes cut and Balattou went black, the drummer kept going, Driscoll picked up a tambourine, the bassist pounded on a speaker, and a few women dancing by the stage began singing.

The audience clapped and cheered along, and, for a moment, the night had the magical quality of an improvised jam session in a hot, dark club somewhere in Africa. Like all magical moments, it slowly dissipated, and when it began to get really hot, and became clear the power wasn’t coming back on soon, the drummer slowed the beat down and the audience and band made their way outside.

Driscoll thanked the audience yet again, in French: “à tout à l’heure!  Did I say that right? I hope to see you again soon!”

So do we, Joe. You bring Sekou, and we’ll keep the power on for you.

Joe Driscoll performed as part of the Festival International des Nuits d’Afrique, which runs until July 21. For more information please visit the festival website.

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