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Montreal’s Howl! Arts Collective is Leading a Dance Dance Revolution

The week-long arts festival believes in protest music for the soul.

Photo courtesy of Howl! Facebook

The phrase protest music can conjure up a number of images: a kumbaya moment of acoustic guitar sing-alongs, the roar of an anthemic chant passed through throngs of people, or an in-your-face punk fury that presents itself in opposition to the norm. But Montreal-based Howl! arts collective is protesting in a more experimental and emotionally earnest way. The collective put on a week-long festival of concerts, films, and exhibitions in Montreal from April 20-26 that was billed as a “celebration of art and revolution” and highlighted the role of artistic expression to challenge oppression. Protest music can be powerful beyond just making a racket, and the festival harnessed this power to support social justice struggles while also providing solace and release in uncertain and chaotic times.


For Howl! arts collective member and festival organizer Stefan Christoff, music and activism can be complementary pathways towards social change. According to Christoff—who worked as an activist to support exiled Sudanese Montrealer Abousfian Abdelrazi’s case to return to the city—the first Howl! release was a record of six piano duets called Duets for Abdelrazi. But more importantly, Christoff believes, is that music can provide a different language for impulses that are difficult to express in words. “There’s something within the context of a social activist campaign that is challenging one to express through a banner or a press release on the more emotive side, more spiritual side. Music can communicate the dream world aspect of activism, the imagined possibilities, the impossible. I’m so molded into trying to speak in sound bites because as an activist you try to always be articulate. Music doesn’t always have to be that, and that’s good,” says Christoff.

The Howl! festival coincided with the Printemps 2015 demonstrations, which have railed against the Québec government’s austerity budget. The Howl! arts compilation album ne pas plier: artists against austerity lays out the broad focus of these protests, stating that the “current Conservative government in Ottawa and the Liberal government in Québec are sustaining massive corporate tax cuts, while cutting public funds for institutions that form the social bedrock of the collective victories of activist movements in Canada over generations.” Rather than directly discuss or attack these policies, the album aims to communicate a spirit of sonic opposition wordlessly through musical experimentation.


Nevertheless, not all was experimental and wordless-sprawling sounds, as the emotive capacity of music to communicate protest was also on display. The festival featured a benefit for Missing Justice, a solidarity collective that works to bring attention to missing and murdered Native women. Performing at the benefit, musician Ari Swan commented on the urgency of coming together to address pervasive social problems. “It’s such an important idea to have solidarity between people who are dehumanized. There are so many groups of people who are considered so far away from being important that we don’t even notice when they are missing… as well as a lot of frustration sometimes that I feel as a woman; a woman of colour, doing music that is not really what you would expect to come from me. The ability to be heard is very difficult. The frustration comes out in my music sometimes even if it’s not totally conscious,” says Swan. Also performing at the Missing Justice benefit was the Choeur Maha women’s choir, which formed the year of the Polytechnique Massacre in Montreal and has been led by Kathy Kennedy for nearly 25 years. Against the backdrop of a culture of violence against women, Kennedy highlights the “consciousness of choosing feminist repertoire and music written by women” and “feeling of sisterhood and sorority” of women coming together in the choir.

Ari Swan speaking at Missing Justice benefit / Photo By Miranda Campbell


This feeling of solidarity is also apparent when the members of Saturn Returns, a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist music collective and record label, get together. The collective is made up of three bands: Doilies, Heathers, and Loose Strife. At the festival, Saturn Returns launched the second album put out by the collective, the Loose Strife record, Getting Better Getting Worse. As a collective, Saturn Returns seeks to share the labour and the love of making music, putting on shows, and releasing records, but above all, they are friends. Loose Strife band member Claire Lyke stresses the benefits of working in a collective model, explaining that she’s learned a lot from watching the example of Heathers, which she characterizes as “an extremely organized band.” Smiling, Heather Hardie of Heathers says, “I do a lot of spreadsheets.” Lyke adds, “I’ve been making so many more spreadsheets, inspired the exposure to your band.” The other half of Loose Strife, Shaun Weadick quips, “which I still haven’t filled out.”

Beyond sharing the joys and procrastination of data entry, Lyke explains that working in a collective model challenges capitalist ideologies. “Through mutual support we can participate in creating alternative spaces and resisting through art. One of the things in capitalism that is really pernicious is the feeling of scarcity; you can never be enough, you can never have enough, you can never get enough of something. By creating, we’re working to make music and art more accessible and plentiful. It’s also resisting that feeling of capitalism of not getting enough or not being enough because you are like, no, we can have and create moments of bounty,” says Lyke. One origin point of these feelings of gleeful plenitude in the collective might be their ties with Rock Camp for Girls Montreal, a community organization that all of the collective members have been involved with in some way, where shrieks of joy abound as girls and gender nonconforming youth learn to rock out at a five-day summer camp. All members of the band believe that Saturn Returns was born out of the Rock Camp spirit: doing it yourself, taking creative risks, having fun.


For Loose Strife, taking risks and having fun means less is sometimes more. On their new record, Getting Better Getting Worse, the stripped-down guitar and drum two-piece swap vocal duties create their own call and response dialogue of shouts and yelps. “As a two piece, there’s a real temptation to use loop pedals, but we don’t do any of that because we want to make it more immediate in terms of when you come to our shows, you see the movements and how we make the music,” says Lyke. The album title, she adds, “Is something that talks to the forward and back motion of trying to push against the standard norms under capitalism. You make an advance in some way, and you feel a retreat in another place in your life. Going after one kind of success means you don’t achieve something that is more socially acceptable as a life achievement.”

Photo via Loose Strife

Situated in a push and pull of joy and despair, Getting Better Getting Worse is bombastically energetic while delving into the struggles of both the personal and the political. On the opening track, “Popcorn,” Weadick reimagines a group of protesters being kettled by the police as a bunch of popcorn kernels explosively united, declaring “I’m glad we’re all here together / I’m glad we’re all here / Bouncing around, bouncing around.” Each song on the record taps into many conflicting feelings, says Weadick, and each one “feels like a kind of world where there’s happiness and sadness and joy and grief and celebration all wrapped up in every one of these little things.” The emotional bare quality of Loose Strife’s music is also an “act of protest,” says Lyke. “There’s infinite sites of resistance in your life. As a queer woman, if I’m writing about having a crush, that’s a resistance song. Even if I’m just putting that texture and that feeling of excitement into the music that we are writing, for me, getting over internalized homophobia and even accessing that feeling of excitement, I have to go through a lot to get there.”

While the musician trade is still often seen as solitary hipster hedonism, the Howl! arts festival offered many intimate moments of people coming together in shared musical experiences. Christoff says, “We’re not trying to be a big festival. We’re not in a rush.” At the end of the Artists Against Austerity showcase at the Casa del Popolo, Christoff climbed on stage, thanking all of the musicians who played that evening for their “heartfelt and beautiful” performances, and beautiful it indeed was.

Miranda Campbell is a writer based in Montreal. - @MirandaCampMTL