Montreal Jazzfest Is A Place of Healing In Dark Political Times
"If [politicians] could learn to improvise over a blues, or a 'montuno', they could take that into their own world."
Festival season has descended on Montreal. From FrancoFolies to Nuits d'Afrique to Osheaga, the season celebrates cultural diversity through music. During Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the city turned into an international music sanctuary with every genre represented through artists from 17 countries. Musicians from Norway, Brazil, Armenia, New Zealand, Cuba and Mali, to name a few, played over 500 shows, performed mostly on outdoor stages, free to the public.
In addition to jazz icons and rising stars from all realms of this broad genre, for the jazzheads among us, the festival presented everything from pop (Joss Stone) to folk-rock (Bob Dylan), jazz-funk (Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles), rap (Joey Bada$$), blues (Buddy Guy) and world music (Ghanaian Afrobeat king Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band). And there was more than just music during this 11-day music marathon; it was a thought-provoking experience, too. Several artists took spoke their minds through words and music, addressing political and social issues, reminding us that music is more than just a means of entertainment or escapism.
The new international group Bokanté featured eight musicians from four continents, delivering one of the festival's first and most powerful performances. This multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-generational band, led by Michael League (Snarky Puppy), performed songs relating to the struggles of today's world—racism, a dying planet, apathy towards human suffering—and also songs of unity, love, gratitude and hope, with lyrics in Creole and French by Guadeloupe-born, Montreal-based vocal marvel Malika Tirolien.
Later, Shabaka & The Ancestors—a group of South African musicians led by London tenor saxophonist-composer Shabaka Hutchings—played music from their Afrofuturist album The Wisdom of Elders . Hutchings sound is rooted in the American free jazz tradition of John Coltrane and Sun Ra, as well as African and Caribbean music. Stunning melodies and harmonies were intertwined with spoken words by Siyabonga Mthembu, addressing the environment, the evolution of the human spirit, colonization, land ownership, the Nation State, the need to feminize our politics and not be afraid of our leaders, and "the burning of the republic of the mind, and not the republic of the heart."
During his performance at Maison Symphonique, Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Perez appreciated being in Montreal, saying "you can see how culture and the arts actually impact and shape society." He hoped to see this in the U.S. as well, where "we're struggling" with cuts to artistic endeavors. Uplifted by the band's interplay on a rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed," Perez used jazz improvisation as a metaphor: "That's what politicians don't understand. . . We can have an idea of what we're going to do, but we make changes, we improvise. If [politicians] could learn to improvise over a blues, or a montuno, they could take that into their own world."
Kendrick Scott, one of the most brilliant drummers on the jazz scene, performed a spellbinding set, opening with the whirlwind "Synchrony," off We Are the Drum. Scott commented about "the heavy things" people are dealing with in the US. "I'll let someone else speak for me," he said; and then the voice of Barack Obama came through, addressing the injustices faced by African American and Hispanic men. It was a statement Obama from July 2016, following the Minnesota police shooting of Philando Castile. The speech was combined with harrowing audio of the incident, Scott coming in with a haunting, emotive outpouring on his drum kit. Montreal-based guitarist-vocalist Cécile Doo-Kingué, born and raised in New York City and of Cameroon descent, fired up the crowd blending blues, rock, jazz, folk, soul and African rhythms. Acknowledging her ancestors, she spoke to the audience about the dangers of stereotypes and the importance of being curious and open. Delivered with raw emotion, "Bloodstained Vodka" was dedicated to "every LGBT who doesn't make it home."
Earlier that Sunday afternoon, July 2nd, Black Lives Matter took one of the festival's unoccupied outdoor stages chanting "Jazz is Black," and holding a vigil for Pierre Coriolan, a 58-year-old black man shot and killed by Montreal police in his apartment that week. Lifting spirits high, Montreal-based multilingual crew Nomadic Massive rapped and sang in English, French, Creole, Spanish and Arabic about realities both local and global, pushing messages of universal understanding and social justice ("Pan American / via stolen land / my man uh! / Never forget the new world built by slave hands." — "Pan Am," Big Band Theory).
The Montreal Kalmunity Vibe Collective—Canada's largest artistic collective of musicians, vocalists, dancers, and DJs—played two extended, completely improvised sets on two consecutive nights. Drawing a large audience, the collective's members sang and rhymed about positive as well as painful issues such as First Nations and reparations, their uplifting spirits carrying the message. It was all about LOVE the night Soul Man Charles Bradley performed at the sold-out Metropolis. "Learn to love one another," he said. "Don't look at the color of the skin; look at the color of the heart." When he finally left the stage following an emotional encore, I asked the young man standing next to me what had brought on his tears. "It's his universal vision of love for the world," he said, wiping his eyes.
Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals closed out the festival with a mega-outdoor event, instantly entrancing the audience with "Come Down." Tens of thousands crowded the main stage, bouncing and singing. "Ça va, Montreal??" he asked, and the audience erupted, a sea of arms in the air. With music from the four corners of the Earth, the Festival fostered a true spirit of inclusion, diversity, and harmony.
Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.