Montreal, A City Ripe for World Music

Our mix-and-match population makes Montreal a hospitable place for musicians of all kinds“, says the Paris-born New Yawk Montrealer who books multicultural shows for the Francofolies.

By Juan Rodríguez, Freelance, Saturday, July 19, 2003.

Scratch the surface of such world-music acts as Toma Sidibé, Orchestre Bembeya Jazz, Beethova Obas and Prince Diabaté and many others appearing in Montreal beginning next week, and you find they have more in common than their names and musical styles suggest.

For one thing, they’re all performing free at the FrancoFolies, the city’s annual ode to the world of French-language music. Indeed, if there is a main theme behind the hoopla surrounding the Francos’ 15th-anniversary edition, it’s that multiculturalism is here to stay as a prominent – perhaps even the defining – feature of the Quebec music scene.

These are the acts that pull in crowds, with rhythm-rich sounds that transcend language barriers. And, if you consider the music coming from Montreal as naturally mongrelized – a mix of old and new worlds, dating back to Quebec’s origins – the world-music fusions spawned today augur well for future

All of which explains why Montreal “is fast becoming one of the major centres for world-music on the planet,” after London, Paris, New York and Barcelona, according to Dan Behrman, programmer of multicultural shows for the FrancoFolies and the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

Montreal was always welcoming to unique sounds, but they’ve never jelled the way they have over the last two years or so,” Behrman says. “People are very curious here and unafraid of taking risks when it comes to the arts in general, especially in the last 20 years, with all this immigration from African, Caribbean and Latin American countries.

The low birthrate among native Quebecers has “obliged us to import people, and that means talent that winds up learning French,” Behrman says. “So there’s a magic situation here of immigrants interacting with local musicians and music fans.

In the U.S., the melting pot is so hot that all the different metals and components that go into that pot produce an alloy or product that’s shapeless and often a ridiculous stereotype. Here the temperature is much lower. People are encouraged to remain who they are as cultural entities. They continue speaking their language, as well as French and, hopefully, English.

“A lot of the musicians are fresh off the boat, so to speak. Some of them were already involved with exciting projects back home, so when they arrived here they continued the same projects but had to find other musicians to work with.

“Obviously, they’re not going to ask other members of their cultural community who’ve been here five, 10, 15 years, because those musicians won’t be up to date with the current scene (at home). It just so happens that in a lot of cultural communities, time stops the day they left the old country.

“These days in Montreal, a lot of music is in flux, and that makes for exciting possibilities.”

Behrman, whose accent is a seamless blend of Parisian, New Yawk-ese and Jewish, is already one of those indisputably Montreal characters. He spent his first 21 years in Paris, the next 22 in New York, and has lived in Montreal since 1991. He was in on the ground floor of the world-music boom. He founded the Immigrant Music booking agency in 1979 while he lived in New York.

Along with about 15 other people, we built the structure for what became known as ‘world music.’ These people are still very active and we trust each other implicitly. We’re all very loyal to the spark that caused us to lead these lives in the first place.”

Behrman still runs Immigrant Music but, working with the jazz and Franco fests, I’m a buyer now, whereas I used to work with many of the same acts as a seller.”

When he first visited Montreal in 1973, he found the homegrown scene really refreshing compared to the U.S. To me, Quebec was a place where mutants could survive. I’d never seen anything like it in France or America.

“France was a racist state that pretended a lot. The U.S. was still Nixon and Vietnam. It hasn’t changed much. American puritanism gets in the way. It’s still ‘In God we trust, others pay cash. Love it or leave it. Keep America beautiful – get a haircut.’

In addition to the Francos’ festival-long free multicultural series, there are much-anticipated shows by Souad Massi, the self-exiled “Algerian La Pasionaria” from Paris, and her compatriot Rachid Taha. Massi’s Western styles – think Emmylou Harris siphoned through Tracy Chapman – don’t wash with
fundamentalists. Taha parlayed the mid-’90s dance hit Voilà Voilà into a career that mixes techno beats, Mexican mariachis, Arab zithers, Indian melodies and Cajun accordions. The festival also features daily shows for all ages by the Chango Family Circus, a local group carefully molded with world-beat touches.

In the wake of 9/11, however, the current U.S. fear of foreigners has made booking world-music acts dicey.

A lot of bands that usually tour the U.S. are having difficulty getting visas and papers since 9/11,” Behrman said.

It’s the whole axis-of-evil bull – it’s not your nationality that matters, it’s your place of birth. So if you’re a British musician but your father worked at the Foreign Office in Beirut and you were born there, right away that raises a flag with the U.S.

“Bands wind up cancelling tours or not even bothering to book them. They don’t want to take a chance spending their money arranging a tour because, if you don’t get the visa, you’re basically screwed.

“The U.S. changes the criteria as they go along. The result is that the U.S. has put itself in a state of isolationism.”

Even as Behrman spoke, news came that Sierra Maestra, due to play this year’s Nuits d’Afrique, cancelled its U.S. tour; although cleared by U.S. immigration authorities, they were being investigated by the FBI because they are Cuban.Once this syndrome starts, you never know when it’s going to end.”

Québec sait faire? “My thing,” says Behrman,is that the more languages you know, the better off you are. I’m not for the unilingual thing, but I understand why people feel protective about the French language.

“I think reality has come into balance with the ideal that was imagined for this place. I mean, nothing’s perfect – thank God: that would be boring. There’s a lot to work on, but I think there’s a lot of acceptance between people.”

The main reason for that, he says, is that Montreal is free of intensely ghetto-ized environments that “look as bombed-out as Berlin did in 1945.”

Montreal is the cheapest place in North America to live in, so people are more likely to take in a show instead of staying home. Here each neighborhood is a melting pot. It’s a wonderful cauldron of creativity, because people have to interact whether they want to or not.

“They meet at the grocery store, in the cafés, then it goes to something real – a business venture, a creative partnership. Because of the demographic realities of life here, people wind up dealing with each other.” In musical terms, he explains, “They have to woodshed together.”

Les Francofolies de Montréal begins on Thursday and runs until Aug. 2. For schedules and other information, see the Web site or call (514) 876-8989 or, toll-free, 1-(888)-444-9114.

[This article was originally published by the Montreal Gazette on July 19, 2003. Reproduced by courtesy of the author and the Montreal Gazette.]