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Concert Reviews Music

Mafuba performs alongside Takuya Kuroda

Concordia-adjacent band, Mafuba, opened for renowned trumpeter Takuya Kuroda’s group in a show on April 3, 2024.

A line of people stretched out of La Sala Rossa onto St. Laurent Boulevard waiting to witness a sold-out show. Thankfully, I knew the doorman.

As I entered the packed room, Montreal-based band Mafuba, appearing as a quintet —of which all but one are students in the Concordia Jazz Studies program— was already on stage. Up next was the internationally renowned jazz trumpeter and composer Takuya Kuroda’s band.

Nerves, excitement and anticipation hung in the air as audience members swayed, cheered, and danced. On stage, Mafuba thrived in this energy. The thick sound of Sibtaen Humayun’s tenor saxophone blended with the melodic lyricism of Duncan Hunter Neale’s trumpet. Sometimes punchy, sometimes atmospheric, Prabir Sekhri laid harmony and melody across the keyboard. Tristan Sisti-Aubé on upright bass, and Seyjii Schultz on drums formed an exciting rhythm section.

Mafuba’s music treads the line between high energy and groovy, meditative and trance-like. Bandleader Sibtaen describes the group as “jazz-adjacent.” Indeed, listeners will notice many elements of jazz aesthetic and methodology in Mafuba’s sound. The songs often consist of predetermined melodies lead by the saxophone and trumpet, followed by improvised solo sections. A notable highlight was Seyjii’s drum solo over coordinated tutti punches. Cheers erupted as the drummer accented these hits and filled the spaces with ever-changing rhythmic ideas.

Schultz is also featured in another capacity during the one cover song which the band played during their set. The group’s version of “Haiku by Australian musician Nai Palm begins with Seyjii leaving the drums to grab a guitar at the back of the stage. Subtly accompanied by keys and bass, her singing and guitar-playing created the most intimate point in the night. After having looped the main hook of the tune, the dynamic arc dipped as Seyjii returned behind the kit, before swelling again as drums, sax and trumpet entered, reprising the melody of the song.

Besides this cover, the songs Mafuba performed were all originals. According to Sibtaen, band members often bring melodic ideas, or even fully fleshed out songs, to rehearsal but “the finished product of whatever people hear is always a collaborative effort.” This was certainly reflected by the group’s performance: each member shined both individually and as part of the collective.

After the first set, many audience members, including myself, stepped outside before the next act. I spoke with friends about the success of the first set and the anticipation for the upcoming one by Kuroda. Signed to the iconic Blue Note record label, Kuroda’s reputation and reach is international. For him to be sharing a bill with a band so closely linked to Concordia was highly exciting. Soon everyone went back inside and the band began their set.

The instrumentation of Takuya’s group was identical to Mafuba’s, but with electric instead of acoustic bass. Even though the musicians had commuted from New York City that morning, there was zero sign of fatigue in their playing. From the first to the last notes, an air of mastery presided over La Sala Rossa. 

The group’s sound fused jazz with elements of hip-hop, rock, anime and video game music. Soloists often opted for intervallic-based musical ideas or repeated melodic cells, varying in rhythm and transposition, over a strictly linear style of playing (although all elements were present). Despite the relative “busy-ness” of each player’s parts, the groove was airtight. The result was creative, ecstatic soloing over a rhythmic foundation which was at once complex and danceable. Members of Mafuba were now interspersed throughout the crowd, cheering, listening, and soaking in the feeling of having shared a bill with artists whom they look up to.

Sitting down to interview Sibtaen a few days after the show, I learnt how proud the band felt about the experience. At the same time, Mafuba is keeping an eye on the future. Wanting to treat this event as a stepping stone, the band remains ambitious about the music yet to come.

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Music Quickspins

QUICKSPINS: Genesis Owusu – Smiling with No Teeth

The Ghanaian-Australian artist shines on his ambitious and musically kaleidoscopic debut.

Genesis Owusu is a musical tour-de-force, and he’s only just arrived. With his debut, Smiling with No Teeth, the Ghanaian-Australian artist has delivered an experimental opus with an insanely impressive and absolutely electrifying avant-garde nature.

It’s very rare for an artist this early in their career to have such a refined musical palette and dynamic vision, but Owusu has just that.

He’s got clear influences from all over the musical spectrum, from hip hop to new wave, jazz and funk to R&B and post-punk – even including some industrial elements. Smiling with No Teeth somehow brings all of these pre-existing contrasting influences together and creates a completely unique soundscape – a blend of all of these familiar elements, culminating in a remarkable collage of influences that somehow co-exist in perfect harmony.

He can easily go from channelling Prince on one track to channelling the visceral shouting of Death Grips’ MC Ride on the next. His music and vocal delivery are as fluid as can be, and his mastery of every style and genre in his repertoire is incredibly impressive and equally entrancing.

It helps that lyrically and thematically, this project is airtight throughout as well, exploring both the demons that plague Owusu as an individual and those that plague society as a whole. He manages to fit seemingly cathartic moments of commentary on mental health, racism and substance abuse, among other things, within often up-tempo tracks, like on the LP’s second track “The Other Black Dog.”

This juxtaposition of often upbeat instrumentation against the darkness that Owusu’s lyricism tends to highlight isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but it is an incredibly nuanced way to exemplify the album’s core concept.

Smiling with No Teeth may seem as random a title as any, but when you get to the root of the music, the title is an allegory for the thematic and stylistic nature of the music. A closed smile is often forced and used to hide feelings other than genuine happiness, which, in a way, is exactly what the lively nature of a good amount of this album’s soundscape represents: a veil of fun, with the lyrics’ true darkness hiding behind it.

This is an LP that not only checks every box but goes outside of these boxes and finds ways to achieve even more. It would be a magnificent body of work for any artist, but for a debut album, this is beyond spectacular.

To liken Genesis Owusu to a chameleon in that regard would be a disservice to exactly what he has accomplished here. It’s not he who adapts to the genres incorporated in his music, but it is him that forces the elements he takes from these genres to bend to his will and fit his sound. He’s not just impressive, his virtuosity at this stage in his career is practically unheard of, and if this album is any indication, he has the potential to become a generational talent.

9/10

Trial Track: “The Other Black Dog”

 

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Music

Champion hits the stage at Opera de Montreal

Jazz meets romance and controversy in Canadian Premiere of Champion

“I kill a man and the world forgives me. I love a man, and they want to kill me.”

While many know the opera to be the platform for musical renditions of traditional works such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Barber of Seville, Champion delves into more modern themes, such as sexuality and immigration.

In its Canadian Premiere, Champion, which is based on a true story, recounts the life of prizefighting welterweight champion Emile Griffith. Griffith was born in St. Thomas, of the U.S. Virgin Islands, but immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s as a teen in search of a better life. He had a deep desire to reconnect with his estranged mother, who left for America on her own. As well, Griffith dreamed of becoming a singer, baseball player, and hat designer hooked in by the American dream. Griffith worked in a hat factory before being introduced to the world of boxing after the factory manager noticed his physical potential.

Griffith saw major success in the sport, though the fame and money did not come without its troubles. As his popularity grew , Griffith was was ushered into a new world. The newfound attention and stardom he faced brought him to terms with the feelings he attempted to suppress—even from himself. Though, after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring—one who taunted his presumed sexuality pre-fight—Griffith’s inner demons began to reveal themselves.

“It isn’t the opponent you wanted to kill, it’s yourself,” said Griffith during a flashback scene to his younger self.

Throughout Champion, Griffith is portrayed by three different actors, each of whom are present in different scenes of the opera’s non-linear plot. Griffith as a child, adult, and senior, illustrate the protagonist at different integral stages of his life. Young Griffith demonstrates the molding of the prizefighter as a child in St. Thomas; Griffith as an adult     highlights his battles with his sexuality and fame; Griffith as an old man represents the consequences of his profession, as his dementia begins to set in.

Griffith with his wins—though he is lost. Photo by Yves Renaud

As the opera unfolds, Griffith as an old man appears in various scenes, speaking to his younger selves in a one-way manner: he can hear them, but they cannot hear him. This creative way of carrying out flashback scenes demonstrated Champion’s thoroughly well-thought-out plot.

The opera’s music was composed by the Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter, Terence Blanchard. With a smooth blend of jazz and blues, the production’s musical aspect embodies all the events that unravel and the emotions that go along with them.

The production’s cast expertly brought Griffith’s trials and tribulations to life, both musically and theatrically. Their unwavering vocal performances and hypnotically realistic acting transformed the 2h25min show into what felt more like an explanation of Griffith’s life than a musical dramatization.

Aside from the actual performance by the cast, a theatrical production’s technical aspects share equal importance in making the show. Though, Champion’s technical expertise clearly shined through in its execution. Two jumbo vertical screens on either side of the stage displayed different images and designs throughout, adding to the precise, yet creative, props and set design.

Together, they set the ambience for each of the opera’s scenes, whether it was a boxing fight or at the nightclub Griffith frequented. Paired with crisp set changes, the combination of the digital and traditional aspects of the set transformed Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier into Griffith’s world.

With the themes of immigration and sexuality arguably more relevant today than ever before, Champion is an opera that, aside from its great execution musically, technically, and theatrically, is a contemporary representation of the future of opera.

Champion has three more showings with the Opera de Montreal on Jan. 29, 31, and Feb. 2. Tickets are available for purchase on the Opera de Montreal website.

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Music

Jazz Cartier wows crowd through the flu

Toronto rapper performs upon the release of four new songs.

Jazz Cartier is one of Toronto’s biggest names in hip hop, but on the fourth stop of his Fleurever Yours tour at Le Belmont on Nov. 8, it felt as though there were no barriers between the crowd and the rising star.

Cartier’s latest show marked his fourth time performing in the city. Cartier, also known as Jacuzzi LaFleur, was on Post Malone’s tour when he passed through the city back in 2016. He also had a show with J. Cole signee J.I.D. at Le Belmont in June 2017.

Cartier’s last show in Montreal was that same month, as part of Fool’s Gold DAY OFF, a one-day festival put on by A-Trak’s Brooklyn label. That day, Cartier shared the stage with Speng Squire for the first time, a Montreal rapper who opened for him this past Thursday.

Speng has been making noise in the city’s hip hop scene for some years now. The 23-year-old rapper has a wide array of remixes and original tracks, posted on his YouTube channel, where he’s garnered thousands of views. Earlier this year, he released his debut album, Expressions of Now, gaining recognition from media outlets such as Complex and the Montreal Gazette.

Speng brought out TGEMarx, a member of up-and-coming Montreal hip hop collective The Grey Era as a guest on his set. They performed the unreleased track “My Dreams,” a collaboration between the two LaSalle natives.

“I mess with [TGEMarx’s] energy,” said Speng. “You can tell a lot by the energy you feel from someone. They don’t even need to say anything, you just feel it.”

As the opening act came to a close, the crowd slowly grew. The tight quarters of the venue began to feel increasingly cramped.

The intermission couldn’t have been more than half an hour, though it felt like more, thanks to the growing blend of anticipation and excitement that filled the air. While the show was originally planned to be held at MTELUS, a last minute switch to Le Belmont provided a more intimate night.

Finally, Cartier came on stage and the crowd erupted. Those furthest from the stage couldn’t have been more than 40 feet away from him, close proximity considering the level of fame Cartier boasts.

After performing a few of the most popular songs from his first mixtape, Marauding in Paradise, Cartier removed his sunglasses and took a moment in between tracks to address his “flowers,” the name he gave to his fan base some years ago—all members of a community of supports, which he calls “Petal Garden.”

“I got the flu and I haven’t been feeling the best, but there was no way I would cancel on you guys,” Cartier said. “I had to come perform tonight.”

The 200-something person crowd immediately erupted in cheers—Cartier’s determination filled them with excitement.

After performing some of his most popular tracks, including “Godflower,” “Tempted” and “Right Now,” accompanied by colourful anime-style graphics on a screen behind the DJ booth and dim, basement party-vibe lighting, an unfamiliar song began to play. For the first time of the night, no one sang along with Cartier’s melodic, slightly auto-tuned vocals. Then, the music stopped.

“No one knew this, but I’m actually dropping four new songs tonight,” Cartier said. “Here’s one of them.”

The crowd erupted in cheers as he performed “Cuzzi Relax,” one of the four new songs which formed the deluxe version of his album, Fleurever. The attendees swung their heads and hands as if he was performing one of their favourite songs.

Cartier’s set time came to the 60-minute mark, and shouts of “another one” were heard throughout the crowd as they began to anticipate the show’s end. Cartier, sensing the sudden dispiritedness, addressed the crowd.

“I love this city, man. I’m reppin’ Toronto, you’re reppin’, Montreal but we’re all from Canada. We’re all a family, fleurever,” he said.

As the crowd hollered in loving approval, Cartier’s DJ began playing his song “Dead or Alive,” a fan-favourite for its catchy, menacing chorus and organ-heavy beat. The crowd rapped along, word for word, jumping to the beat in sync with Cartier.

The show came to an end and distinct looks of approval were visible all around. Before stepping off the stage, Cartier had his own way of showing love for the night.

“Before I leave, I want to take a picture with every single one of you in this crowd,” Cartier said. “Thank you guys so much, for everything.”

Cartier jumped down from the stage and walked through the crowd with security, stopping to shake hands with anyone who sought his. He walked into the next room and took a seat as a line formed at the door.

LaFleur awaited his garden.

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Student Life

Dive into an 1830s opium bar

Bar Datcha switches vibes with jazz and tarot every Thursday

Walking through the doors of Bar Kabinet on Laurier Ave. W., adjacent is Bar Datcha. The warm yellow light in the entrance dances off the walls and drink glasses at the bar, creating a magical atmosphere. Patrons sit drinking and chatting with the bartenders, while a low hum of jazz music emanates from within the walls.

To the right of the bar, black curtains lead the way to the main event: a jazz band performance, and tarot card reading. Opposite to the entrance, the room has pitch-black walls with dim lighting and cloud-like smoke, setting an “1830s Parisian opium bar” vibe.
At the table across from the band sits Samuel Bonneau Varfalvy, organizer and tarot reader, waiting for his next client. He’s lively and interactive, making it feel like those who speak with him already know him. Varfalvy is an artist, manager and musician, who also teaches music. With his partner, Isaac Larose, a nightclub promoter, he brought to life the idea of jazz and tarot in a nightclub. “This whole [tarot reading] thing started a couple of years ago,” said Varfalvy. “I became a little obsessed with tarot after reading about it and learning.”

“He went crazy and started bringing his taxi drivers in the apartment for readings,” Larose said with a laugh. “We’re roommates and I was just like ‘that’s not okay.’ My girlfriend then suggested we look for somewhere to do this in.”

The duo started the concept of jazz and tarot last year, at The Emerald on Park Ave. That only lasted about five months partly due to, according to Valvarfy, misconceptions about the nature of tarot. “There’s a very strong Jewish community [there], and a lot of Hasidic people associate tarot with dark magic and witchcraft,” Valfarvy said. “They thought I was a sorcerer or something.” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

After the Emerald, the pair found Bar Datcha and thought it was the exact embodiment of their vision. “I think a lot of people would not necessarily go see a tarot reader,” said Larose. “If you put it in a different context where it’s really easy to just try it, people might end up liking it.” The aim of this unusual pairing was also to encourage people who would perhaps not go on their own to have a fun and unorthodox experience.

As for choosing Datcha, Larose, who has worked with other clubs such as Tokyo Bar, wanted to take the already popular vibe and see what else could be added to it. “We wanted this little bar where there’s tarot, and we feel like we’re in an opium bar in 1830s Paris,” said Varfalvy. “And Isaac said, ‘Oh we should add in some jazz,’ and we were like ‘Let’s call it Jazz and Tarot.’”

Varfalvy’s main influence in the world of tarot reading is Alejandro Jodorowsky, a mystic, healer and cult filmmaker who has studied tarot reading in depth. “He’s a psychedelic movie director,” Varfalvy said with a smile. “[Jodorowsky] found the old Tarot de Marseilles from the 16th century, technically the original cards, and he reprinted [them] using this old tarot card printer in France.”

To Varfalvy, tarot is a performance art in a way. “There’s nothing magical or mystical about tarot to me,” said Varfalvy. “It was a sort of card game, and for some reason, people started using them for like 16th century psychology.”

Varfalvy has a methodology he follows when reading cards. His technique revolves around two foundations. The first is accepting that it is not magic, but psychology. The second is accepting that the future cannot be known, simply anticipated. “The cards point to a relationship with the future that you have,” said Varfalvy. “It’s one of two things: you either desire it or fear it.”

Varfalvy gives the deck of cards to his client and asks them to think of a question while shuffling it—for orientation and direction. He then takes the cards and spreads them in a semicircle on the table, and asks the client to pick three cards out of the pool. According to him, the first one to his right is past, the middle is present, and the last one is future.

“I’ve never done tarot reading before, so there was some apprehension and skepticism going in,” said Cameron Begin, an event attendee. “My friend told me to try it for experience, and often there are people who are good at connecting. Immediately, I felt that I connected to Sam, and kind of surrendered to him and what he had to say. As the cards began to fall and he read them, it felt like he did have a strong intuition. It gave me food for thought.”

At 11:30 p.m., Datcha switches to techno and becomes a full-blown nightclub. In the meantime, Varfalvy continues doing readings for those Larose brings him.

“Bring me my next victim,” Varfalvy said with a laugh, welcoming the next person to the chair across from him.

Bar Datcha (98 Laurier Ave. W.) hosts Jazz and Tarot nights every Thursday.

Feature image by Fatima Dia.

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Music Quickspins

Standing on the Corner – Red Burns

Standing on the Corner – Red Burns (Self-Released, 2017)

Standing on the Corner is a jazz-infused collaboration between two New York City natives, Gio Escobar and Jasper Marsalis. Their latest effort, Red Burns, listens like a collection of snapshots, with Escobar and Marsalis navigating the desolate slums and alleys of New York through hip-hop instrumentals tempered by a healthy appreciation for jazz. The urban sounds of New York echo throughout the album like clockwork. Red Burns contains collagey sound snippets weaved together into a free-flowing narrative consisting of five songs, titled “nate sees the storm,” “red burns comin!,” “cleb sees the storm!,” “what about the planet?” and “the devil Meets Red Burns.” Across Red Burnshour, you can hear Standing on the Corner writing an impassioned love letter to the city that raised them, with a dichotomy of hope and despondence driving them forward.

Rating: 7.5/10

Trial Track: “Sellin Soap”

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Music

The musical moments in our daily lives

The world is filled with subtle sound cues that largely go unnoticed

My first time riding the Montreal metro was like a sci-fi experience due to the glowing fluorescent lights and the sheer amount of people.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, we didn’t have the infrastructure for public transportation—although the country is currently building a metro system in the capital city, Riyadh—so riding the metro was a very foreign concept to me. I was mostly entranced by the sounds the metro made—the simple three notes that played when the doors were about to close. So I decided to research that little chime.

That sound serves a dual purpose: to warn passengers to stay clear of the doors and to give a certain ambiance to the metro. This simple melody has a very interesting history. According to the magazine Spacing Montreal, the sound originated from a metro ad in the 70s called: “Il fait beau dans l’métro.” The ad opens with a heavily synthed version of the chime. The rest of the ad is a ridiculously charming musical about the metro, filmed at Atwater station.

This chime is unique to the type of metro train Montreal uses, the MR-73. According to Spacing Montreal, the chime was sampled from the engine noise the MR-73 makes. This specific train model has been around for a long time and, though it may sometimes feel and look antiquated, these trains helped create the charming sci-fi, three-note melody. Even the new train models, used on the orange line, use the same chime.

People hear this melody everyday, but most don’t give it a second thought. Repetitive sounds become part of our daily lives, almost fading into the background. Yet, these sounds always have an interesting backstory.

The 516th episode of the popular podcast This American Life featured an 81-year-old man named Dick, who has an obsession with on-hold music—music that plays when we’re waiting on the phone. It wasn’t just any on-hold music. It was a certain track he couldn’t name but always heard. So This American Life helped Dick track down the name of the tune and the story behind it. They eventually contacted the composers, Tim Carleton and Darrick Deel.

The friends collaborated on this track while in high school in 1989. The track is called “Opus No. 1,” and was recorded in Carleton’s garage. Years later, Deel started working for communication company Cisco, on their CallManager project—their enterprise phone line. He was given the opportunity to choose the default on-hold music for Cisco’s line of products. Eventually, this track became the default on-hold music for Cisco products all over the world.

Even though Dick had heard this track many times, and in the most annoying conditions—waiting on the phone for hours—he just loved this song. It would inspire him to spend hours looking for a song that was made in a teenager’s garage.

I have this vivid memory of watching a nature documentary on VHS as a child. I was alone in a dark room, watching a bunch of bugs on a leaf, when the music captured my imagination. It was some kind of ambient electronic music that had a particular educational-video sound. Every now and then, I look for that videotape in my parents’ house, just so I can re-experience the music that, in a lot of ways, shaped my musical taste.

Not even the most ardent music fans start their musical fascination with highly conceptual albums, but rather through very a memorable and simplistic melody they heard constantly. I remember thinking the pinnacle of music was the Grease soundtrack cassette my mother used to play before I went to bed. Eventually, my interests led me to listen to full albums and discover different artists, but my musical interests were initially sparked by a nature documentary and the Grease soundtrack.

We have an antiquated hierarchy of music. The world typically looks down on “primitive” music, like what’s used in commercials or the metro’s simple chime, and praises “high art” music, like John Coltrane’s intricate jazz albums. Yet, music comes, and is consumed, in many forms. It’s important to embrace all the different ways music affects us. Sometimes, the most inane and least artistic music sticks with us the longest.

Graphics by Zeze Le Lin

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Music

Montreal’s soulful jazz quartet

Hichem Khalfa Quartet will launch their new album, Réminiscences at O Patro Vys

Hichem Khalfa Quartet just released their new album, Réminiscences, a modern jazz creation that was composed by the group’s trumpet player, Hichem Khalfa. The record was released on March 10, and the quartet’s launch performance will take place at O Patro Vys on March 15. Joining leader and trumpet player Khalfa on stage are Jérôme Beaulieu on keyboards, Jonathan Arseneau on bass and Dave Croteau on drums.

Réminiscences differs a lot in sound from the band’s previous album, Histoires Sans Mots. Their music has a modern jazz feel in comparison to their previous songs, “I think I’ve found the right way to change the music so it doesn’t sound like the first album, but it still has my own signature,” Khalfa said. Khalfa has not only changed the instrumentation since the last record, but the line-up of his band as well. Khalfa and Beaulieu are the only two remaining members from the previous album.

Khalfa wanted to change things up to bring a different feel to the music.”The electric bass [and] keyboards really changed the sound of the band,” he said. Playing alongside these three musicians is exciting for Khalfa. “The most important thing is that the feeling, the connection between us is great,” he said, “We have good times every time we go on tour, so that’s all I really want,” he said. Following their album release, the band will be touring across Canada and Europe, starting this summer. “We’re going to France in July, then to do a couple shows in New Brunswick, and then Ville Saint-Laurent, and in October we go back to Europe—Belgium, England and maybe France,” said Khalfa. Khalfa is thrilled to tour the world with his friends, doing what they love—playing music.

Music is a vehicle for Khalfa to express his innermost thoughts and emotions. “What I want is to play my feelings through the trumpet,” he said. “The main goal for me is to be able to communicate these feelings to other people when I’m playing.” Khalfa picked up his first trumpet when he was seven, and has never wanted to put it down since. “I always wanted to be a musician. I didn’t have any other options,” Khalfa said.

The musician grew up in Val d’Oise, France, but arrived in Montreal six years ago to pursue jazz studies at McGill University. Khalfa is grateful for the move to Montreal, as he sees it as a city with lots of potential for musicians. “Montreal is really, really good. I moved here six years ago, and I’m starting to feel at home now,” he said. “That’s what I like Montreal too — everyone is trying to help each other and I feel [I’m a part of] a community.” The Montreal Jazz Festival, for example, is an event the musician is proud to have been a part of. “I’ve played every year at the Jazz Festival,” he said. “It’s a really, really nice time of the year. Everyone is nice, music is everywhere, it’s very beautiful … and we have a lot of tourists coming to Montreal just for that, so it’s a pretty big deal.”

The aspect of performing that Khalfa most loves is witnessing people coming together through his music. “Something magical happens,” he said. “To see all these different people, who wouldn’t talk to each other in everyday life on the street, getting together in this moment and sharing feelings… It’s something intense, I think, to be on stage and being able to see that.”

Hichem Khalfa Quartet’s latest album, Réminiscences, can be heard live at O Patro Vys from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 15. Entrance is free, and their album can be purchased on-site after the show.

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Music

Legendary African-American jazz musicians

Influential African-American jazz musicians in honour of Black History month

We’re in New Orleans, in the early 1900s. An exciting new style of music has emerged, known as jazz. It is a style that is deeply-rooted in various African cultures. Jazz has always been evolving and was greatly influenced by a lot of African-American musicians. Below are recommendations of legendary African-American jazz artists that have composed incredible music.

Louis Armstrong

Known as “Satchmo” or “Pops,” was an incredibly influential jazz trumpet player and singer whose career spanned from 1920 to 1960. He is one of the first scat singers and is responsible for its popularization. One of his most iconic singles is “What a Wonderful World,” and even though it was released in 1967, it is still popular half a century later. Armstrong influenced some of the greats with his singing and trumpet-playing, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Armstrong is known as one of the most important musical figures in American history, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

 

 

Miles Dewey Davis III

Known as one of the great innovators of jazz. In a 2015 BBC poll, Miles Davis was voted the greatest musician of all time.The American bandleader, trumpeter and composer was at the forefront of many stylistic changes in jazz music, from be-bop, to hard bop, to cool jazz, to funk and techno. His five-decade career spanned from the 40s to the 90s. Throughout this time, he has helped jazz music evolve so much that he is considered one of the most acclaimed figures in jazz history. In fact, he is known as one of the key developers of jazz music, and his accomplishments were highlighted in the recent film Miles Ahead (2015). One of Davis’ most recognized songs is “Stella by Starlight,” which was released in 1958. Davis has received eight Grammy Awards, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

 

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington

Ellington is highly praised for making jazz an art form. Not only was he one of the most recognized bandleaders, but he was a hugely popular pianist and composer. He has more than a thousand compositions under his belt, with many of his works becoming part of the standard repertoire of jazz music. One of his most highly praised songs is “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), which was released in 1943. Many artists, including Tony Bennett, have been influenced by this artist, and have covered his songs. Ellington has received many awards and honours for his music, including 13 Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a NAACP Spingarn Medal and is featured on a Commemorative U.S. quarter.

 

Mary Lou Williams

As the first female jazz musician to be ranked among the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Mary Lou Williams was a pioneer. Not only was she a prominent jazz pianist, composer and vocalist, but she began her career as a child musical prodigy. Even before she was in her 20s, she was writing and arranging music for bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Williams was also a friend, teacher and mentor to legendary jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. One of her most popular songs is “Roll ‘Em” which was released in 1945. Williams’ legacy continues to this day, at the Mary Lou Williams Centre for Black Culture at Duke University.

 

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie

Gillespie along with Charlie Parker, is recognized for ushering in the era of bebop in America. Dizzy founded Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz music. He also fused Afro-American jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms to form a Cubop sound. The artist toured the world, from Africa to Latin America, and brought many musicians back to America to play with him on stage. While he incorporated many different styles of music from around the world into his performances, he was particularly drawn to music with African roots, as he was very proud of his heritage. One of his most recognized songs is “A Night in Tunisia.” The legendary jazz musician was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1982.

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Music

Al Di Meola celebrates 40 years of Elegant Gypsy

A pioneer of jazz and world fusion music returns to Montreal to perform his recent album, Elysium

Taking us around the world, one song at a time, is jazz-Latin fusion guitarist and composer, Al Di Meola. Known for blending world music and jazz, Di Meola explores the rich influence of flamenco, tango, Middle Eastern, Brazilian and African music. He is currently touring across North America, performing his most recent album, Elysium. This tour is also a celebration of the 40th anniversary of his record, Elegant Gypsy. The eclectic guitarist will be performing in Montreal on Feb. 25 at Salle Pierre Mercure. Joining him on his tour is Philippe Saisse on keyboards and marimba, Gumbi Ortiz on percussion, Elias Tona on bass, Luis Alicea on drums and violinist Evan Garr.

Di Meola has already performed 11 shows across different cities in the US—the tour began on Feb. 7. He said this tour has been better than his previous ones. “This is the best edition of the band. I put a lot of time into the rehearsals,” Di Meola said. “This isn’t a jam session—it’s people getting the best of fusion, and a lot of work goes into it.” This won’t be Di Meola’s first time performing in Montreal. The Montreal Jazz Festival awarded him the 2015 Miles Davis Award, which honors a great international jazz musician for the entire body of his or her work and that musician’s influence in regenerating the jazz idiom.

Growing up outside of New York City exposed Di Meola to a melting pot of different ethnic music. “My love of Latin music goes on since I was a kid. We had great choices of music, I went to many rock shows, I saw everyone under the sun,” Di Meola said. At 19, his international music career began when he joined a fusion quartet. By chance, a friend of Chick Corea—an American jazz and fusion pianist, keyboardist and composer—sent Corea a tape of Di Meola’s quartet’s live performances. Corea then hired Di Meola in his fusion supergroup, Return to Forever.

Portrait of jazz/Latin fusion guitarist and composer, Al Di Meola. Photo by Erin Cook (Jensen Team).

“Having the good fortune of being 19 years old and touring Europe and getting turned on by other ethnic music from France and Spain—it opened my world,” Di Meola said. Touring in South America, he said, also brought new influences to his music, such as tango. “What you get out of Brazil is so rich. When we are in a certain kind of teenage period, we absorb everything,” Di Meola said. His music teacher also helped him develop his musical style. “I was drawn to popular music, but my teacher was a classical, old-school jazz player. That gave me the best of both worlds,” Di Meola said.

Over the past four decades, Di Meola has released more than 20 solo albums and a dozen collaborative records with the Return to Forever supergroup, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia’s acoustic guitar group, and the Rite of Strings band

Al Di Meola’s music goes deeper than words could ever express. Photo by Erin Cook (Jensen Team)

with bassist Stanley Clarke and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. According to Di Meola, his most recent album, Elysium, was written during a difficult period in his life. “What kept me sane was taking the advice of a couple of friends who said I should write music as a way to channel the pain that I was going through,” he said. He locked himself in the studio and played and wrote music, which he said took his mind off the negatives. “What came out from my guitar, as different and strange as it sounded, I wrote it down. Personally, things started to change. I went from one extreme to another, which explains the title of the album, Elysium, which is a beautiful place to be,” Di Meola said. Elysium was written through the experience of automatic writing, he said. “It was like forward motion, no stalling. By doing that, I came up with a ton of stuff.”

At first, Elysium was meant to be an all-acoustic album, until Di Meola decided to play electric guitar again. “The electric guitar gave it a little twist—it’s a very different record than my previous ones,” he said. Di Meola’s key for remaining productive can be summed up in one sentence: “The rule in my life is to never watch TV without a guitar in my hand,” Di Meola said. Sometimes, he said, it is when you are not completely focused that you can come up with things that are unusual.

Di Meola is looking forward to being back in Montreal this Saturday. “Montreal is probably my favourite place to play because I have always felt welcome here. There is a very strong community that appreciates fusion music. I am really excited to play with this band,” said Di Meola.

Di Meola’s show takes place on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 8 p.m at Salle Pierre Mercure. Tickets are available online. Regular tickets start at $69.00

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Music

Norman Nawrocki launches benefit album

DISPLACED/MISPLACED is a humanitarian album that gives voice to today’s issues

Norman Nawrocki combines heartfelt stories with harmonious, wild jazz and post-rock melodies on his new album, DISPLACED/MISPLACED. The music producer, violinist and writer will be launching the album on Friday, Feb. 10 at Casa Del Popolo. The album features songs that tell the stories of refugees, migrants, immigrants, temporary foreign workers and the homeless. His album launch will be a benefit show, where all proceeds from the album will be donated to Solidarity Across Borders and the Immigrant Workers Centre. Both organizations help defend and support the rights of immigrants and refugees.

Originally from Vancouver, Nawrocki comes from a Polish and Ukrainian family that migrated to Canada as refugees years ago. “My heart was broken in Vancouver, and I had friends in Montreal. They told to come there for a year. I have never left since,” said Nawrocki. Before finding his voice through music, Nawrocki worked as a freelance journalist. “It’s the journalist in me, always keeping my ears and eyes open for a story. DISPLACED/MISPLACED is pure music but, given its subject matter, it’s a timely album that voices the issues of today,” said Nawrocki. Since 1986, Nawrocki has played in various groups: Rhythm Activism, Da Zoque!, Bakunin’s Bum, The Flaming Perogies, The Bagg Street Klezmer Band, Crocodile!, Wild Plains and Mousekii. This won’t be Nawrocki’s first time playing at Casa Del Popolo, as the musician has performed there many times before with his previous bands. Although Nawrocki released this album as a solo project, he still jams with his other bands, including Da Zoque!, an Eastern European ensemble.

Lyrically, Nawrocki’s songs are generally based off of poems he has written. Instrumentally, he fuses violin, cello, accordion and piano. “I started off as a poet on a stage alone, then it became a guitarist duo. We called ourselves Rhythm Activism, and we became a full band. In 15 years, we released 15 albums and we toured the world,” he said.
The musician has also been teaching part-time at Concordia’s School of Community and Public Affairs for the past 10 years. The class he teaches is within the graduate program of Community Economic Development. “The class is about how music, poetry or comedy can help organize the community you work with. It’s about how you see art address the issues that are important to you,” said Nawrocki.

DISPLACED/MISPLACED brings forth eloquent stories with instrumentals that suit the precise sentiments of the sad and inspiring stories in each song. He said the stories from this album were based on conversations he had with different people, or observations. “I meet people everywhere and then I observe. I write down what I hear, I write down what I see and, if necessary, I have conversations with them,” said Nawrocki. He then depicts the story from the person’s perspective, through their voice. “I try to fictionalize the stories as much as I can all while staying true to the person’s story, and then I put it through music,” said Nawrocki.

The songs on the album are about the lives of refugees and people who have lost their homes for one reason or another. There are also songs that denounce racism, persecution, domestic violence, climate change and gentrification. “I did all this because I was watching migrants, refugees in boats being washed ashore, drowning. It was terrifying for them and it was horrible to watch. I thought, what can I do about this?” said Nawrocki. He said he turned these stories into music because he could not get the horrible images out of his mind.

Nawrocki began writing the album before the American presidential election. “I had no idea, when I was writing the album, that it would be even more timely today given the present attitudes towards immigrants, refugees and migrants. The album rings truer today than if I had released it a few months ago,” said Nawrocki. “Hopefully my music can bring people together to talk about these issues and figure out ways to fight them.”

The DISPLACED/MISPLACED album launch will take place at Casa Del Popolo on Feb. 10 at 9 p.m. It’s a free show, and Nawrocki’s benefit CD will be available to purchase. All proceeds will be donated to Solidarity Across Borders and to the Immigrant Workers Centre.

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Music

Hip-hop culture with Milla Thyme

After releasing his EP, Eternally the Student, the rapper returned to study jazz at Concordia

For Milla Thyme, rapping is about bringing light to important social matters. “You have to talk about things that are unjust and speak about them,” he said. Milla Thyme fuses a mix of soul, hip hop, and jazz into his music. Milla Thyme is the MC name of Concordia student Max Miller. It’s a name he developed in his early teens. “Milla Thyme is 100 per cent me. It’s when I’m playing bass and rapping and I’m writing all the music myself,” he said.

The MC can be spotted at Le Cypher, a popular hip-hop jam session party at Le Bleury-Bar à Vinyle, which takes place almost every Thursday night. It’s one of his favourite Montreal hotspots. In fact, the rapper said it’s like his second home. “We get 150 people average per week so it’s a good platform for people to see you perform regularly,” he said.

People from all walks of life can get a chance to come up on stage during Le Cypher and try out rapping—even if they’ve never done it before. “It’s a safe space for people to communicate,” Miller said. “You get people of all different genders, ages, sexual orientation. We don’t care. We’re all the same, right?” Miller has been rapping and playing bass with the band Urban Science at Le Cypher almost every Thursday night. The band is comprised of about 20 to 25 artists, some of whom played on his recent EP, Eternally the Student. “It was my friend Thomas Lafrance, a.k.a T-Cup, on the drums,” Miller said. “And then on keys we had one of the baddest under-25 keyboard players in the city, named Nicolas Dupuis, who goes by the name Anomalie. I’m just so grateful that he had the time to play with us.”

Come see Milla Thyme perform live on Thursday evenings at Le Bleury-Bar à Vinyle. Photo by Emily Vidal

Urban Science has also played at many popular venues in Montreal, including the Jazz Festival two years in a row, which Miller said he’s grateful to have been a part of. “That group has taken me to amazing places,” he said. For the rapper, there is no better feeling than freestyling on stage during Le Cypher nights. “It’s like having an amazing orgasm, a sweet release. It’s one of the best feelings, a natural high,” he said.

When he’s not busy performing as Milla Thyme, Miller is focused on his jazz studies program at Concordia. He said it’s important for him to keep up his studies, to never stop learning or growing, both as a person and as a musician. The artist is also the president of Concordia’s Hip Hop Community, a student club that holds rap battles for social justice. Each week, a different social issue is addressed at the rap battles, such as police brutality and gender inequality. The club also holds workshops that allow people to work on different elements and aspects of hip hop, and allow them to share their music with others on stage.

“It’s a good way for Concordia students and members of the community who don’t have much experience but want to be involved with hip hop and social consciousness,” Miller said. A rap battle on police brutality will be held on Feb. 15 at the Le Belmont nightclub on St-Laurent. The proceeds for this event will be going to Montreal Noir, which Milla Thyme said is a socially-conscious group advocating equality. Miller feels very lucky to have always been pushed to chase his dreams by his parents, who are artists themselves. “Michael Miller, my dad, is actually the most produced black playwright in Canada. And my mom was a TA at Juilliard in her 20s,” he said. “My parents are both established in their careers. They told me, if I’m going to pursue arts, that I have to [give it] my 100 per cent.”

Concordia’s Hip Hop Community president, Max Miller, also known as Milla Thyme. Photo by Ana Hernandez

This support really helped Miller overcome the struggles involved with creating his music. I think the biggest challenge we all face is ourselves,” he said. “That’s always the biggest challenge because it’s an internal conflict, just questioning [yourself], like we all do, in some way. That’s something, as an artist, you deal with a lot.” Miller said artists like Kendrick Lamar and J-Cole allowed him to forget about the hardships of the music industry. Through their meaningful lyrics, they inspired him to focus on being real in his music as well. “They gave me a renewed sense of purpose,” he said.

Miller’s EP, Eternally a Student, which was released in October, touches on deep subjects that truly matter both in his own life and in society. The songs, he said, are a true representation of what was going on in his life as well as what he saw going on around him. For the artist, that’s the ultimate goal: to express himself in a way that can be relatable to someone else. “I hope my music can help people in their day-to-day, and if someone’s going through something, that it helps them get through that,” he said.

If there’s anything Miller wants artists to take from his story, it’s that the most important thing is to believe in yourself, and in your own music. “Just keep pushing,” he said. “Don’t give up, and just know that no one can tell your music better than you can.”

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