(Click on the names for music samples)

Throw a stone – hit a festival – that’s Montreal. Jazz, African music, percussion, Arabic and North African music, and music from Francophone countries, all warrant a festival each. Apart from the “normal” International Film Fest, there’s Fantasia (yah, far out fantasy flicks), FIFA, a festival devoted to films on art, and another that showcases Haitian films. (Just how specialised can you get?!) There’s literature fests like Blue Metropolis; dance, theatre and modern circus fests, and a comedy fest – Just for Laughs/ Juste pour rire. There is the Montreal First People’s Festival and Accès Asie (Asian Heritage Month in other Canadian provinces). I saw an ad for a fashion and design festival and the latest I heard about was a Nomad fest! Every time you turn around they’ve added a new one…

When I first got here, a wannabe Montreal culture vulture – I threw myself zealously into festivaling. By year two, festival fatigue set in. Year three and I have picked my two favourites – the Montreal International Jazz Festival and Nuits d’Afrique (African Nights).

These, like the other major music festivals, feature free shows; the jazz fest in particular gives away amazing music for nothing. Both have a great vibe. Yes there’s a crowd, but it’s made up of nice folk, there to enjoy music joyously and respectfully, often with the family members.

At this year’s Jazz fest we were blown away by the nimble finger work of award-winning Cuban pianist Rafael Zaldivar and energized by the “we are having so much fun making good music together” gypsy meets techno sound of the Eastern European Slavic Soul Party. I discovered, and Marc-Antoine learned to appreciate Dan Bigras. A Quebecois rocker and former bar singer with a big voice, he put on a big, brassy, entertaining show. He coupled fun standards like Hit the Road Jack with spunky French numbers, among them a bawdy retelling of Red Riding Hood.

I find French and Quebec music that I have come across really different from the music I know in English or Indian languages. The lyrics are poetry, or pieces of text, set to music. Often a kind of musical storytelling which covers a wide range of themes. Most singers write their own lyrics and music, and are then called auteur-compositeur-interprète. No wonder Montreal is home to the famous, English-language, auteur-compositeur-interprète – Leonard Cohen.

The rousing festival finale had a Mardi Gras theme and featured musicians from the New Orleans area, among them, Acadian-French singer Zachary Richard. I was excited as I had been introduced to his music in French class! He was good, though it was the youthful Trombone Shorty‘s (he’s not short!) who stole the show. Man, could that guy blow!

For Nuits d’Afrique we focused on four, emerging divas. Marc-Antoine faithfully went to see Chiwoniso, a Zimbabwean musician he has seen at the great Zanzibar Music fest – Sauti Za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom). I broke ranks to check out Dobet Gnahoré from the Ivory Coast who mixes styles and genres but is very rooted in African traditions. Singing, dancing, looking great (!), exuding a relaxed confidence, she had us eating out of her hand at Cabaret Mile End, a venue worth checking out if you’re visiting Montreal. Both these ladies sing about African issues in several African languages.

The festival “finds” were Hindi Zahra and Nomfusi (and the Lucky Charms). Hindi, a blues singer influenced by her Moroccan background and the music of that sound-rich region, has an original, contemporary style that weaves a spell . Nomfusi brings incredible passion to each number. Her style is influenced, among others, by legendary singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba. Nomfusi comes from the townships of Cape Town, and sings about life here in her native Xhosa. Langa and Khayelisha, the places she mentioned, were the very ones I visited in the recent past!

It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear all these talented, committed artists, who infused our life with their vibrant music for a few days.