Montreal's World Beat
Published: March 2009
By Alex Shoumatoff
From bebop to bossa nova, samba to swing, the rhythms of Quebec's biggest city are as varied as its people. And in summertime, when the weather heats up, the city does, too, as festival after festival transforms Montreal into a nonstop carnival. There's no better place to feel like a member of the global village than this northern city where Latin Americans, Africans, and Europeans give a whole new flavor to the melting pot
If Brazil were dragged up the globe from the tropics to the boreal zone, it might feel a lot like Canada. Both are huge countries with vast wildernesses sparsely inhabited by native people in the north, and densely populated urban areas in the south. Though Montreal is sometimes described as the Paris of the North, in summer it's more like the Rio of the North--a nonstop carnival. Montrealers try to pack 12 months of revelry into the balmy 12 weeks from June through August. On Sunday afternoons dozens of African, Latin American, and long-haired, shirtless Québécois drummers gather at the Cartier Monument in Mount Royal Park, which begins to resemble San Francisco's Golden Gate Park of the sixties. Unfettered by the continent's prevailing Anglo puritanism, women of every racial and body type put on their jupes (in this case, miniskirts) and make the most of the small window for showing flesh.
The festivals and other events keep coming. They start in April with the multidisciplinary happening, Vues d'Afrique; then in May there's the Festival de Théâtre des Amériques and the Bike Fest; in June, the Chamber Music Festival, Beer Mundial, the Benson & Hedges International (a fireworks competition), the Worldwide Kite Rendez-vous, and Carifiesta (Caribbean food, dress, music, and dance); in July, the Just for Laughs Festival (bringing together 300 of the world's best comedians and comedy troupes), the Festival International Nuits d'Afrique (with more than 35 shows by top bands from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas), the Dragon Boat Race Festival, Montreal's Gay and Lesbian Pride Festival (the most colorful and carnivalesque of the season, with queens in platform shoes blowing kisses from floats moving down Avenue du Mont-Royal), and Les FrancoFolies (French songs and world beat); in August, the Hot Air Balloon Festival, Les Fêtes Gourmandes Internationales, and the World Film Festival. And this is only a partial list. The point is not the theme of the moment, but the esprit de corps, the panache that Montreal, more than any other North American city except New Orleans, has in summer.
The event that dwarfs them all, however, is the Montreal Jazz Festival, which runs this year from July 1 to 11. With 300 free outdoor shows and 100 ticketed concerts by 2,000 musicians, it feels like the biggest of its kind on the planet, bigger than those in Montreux, Switzerland, and Newport, Rhode Island. This summer marks the festival's 20th anniversary. Among those scheduled to perform are the legendary Dave Brubeck, Cassandra Wilson, Cubanismo, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso (who, alone on stage with his guitar, is perhaps the most seductive artist on earth), the "complete" guitarist John McLaughlin playing with tabla master Zakir Hussain, and Diana Krall, backed by a large string orchestra. Soprano saxophonist Jan Garberek and the Hilliard Ensemble will perform their smash sacred chant "Officium" in Notre-Dame Basilica. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano will be the host of the Invitation series, in which he'll be joined by a different artist every night.
During the festival's 11 days, 1.5 million jazz lovers pour into the city, more than doubling its population. White-faced mimes and jugglers on stilts wow the crowds as they wander from one open-air stage to another. Montreal's jazz festival has become an everything festival--not just hard-core jazz but blues and all kinds of fringe music. Last summer I heard Dave Van Ronk, a seminal figure of the sixties folk-blues revival (whose ex-wife taught me the stride-thumb fingerpicking style of Mississippi John Hurt), and Honeyboy Edwards, one of the last of the Southern country blues singers. With her Harlem Gospel Singers, Queen Esther Marrow, a large, turbaned lady, belted her rocking religious repertoire before an outdoor crowd of 100,000 at Place des Arts. Tickets for indoor events are sold out months in advance. I heard several concerts given by last year's honoree, guitarist John Scofield, including an unforgettable jam with bassist Charlie Hayden that the Montreal daily La Presse called "une soirée tonique et lumineuse." The lyrical saxophonist Joe Henderson laid down the haunting version of "Summertime" from his Porgy and Bess album. Ray Charles--67 and still rocking at the piano--sang his lacerated, sightless blues, backed by a large orchestra. A sizzling local trio, the Suzie Arioli Swing Band, opened for him. On July 4 Wynton Marsalis led the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and played trumpet solos. The entire second set was devoted to what Marsalis introduced as "the big train. Every train you ever imagined . . . the gospel train, the gravy train, the Soul Train, the Orange Blossom Special."
The festival--as I was told by John Rudel, a percussionist who has been on the scene for decades--is the brainchild of two Montrealers. "The corporate guy, the suit, is Alain Simard. The music guy, André Menard, is brilliant. He spends the winter in Europe looking for hot bands. He brought Zap Mama, African girls that no one this side of the Atlantic had ever heard, as well as Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens," a South African group. But even if these two entrepreneurs hadn't come along, the festival could only have been a Montreal happening.
Montreal was a wide-open party town in the twenties and thirties, and one of the creative centers for the music of the sixties and seventies. Dylan and the Band (guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson's first wife, Dominique, was a Montrealer) hung out there, as did Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa, and it was an important stop on the jazz circuit, so all the "cats" passed through town. The city has a venerable indigenous jazz culture that fused the sounds of Québécois musicians infected with the French love of jazz, and Montreal-based Pullman porters--some from New York, others descended from slaves who came up on the Underground Railroad, still others from Jamaican Maroons who were duplicitously resettled in Nova Scotia (they were told they were on their way to Africa). On trains to places like Chicago, they jammed with bands such as Duke Ellington's. Montreal's dance halls have seen all the crazes of the past 50 years--swing, R&B, disco, salsa, lambada; now they're given over to all-night raves filled with teenage Goths.
The Jazz Festival mirrors Montreal's own ethnic diversity. Last summer Latinos were well represented: Tito Puente and Arturo Sandoval, Brazilians Jorge Ben (whose idiosyncratic and seductive blend of samba, bossa nova, and rock have made him a pop idol for the past 30 years; the hip audience knew the words of his hit "Más Que Nada" by heart) and Egberto Gismonti, the unclassifiable genius on the 10-string guitar and his custom-made 14-string guitar, who draws on everybody from Ravel to the Xingu Indians. As it happened, these artists were giving their masterly performances during the final rounds of the World Cup, providing another excuse to party. When Brazil beat the Netherlands in the semifinals, motorcades of ecstatic Brazilians and fans of Brazilian soccer came down Sherbrooke Street and up Boulevard St.-Laurent honking and waving yellow-and-green flags. With samba in the streets, Montreal was just like Copacabana, but without the beach.
In giving vent to their longing for their country, these expatriate Brazilians seemed to express the collective homesickness of Montreal's more than 100 ethnic groups, who are known as Allophones (to distinguish them from the Francophones and the Anglophones). The urge to re-create home is so prevalent that you can find mini-nations every few blocks. On Sunday nights when I'm in town, I get my Brazil fix in a little bar around the corner from my family's apartment, where there is always a live samba band. (I start my day playing bossa nova tunes by Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfa, Vinicius de Moraes and Ary Barroso on my guitar. If I can work up an act and perform at some dive once or twice a month, I'll be happy as a clam.)
This town is full of musicians to jam with, and they play every instrument in every style. On our block alone live a percussionist, a blues guitarist, a jazz vocalist, a classical pianist, and a singer of Baroque chorales. Our landlord's brother plays the vibraphone. The residents of this not-atypical block also include a doctor, two writers, and a filmmaker at work on a documentary about the anti-Semitism of the Vichy-aligned Quebec government during World War II. In addition, there are three Rwandan households: ours (my wife is Rwandan) and those of two in-laws. French Canadians, Ukrainians, Portuguese, and Greeks--all of whom grow lush vegetable gardens in the strip between their buildings and the tree-lined sidewalks--still predominate in this neighborhood. There's a nice little Indonesian restaurant on the corner. It's a real community, the way parts of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan were before they were ruined by crime or yuppies. Hasidic boys with payess (earlocks) play in the street on Durocher and Querbes. The Rialto on Parc shows films in Hindi. East of Rue Jean-Talon things become more solidly French-Canadian, the balconies draped with the sky-blue and white fleurs-de-lis flag of Quebec, which has become the emblem of séparatisme.
This quarter of Montreal, bordered by Avenue du Mont-Royal, Avenue du Parc, Boulevard St.-Laurent, and Boulevard Rosemont, is known as Mile End. It is the liveliest part of the city, in sharp contrast to the streets of stolid mansions in Westmount that were built for the English and Scots who immigrated to Quebec after France ceded it to England in 1763, and who became the province's ruling class. The humbler three-story tenement buildings of Mile End were designed for the habitants, the rural French Canadians who came to Montreal as it industrialized between 1890 and 1920. These row houses are characterized by outdoor wrought-iron staircases, intended to leave extra room on the inside for the habitants' large families.
During the forties and fifties Mile End was mostly Jewish. Mordecai Richler wrote about growing up there in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. As the Jews prospered and moved to fancier neighborhoods, new immigrant waves, most recently from Latin America and from self-destructed former colonies in Africa and elsewhere, took their place. Everyone--from Argentineans to Zaireans--has opened shops and restaurants along St.-Laurent and Mont-Royal. In Florian Lopez's fine cutlery shop at 25 Avenue du Mont-Royal, you can choose from handsome models of Laguiole, the French wood- or bone-handled folding knife; the hand-forged knives of Jacques Jobin; and the work of the best Québécois custom knife makers. Farther down the street, past a diner with a special on "hot dogs steamés," is an intriguing fusion restaurant, one of a number of syncretic Mexican-Thai or Japanese-Italian refectories in town.
The opportunities are endless for sampling ethnic cuisine--Iranian (on Sherbrooke Street West), Tibetan (on Rue Ontario), Peruvian (at Pucapuca), Brazilian (Bayou Brazil), you name it. In addition to Indian and Thai restaurants, there's even a small Chinatown, and a Little Italy that runs from Rue Beaubien to Rue Jean-Talon, where a huge outdoor market celebrates the lushness of summer in Quebec (as does the Atwater Market in Lower Westmount).
Mile End is starting to gentrify a tad. As Eric Scott, my filmmaker neighbor, puts it, "The scent of exile is giving way to the scent of yuppie." East and west of Avenue du Parc, Avenue Laurier is beginning to acquire the luster of Boulevard St.-Germain. Eggspectation, at Laurier and L'Esplanade, is one of the places to take your wife, lover, or family for Sunday brunch--a Montreal ritual. I go to Bagel Etcetera in the hope that my eggs Romanov will be brought by E., a young Québécoise who embodies the wholesome sexiness of Montreal's women. At the same time, there are anachronisms like Wilensky's soda fountain at Fairmount and Clark, which is right out of a Hopper painting. Next door is a shop that specializes in printed Japanese rice paper. These startling juxtapositions are not unlike the pungent patois of Quebec, which is said to be closer to the French of Louis XV than the French spoken in the motherland today, and is loaded with joual, or French-Canadian slang, and archaic words (a char is a "chariot," i.e., a car). The French of Quebec is comparable to the Spanish of northern New Mexico, which is a mixture of the Castilian of Cervantes and the chicanismos of East Los Angeles. It takes a while to develop an ear for it; luckily almost everybody speaks English.
Montreal's Carnival doesn't end on Labor Day. With the fall, as the light softens and the maples turn and the sexual energy gradually recedes indoors, comes the film festival (this year, August 27 to September 6). It's an important stepping- stone for independent filmmakers, particularly Francophone ones. Many fine art flicks that don't make it to the United States are screened here. But there are hits, too. Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, best known for his film version of Russell Banks's novel The Sweet Hereafter, launched his career at the festival. Last fall I went with Banks, our neighbor in the Adirondacks (my primary residence), to see the superb Corps Plongés (Drowned Corpses) by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, who is also a friend of Banks's. Afterward we had dinner with Peck and his star, a young German woman, at Le Toqué, one of the city's many haute French restaurants. The movie is about a white woman raised in Haiti who now works in the New York City coroner's office. She keeps having flashbacks to the night the Tontons Macoutes murdered her parents, who sympathized with the resistance to Duvalier's dictatorship. The movie speaks to the psychic pain of exiles in every big city of Europe and North America, the old-country traumas that many carry within them and replay endlessly. It speaks to Montreal's large immigrant population as much as it does to that of New York, where it doesn't seem to have made much of a dent.
When we left the screening, I noticed that the streets were still full of blondes (joual for "girlfriend," regardless of hair or skin color) cuddling with their chums, and that the shapely young women who seem to abound in this city were still baring their midriffs and wearing their jupes. It is only with the first cold snap that they finally put them away.
During the sultry nights of summer the main arteries of Montreal swarm with life, and the outdoor cafés are full until two or three. One could make a career out of discovering great places to eat in Montreal--in most of which, it should be pointed out, everybody is smoking up a storm.
The Montreal International Jazz Festival takes place from July 1 to 11 this year (888/515-0515 for information, 800/361-4595 for tickets; www.montrealjazzfest.com).
The Ritz-Carlton 1228 Sherbrooke St. W.; 800/363-0366 or 514/842-4212, fax 514/842-3383; doubles from $240
Hotel Queen Elizabeth 900 Blvd. René-Lévesque W.; 800/441-1414 or 514/861-3511, fax 514/954-2256; doubles from $191, including breakfast. The "Queen E" is where I'd stay if I didn't check into the Ritz.
La Maison Pierre du Calvet 405 Rue Bonsecours; 514/282-1725, fax 514/282-0456; doubles from $154. Charming bed-and-breakfast with a celebrated restaurant.
Auberge du Vieux Port 97 Rue de la Commune E.; 888/660-7678 or 514/876-0081, fax 514/876-8923; doubles from $130. A saddle factory turned 27-room boutique hotel in Old Montreal.
Restaurants & Cafés
Chez Gatsé 317 Rue Ontario E.; 514/985-2494; dinner for two $10. Tibetan food.
Pucapuca 5400 Blvd. St.-Laurent; 514/272-8029; dinner for two $17, no credit cards.
Bayou Brazil 4552 Rue St.-Denis; 514/847-0088; dinner for two $34. Brazil meets New Orleans in dishes such as blackened shrimp and seafood jambalaya.
Eggspectation 198 Ave. Laurier W.; 514/278-6411; breakfast for two $14.
Bagel Etcetera 4320 Blvd. St.-Laurent; 514/845-9462; brunch for two $14.
Wilensky's Light Lunch 34 Fairmount Ave. W.; 514/ 271-0247; lunch for two $14. Montreal's version of a Jewish deli; the bagels are thinner and chewier than the American kind.
Le Toqué 3842 Rue St.-Denis; 514/499-2084; dinner for two $75. Modern Quebec cuisine with a fusion inflection.
L'Express 3927 Rue St.-Denis; 514/845-5333; dinner for two $50. The atmosphere of a Rive Gauche bistro.
Mondo Saks 2042 Rue Peel; 514/849-2555; dinner for two $90. Superb Cajun-grilled pompano.
Milos 5357 Ave. du Parc; 514/272- 3522; dinner for two $100. A classic Greek fish place, run by Costas Spiliadis, who bottles his own olive oil.
Olympic Sports Bar 124 Rue St.-Viateur W.; 514/495-0746. The foamiest cappuccino in town.
Coutellerie L'Indissociable 25 Ave. du Mont-Royal; 514/845-1498. Florian Lopez's cutlery shop.
Marché Rose 1406 Blvd. St.-Laurent; 514/849-2111. A miniature version of the Istanbul spice market, with Middle Eastern spices, dried fruits, halvah, nougats, Turkish delight, nuts, and Iranian specialties.
Cigare & Co. 6981 Blvd. St.-Laurent; 514/277-0014. Treasonously tasty Cohibas and Monte Cristos.
To get the flavor of the French colonial period, visit the Château Ramezay, which was occupied by the American Revolutionary army under General Richard Montgomery in November 1775.
The Old City, which swarms with tourists in the summer, is full of intriguing little shops such as the Joseph Ponton Costume shop (480 Rue St.-François-Xavier). A few blocks away is Pointe-À-Callière, the Museum of Archaeology & History of Montreal, erected on the site of Montreal's first settlement.
In 1962 I. M. Pei's cruciform Place Ville Marie launched the renovation of downtown, which has become a maze of striking glass towers.
Back to the Future
Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67, a pioneering Modernist apartment complex, is linked by a bridge to St. Helen's Island, where Buckminster Fuller's space-age Biosphere now serves as an ecological center.