Quebec City Summer Music Festival

quebecjazz.gif (10499 bytes) The 31st Annual
Quebec City Summer Music Festival

by Mark Ruffin

On a flight to Montreal, on the way to the 31st annual Quebec City Summer Music Festival, this writer shared a plane ride with vocalist Kurt Elling and his band on their way to perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival. The two-time Grammy nominated singer asked why go to a world music festival.

Variety was the essence of the answer. Jazz festivals come in all shapes and sizes and they’re set in towns from the smallest all-American towns to the most urban of American cities. In fact, most megalopolises have at least three major festivals throughout the warm weather periods.

But, a world music festival? Honestly, until JazzUSA proposed the idea, I couldn’t name think of a place on our continent where such an event was held. In Rio and Paris, yes, the U.S. or Canada, no. With over 800 performers, the hype that the Festival D’été de Quebec is North America’s largest is easy to believe.

The other part of my answer to Elling had to do with the prognostications of Dizzy Gillespie. 50 years ago, Diz predicted that all the music of the world would come together as one, and no where was that more evident than at the affair in this beautiful northeastern Canadian city. The next direction in jazz, or for that matter pop, will likely come from influences outside of the two countries with the world’s largest common border. While most of us in the States and remain stuck in what ever our little musical pigeon hole is, jazz, blues, gospel, rap, r&b, country, at this festival it was rather obvious that the rest of the world is taking our influences and melding them into their own and coming up with something new.

What is world music? The Afro-Celt Band is a great example. They’re name says it all.

Many of the bands here are even more eclectic and many of them are using musical inventions of Americans and are taking them to places we’ve never dreamed of.

Among the 500 acts performing is a band that mixes Hawaiian music with hip-hop and blues and another that fuses zydeco, rock and blues, a Scottish bagpipe band that plays ska and there’s many in-between. Hybrids of the hip-hop, be-bop pop and American reggae culture is everywhere, from acts that play Irish/reggae, to boogie-woogie gospel, and of course there’s that English melange of 70’s and 90’s American Black music called acid jazz

The most surprising aspect of this festival without a doubt was how the quality of the culture of Quebec is on par with that of rest of the world.

rudeluck.gif (59181 bytes)The most stunning example is an Afro-Quebecois soap opera star by the name of Luck Mervil. The resident of Montreal moonlights throughout Quebec with his band Rude Luck. The tall dreadlocked singer immediately brings Terrance Trent D’Arby to mind, but behind Luck’s gravel is a strong tenor voice to be reckoned with. Plus he has the same kind of stage presence and charisma as the late Bob Marley, and unless you’ve seen the late Rastafarian star live, you have no idea how dominating Mervil can be.

The acts were spread throughout the downtown area of Quebec City in either clubs or magnificent, and in one case natural, outdoor theatres. This is the only town in North America with it’s original walled fort from colonial days still standing. Right inside the wall from where the main garrison may have protected the citizens 200 years ago, sits the club Kashmir where Rude Luck played.

Luck came out solo with his guitar singing Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff, before he was joined by his seven piece unit including two vocalists. Together they wove a pop-based tapestry of reggae, funk and rap that was as tight as any big name U.S. band, including the Fugees. Most of the rapping is handled by Mervil’s younger brother Pierre, who displays a style that is immediately reminiscent of M.C. Solaar’s because of the common French language, but on closer inspection, it’s obvious that the Chicago style of flippin’ has obviously crossed the border.

Most of the songs were in French, but many were in English including the exquisite and violent spaghetti western tale of Little Mother Fucker. Mervil’s organization is obviously popular because a packed house ready to dance greeted him and cheered wildly to songs they recognized. When he held up his album Pour Le Meilleur Et Pour Le Pire, the place exploded. A further testimony to his popularity was having his own section in all the major record stores, and on the Air Canada flight home, his music was included on the music program.

Rude Luck also played a couple of tunes, that after being here a few days, I realized was uniquely Quebec. It’s a music that seem to stem from the fierce nationalism obviously inherited from the French and the loose funky culture mined in Louisiana. Rude Luck let it out a bit, but the popular group La Bottine Souriante was drenched in it.

Another surprising act from Quebec was the Jim Zeller Band, a power rock trio led by a blues harmonica player. I walked in the charming Bar Le D’Auteuil, recognized the group for what I thought they were and turned around back towards the door. Just then, as if he knew he had the chance to hook a jazz fan, this blues guy launched into a super-charged up-tempo version of Charles Mingus’ Goodbye Porkpie Hat that could’ve raised Lester Young and Mingus our of their graves. Zeller is no where in the league of Toots Theilsman, Stevie Wonder, Howard Levy or Hendrik Meurkens, but I stayed for two more sets and was convinced, I’ve never seen a more talented blues harmonica player, and I used to play in a band with Sugar Blue.

The most disappointing aspect of the festival was the lack of pure jazz influence on any of the acts. This seems to have been an oversight of the folks who programmed this festival because, just in Cuba along, there are enough acts that qualify as world music acts that uses pure jazz as a basis. I did lodge an official complaint. Surprisingly, the best jazz solo I heard here came from one of the many African bands performing.

While it was not a disappointment, I did expect to hear more reggae emanating in the music from the bands from the not-so-dark continent. There are musicians in Quebec from Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Senegal, and Madagascar. Clearly injected into most of these acts is a varying degree of American influences, but they seem to be downplaying the musical lessons learned from Jamaica.

africafete.gif (27704 bytes)Four of these African entertainers are touring this continent under the banner of Africa Fete ’98. They are Selif Keita, Papa Wemba, Maryam Mursal and Cheikh Lo.

The Black population of this French speaking northeastern Canadian province came out in the rain to here Africa Fete. And because the four had been sold out in Montreal for weeks, many from there made the three hour drive north.

The Africa Fete ’98 album is a great primer to for anyone dipping their ears for the first time into the music of Africa. Just like on the cd, live, it is Papa Wemba who steals the show and that’s not just because he’s the only one of the quartet that every now and then dabbles in the English language. That being said though, it would be interesting to see what would happen if American pop stations added his r&b laden international hit “Show Me The Way,” or the Latin community picked up on his salsa/jazz tune “Epelo,” from his new album “Molokai.” It was on the latter tune where pianist Patrick Bebey turned into a cross between Danilo Perez and Bud Powell with an extra-long Afro-Cuban solo that earned a tremendous ovation.

On the album “Africa Fete ’98,” each artist contributes two songs. In concert, in Quebec, each performed for about an hour. Somalia’s Mursal was first, followed by Lo who’s from Senegal, then Wemba from the Congo and Mali’s Keita finished.

Ironically, it was Keita, more than three hours into the show, that produced the first song with heavy reggae rhythms. Ironic, because, while the others all showed something from our musical vocabulary, it is reggae that most Americans think of when the term world music or world beat is mentioned. It is quite more than that and in the rest of the world, we’re a huge part of what world music is.

If more world music festivals started turning up in the U.S., we’ll find much to learn musically and culturally. If not, the world, including Canada, and it’s music just may pass us by.