Culture  A beat heard ‘round the world

Christopher Webster listens in on West African music at Club Balattou

Seated around a wooden table in the headquarters of Productions Nuits d’Afrique, located on the first floor of Club Balattou’s office space, Zal Sissokho seems almost to be apologizing for the necessity of having General Manager Suzanne Rousseau as a translator. “My English,” he tells me, “is very bad.”

Later that evening, it became apparent that Sissokho does not need English, French, or any other conventional language to make his voice heard – his musical talents are far more effective. He is a master of the kora, a unique 21-stringed harp that is exclusive to the West African region. Born in Senegal, Sissokho belongs to one of three major families whose responsibility it is to uphold their cultural history through their own musical traditions. “They’re the ones who pass on from generation to generation the oral history” said Rousseau. “They know your family, and your descendants, and where you came from, and what you did.”

Sissokho, and the host venue Club Balattou, certainly know how to put on an engaging show. The evening began with one of his fellow artists and collaborators, Fabrice Koffy, performing some original slam poetry. Accompanied by an acoustic guitarist, Koffy delved into topics such as the value of an education and making the most of your opportunities, easing the crowd into the evening with his smooth-flowing Francophone rhymes. Displaying a well-honed ability to talk to and engage with the crowd, Koffy drew laughs and strong positive reactions from those attending.
The crowd could not have been more diverse. In front of me sat two young men of color, to my left, a group of fifty-something white women. Speaking on Club Balattou and the Nuits d’Afrique festival – conceived by its owner Mr. Toure´ – Rousseau stated that the crowd has always included, “different generations mixed together, of different social backgrounds, and of different cultures”. This mosaic of ages and cultures gave the intimate venue a feeling of openness, with everyone welcome to enjoy the performance in whatever way they pleased.

And everyone in the audience did just that when Sissokho and his supporting cast took the stage. Around him were a keyboardist, a drummer, a bass player, and a supporting female vocalist, whose dancing undoubtedly inspired the crowd to get on their feet. After a quick introduction by Sissokho, the group launched into a melodic tune that instantly filled the club with a rich, vibrant sound. Sissokho’s mastery of the kora is spell-binding to watch, using only his thumb and index fingers to pluck the strings, with the rest of his hands holding the instrument, he created intricate melodies and complex rhythms while also contributing his own vocals.

He is far from the only competent performer, however, and all the band members offered their own component to the songs. This resulted in an interwoven tapestry of polyrhythms that balanced Sissokho’s Senegalese roots with less traditional instrumentation. Within minutes, a crowd of people had gathered on the dance floor in front of the stage, and the atmosphere was simply overflowing with energy and good vibes.
Rousseau watched the spectacle from a side table, a spot she has doubtlessly become familiar with in her position as general manager of Nuits d’Afrique – an annual festival, which currently brings in hundreds of performers and thousands of spectators to Montreal every summer – for over twenty years. When asked about the future of world music in Montreal, she cannot suppress a grin. “It’s just starting to expand. The roots are a strong and real music… It’s not something that goes out of fashion”. If Sissokho and Koffy’s performances are any indication, the genre is absolutely here to stay.