Culture  World music re-mixed

Mundial Montreal drops the beat

The music industry is too often a closed world: the mechanics behind albums and live performances are, by and large, backroom affairs. As our generation becomes more and more drawn to smaller local and indie acts, the uncertain origins of the widespread commercial success that some artists achieve becomes a more important question for consumers. How do members of the industry decide to sign their artists? Who makes these decisions? What is changing about the music scene, and who or what drives such changes?

I was lucky enough to acquire access to the Mundial Montreal world music conference and festival for its first anniversary. The conference started in 2011 as a forum for music industry insiders and artists to interact and exchange their work. Guillaume LaJois, a volunteer producing a promotional “rockumentary” for the festival, explained: “[the attendees are] mostly world music artists and industry representatives. They watch the bands, sign them on, and invite them to other festivals.” Alfredo Caxaj, one such delegate, described his role: “I produce the Sunfest world music and jazz festival in London, Ontario. So this is a showcase of Canadian talent so that we can sign them on.”

Despite being a relative newcomer, Mundial Montreal is nonetheless a major event, showcasing more than thirty artists over four nights, with more than 150 delegates in attendance. Though most tickets required an industry pass, the festival also featured three free public showcases at venues across the city. Showcases were formatted such that each artist would play four or five songs at one stage, then, as festival-goers would quickly shuffle to an adjacent venue for the second act, the first band would pack up and a third band set up in their place, ensuring a rapid transition from band to band, and allowing attendees to cherry-pick their favourites for with whom to follow up after the show.

Perhaps most interesting about the festival is that through its partnerships, sponsors, and participants, the attendee is given a crystal-ball vision of industry goals and trends. Though participants came from all over the world, certain common patterns were nonetheless on display. For example, rather than presenting artists who epitomize a given genre or sub-genre, there was a major tendency for artists whose work pushed the boundaries of genre and style, both between and within songs. Marco Calliari, a Montreal artist born in Italy and a performer at the festival, said, “I’m a big fan of world music, but I love mixing: mariachi with Dixieland, Quebecois rigodon with Brazilian tarantela.” A Louisiana group, the Soul Rebels, created an infectious mix between classic New Orleans brass band sounds and contemporary hip hop beats, but as though to demonstrate their flexibility, they managed a seamless cover of the eighties synthpop hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by Eurythmics. After a set of folk-fusion with Arabic instrumentation, another act, The Sultans of String, concluded with an eerie ballad dedicated to Vancouver celebrity Luna the orca whale, with softly screeching violin modified through a distortion pedal to mimic echoing whale songs.

Several other acts were characterized by dedication to political and social causes in their music. Quique Escamilla, a musician from the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, who is now based in Toronto, was especially vocal on this front.  Introducing his song “Un Tiro” (‘One Shot,’ in English), he told the crowd: “We had some bad politics in Mexico this summer with the elections; many people were angry, I was angry, and so this song is about that.” Escamilla was referring to the election of Enrique Peña Nieto of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) to the office of President, and subsequent protests among students and other groups alleging media bias and election rigging in favour of the PRI. After the show, he explained the common thread he sees between the student movement in Quebec and the student protests in Mexico City: “Today we’re born in hard times, and when the young people are involved in a good cause, it makes me want to support them.  The youth in Mexico have also joined forces for a good cause, and this was an inspiration for much of my music.”

From the outset, Mundial Montreal placed cross-cultural exchange as first among its priorities. The festival’s opening night on Tuesday, November 13, was wholly sponsored by Louisiana Entertainment, a state government initiative. The event was meant to highlight the potential for cultural cross-pollination between historically francophone populations, especially given the festival’s other sponsors, which included the Montreal, Quebec, and Canadian governments, as well as the Canada Council for the Arts. The night was divided between two outstanding Louisiana acts, Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole and the aforementioned Soul Rebels, plus three Montreal bands, Cécile Doo-Kingué, Canailles, and Marco Calliari. After the show, Kyle Gambino, a saxophonist with Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole explained: “We got friends here, and the French-speaking culture, it’s a lot like coming back home. There’s a lot of Cajun influence in this band.”  Eric Evans, mandolin player with Canailles, seemed to reciprocate Gambino’s feelings of affinity and kinship. “We were in Louisiana last spring, and since nobody knew us there, we didn’t know if people would enjoy it. It turned out it was such a party, and the crowd was so welcoming. We were inspired by a lot of music, but Louisiana is a great inspiration to us,” he said.

On the whole, world music is but one facet of the diverse music industry, and this year, organizers of Mundial Montreal evidently felt it necessary to contextualize the festival in relation to other contemporary music. In advertising the festival’s town hall style World Music Forum on their website, Mundial Montreal anticipates future interplay between world music and other contemporary genres: “Twenty five years into the ‘world music’ brand, this session will explore marketing and outreach strategies that we have been learning as we mix diverse communities. Laptop beat production and cultural collisions are defining what is being called ‘World Music 2.0.’” It was thus no coincidence that the last day of the festival saw Canadian DJ and former McGill student Kid Koala perform a “silent disco”-style event, “Kid Koala’s Space Cadet Headphone Experience.” Such earnest embrace of electronica, a genre that most might find incongruous with world music, is evident of the dynamic and evolving situation in the music industry. Producing material is less and less a matter of competition or commercialization, but increasingly an act of collaboration and boundary-pushing.

Mundial Montreal proves that while success is still down to talent and skill, of which the festival had plenty, the tried-and-true styles of yesterday are not so important.  From the perspective of world music, the most coveted skill is the power to communicate through music: bridging cultures, broadening fan bases, and inciting change.