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African Diasporic Music in Montréal, Québec

Julia Day
Julia Day on the oral history audio walk “Canal: Walking the Post-Industrial Lachine Canal” by Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. The historic Charlevoix pivot bridge over the canal is seen in the background.

January 30, 2015

I was funded through the International Council for Canadian Studies Graduate Student Scholarship to conduct research in Montréal in the summer of 2014. My aim in Montréal was to study the West African music community. This was part of a comparative study that looked at West African music scenes in Montréal compared those in Paris, France. In Montréal I had the opportunity to observe and participate in the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a tremendous two-week event that highlights the public interest in African and African diasporic music as well as the strength of the local African music scene.

The Nuits d’Afrique festival, currently in its 28th year, consists of 13 days of both paid and free concerts, presentations, and workshops. Notable is the emphasis on bringing local African Québécois musicians onto the same stage as internationally renowned artists such as Tiken Jah Fakoly (Côte d’Ivoire), the Sierra Leon Refugee All-Stars (Sierra Leon), and Tabou Combo (Haiti). It was interesting for me to observe how musicians who were either first- or second-generation immigrants navigated their position in Québec through music. They did this by the mixing and matching of traditional music with non-traditional instrumentation; African instruments with rock, hip hop, reggae, or fusion genres; and lyrics that described experiences of immigration and assimilation into Canadian society.

Evidence of interest in the Montréal’s diversity is also present in the numerous museums such as the Centre d’Histoire de Montréal and Musée McCord. The Centre d’Histoire de Montréal currently has two relevant exhibits on this theme: Traces. Lieux. Mémoires and J’arrive à Montréal. Here I learned that approximately 56% of Montréal’s populations was born abroad or has a parent who was born abroad, and that 70% of immigrants to Québec choose to live on the Ile de Montréal. This positions Montréal as a diverse and cosmopolitan city central to cultural activity in Québec. The temporary exhibit Musique – Le Québec du Charlebois à Arcade Fire at Musée McCord locates Montréal as a global center for French-language music, an idea that is certainly supported by the Nuits d’Afrique festival.

My affiliation with Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) exposed me to methodologies used in oral history that embrace technology in inventive ways in order to share Montréalers’ life stories. The COHDS recently finished the impressive Mapping Memories ( project, which presents the experiences of refugee youth in Montréal in their own words. One of the most interesting ideas I learned from COHDS is the “walking interview” as a way of both preserving and experiencing oral history. The walking interview allows the interviewee to talk about the history of an area as they give the interviewer a tour of their neighborhood. The COHDS curates collections of the interview clips and makes an audio tour available for download so others may experience the stories in real time and place. “Canal: Walking the Post-Industrial Lachine Canal” (downloadable at is a great example of this kind of project from COHDS.

This research period in Montréal was important for my dissertation research because it exposed me to the African music scene in Montréal as well as the broader senses of diversity, and the society that supports and values the cosmopolitan nature of their city. Furthermore, I believe that my research techniques have been improved by my exposure to the COHDS and the methodologies they employ in their oral history projects. I would like to thank the International Council for Canadian Studies for making this research trip possible.

The Canadian Studies Center is a recipient of a U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships program grant. The grant provides allocations of academic year and summer fellowships to assist meritorious graduate students undergoing training in modern foreign languages and Canadian Studies.