Photo: Le Devoir
A few years back, I decided to make a solo trip to one of my second homes, New York City. While I was there I had the joy of catching Fela! The Musical, and we all know that New York knows how to do Broadway. Needless to say, all my senses were blown, but it was actually a book that I bought after the performance that left a strong imprint in my mind for all these years; Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore.
This beautiful and unconventional biography of the Nigerian icon Fela Kuti was so poignant and well written that it really had my soul travelling back in time and over seas. The book often referenced the club that Fela opened called Afro- Spot, which was later renamed to The Shrine. This "Shrine" became the place where many of the most amazing musicians of this world played in rotation, where Fela performed regularly, where dancers dazzled eyes, where heat dominated, where political truth was spoken, where minds were opened, and where souls were exposed. As Fela himself explained, "Why Shrine? 'Cause I wanted someplace meaningful, of progressive, mindful background with roots." That quote resonated in my mind for years because I craved such a place for us in Montreal, and in this era.
This year my wish became reality. For three unbelievable nightcaps during the Montreal Jazz Festival, Le Savoy du Metropolis became what I would call "The Shrine", and Kalmunity Vibe Collective (KVC) electrified over 1200 souls with incredible musical talent, skill, depth and energy.
Many of you may already know this nine-year veteran collective held down residencies up at Sablo Kafé, and now offers two great nights of live organic improvised music at Les Bobards on Tuesday nights, and Dièse Onze on Sunday nights. Revered for being the best live acts, jazz acts, hip hop acts, and more in this city, it was about time that they got to rock it at the Jazz Festival. My expectations were more than sky high from my prior experiences seeing this collective, and yet KVC still managed to blow my mind off this sphere. I initially planned on attending only the first of three nights, but I ended up needing a fix each night.
The first night had an under "The Congo Square" theme, so I made sure to have on my dancing shoes. When I strolled in at around 12:15, the Savoy was packed but I didn't have to wait in line, which means it was probably right under capacity at 400 heads. It took me a minute to squeeze my way to the front of the stage where I was pleasantly surprised to see each member of the band repping hard in their beautiful masks, beads and feathers.
The outfit award definitely goes to saxophonist, Vincent Stephen-Ong, who was rocking crisp white Jordans, an impeccable white suit, and a white skeleton painted on his face. The getups and lighting were a beautiful touch to help the audience get into that festive vibe, especially for the KVC newbies who might have needed that extra push. I was completely drenched within the first few minutes of getting there, partly because the Savoy is a carpeted room that really captures all human heat, but mainly because Jahsun (founder and lead drummer of KVC) was laying down rhythms so hard that my hips could barely even keep up.
Being the backbone of this collective, instrumentally and logistically, I feel that Jahsun often leaves more room for the other instruments and vocalists to take their space. Staying true to the Congo theme, we got to experience drums as a highlight, which was such a treat. Another musical highlight that stuck out to me was Christopher Cargnello on guitar. Truth be told, I'm rarely a fan of guitar because I think it's a little overrated (I may have fell for too many guitarists back in my teens), but Cargnello really reignited my love for the instrument with all of his soul vibrating solos, and particularly with the strong lead he took on a few of the pieces that really set a nice tone for the other musicians to build on.
Vocally, the wonderful Sam I Am blew me away. She strolled on stage sporting a long bright yellow mesh dress and big Donna Summer hair. She just killed us with her power notes and extensive vocal range; not to mention she's a magnificent dancer who can really break down in six-inch heels.
Everything was shaping incredibly well until around 1:30 when the band took a much-deserved break, and poof! The Savoy emptied up faster then a jar of Nutella at a day camp. I knew the break would make KVC lose a couple of people, but it was outrageous because a good two-thirds of the audience left in search of their festival fix. That's when I really saw how much KVC really is a give-and-take experience. With all that empty space in the room, even though the musicians were still giving their everything, the vibe had lost its strength.
The second night of the series was truly the one for the books, though. KVC didn't fall for that break trick again and decided to push through two and a half hours of performing straight, which is an amazing feat on its own, but when you think about how this is all live improvisation it's really extraordinary. The night was dedicated to the great J Dilla, so you know you that every musician was bringing their A-game. The energy in the room that was so magical that night, words really can't do it justice, but what I can say is that everything was perfectly aligned. From Jordan Peter's guitar strums, to DNA's knowledge dropping to Blu-Rum 13's rap flow, to the Nomadic Massive guest appearance, everything was right. I particularly applaud the Fredy V & Jonathan Emile duo; these two multi-talented vocalists are just natural born entertainers who have you hooked on every eye blink they make. As a duo, wow, they just owned the stage.
At one point in the night we were all two-stepping and singing along to the live remix of "Find A Way" (ATCQ) and my musicoholic friend from New York turned to me and said "Montreal hands down owns the live music scene, New York could not possibly compare." As I looked around the room I knew we all felt the same. People's eyes were glistening with emotion, everyone was swaying on the right beat, and all the connotations were straight hitting people's minds. Even an earthquake could not have shifted the audience's focus that night. Just writing about it is swelling my heart all over again.
After such an epic night, I just had to make it to the last of the series. I was glad to be carrying my media pass because the line-up was insane. Once again, KVC was all for the people and their enthusiasm was thrown right back at them. Attending all three nights back-to-back really brought to my attention how in-sync the musicians are with each other and the audience. Many of the musicians and vocalists had never even performed together, yet they managed to create pure brilliance right before our eyes. I must say one of the most memorable moments of the third night was when Beatbox extraordinaire X-Wam built an outrageous four-minute beat that he finished off with a beat medley mix of Michael Jackson. I've never heard so many ladies scream so high at the same time. None of us could compare to the high range of Ms. Malika Tirolien though, who just ripped it up with her insane scatting skills.
I could continue this play-by-play of the most epic musical experience I've seen in Montreal... ever, but I would rather leave the incomplete imagery in your mind so you can go fill it in by checking out the Kalmunity Vibe Collective yourself on Tuesdays at Les Bobards, or Sundays for more of a jazzy night at Dièse Onze.
I really must raise my hat to the soundman at the Savoy for serving us such impeccable sound, the Jazz Fest for making the three nights possible, the 30-plus poets, singers, MCs, and musicians of KVC for sharing their talent and soul with us, and of course to Jahsun for being the backbone behind this amazing collective.
Truly inspired by it all,