As far as memory serves, the last Montréal Serai issue dedicated to music was exactly eight years ago… so it seemed about time to put out the (trumpet) call and see what “Just Music” meant to our community of contributors. Surprisingly, despite their wildly different approaches and focus, the submissions we received seem to hold a common thread – a thread of history, a thread of legacy, a thread of continuity in cycles, rhythms, tradition and culture, both musically inherited and imagined. There is a sense of lineage that runs through this issue. Montréal Serai’s own lineage dating back to its theatrical beginnings in the 80s has always had a strong link to music and the telling of stories through that medium. Here are the stories of our contributors.
It is well known that Montréal has an important foundation in jazz. In a singular piece by writer and musician Paul Serralheiro, he uncovers his previously unpublished, 40-year-old recorded interview with Earl “Fatha” Hines, a pillar of jazz whose touring band once included Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan. Amidst the bustling sounds of the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club, we hear Hines state simply, “You see, the story people don’t realize is, we didn’t know we were making history.” The Serralheiro of present day beautifully contextualizes the young Serralheiro’s wide-eyed brush with greatness. We feel privileged to be able to share this extraordinary find with our readers for the first time.
There is a good chance that anybody that has heard of classical Indian music also knows the name of the late virtuoso sitarist and composer Pandit Ravi Shankar, for years the most globally recognizable face and sound associated with the genre. Pandit Shankar’s student, sarodist Aditya Verma, provides us with a personal account of his journey at the age of 18, from Montréal to Delhi, immersing himself in the ancient Indian apprenticeship tradition known as Gurukula, living and learning music in the home of his guru, Pandit Shankar. We learn of the oral tradition dating back thousands of years that transmits Indian music from generation to generation. Pandit Shankar used this tradition to impart musical lessons to his students; Aditya’s father used this tradition with his students; and today, it is how Aditya relays musical knowledge to his own students. The musical lineage is intimate, encompassing, and generative.
Generative inspiration can come from archived treasures as well. While Paul Serralheiro found an old cassette recording that led to his piece, Gavin Morais was inspired by archives of a much more personal nature. In Patterns of My Father’s Voice, Morais uses cassette-recorded radio performances of his late father’s poetry to stir up electronic musical soundscapes, propelled by the meter of his father’s recitations. Wonderfully assembled staccato beats and melodic snippets ricochet in drenched musical atmospheres, exposing the resonance of Michael Morais’ words. In Gavin’s piece Semen stick together, the listener almost feels that the late poet is being spurred on by the sonic collage, and the playful double entendres of his poem somehow become even more (pleasingly) absurd.
In a piece exploring lineage of another sort, feminist cultural historian, writer, and Serai editor Kerry McElroy reviews Robyn Sarah’s memoir Music, late and soon, recently shortlisted for the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction, awarded by the Quebec Writers’ Federation. Here we have another tribute to a mentor and teacher, Sarah’s piano teacher Phil Cohen, a main actor in her life story from early days to present. Kerry writes “The book is circular as a text, much the way that ideas of time, past, present and future are explored in the author’s life throughout it—in flashback, blurred timelines, and stressed continuities.” We learn of the author’s return to classical piano after many years of absence to become a writer, and her reunion with Cohen, and his philosophies on music and life.
Multidisciplinary artist Himmat Shinhat, himself part of the lifeblood of Montréal Serai’s musical legacy, provides us with a view into the recent documentary film I am a Cliché. The film explores the life of Marianne Elliot Said aka Poly Styrene, frontwoman for British punk band X-Ray Spex in the late 1970s. The film is co-directed by Said’s daughter Celeste Bell, and Shinhat tells us that “Bell explores her mother’s journey through the challenges that confronted her as a biracial, non-conformist artist, celebrating her life and her art and offering inspiration to future generations of artists…. This film is a precious document that counters the ongoing erasure of BIPOC presence in the arts.” It is interesting to note that Said’s lyrics presciently spoke of themes such as genetic engineering, mass media control, consumerism, and the environment, leaving a much more complex legacy than the standard punk rock fare.
Serai’s Jody Freeman shares her conversation with Zab Maboungou and Elli Miller Maboungou of Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata, Montréal’s contemporary dance company founded by Zab more than 30 years ago, about the inheritance of the drum and the complex rhythms from Congo, West Africa and beyond. Reflections on the colonial suppression of traditional drums and subsequent denigration of the complexity and richness of what is encoded in their rhythms run through this exchange. As a contemporary jazz percussionist and Nyata Nyata drummer, Elli takes up the baton, exploring and honouring his Congolese instruments and their source. His dancer-choreographer-philosopher mother explains it this way: “… since the rhythms are very organized and codified, they’re complex. That’s why I tell people we’ve had algorithms for a long time – they are there in the drums… But what’s amazing is that rhythm is infinitely creative… Rhythm is about time. That’s the circularity, the infinite, you know?”
Johanne Ricard discovered stone sculpture in Carrare, Italy while completing her bachelor’s in visual arts. In the presented pieces with musical themes, Ricard explores the influence (and legacy) of her father, a musical director and teacher, through the perhaps unexpected medium of stone sculpture. The spiraling, curved forms and traced etches (at times geometric) are evocative of sounds, flora, the body, and musical concepts and instruments, sometimes abstractly and sometimes explicitly. Ricard states “Liées à mon histoire familiale, plusieurs de mes œuvres portent l’empreinte de la musique.” Thanks to Chantal Mantha and Karine Ricard for helping revise the French in this piece.
Poet and activist Ilona Martonfi’s incisive poetry in this issue juxtaposes sobering incidents with the lifeforce of traditional folk music. In The Orangery, the protagonist’s ritual of cleansing and emerging from a dark episode is contrasted with a Sicilian folk song about “love” with a refrain about flowers. Images in The Lundu prod the reader to consider the realities of the people behind the folk music and dance in Brazil. Traditions are turned askew in this new light.
Emerging writer Sophie Gazarian provides us with a beautiful story of a family’s relation to the waxing and waning of music, noise, and sound. The intimate journey traces a landscape of sonic abundance as well as deprivation as each member rejoices and tolerates in turn. This legacy of sound and silence reaches beyond the simple story as the protagonist states, “My father always said that the first stories were told in song: the chirp of birds, the hum of insects in the summer heat, and the whistle of high winds through the trees. Before humans created their spoken and written languages, they found other ways of telling tales.”
And thinking of silences, in Joseph Kary’s quiet and introspective photo essay on musicians he asks us to contemplate the “music between two notes.” His images, frozen in time, allow us to scrutinize “musicians in the instants within the music, the moment’s pause that captures the whole.” We get to reflect on how many such moments manifest the root of musical momentum.
Some people are transported by such momentum, and metamorphose the beats and tempo to germinate their own creative offerings. Playwright and poet, Serai’s own Rana Bose takes us on a personal account of his poetry process. Sounds, pulses, basslines and beats all inform his spontaneous artistic practice, and we tumble, dance and shuffle along with him in this rhythmic rumination.
We hope you enjoy this issue of Montréal Serai. Our contributors prove that even “just music” is humming with so much more.
Prasun Lala and Jody Freeman (co-editors)