This year’s Montreal International Jazz Festival started under a cloud of controversy with SLĀV, a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs from the South presented at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM). It was created by Quebec singer Betty Bonifassi and artistic director Robert Lepage, both white. The lack of diversity and representativity among the actors and those who created, produced and promoted the play - addressing the racially-charged and emotional topic that is slavery - was blatant, drawing criticism for what was portrayed as institutional racism. With the first five nights sold-out, this 16-night performance show has been the festival’s most ticketed event in 2018 so far.
A number of speakers, artists and people working in the Montreal cultural scene have raised their voice to denounce the event. Hundreds of people have gathered outside the TNM everyday to express their opposition to SLĀV. During an interview with local newspaper Montreal Gazette published two weeks ago, singer Betty Bonifassi stated that she ‘[doesn’t] feel bad at all’ and that she ‘[doesn’t] see colour’. In a statement sent last week, the Jazz festival stood by the production despite criticism.
LA-based artist Moses Sumney, whose debut studio album Aromanticism won critics' heart last September, was supposed to perform on July 3 (Tuesday) at the Club Soda as part of the Montreal International Jazz festival. On Monday night, the artist pulled his performance in solidarity with the campaign against SLĀV. “When I learned that the festival continued to defend this show publicly, even after adamant protests [...] I knew that I could not present my music at this same festival in good conscience”, he shared via his socials. To everyone’s complete surprise, he announced a counter event the same night with discounted tickets ($10) at La Sala Rossa, a small venue in the city. In a letter addressed to the Jazz festival team, he wrote “There’s nothing wrong with white people wanting to make work about slavery. The way it is executed in this show, however, is appropriative, hegemonic, and neo-imperialistic.”
The buzz was real when I arrived at La Sala Rossa to see his highly expected performance. For the span of an evening, this counter event became a symbol of resistance in itself. The venue looked like a big family reunion where everyone was excited and genuinely happy to see each other.
At 9:15 pm, local artist Un Blonde opened the night to present his lo-fi material, accompanied by his acoustic guitar and his laptop. Despite the six-seven people in the crowd that wouldn’t stop talking during his set, you could feel the passion and vibrant energy coming out of his performance. The only criticism would be his DIY set up didn't necessaily translate the massive potential his great songs have. We look forward to seeing hm expand his live set-up.
At 10pm, when Moses Sumney took the stage, it was a consecration. Crowd cheers, hands clapping, thunderous ovation. The 28 years-old artist smiled and then proceeded to start what could be described as a magical evening. His vocals seemed unreal when he started singing the first notes of 'Don’t Bother Calling'. You could hear a pin drop at La Sala Rossa. When you listen to a Moses Sumney song, you’re immediately amazed by his vocal range. He can easily flit from high-pitched to a middle register and live pulls it off exceptionally.
“Thank you for coming to our little DIY show”, Moses said ironically after playing 'Indulge Me'. He continued with “The next song is called Quarrel, it’s about fighting the people who claim that they’re fighting for you”. With that sentence only, he said everything that had to be said regarding the whole situation. The crowd clapped appreciation and the dreamy piece was brought to life before our very eyes (ears).
During the icy R&B-inspired 'Make Out In My Car', Moses was dancing and served us enough bad-ass attitude for our money. On stage, his charisma and confidence are undeniable. His calming presence and powerful vocals did not fail to touch the hearts of the audience, especially during Come To Me` (a Björk cover). The highlight of the show was definitely `Lonely World`. The energy on stage was at its height thanks to the soothing drums and the raging guitars of his three musicians. He ended the night with the mesmerizing piece 'Plastic'.
Moses Sumney proved with such ease that he is real artistic force. He made the most of the situation and stayed true to himself. “Thank you to the Montreal Jazz Festival for having me, I wouldn’t be here tonight”, he joked. Last night’s performance was authentic, musically brilliant and powerful.
The Jazz Festival booking team hit the jackpot when they added him to their 2018 lineup. However, they missed their shot by not immeditately pulling the show in light of the criticism concerning SLĀV but they have made a gesture of reconciliation. In a statement made public earlier this week, they cancelled the show in solidarity with the protestors: “We would like to apologise to those who were hurt. It was not our intention at all”.