Though the perils and evils of facebook go without saying it’s good to remember that every once in a scroll coal mining through the old f’ook does indeed produce the occasional diamond. To wit:
One day I was mindlessly flipping through the bluebook of souls and a smiling picture caught my eye. “I’m in Newfoundland!” it announced, and I noticed a (real-life) friend of mine had tagged me in the comments below, mentioning that he had introduced me to this Tee fellah during a Phish outing in Denver. I didn’t remember meeting this person one whit, but that was still good enough for me. “Hey man,” I messaged, “if you’re anywhere near Harbour Grace you’re welcome to stop in for a beer…”
Well, it turned out Tee was a drummer and he had flown to The Rock to play several shows as part of the third annual St. John’s African Roots Festival (aka SARfest*) and as he did not have a car he would not be stopping in for a beer. Of course my interest was very piqued. Turned out he and his band would be playing in St. John’s on the weekend, at 1pm on Saturday afternoon and again at 8pm on Sunday night, and moreover the festival was free! Of course October is rutting season for moose which makes it especially dangerous to be driving at night (Newfoundland does have its challenges) so on October 9th, 2021 m’lady and I left the house after a quick bleakfunch and after a quick stop at the music store (where I dropped $500 on a Shure Beta52 kick drum mic, an analog delay for the pedal steel, and a pack of mandolin strings) we pulled into the very empty parking lot of the Holy Heart Theatre a few minutes before 1pm. We were so ridiculously on time that we had to sit in the lobby for ten minutes waiting for the doors to open.
You’d think we hadn’t seen a show in nineteen months or something**. By the time the doors actually opened I was visibly drooling.
I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of something so very much up my alley as an African roots festival but after ten minutes went by and we were still the only people sitting in the 800-seat theatre I certainly couldn’t blame myself. By the time the band actually went on there were no more than twenty in the crowd, and over half of them were volunteers. You could tell they were volunteers because they were all wearing matching SARfest t-shirts and SARfest branded face masks. I suppose all that free merch didn’t leave much in the budget for advertising but I guess when your event is funded by several governmental arts agencies and you aren’t charging admission there is little incentive to make sure there are butts in seats.
But never mind that, our butts were excited to be in our seats when Mi’gmafrica entered from the wings. Though the scattered crowd mustered just a very smattering applause at their appearance, when my facespace associate once-removed raised his arms triumphantly in the air like he was on stage at Wembley Stadium before sitting at his drum kit our meagre claps immediately intensified and I even let out a verbal “whoop!” Live music!
Mi’gmafrica is a quartet from Montreal that blends the music of West Africa with lyrics and melodies from First Nations. On stage left was a Senegalese drummer/singer/kora player named Sadio, on stage right stood Ivy, a Mi’gmaq singer/flautist, and behind them was a super-solid rhythm section in Tee on drums and…well, I don’t know his name, but a heck of a bass player too, who was on just his third gig with the band.
And they were great!!!! Aside from the shockingly vibrant experience of once again feeling the bounce of organized sound molecules that were conjured into being by like-minded musicians, the calming bliss of the kora and it’s indicative Saharan genre was like a warm blanket laid over my very soul. I was surprised at how much I felt in the first few moments. It had been a long time since I had closed my eyes in a room full of live musicians and I didn’t realize how much my body missed it.
I’m a live music junkie and Mi’gmafrica fixed me good.
The two musical traditions blended so well that I often had to remind myself that what I was hearing was in fact two different genres. Blended well? Heck, in the middle of their set they performed an Eagle Song that was (amazingly) a traditional Mi’gmaq eagle song sung over a traditional Senegalese eagle song, and they worked together perfectly. Isn’t that awesome? To my ears the bedrock of the band’s sound was overwhelmingly West African with a rather (I don’t want to say “subtle” because it wasn’t, but…) subtle overlay of Mi’gmaq, though I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m much more familiar with the music and culture of West Africa than I am with the music and culture of my Native countrymen. But such was the goal of our founding fathers, and damn them for succeeding so well.
By the time their ninety minutes were up the crowd had swelled to about forty, though it was still at least half volunteers. The next act was a man named Kagumba Andrew, whom I had heard interviewed on CBC the day before. He was from Uganda and was pursuing a graduate degree in ethnomusicology at the university in St. John’s. He sang (very well, I thought) and played several different instruments, and though it was definitely enjoyable it felt more like a lecture/demonstration than a performance.
During his set I ducked out to the bathroom and on the way back I ran into Tee and introduced myself. We spoke briefly and he told me that while the rest of the band would be flying back to Montreal on Monday morning he had booked a later flight so he could see the sights in St. John’s. He seemed like a nice guy and I quickly excused myself to join m’lady. The final “act” of the afternoon was actually a drumming workshop led by Mi’gmafrica’s kora player Sadio Sissokho. He brought three teenagers up on stage and taught them (and we in the audience) several djembe rhythms for the next forty-five minutes. He ended by getting all the kids in the audience (about ten) on stage and teaching them a dance to go with the music. That dance has become a rather consistent personal drunken party move around our house.
You should see it.
On the drive home m’lady and I listened to a Toumani Diabaté CD and talked about how much we loved the band. As a couple who lives in a house decorated primarily with gig posters, Native art, and African art, Mi’gmafrica was certainly our sort of thing. We also discussed Tee and how he would have trouble getting around St. John’s without a car so once we got home I sent him a message and offered to come into Town on Monday to show him around and that’s just what we did. We met him at his Airbnb at 10am and took him to Signal Hill and Quidi Vidi and…well, we stopped for a quick drink at the QV Brewery that stretched to several hours which kneecapped our plans to drive up the coast and do a little hike at La Manche.
Regardless, by the time we dropped Tee at the airport in the dwindling daylight we were good friends with a great day shared and whattya know, we had plans to meet up in Mexico in a few months.
Did I mention that I really like live music?
*Yes, they call the St. John’s African Roots Festival “SARfest”. Aside from being a simply terrible name for a music festival – particularly during the 37th wave of a worldwide SARS-like pandemic – it clearly ignores the “J” in “St. John’s”. Is it possible that nobody in the room suggested they go with “Newfoundland African Roots Festival”, which acronyms down to the much less offensive NARfest? Not to mention the fact that the St. John’s African Roots Festival is factually mis-named as it includes a one-night stop in Corner Brook, which is about 700 kilometres from St. John’s.