These are tough times for Montreal, where almost daily clashes between postsecondary students and police threaten to spoil the city’s typically exuberant summer festival season. Like most Montrealers, the singer and percussionist Elage Diouf is dismayed by the ongoing unrest in his town.
“I think the [provincial] government blew its chance in trying to manage the whole affair,” says Diouf, speaking in French from his home. “On one hand, you could say that no one could have seen this coming. But as a resident here, I blame the government for not taking the students’ demands seriously and settling the situation.”
The anger currently permeating his city is at odds with the tone of Diouf’s music, a celebratory synthesis of West African and European styles that practically dares you not to dance to it. Diouf moved to Canada from his native Senegal in 1996 and quickly established himself as a session player and collaborator with Québécois artists like Les Colocs and Ariane Moffatt.
After recording an album called Dund with his brother Karim in 2003, the percussionist spent nearly three years on tour with Cirque du Soleil’s Delirium, emerging with enough songs to record his solo debut, 2010’s Aksil. The disc—which won last year’s Juno for best world music album—bounds joyfully all over the map, incorporating influences including Celtic folk (on “Yone Wi”), Brazilian bossa nova (“Tata”), and country and western (a cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow”). That kind of eclecticism comes naturally to Diouf, who says he grew up listening to whatever records he could get his hands on.
“I didn’t set out to make an African record,” he says of Aksil, which means “welcome” in Diouf’s native tongue, Wolof. “I wanted to write songs that, even if people don’t speak my language, they still feel invited to listen and engage. That’s my life; I listen to Celtic music, Arabic music, Ghanaian music—you name it. Those were the influences I wanted to unite with my own voice.”
The singer’s Juno win has made him an in-demand performer for the Canadian festival circuit this year, including the upcoming Vancouver International Children’s Festival. But like many world-music artists in this country, he feels somewhat ghettoized as a strictly summertime attraction.
“When people here see the sun, they automatically think of reggae, salsa, and those kinds of styles,” he explains. “Winter is long, and nothing much happens for six months. And then there’s three months in the summer where there are a lot of festivals and shows happening at the same time, and people don’t have enough time to see them all. It would be nice if people could welcome these musical genres all year round, like they do in Europe, but we still have a lot of work to do to make that happen here.”
Elage Diouf plays the Vancouver International Children’s Festival at Granville Island on Tuesday to Thursday (May 29 to 31), and Saturday (June 2) at the Soundstage. His evening concert at Russian Hall on Friday (June 1) has been cancelled.