According to the old adage, we’re never better served than by ourselves. Two years ago, Montréal singer-songwriter Just Woân (aka Justin Itoko) created his own Productions Miss Meuré label. “I felt that in Quebec, there weren’t enough record labels that were interested in taking artistic risks,” he says. “They prefer remaining in their comfort zones, and always producing the same kind of thing, whereas I wanted to release projects such as Bantü Salsa, to do crazy stuff, and to mix things that didn’t belong together at all!”

Such as bringing the kora and salsa music together, for instance. On paper, the link isn’t obvious. The kora is a classical instrument that’s been played by African griots for the past 800 years or so.  Salsa, on the other hand, is an energetic musical style that was born in New York City clubs in the ‘60s, and combines the fluidity of jazz with Afro-Cuban beats. Africa is the common denominator here, but as Woân points out, musically they have nothing to do with each other.

Until you listen to Kessaï, the band’s debut album, released on March 11, 2020. Luminous! Kora tones dancing with pulsating brass and percussion sounds, and, whattaya know, it works! “I thought that using the kora in salsa music was a completely crazy idea, and that’s exactly why I felt like doing it,” says Woân.

That fertile intuition is precisely what has helped him out of his comfort zone – for the umpteenth time. Originally from Cameroun, he’s been a professional stage and studio musician for the past 12-odd years , finding his calling (and stage name) thanks to his participation in a local “talent discovery program” – something like The Voice, et al.

“Cameroun and Canada are the only two English/French bilingual countries in the world,” says Woân. “The national broadcasting entity operates in English and French simultaneously. One day, I was on this program that was being produced by an English-speaking host, and, in the beginning, I used to style my name Just-1 [pronounced “Justin” in French] and the way he read it on air, it sounded like “Just One.” From that day on, everybody was calling me Just One on the street…”

Bantu SalsaWoân began his recording career in 2011 and, after being invited to perform as part of the Facncofolies festival, he decided to settle in Montréal. He ended up releasing three more albums featuring his rich Bafia (a major city located in the centre of Cameroun) culture, and kept singing in his Bantu language while exploring African and American rhythms.

“I’m a multi-instrumentalist, and also self-taught – I never took a music class in my entire life, so I play music by ear,” says Woân. “Bantü Salsa is the type of music I play: I’ve always loved Latin music, particularly when it’s played on the piano, because I play the piano a lot,” besides bass, an instrument with which the musician he often is associated. “I’ve always loved playing octaves with my right hand and slap counterpoints with my left hand, and many jazz musicians have done salsa music, two genres that are harmonic cousins.”

It was quite a natural thing, he says, for Central Africa’s Bantu music to find its way into New York’s salsa music. “There’s a narrative side, the thing that griots bring to their approach, in Bantü Salsa’s music,” he says. “I think that even in the Afro-Cuban culture, there is that kind of a storyline, and that’s how many stories and traditions are being passed on.”

He first decided to build a personal repertoire, which brought him to write all of the first album’s songs by himself – including lyrics, melodies, brass orchestrations, basslines, and percussion. “It’s a project where the fusion is primarily rhythmic; that is to say, what I wanted to show was the similarities between African and Latin beats. The music of Black slaves who were brought from Africa to America was made of rhythms that incorporated the harmonic traditions of Spanish and Portuguese settlers.

“What I wanted to show, on disc and onstage, was that very kinship, and this is the level on which all these talented musicians that surround me have been helping me – first of all, by joining the project from the word go,” he says.

Today, they would have been nine outstanding instrumentalists onstage – if COVID-19 hadn’t interfered with Bantü Salsa’s plans right after the release of the Kessaï album. The band will be performing on Oct. 22, 2020, from the Balattou, and their (virtual) concert will be streamed on Festival international des Nuits d’Afrique.

There were flowers that weren’t allowed to grow. Singer-songwriter Antoine Corriveau re-thinks the places where things grow, the homes where people live, and the opportunities we give culture to bloom, even as we’re conscious of the end.

His fourth album Pissenlit (in English, Dandelion), released on Secret City Records on Oct. 9, 2020, was primarily inspired by the cute and naive aspect of the flowers of our youth, which we used to gather large bunches of before we learned that some were less valuable than others. Then the issue of territory and its ownership developed, lending a different colour to dandelions that insist on remaining yellow.

Antoine Corriveau“From day one, with music, I wanted to try new things. This time, I wanted my upcoming show to be like a freight train that runs over you and stops only two or three times for more introspective moments,” says Corriveau.

During the final shows of his latest tour, Corriveau performed a punk version of “Noyer le poisson” (Les ombres longues, 2014), and, later on, “La ville d’où on vient” was given the same makeover. The energy emanating from such a show proved to be a source of excitement, if not redemption, for Corriveau and his band. “I didn’t mind having sore arms at the end of the show because I’d played so hard,” he says. “I wanted a full album of that.”

Corriveau locked five drummers inside his Van Horne St. premises and let them improvise together. Only drums. “I ended up with three-and-a-half hours of drumbeats that I started listening to in my car,” he says. “Tracks of nine-to-14-minutes long. These sounds provided me with something solid right there,” he marvels today.

Corriveau’s honesty renews itself, and takes new forms, with each successive album. “I recently re-listened to Cette chose qui cognait au fond de sa poitrine sans vouloir s’arrêter (2016), and I realized that whatever I might do later on would sound very much like pop music to me, because that album was very dark,” he explains.

Corriveau admits that, as he was self-producing his album and dealing with the hazards and opportunities of lockdown, he allowed himself to explore some rather unusual areas of his repertoire. “I let it all happen because there weren’t too many witnesses,” he laughs. “I tried things. Being self-taught, I don’t understand 75 percent of what I do. I piled things up, played around, trusted myself.”

The new album revolves around the theme of the freedom that can be enjoyed by getting out in your car instead of sitting at home. But there’s also a “bandit” side, a rebellion, but mostly the point of no return in what we tolerate as musicians and as a society. “Writing, recording, performing shows, and starting all over again are clichés,” says Corriveau. “My original view of the industry was candid. Like everyone else, I believed that I was going to create a recording that would change everything. I don’t have that kind of career today, and that’s OK.”

When Québec Premier François Legault shut down concert venues for the second time, Corriveau felt that this was the most inconsistent thing he had ever done. “When he claimed that shows were places where people go to socialize, it made me mad, because the truth is that you’re supposed to shut up during a show,” he says. “Saying a thing like that is ignoring what’s happening onstage.”

While the Pissenlit album was designed to be experienced onstage, Corriveau can’t see the end of this very dark period for the performing arts. “I don’t think this crisis will ever end,” he laments.

Erika Angell combines her voice with Corriveau’s on Les sangs mélangés, a song that deals with First Nations issues. “In America, we all have Indian blood, either in our veins, or on our hands,” he sings, against a slow chord that takes time to insinuate the idea, the better to show the seriousness of the situation. Asked what else we should say, or understand, about that as a society, Corriveau seems unable to pinpoint anything.

“It’s in everything,” he says. “This summer, during the wave of sexual aggression denunciations, we suddenly realized that our teenagers are getting five hours of sex education during the school year. The same goes for history classes: 20 minutes on Indigenous peoples, and then, off to the battle of the Plains of Abraham for the rest of the year.”

In his view, they’ve got their priorities all wrong. “It makes no sense that, in a pandemic, our reaction should be to let our cultural institutions be the first ones to die,” he exclaims. “They erase what they’re uncomfortable with, they pull out the weeds. And, if you extrapolate, this idea of erasing what makes you uncomfortable, for some, including the First Nations, this adds up to a death sentence. I realize that the planet is heatng up, that we’re going through a worldwide pandemic, and that we’re all going to die, but it’s still possible for us to look around our own life environment, and make it less bad.”

Perhaps by letting the dandelions grow.

Chatting with Afie Jurvanen (more popularly known as Bahamas) about society’s addiction to busy-ness – and its perverse idea that equates being still with being unproductive – reminded me of something American author Thomas Pynchon once wrote: “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do.” In other words, idleness shouldn’t be viewed as a vice; rather, we should look at it as indispensable.

“Daydreaming is still a big part of my practice,” says Bahamas,  who moved to Nova Scotia from Toronto with his family two years back. “And I think getting bored is so important. I grew up without the internet and cellphones, but with so much freedom to just run around,” says the singer-songwriter, who was raised in Finland and then in Barrie, a bedroom community an hour’s drive north of Toronto. “My mother rarely asked where I was going. She’d just be like, ‘Make sure you’re home for dinner.’

Everything’s Hunky Dory

Bahamas averages more than 2.5 million regular monthly listens on Spotify, with more than 450 million streams to date. “Lost In The Light,” from 2012’s Barchords, is nearing 100 million streams, while “All The Time,” the lead single from third album Bahamas Is Afie, recently passed 70 million. Nominated for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical at the 2019 Grammy Awards, Earthtones won Adult Alternative Album of the Year at the 2019 JUNO Awards. Jurvanen also received this accolade for Bahamas Is Afie in 2015, when he was also named Songwriter of the Year.

“I’m in awe of the youth, and inspired by what they’re doing, but what about allowing yourself to be bored, and engaging with the creativity that comes with being bored?”

If you think that it was re-locating to slower-paced Nova Scotia – “it’s lots of rocks, trees, water, and space for everyone” – that impacted Bahamas’s creative process, you’re wrong. He’s always embraced idleness, daydreaming, and boredom. And it wouldn’t be off the mark to say that philosophy manifests itself in his breezy, blissful singing and guitar playing.

There is, of course, more than meets the ear on a Bahamas record. Listen closely to the stellar collection of songs on his just-released fifth album, Sad Hunk (out Oct. 9, 2020) – even he calls them “the best songs I’ve ever written” – and you’ll be equally charmed and in admiration of his self-deprecation, vulnerability, and transparency.

“How do you say something that’s lyrically memorable and meaningful?,” he asks, and you can sense that’s his raison d’etre. “But when that comes together, it’s so rewarding!”

So, Nova Scotia hasn’t impacted his creative process. But being a dad? Definitely!

“I used to spend hours upon hours playing guitar, but now the time just isn’t there anymore,” says Bahamas. “It’s made me a stronger writer, more efficient. And to be honest, I think getting better at your craft forces you to be a better person.”

Which results in songs like “Up With The Jones,” in which he questions his role in consumer culture, and in “Wisdom of the World,” the album’s blazing closer, about forgiveness. “You want to be your own worst critic,” he says. “That way, nothing anyone says about you or your craft can hurt you. It’s so empowering.

“The challenge, though, is when you sing about relationships or the world. It can be difficult working that out in real time. What I mean is that by the time that particular song comes out, that moment you were feeling has passed, and the question becomes, ‘How do you honour that moment [that birthed the song]?”

Why So Sad, Hunk?

“Something like 10 years ago, I did a photoshoot, and in all the pictures they sent back, I was lit half in shadow, looking all brooding and mysterious. When my wife saw the photos, the first thing she said was, ‘Whoa, sad hunk,’ and after that, it became sort of a joke among our friends.”

Which brings us nicely to “Less Than Love,” which he calls one of the most important songs on the record. “It’s a snapshot of a moment, and every line is killer,” Bahamas says proudly. “It hit really hard the first time I played it. My wife and I were sitting in the car and we were crying. There were no words.”

Elsewhere on the album, “Wisdom of the World,” is sonically different from anything Bahamas has recorded. “It’s in a minor key ,which I don’t do very often,” he explains. “I wrote it on the piano. I just had the chord progressions and the opening line, and the rest came pretty quickly. It’s about my brother, who’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. Figuring out a way to sing about that was challenging.

“Addiction doesn’t just affect that person [who’s addicted],” Bahamas adds. “He retreated from me, but he was able to get into a rehab program, and his life has changed in a positive way. It’s pretty amazing to see, actually.” The intense track ends with Bahamas chanting, “I guess the whole thing’s about forgiveness” several times.

“The only way out is forgiveness,” he says. “It’s the only way out, but we have to get there peacefully, and it has to be meaningful. I’ll probably write more songs in that vein.”