We were upstate, visiting our daughter. Laura had three tickets for a concert in the park in Saratoga Springs – a group from Chad, now living in Montréal.
It was the last night in a Monday summer series -- called On Stage, because the chairs were on the stage of the large outdoor theater, an intimate setting for a few hundred people.
Four musicians, known as H’Sao-* -- three Rimtobaye brothers, Caleb (guitar), Mossbass (bass) and Izra L (keyboard), and their childhood friend, Dono Bei Ledjebgue (percussion) -- blended in intricate harmony, went off on solo riffs.
We caught bits of French, bits of English, and a lot of their tribal language.
The longer they played, the more we realized we were hearing a cri de coeur, a call from the heart – the life of the immigrant, trying to stay alive, seeking less dangerous corners of the world.
They have been in Montreal since the turn of the century, but have never left home.
One song, “For My Family,” began with drummer Dono Bei, rapping about waiting for a bus in Montreal, at 5 in the morning, reading a postcard from home, a cousin asking him to send him a car. The audience chuckled, but Bei’s piercing voice let us know this was serious business:
“You wanna make it happen so badly for your family,
“You keep digging, you keep digging.”
“I got ten brothers left behind,
“Their scholarships are all on me.”
The music was beautiful; it came from deep. One of the brothers explained why they had left home – childhood friends were having to choose between Christianity and Islam, with apparently ominous results. Their voices blended:
“I do this prayer to whoever’s up there,
“Jehova, Jesus, Allah, we need an answer.”
At times the group reminded me of the tight, intuitive “Buena Vista Social Club” from Cuba and at times it reminded me of the plaintive voice of Bob Marley cutting through the ozone. I thought I heard some of the South African chords Paul Simon incorporated into “Graceland” and at times I heard Sam Cooke on “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But mostly I heard these four brothers from Chad and Montréal, trying to work it out.
The musicians teased us: How do you know you are alive? Somebody in the audience said, “Because we are moving.” Exactly, the musician said. Prove you are alive. Get up and dance. Many people did; Laura stood up, made eye contact with Caleb, the closest to us, letting him know she was very into their music.
They wailed, they rapped, they talked about love. They told a tale about a rite of manhood, going into the wilderness to confront a lion.
(The band used to be bigger, or so they claimed.)
They prodded us to sing a chorus, in their tribal language. One band member chided us: we didn’t know what the words meant, did we. Something not very nice, he suggested.
After 90 minutes, on this balmy upstate evening, we were part of the rhythm, part of the harmony, part of the sadness, part of the joy, the front pages of the papers and the news on the television, immigrants drowning, Rohingya being slaughtered, children being ripped from their parents on the U.S. border.
After the show, the musicians stayed around, chatting softly, giving hugs. Dono Bei said the band was heading to Montreal in the morning; my wife and I would return to New York a day later.
“Bonne retour,” he said. Good return.
We bought all three of their CDs and rocked with them all the way down the Northway.
When I got back to my laptop, I looked up their site:
The group has been discovered by the Canada Council for the Arts, has performed in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Australia and also New Zealand with its rich cultural programs. But they have not been in New York since a visit to Lincoln Center in 2017.
I went poking around for a video: the first one that popped up showed them in choir robes, in a cathedral (see below.)
Exactly, my wife said. They are immensely spiritual.
Messieurs: quand allez-vous jouer à New York?
* -- H'Sao means the Swallow of the Sao, the people who were the ancestors of present-day Chadians. The group's origin is presented in its name: the musicians in H'Sao come from N'Djamena, the Chadian capital, a vast country located between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. -- www.festivalnuitsdafrique.com/en/artist/h’sao
Whenever I hear the Canadian national anthem, the first thing I think about is skaters, moving in place near center ice, fidgeting until the puck is dropped.
I think of the heart, the core, of a country, a sport, a way of life. I think of great nights in Montreal and Vancouver and Edmonton, the Stanley Cup waiting in the wings.
I hope this does not seem condescending. There are a lot worse things that could pop into mind for a country.
Saturday was Canada’s 150th birthday. I did not realize this version only became official in 1980.
The second thing I think about is music. Again, this a high compliment. I think of k.d. lang’s album “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” – she aces Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – and Neil Young and The Band and Joni Mitchell and all the other musicians known around the world.
Really, that’s enough right there.
As the birthday approached, I thought about Dave Semenko, the enforcer on the great Oilers teams, who passed the other day at 59. And I thought about Kate McGarrigle, of the McGarrigle Sisters, who passed in 2010 at the age of 63.
In tribute, I put on “The McGarrigle Hour,” a collection of folk and pop with Kate and Anna and also the talented extended family, which became our family.
I thought about my friend’s mom from Montreal who always reminded me who Lady Byng was (on hockey’s sportsmanship trophy) and I thought about the family in Victoria with the garden and lawn bowling and music, and I thought about my e-pal Bruce from near Hamilton, who sends me bird photos from his window, and reminds me about the good medical care up there in the deprived wilds of the frozen north.
I thought about the grand old gent, Camil Des Roches, publicist extraordinaire of the Canadiens, who gave me my first tour of the Forum in 1984, and sent me cassettes of Danielle Oddera, singing Jacques Brel.
I thought about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, wading into a gay parade in Toronto recently, practicing inclusivity.
(I admit, my mind also wandered to Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany, but I could not afford to go down that melancholy path.)
Mostly, I thought about the good neighbors to the north, going their own way, doing fine.
Joyeux anniversaire. Happy anniversary.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.