There’s perhaps no single force that unites people more than a party, especially when the music is good.
Montreal is a music and party city by reputation. But parties in this city can also serve other purposes besides revelry and dancing — they can be gathering points for Montreal’s diasporas, or amplify voices that otherwise aren’t reflected in the mainstream.
Since 2018, Montreal indie rock band Wake Island has hosted LayLit dance parties here and in their other adopted city of New York. The parties are a deep dive into Arabic ’70s funk, ’80s disco, ’90s pop and contemporary electronic songs celebrating the Middle East and North African (MENA) regions.
Natives of Lebanon, bandmates Philippe Manasseh and Nadim Maghzal originally saw the parties as a fun way to research music from the region, and also as a way to reconnect with their roots.
“It was never meant to be a revolutionary party,” said Manasseh. “It’s about being surrounded by the people you love, but also people you don’t know, and partying. We want to keep it as neutral as we can, but allowing people to express themselves in a respectful way.”
You don’t need to be a music encyclopedia to enjoy the duo’s selections, but having a thirst for unfamiliar sounds does help. While LayLit was conceived as apolitical, protests in Lebanon as well as Iraq, Sudan and other countries in the MENA region have added to the importance of these regular get-togethers.
“Our last party in New York felt very revolutionary,” said Manasseh. “There were a lot of people there. When the venue asked us to stop playing music, we sang a cappella and chanted slogans.”
Added Maghzal: “LayLit is reactionary. The party is following the wave of what’s going on in our part of the world. It’s great we have that opportunity to bring people together. And in truth, in New York there were protests before LayLit and those would eventually turn into street parties. LayLit is one part of this tradition.”
As longtime members of Montreal’s indie rock scene, the pair have gradually shifted their sound from guitar-based to incorporating more electronic and dance elements. The pared-down sound has helped them tour places like Morocco, where music venue infrastructure doesn’t always allow for a big rock band setup. They recently joined forces with fellow Montreal artist La Bronze and Moroccan rapper Mobydick for a series of collaborative concerts, including one at this year’s POP Montreal festival.
The political revolution in Lebanon also inspired Wake Island to quickly record and release Lil Thawra (meaning For the Revolution) — not only their first protest song, but their first song in Arabic.
“We did that song in two hours, without our equipment,” said Manasseh. “It’s been very difficult to watch Lebanon from afar and feeling powerless. We were in New York, feeling like we needed to do something.”
“We spent three full days glued to our phones and computers,” said Maghzal. “We felt the entire range of emotions, like a lot of people from the diaspora. It shook everyone, and it led to this track. We were paralyzed on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, did the song Thursday and released it Friday.”
Rapper Hua Li is another Montreal artist who recently released new music reflecting on her place between two countries. Her album Dynasty began as a personal look at past relationships, but soon found its voice in exploring intergenerational trauma with the women in her family, along with having a strict Chinese upbringing at home while growing up in British Columbia.
You can even see these cultural explorations reflected in album artwork: Wake Island’s 2019 single Comme ça combines Quebec and Lebanon’s topographies, while Hua Li’s is an ode to ’80s Hong Kong movie posters, with the Great Wall in the foreground and Montreal in the background.
“I think what’s interesting growing up with a very Chinese family life but being in a public sphere in the West, it allowed me to have a sense of the cultural difference in a really profound way,” says Hua Li (real name: Peggy Hogan). “Chinese society is incredibly collectivist. There’s a lot of assumed self-sacrifice and making decisions for the whole family that’s greater than the individual, whereas western society is individualistic and self-determination is a big part of it, and assertiveness and protecting oneself.”
Interestingly, Hogan has found a home in hip hop, a genre that’s all about asserting confidence.
“The personal is political, and it becomes difficult to separate the spectre of my cultural background when talking about my personal life,” Hogan said. “They’re intertwined.”
The Dynasty track Mastery shows how she has managed to bring her perspective to hip hop: production-wise, the song is pure golden-era rap, but on a personal level, the lyrics are about navigating an interracial romance. The lyric “come at me with mastery” can sound like rap boasting, but it’s about asking a partner to bring emotional intelligence and sensitivity to a relationship.
“I talk about blending in. How do we function as the diaspora? How does Chinese-ness look in a very western package?” Hogan asked. “One of the reasons I love working in this genre is because to me there’s no more North American genre than hip hop. I’m fascinated in the way artists all over the world enact the spirit of hip hop in their own light. I love hip hop as a package for other cultures to explore their Americanness.
“To me it feels correct to bring this confusion into a genre that’s so much about braggadociousness, self-representation and self-celebration. These things are almost exact opposites, and that’s the struggle I’ve had my entire life: how to be a proper Chinese girl and still function in a North American society where I have to be assertive and strong in my personality that can be uncomfortable for my family. That’s why I feel at home in hip hop.”
Over the last five years, many Montrealers have found a home at Moonshine, a regular late-night party series held the first Saturday after every full moon, typically in unexpected locales partygoers discover via text message.
One such Montrealer is Laval native Jerico Rony, an electronic music producer, who performs under his first name. On his latest EP, My People, Rony has taken up singing, only it’s in Haitian Creole. Signed to Moonshine’s nascent record label, he’s an obvious fit for the party crew, who have long championed sounds from Haiti, other parts of the Caribbean and Africa.
Rony started singing out of necessity — to replace samples he would have had trouble legally clearing — but decided to forge ahead after receiving a positive reaction from listeners.
“I was hearing a lot of Spanish and English in the club, but never Haitian Creole, so I thought it would be interesting to try something new,” Rony said, adding he had to learn to speak the more formal Haitian Creole of his aunts and uncles for the project because he didn’t want to use the highly anglicized and francized version he spoke in high school.
“Even when I could only speak a little Haitian Creole, I still felt comfortable expressing myself, compared to English or French,” he said.
A student of Afro-house, baile funk and experimental African music in the clubs and traditional Haitian zouk and compas at home, Rony has displayed all facets of his musical upbringing at Moonshine, from fast-paced Boukman Eksperyans revolutionary music to his own electronic creations on the mic.
“Moonshine has given the chance to young black DJs to meet international artists and play huge parties. That’s a big thing. It’s been a platform for young producers with their mixtapes,” Rony said. “Moonshine is where you can have a wide space to dance how you want to dance. It’s for everybody and it gives African artists from the diaspora (a chance) to play what they want.”
LayLit’s founders concur. Moonshine reflects a change in what Montreal music fans expect when they go out to party.
“The Montreal scene is less about putting bands on pedestals,” said Maghzal. “What we’re seeing is a lot of cool grassroots stuff. Moonshine wasn’t waiting for anyone to acknowledge them — they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing.”
Maghzal and Manasseh also saw the power of their party music while observing the Lebanon protests online: they heard LayLit’s music being played in the streets.
“Take a band we love to play, like 47Soul,” said Maghzal. “They talk about Palestine, which is a very divisive subject in Lebanon, but it’s being played on speakers by protesters and it’s uniting people. When we listen to artists speaking their mind, regardless of where they’re from, to me it’s a sign that things are going in the right direction.”
AT A GLANCE
The next Moonshine party will be held on Dec. 14; see moonshine.mu. Hua Li opens for Odezenne Dec. 11 at L’Astral, 305 Ste-Catherine St. W.; tickets cost $34.75 via ticketmaster.ca.