At Montreal’s three-day Osheaga festival, the metal stage barriers felt more artificial than any I’d ever been pressed against. I had just spent two weeks connecting with musicians, curators, and fellow fans; suddenly, the physical division separating me from the music I loved felt strange. In many ways, Osheaga was the perfect climax to my adventure through Montreal’s music community. I saw locals like Stars and Groenland perform and got to enjoy the work of the city’s visual artists around Parc Jean-Drapeau. But in another sense, the festival felt so much bigger than the place I had just immersed myself in. It was the meeting point of Montreal’s music and the music world at large…
For two weeks, we toured the focal points of Montreal’s unique and thriving music community. Starting with a guided journey through the Entertainment District, we learned the ways that the city sustains its steady creativity. Like my hometown of Boston, so much of Montreal feels seamless. It’s easy to walk or glide through on a bike. The flow of neighborhood into neighborhood facilitates the open, warm community I got to glimpse through my interactions with Montreal’s creators. I felt I understood the city best riding through it in on the way to Kid Koala’s studio, listening as Eric San pointed out the places he liked, the places that held memory for him. And when he took us to the place where he makes his music, we saw the flip side of that openness: the productive isolation that the city (and its winters) facilitates.
While many American cities define themselves by division—east versus west, north versus south, other locality spats—Montreal seems to maintain cohesiveness. I kept hearing the same restaurants recommended by locals. Everyone could agree that Casa Del Popolo, where we saw Helado Negro capture the room on one evening of Montreal Electronique Groove (MEG), was one of the gems of the city. With natural fluctuations from person to person, the part of the city that I interacted with consistently imagined itself in a certain way.
I loved passing through a place where art and music holds real value for its own sake. I loved being in a city where those who have been supporting music for 15 years, like MEG’s Mustapha Terki, still have keen instincts for what’s coming up next. I loved seeing a city that’s open to its own change, its own flow. As much as I was able to observe, I left wanting to see more. What parts hadn’t I explored? What is Montreal’s Francophone music community like? Who hadn’t I talked to?
Mostly, I left grateful for those who had shared their music and their stories with me. At Piknic Electronik, we danced to DJ sets with locals who had dressed up in animal costumes and bright pink hair. Over three nights of MEG, we took in minimal techno, experimental electronica, Francophone noise rock, and avant-garde electroclash with other euphoric music fans. Near the overlook at Mount Royal Park, we watched as the weekly drum circle Tam-Tams brought out drummers by the dozen. At Osheaga, we blended into the throngs of locals and visitors who had come to take in everything from EDM to arena folk. Anywhere I experienced music with other people, I felt a kind of communion. People seemed genuinely ecstatic to share themselves, to experience the moment with others.
You can’t travel without being changed by the places you visit. Seeing how a new city arranges itself can give you new contexts for engaging with your own city, your own community. Now that I’m home in Chicago, I’m hoping to be a little worse at competition, a little better at communion. I’m hoping to share what’s been shared with me. And I hope to learn from Montreal again one of these days.
Sasha Geffen contributes regularly to Consequence of Sound and Earmilk and her work has appeared previously in Performer Magazine, Prefix, Thought Catalog, and others. A recent graduate of the University of Chicago, she grew up in Boston around her dad’s floor-to-ceiling record collection and her mom’s editorial style guides, making her something of an inevitable music journo.