Photo by Krzysztof Dydynski
At a laidback French-style restaurant in Montreal, L’Express, across in the fashionable Plateau Mont-Royal district, I meet Hugo Leclerc, a local who works in tourism.
“Here, the lines between the French and English are blurred,” he tells me. “It’s not like my parents’ generation had the French on one side and the English on the other.”
The food and wine here is, characteristically, great. As we eat, Hugo suggests Montreal’s culture is a match for the gastronomy for which the city’s better known. In fact, Montreal tends to punch above its weight, with an internationally renowned Jazz Festival, the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, and the Montreal Film Festival. Cirque du Soleil come from Montreal and also put on an annual show here, down by the Old Port. The city has an internationally respected roster of bands and singers such as Godspeed You Black Emperor, Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen and Rufus Wainwright. It has also given the world Celine Dion, of course.
There is an abundance of museums and galleries across the city but the vibrant art scenes stem from a mix of cultures that includes many others than just French and English. “For around a third of the population here, neither English or French are their first language,” says Hugo. “There are so many different influences: Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Jewish, African, Vietnamese…”
In the hallways of the central Place Des Arts, I see an art installation. Three boxy little sheds each contain a real, live man going about his daily business, visible through the glass window. Two of them sit working at laptops, while the third lies on a bed and twangs a banjo. I go upstairs at the nearby SAT (Société des Arts Technologiques) building and drink a locally brewed beer among the young arty crowd before stepping into a white dome. The small crowd lies down to watch psychedelic space-inspired projections on the dome’s walls and roof, accompanied by a DJ soundtrack.
Another night, I walk past the modern skyscrapers of Downtown to find Upstairs, one of the city’s respected jazz venues, with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald record sleeves on the walls. The Jim Doxas Trio of sax, double bass and, at the heart of the band, drummer Jim Doxas, improvise impressive, energetic music. Between sets, I talk to Jim at the bar. Even on a Monday night, the venue is packed. “People go out a lot and are happy to stay out late,” he says. “They might go to dinner at 10pm. That’s the French or European influence. People in their 20s often go to a jazz club, rather than a pub or a sports bar. There’s always been a strong jazz scene here.”
The government funds and supports a lot of the city’s arts, he says, one reason why Montreal has such a lively culture. There are cheap rents in some areas, too, also attractive to artists. But it is the mix of cultures that really make it. “The cultural diversity of Montreal means we have great food, great art. There’s a big mix of people playing in Bulgarian bands, African bands, rock bands,” he says. He often plays with local musicians from diverse backgrounds or different genres. He is friends with members of Arcade Fire who are active on the Montreal scene. “There’s a big avant-garde scene,” he says. “There are orchestras, choirs, a lot of creative people. It’s contagious.”