The multicultural Safa
(Photo: Louise Leblanc)
The multicultural Safa
(Photo: Louise Leblanc)
More than 700,000 people attended shows at this year's Québec City Summer Festival, a musical extravaganza as extensive in its variety as it is inclusive in warmth and intimacy. This year we largely skipped the big outdoor stages, where acts play to audiences ranging in size from 5,000 to 45,000 people. Those shows, like many we are about to describe, could be seen throughout the entire length of this 11-day festival for the price of a button that costs $10 Canadian, roughly $6.50 U.S. With more than 30 shows every single day, starting at noon and continuing until well after midnight, one could easily catch 10 acts per day. For folks with a voracious appetite for music, that brings your per-act cost to about six American cents; if it was any less, they'd have to pay you!

As we reported in our last column, the festival offers in cabaret-like venues the kinds of acts that we don't ordinarily get a chance to see in New York's cabaret clubs. A trio called Safa is a prime example. The group's three members come variously from Teheran, Montreal, and San Juan, and their music reflects a blend of their disparate cultures. Safa's sound is a delicious stew of gypsy music with classical elements--here a little klezmer, there a little Arabic influence. Very tasty stuff, served with guitar, clarinet and percussion. (The name Safa, by the way, is a Farsi word meaning inner purity and sincerity; oh, the things you learn at a music festival!)

We heard Safa in Québec City's famous jazz club, the Clarendon. Another impressive performance we caught at the same venue on another evening was that of Pierre Bensusan, a French guitarist-singer with a poetic nature. He played his guitar like a consummate lover; the strings truly did quiver. We didn't understand a word he sang, but his voice was used to wonderful effect, often in counterpoint to his playing.

At the Pub Saint-Alexandre, a winning combination of working-class bar and tourist attraction, we were offered the opportunity to see the historically significant Fairport Convention from Great Britain. This once groundbreaking folk group, which transformed a hokey form into a new, hip sound in the late 1960s, played two late shows, and we are pleased to report that their sound is still stirring and effective. One of the most exciting acts of the festival also appeared at Pub Saint-Alexandre: a seven member Irish group called Dervish. These magnificent seven scored in ballads, rousing reels, and even a touch of the blues. They could be The Chieftans of the next generation!

Très bizarre: A moment from 007: Le Spectacle
(Photo: Jean-François Brière)
Très bizarre: A moment from 007: Le Spectacle
(Photo: Jean-François Brière)
In order to enjoy the indoor acts mentioned above, one had to pay either a token cover charge or buy one drink. Somewhat more expensive, but still less than a typical cover charge at Don't Tell Mama or Danny's, were the larger, Vegas-style shows at Le Cabaret du Festival, a showplace that might be compared to New York's Supper Club. It was here that we saw an incredibly cheesy show built around music from the James Bond movies, called 007 Le Spectacle. It was a spectacle, indeed, to watch two "Bond Girls" dress a 007 figure, silhouetted behind a scrim, from his BVDs to his shoes while the audience was serenaded with "Nobody Does it Better." Then the "agent" killed us with unintended laughter when his arm got caught in the sleeve of his jacket. Better still was the scene behind the scrim of a man with a paint bucket, slapping his brush all over a supposedly naked woman while a female singer wailed out "Goldfinger." The place was packed, proving once again that the festival offers something for every taste.

Our last night in Québec City was, perhaps, the most exciting--and definitely the longest--of the entire expedition. It began with Soraya Benitez, a Venezuelan woman who settled in Québec. Earthy, sensual, and powerful, this heart-stopping performer was one of the few entertainers who provided a solo star turn in the festival's outdoor cabaret-style space, backed by a large band. Later that night we stood for over an hour and a half in the crowded Clarendon jazz club to hear Spanish flamenco guitarist Pedro Soler (later joined by an accordionist) give an exquisite example of his art. Subtle yet deeply emotional, he offered one encore after another to a grateful audience.

Takashi Hirayasu
Takashi Hirayasu
Soler finished playing at 12:30am. We hadn't packed, our train was leaving in the morning, but we couldn't stop; not yet. At 1:00am, guitarist-singer Takashi Hirayasu from Japan was playing at the Pub Saint-Alexandre. He was joined, to our delight, by the musically inexhaustible Bob Brozman. A day earlier, Brozman had lent his talents to a mediocre Québec blues band and lifted them to the stratosphere. He had raced off from there to play with his old pal, the world famous accordionist Rene Lacaille, at two late-night gigs. On this occasion, he essentially switched roles with Hirayasu, who first demonstrated his ancient three-stringed Japanese instrument, then played Spanish guitar while Brozman provided a sweet Asian sound on his slide guitar. And then the evening really took off as Rene Lacaille showed up to join Hirayasu and the Bob Brozman Trio.

Lacaille brought his entire band with him. In the course of one extended song, five performers climbed up on stage and jammed with the five who were already there. At close to 3:00am, these 10 musicians from all over the world played the most culturally diverse rendition of "Stand by Me" you will ever be blessed to hear--and, in French-speaking Québec, the audience sang along in English. It was the perfect finale to the night and the ultimate topper to this amazing festival.