As the saying goes: Wherever you go, there you are. And wherever Montreal hip-hop collective Nomadic Massive goes, there goes Algeria, China, the United Arab Emirates, Haiti, France and-among other countries-Canada. Count the places the nine core Nomadic members either lived in or visited and they have the map pinned down. It shows in their music.
"It's our individual response to our collective history and what different people went through as cultures," says DJ Static, aka Mike Lai, of the CKUT radio show WeFunk. "I feel a lot more Chinese since I joined the group because it acknowledges people's roots and cultures. I went to Hong Kong for a month and I was very eager to soak up everything I saw around me. I'm the only guy in the group from East Asia so I've gotta rep that corner!"
It's only natural that a group of refugees, residents and citizens should choose hip hop to serve up their collective global experience. Since its inception, hip hop has been music hungry for change. It has spread across the world and has been adapted by many different cultures, proving itself flexible enough to remain relevant. It's an instigator for social dialogue and for the sharing of different cultures-it has, in fact, become a culture in itself.
Nomadic expresses the genre to its fullest: Latin, Haitian and Spanish sounds knock boots with funk, soul and R 'n' B, while hip hop holds down the fort. Lyrics are sung and spit in French, Creole, Spanish, English and Arabic. It's a robust, warm sound that's layered like a good conversation; simultaneously familiar and foreign. The live show emphasizes crowd interaction, making for a more inclusive performance and onstage it's clear that each player has a bit of the showman in them.
"It's about knowledge of self; it's about understanding your surroundings. It's about the cycles of history, the cycles of economics, the powers that be, the status quo," says Butta, aka Nicolas Palacios-Hardy. He is the collective's beat-boxer, percussionist and one of its many MCs. "Those are the main issues that we talk about. It might seem different because they're in different languages but in the end it just boils down to the same thing. We're trying to fight for the causes of social justice with words-not with, you know, a gun."
The group was first started by producer MC Lou Piensa and MC Vox Sambou. Piensa was born in France and lived in Ecuador, Algeria, France, Canada and Cuba by the time he was seventeen. In 1995, he met Sambou in Winnipeg. Sambou had come from Haiti with his family to live with his brother, a priest, in the wake of the political strife stemming from the Haitian political and military merry-go-round. He knew of people who tried to get to Miami by boat and were never heard of again; he had friends shot in front of him. After their first connection in Winnipeg, Sambou and Piensa became friends years later when both were living and playing music in Montreal.
It was through Piensa's Cuban connections that they were invited to play the tenth annual Cuban Hip Hop Festival in Havana in 2004. They put the call out to their friends, and they went to the festival as a collective of seven people.
"It went from acquaintances to family over the span of two months," said guitarist Ale Jandro. "We just knew each other in the scene, but when we went to Cuba we actually lived together and spent time together day in and day out. That's when the family thing happened, whereby you love each other but you also tolerate each other's different moods and different characters. And that seems to be working now."
Hip hop is a music that unites, and Nomadic has used the music to broaden their already wide perspective. One of the groups they worked with while in Cuba was the husband-and-wife team Obsesión, who later came to Canada for three months to tour with Nomadic, speaking in schools along the way. The grand finale of that tour was a show at Bain Mathieu called "Hold Up Mental: Ache!" which landed Nomadic a five-day residency at the Montreal Arts Interculturels (MAI) last August.
The MAI residency was another island of time that helped them to grow as a family and to strengthen their art. They put on three theatrical shows at the end of a week, using the concept of travellers passing through an airport to structure the performances. They do have live recordings from these shows, but they're perfectionists and are still undecided about whether they'll set a release date. They will, however, be releasing an eight-track gem of a studio EP later this week called Nomad's Land.
When they play, it's a glaring fact that, for all their cultural diversity, the group is still made up of a bunch of guys and one lone woman. Female performer Meryam Saci grew up in Algeria. When she was twelve, she sang a song about peace at a school concert, a snippet of which was broadcast on the news. This attracted the attention of local terrorists and a year later her mother used a family connection to take them to France. They came to Canada as refugees roughly two weeks later.
"It's pretty inspiring to know that I have to bring something special that hasn't been brought to the plate yet," she said of working with the guys. Her high pop/R 'n' B vocals stand out among the guys' lower voices. "I have to bring a different voice and a different state of mind. I'm just an artist among other amazing artists but I kind of feel special."
The band members' music uniquely blends their talent, dedication, curiosity and travelling spirit. "As much as an interview can give a portrait of what this is, it's best to come see the show," said Ale. "Because then you can see: it's not a fabricated thing."
The Nomad's Land EP will be launched at Café Campus on Sunday 26 February 2006. Special guests include Kamau, Attch Tatuq and others. For more details on the Café Campus residency, go to www.nomadicmassive.ca
Melissa Wheeler is getting to know Montreal's culture creators. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Melissa Wheeler.