Wake Island finds its centre between three continents

The Montreal duo is bringing an exploration of Arab and francophone sounds to POP Montreal.

Montreal duo Wake Island have opened up by reconnecting with their roots.

Vets of the city’s indie rock circuit, the duo — Philippe Manasseh and Nadim Maghzal — have had a busy year. They just finished touring Morocco and Nigeria, have a collaborative track with fellow Montrealers la Bronze and Moroccan rapper Mobydick on the way, and their regular Lay Lit parties (celebrating North African and Middle Eastern music) have garnered a big following in New York, where the band spends much of their time as well.

This globe-trotting has not only affected their outlook as a band, but also their sound, which despite being more compact logistically has expanded to include more Middle Eastern references and rhythms with an electronic core.

“A year or so ago we set out to start touring different areas of the world that aren’t on your typical circuit,” says Manasseh. “It’s important to us. We want to reconnect with our own people in the Middle East and North Africa. We’ve also noticed that very few artists from America and even Europe go there, for many reasons.

“On a personal level, we started feeling two or three years ago that our musical and personal careers had become whitewashed in some ways by us immigrating here and trying to fit in. We realized how far away we’d drifted from our roots, everything from lifestyle to music to what books we read. We wanted to re-adjust to the centre — so not all the way back to our roots, but a balance of the two, which is what we are.”

Wake Island’s interests aligned with former POP Montrealer and jack-of-all-trades Sarah Shoucri, who was also looking to expand to international markets. Together, they plotted their recent Morocco and Nigeria tour, putting together the collaborative project they’re bringing to POP: officially named An Exploration of Arab and Francophone Cultures in Sound and in Performance. The show won’t be as academic as it sounds: Wake Island, La Bronze and Mobydick will play their own sets with some sharing of the stage, and they’ll also play the song they’ve done together.

Maghzal says the Morocco and Nigeria tour was difficult in some respects, but the shows were invigorating.

“In many cases there’s no infrastructure whatsoever, so it’s very DIY,” Maghzal explains. “We were touring with artists and carried in the van the entire venue: monitors, consoles, sound engineer. We were playing in places that don’t normally host electronic bands or bands with guitars and drum machines. We felt we were pioneering something, and the audiences felt that too. All those places have big music festivals, but on a local scale, seeing a band like you would at Sala Rossa, that doesn’t exist in many of those places.

“And everyone is thirsty for new sounds. We’re bringing something that’s very Montreal in a way. Bringing that rock attitude from Montreal is very fresh over there.”

Not only has the band brought their Montreal sound and know-how to North Africa and their native Lebanon, where they’ve performed many times over the years, their popular Lay Lit parties have been bringing the sounds of those regions to New York and Montreal.

“It’s a way to research Middle Eastern and North African music and have fun,” says Manasseh. “The party picked up really fast, we keep changing venues to fit more people. We’re seeing the thirst here and how the community misses that connection like we do. It became about creating a community here and hopefully being able to mix that community with our indie music community. That’s the end goal.”

Although Lay Lit (which will be happening off-POP this weekend at a secret location) has been a hit with the diaspora in New York and Montreal, it’s become a welcoming party for all music fans.

“It’s not challenging or obscure. Even if you don’t know anything about the regions we cover, you’ll still get it because it’s a dance party,” adds Manasseh. “If there’s a political side to this, it’s to show the region is complex. Musically the party shifts from funk and disco to Arab techno. Maybe you’ll leave the party thinking the region is diverse and it’s not just belly dancing.”

As a result of their DIY touring and crate digging for Lay Lit, Wake Island’s own music has gradually shifted away from indie rock to electronic over the years. You could imagine their 2019 francophone tune “Comme ça,” which pairs a danceable beat and synth with an oud sample, equally working in Montreal or Morocco.

“’Comme ça’ is a good way to condense our vision into a pop sound,” says Manasseh.

“Our switch to electronic music has definitely helped this exploration of our cultures,” says Maghzal. “When we were playing rock music, we were more confined to the genre. Electronic music is a blank canvas and easier to explore. We can’t take the Montreal rockers out of us — we did it for so long. We would never deny that influence. We’re just going in a different direction.” ■

Wake Island play as part of POP Montreal with la Bronze and Mobydick at le Ministère (4521 St-Laurent) on Friday, Sept. 27, 8:30 p.m., $15