Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra by Nathaniel Huard

The Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra is an only-in-Montreal phenomenon

The band is preparing a very ambitious show as part of Festival Nuits d’Afrique.

Over the weekend, the third Montreal music festival of the season began: Nuits d’Afrique celebrates the multitude of sounds of the African diaspora and Latin America, typically filling the Quartier des Spectacles and a number of indoor venues with music every July. Things are a little different and obviously a little later this year. Unfortunately, all in-person shows scheduled after Oct. 1 had to be cancelled due to Montreal being designated a COVID-19 red zone this week. Many of the programmed in-person shows, however, will be live-streamed for free.

Among the acts performing this year is the Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra, a collective launched in 2012 to combine the traditional music of different cultures as well as dance and even circus arts. The band released their latest album VelkomBak in May and is the subject of a documentary called Fait Vivir, which is viewable on the Mowies platform through Sept. 30.

I caught up with founding band member Carmen Ruiz to talk about the band’s ethos and what we can expect from their ambitious Nuits d’Afrique show:

Lorraine Carpenter: I know that cultural diversity is a major part of the band’s identity. Where are you guys all from, or what is your ethnic heritage?

Carmen Ruiz: There have been some line-up changes over the years but half of the band has been with us for a very long time. Since the beginning there’s people from Latin America — Colombia and Mexico — but also from Europe, a lot of musicians in France and different parts of Canada as well, with their own specific backgrounds. One of our percussionists and musical director is half Indian from India and half Québécois from Lac St-Jean.

There’s a lot of diversity, that’s why we say this project could only exist in Montreal. It’s a cross point of cultures and artistic backgrounds as well. It has very colourful and eclectic aesthetic.

LC: Tell me a little bit about the musical connections you made when the band started out.

CR: What we were doing was very based on different Colombian folklore and traditional music. We were curious to see how that would blend with the music from the Balkans, specifically from the Roma communities, since both cultural traditions had that idea of staying alive thanks to music and dance. Music and dance have really rooted these communities to their values and their cultural identities.

LC: What does it mean for you as musicians to be able to perform for an audience again?

CR: We were fortunate to be able to do some performances this summer — we did some walking shows through various alleys in different neighbourhoods in Montreal. That was very revitalizing. As a big band, we are like a big company: it’s so important to keep getting together to keep that closeness, to keep the flow going, otherwise I feel that it’s easy to just drift.

LC: What can we expect from the Nuits d’Afrique show?
CR: This show will have a storyline and choreography and the new music as well. This is a chance for us to present the new album that we launched digitally in May, so we’re very excited and very grateful for the collaboration.

The band is coming to a certain maturity in terms of what our artistic vision is, the statements that we want to make and the type of art that we do. Also in this process we have created ties with different collaborators and this was the opportunity to really work with them. We’ve been working with Patrick of Leonard from les 7 doigts de la main and a theatre director from Catalonia who is based here and in Europe.

The show we’re doing is an adaptation based on the restrictions that are in place, and that we need to respect. We’ve been working on respecting the measures that are in place while also presenting a show that is visually striking and that is musical, something moving for people to see. The whole story came out of urgency — this is an urgent time, we need to react, we’re going to collapse, there’s going to be a storm. That’s how this idea of the piece came together. It was very meaningful, like an epiphany. This is how the piece got to be made out of this urgency of our times. ■

Festival Nuits d’Afrique runs from Sept. 27 to Oct. 31. All shows will stream live, for free. Please visit the festival’s website for the full program.

The Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra will perform on Oct. 29, 8 p.m.

For more about Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra, please visit the band’s website. Watch the trailer for Fait Vivir below:

Fait Vivir, a documentary about the Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit our Music section.