Mapping Montreal Music CJLO

CJLO’s Mapping Montreal Music unlocks the city’s musical history borough by borough

The Concordia radio station is airing an ambitious eight-episode documentary charting the city’s many scenes.

If you’ve been listening to CJLO on Fridays before the end of the work day, chances are you’ve heard a show that literally maps out Montreal’s music history from past to present.

This series, Mapping Montreal Music, was first announced by Concordia’s campus radio station (1690 AM) back in January, and will be ending on Aug. 31. Spanning eight boroughs over just as many episodes, it’s a documentary podcast series focused not just on Montreal music as a whole, but scenes within specific parts of the city.

Each episode is focused on a specific borough, with the debut episode profiling the hip hop scene in Montréal-Nord. Other neighbourhoods like the Plateau/Mile End, Rosemont-Petite Patrie, NDG, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Ville-Marie and St-Henri/Little Burgundy are also spotlighted. CJLO hopes this series can help the city’s music scene rebound from the hit it’s taken during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The project got off the ground thanks to the station receiving a $50,000 grant last year from the Community Radio Fund of Canada, a grant they’ve used to make audio storytelling projects in previous years. Mapping Montreal Music also aims to, in CJLO’s words, “guide listeners on new audio journeys as they explore this dynamic city we call home.” CJLO has also collaborated with Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling for the series.

Mapping Montreal Music was initially hosted by Sun Noor, who has since parted ways with CJLO (we interviewed her back in April, while she was still with the station as their Music Journalist in Residence). Noor first took on the project alongside lead web developer Alana DeVito and music journalist assistant George McFarlane. Six other producers and hosts have taken turns at making episodes for the series.

Though the series was paused earlier this year, it’s back now and is normally aired every other Friday between 4 and 5 p.m. EST. Each episode runs for only 30 minutes, however, something Noor — a Saint-Henri native and self-professed music history nerd — admits wasn’t enough to fully cover each borough.

Even though some of the music researched for this series was difficult to find outside of archives, doing deep dives on different scenes led Noor to some pretty fascinating discoveries. For example, she learned a whole lot she previously didn’t about Montreal’s long history with jazz music.

“Jazz was a big thing here, but we don’t really have any physical remnants of the scene, whether it be historical venues or things like that,” she says. “Doing the deep dive and observing all the changes that happened following the end of (the local jazz scene) was really eye-opening.”

Over eight episodes, the series documents the challenges the music industry has faced during the ongoing pandemic and how they’ve affected Montreal specifically, while also providing context to each borough’s musical history. Movements like jazz, ‘80s post-punk (including Blue Oil, Quebec’s first all-female punk band) and the hip-hop scene in Montréal-Nord have been covered, and famed institutions and labels within each borough — while interviewing the key players behind them — are also touched on.

CJLO is taking this concept even further by developing a web-based geocoding app, due out by the series’ conclusion at the end of August. Launching first for iOs (though plans are in place to expand to Android), the app will include an interactive map for each borough. This gives users access to full episodes of the series, as well as additional audio content not used in those episodes such as playlists, interviews and archival footage.

The app will also guide users through the eight different boroughs as if they’re physically walking there, as a specific borough’s episode and/or additional audio content — music, interview clips, narration — will be playing while they’re in that area on the app.

As far as the neighbourhood whose history Noor thinks might surprise listeners most? You’d have to drive almost up to Laval to get there: Cartierville.

“That [episode] is going to be geared toward the ‘chanson montréalaise’ scene,” she says. “People like Robert Charlebois, French chanson and how that informed the political climate in Montreal at the time. Also, the prolific post-punk scene, where a lot of the music isn’t really available (nowadays)…”

The Mapping Montreal Music series was pre-planned by the station, and first pitched by station manager Francella Fiallos. In 2020, the station used their Community Radio Fund grant money to create the Sounds in Our Changing World project; an audio storytelling residency where three audio journalists were invited to create a three-part series about the climate crisis and its impact on the Montreal area.

Following that project’s success, the station began thinking about what to do for the next grant funding cycle. Despite being an AM radio station, Fiallos was interested in seeing how CJLO could “disrupt traditional models” of radio storytelling.

“AM definitely caters to a specific audience, and has specific limitations in terms of sonic quality,” she says. “If we’re on AM, how can we then meet people where they’re at in terms of where they get their audio needs fulfilled? That’s the idea (with this project): trying to do things that are innovative and original.”

An Ottawa native who also lived in Halifax to do her Master’s in journalism (she also worked as program director at CKDU, the campus radio station at Dalhousie), Fiallos moved to Montreal in 2018 to join CJLO as station manager. She developed the idea for what would become Mapping Montreal Music out of a fondness for sound walks, something she experimented with while still living in Nova Scotia. 

Along with two collaborators, Fiallos made a sound walk guiding listeners along Gottingen Street in Halifax’s North End, a traditionally popular area for artists as well as residents from various marginalized populations — Indigenous, African Nova Scotian and queer communities, for example — that has since become extremely gentrified.

“We interviewed a bunch of folks from the community, gathered some field recordings and did a lot of research,” she adds. “We made this 30-minute sound walk that basically guides a listener from one end of Gottingen to the other, and then you hear a lot of historical information.

“It was a great way to preserve these voices to document this history, and to also serve as an educational tool to people who are now living in the neighbourhood… After Sounds in Our Changing World, I was thinking, ‘Okay, where else can we go?’ Talking with our board members, somebody was like, ‘I like the idea of audio walks and audio tours. Is there something we can do about the music scene in Montreal?’”

Alana DeVito — a musician (and former touring bassist for TOPS), interdisciplinary sound artist, and the project’s co-creator and lead web developer — has been developing the app and writing its code. While working at the Acts of Listening Lab at the Centre for Oral History, they’d already been working on a prototype app of their own. In that app, users would be guided in by a GPS and walk around their neighbourhood to discover different types of art pieces, an idea they came up with to help the arts community stay connected while in quarantine.

When Fiallos reached out to the Acts of Listening Lab looking for someone to collaborate on the project with, DeVito saw this as an opportunity to put their concept into action. “I thought it was the perfect place to pitch my app idea,” they tell us via email. “The CJLO team seemed to really connect with the concept, and the collaboration just flowed seamlessly from there.”

In a Montreal music climate marked by pandemic-induced venue closures, a perceived lack of government support for those venues, rising housing costs, pathetically low payouts for artists on streaming services and even well-established local bands openly talking online about their financial struggles, a series like this feels like the kind of warm hug our scene needs right now.

“I feel like the rate of venues closing over the past five years is really high, which doesn’t make any sense,” Noor adds. “A lot of these spaces are key for the development of artists. I hope the rest of the year continues to go smoothly and that we have a lot more live music… but that the government will be able to ensure these places stay open, as well.”

Given all of this, broadcasting Mapping Montreal Music this year feels like impeccable timing, even as live music has been steadily resuming since COVID restrictions in Quebec have ended. Fiallos considers the project as versatile, adaptable and “perfect” to do during a pandemic.

“If everything was back to normal and we were going to shows, and everything was as it was before the pandemic, this would be a great way to welcome everybody back,” she says. “But even now, we’re kind of in this very weird state, where it’s a little tough to determine if we can go out and really have things back to normal. It’s also something that can be done as a solitary exercise to be reminded of everything we appreciate about the music legacy of Montreal — which is a vast, amazing history.”

Even if there are still plenty of kids in both the city and suburbs making music to shape the Montreal sound once more, the future of the city’s musical landscape remains uncertain while the pandemic is still ongoing. For DeVito, preparing ourselves by finding ways to make and distribute art outside of the industry machine is important, rather than banking on the hope that things will eventually go back to normal.

“More and more I’m seeing how special the grant system is here in Canada as a means to provide new ways to make and distribute art outside of late-stage, parasitic capitalism,” they add. “We really need to fight to keep this alive, and I hope that projects like this will help uplift artists and voices that are traditionally ignored by the for-profit art system.”

While people often associate Montreal’s music scene with the early/mid-aughts heyday of the Mile End and bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and the Unicorns, this city’s musical history as a whole runs much deeper — and for Fiallos, this series is an opportunity to get the lesser-known chapters of that history out there.

“It’s easy to think about the Mile End, but I think there’s so much more out there than just that,” she continues. “It would be great if we could shine a light on all of that… We look back to that past (in the 2000s) and think, ‘This was the peak,’ but I think there are so many other stories to be told.” ■

For more about Mapping Montreal Music and to listen to the series, please visit the CJLO website.

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