Your guide to Suoni per il Popolo with festival co-founder Kiva Stimac

From June 1 to 25, three venues at St-Laurent & St-Joseph (and a couple of nearby churches, cinemas and parks) will come alive with a wildly wide range of experimental music, art and happenings.

Festival season in Montreal is officially underway, and what better way to kick it off than with one that literally translates to “sounds for the people”? The 23rd edition of Suoni per il Popolo is going down from June 1 to 25, and is presented by local non-profit SALA (Société des Arts Libres et Actuels) to bolster Montreal’s arts scene and strengthen relationships between artists and the local community. For close to a month, the street corner of St-Laurent and St-Joseph will spring to life while playing host to some of the most boundary-pushing local and international artists across various disciplines. 

These artists will largely be performing in the famous trio of venues facing one another: Casa del Popolo, la Sala Rossa and la Sotterenea (the basement of Sala Rossa’s building). Live music (especially from left-of-centre genres), art installations and guest talks are chief among the events at Suoni, and this year’s lineup is a doozy from top to bottom.

Here’s our recent chat over Zoom with the festival’s co-founder Kiva Stimac, previewing her picks for this year’s edition as well as how the festival’s evolved, and where it goes from here.

Dave MacIntyre: This will be the 23rd edition of the Suoni per il Popolo festival. How are you feeling going into it this year?

Kiva Stimac: Well, it’s complex, but I’m very excited and stoked that we’re going to make this happen. It’s more than 75 shows in 23 days. It’s not a little festival — although we’re a little festival, like The Little Engine That Could. We’ve been going for 23 years. 23 is a magic number: we’re doing 23 days, the year [20]23, in our 23rd year, so something magic is going to happen there.

DM: Complex how?

KS: This is our second year out of COVID. That was a big few years for this arts presentation. Live creativity in any way has been shifted and stunted, and all these different things have gone on. The way capitalism works in the music industry, too — everything has gone up in price, but grants haven’t gone up. It’s complex. There are a lot of moving parts.

DM: Given all of that, how did planning this year’s festival all come together?

KS: I would say it’s still coming together. That’s the nature of the beast like this. Up until the last day, there’s still somebody coming through or changing (plans). But that’s the nature of doing this. I’ve been here these whole 23 years. This is something that I co-founded and created from the ground up, with the venues, the press and the whole shebang. What I feel really inspired by, and given life to keep going in all this, has been the music itself, and the art itself.

What got me through COVID has been music. Having these things (shows her headphones), or just being able to blast what I need to, when I need to do it, has really gotten me through. I think we all are kind of reevaluating our lives, what work is, how to make work happen and how to work in community, too. Doing something like show production, there are big moving parts — lots of people involved, lots of artists.

How did it all come together? It’s coming. I would say it was community. Not just this local community, but the international community of touring artists that we’ve built up over the years, and the other festivals across Canada that we’ve worked with and across the world. For example, we’re doing this Sun Ra Arkestra show. Sun Ra’s come a couple times to our festival before. But this year, all these festivals across Canada — EVERYSEEKER, Ottawa Jazz Festival, TONE in Toronto, Coastal Jazz (who run the Vancouver International Jazz Festival) — got together. We worked together to get a travel grant to bring Sun Ra Arkestra on a tour across Canada. How everybody’s coming together in this world has been very inspiring, too.

Sun Ra Arkestra Suoni per il Popolo
Sun Ra Arkestra, playing Suoni per il Popolo on June 18

DM: Who on this year’s lineup are you most excited to have booked?

KS: I definitely have a variety of excitements. (laughs). Every night, I know there’s going to be a magic thing. We went into the booking of this festival thinking, “What music really helps transformation?” I can go through every night and tell you something magic that’s going to happen. It’s all very curated, I guess. You really want me to go through every night?

DM: Go for it!

KS: The opening night, we’re only having one show. It’s a basement show in the Sala Rossa and the Sotterranea. We’re starting underground, because we are an underground festival. We’re definitely on the experimental side of music. That’s definitely a groove that has been a constant throughout — there’s no innovation without experimentation. Those are artists who are testing boundaries, who are making their music out of oppression, or trying to liberate themselves through music a lot of the time. That goes through all kinds of music, from the blues to punk to noise to jazz… Starting underground, I think, is a really cool place to start. 

That night’s going to be with Ky Brooks, who’s launching an album on Constellation Records. They’re going to have their big band with them. That’s going to be exciting. And then Genital Shame from New York — part of the band is coming from New York, and part of the band is coming from Chicago — is going to be an opener. HRT is also playing. That night is going to be one of those punk mind-blowers. All those acts are amazing. 

Morgan Paige, playing Suoni per il Popolo on June 2

The next night (June 2), we’re going to have a vernissage with this artist who weaves found metal, and is going to weave it into the windows of the bars — Casa Del Popolo, too — and then put light through it. That’s going to be a whole experience of just walking up to the venues. Everything’s so close together where we’re having these shows, right? Everything’s within walking distance, right across the street from each other, so it makes it very accessible to see a bunch of things at once. Then that night, Morgan Paige is coming from Toronto. We’re having a big cypher — I don’t know if you know the hip-hop cypher with live music and a band that’s been happening? 

DM: Le Cypher, yeah.

KS: That’s going to be the opening night at Sala Rossa (on June 2) — an extra large one. Then (also on June 2), we’re going to have a celebration of life for one of our longest-running bartenders, who was also a musician and artist. He died of cancer during COVID. There’s going to be a whole bunch of musicians and artists getting together to celebrate his life and his work. One of the musicians, who was also a bartender at Sala Rossa for all 15 years that he worked for us, recorded an album (with him) when he was alive, just the two of them. Jonathan Parant from Fly Pan Am is going to play that album live. That’s really special. And that’s generations of people he was the bartender to, because he was the Friday/Saturday night bartender at Sala Rossa for 15 years.

DM: Oh man, that guy probably served me beer. I’m sorry to hear he passed.

KS: Yeah, it’s really sad. This is going to be our big community celebration — nobody got to do that, because he died during COVID. That’s going to be a really special night, and a really special way to open the show. It’s open to everybody and free. That’s going to be at Sotterenea. The next night (June 3), we have a young punk night at Casa, and then the Tom-Tom presentation at Sala Rossa, which is an opera (with) Julie Richard, who’s a local composer and musician. She’s made an opera based on the work of a Black female composer that hasn’t been performed yet. It’s like a premiere, it’s really going to be cool. 

Damon Locks Suoni per il Popolo
Damon Locks, playing Suoni per il Popolo on June 6

The next night (June 4), we have a comedy night at Casa. We’re going to have some laughs, because we really think laughs are important in all this. At Sala, we have Andy Moor, who’s from the legendary punk band the Ex, playing with Damon Locks, who’s the master behind the Black Monument Ensemble. They’ve never played together, but they’re a similar generation of avant-gardistes who are going to play together for the first time. Then, we have some up-and-coming noisemakers from upstate New York called RAWL coming. That’s going to be cool. 

RAWL, playing Suoni per il Popolo on June 4

The next night (June 5), Bread & Puppet Theatre is coming up from Vermont. They’re working with the Concordia Department of Theatre to put on a big show. That’s outdoors, and free. That’s going to be amazing. Every week at Sotterenea, from Monday to Wednesday, we’ve invited artist collectives — people who are working with music and visual arts — to do installations and give them carte blanche and free rein to come up with something crazy and do it. They’ve all come up with pretty cool things — big-scale installations. 

That week also starts our deep listening series. We have Ione, who was the life partner of Pauline Oliveros — who are the big progenitors of the deep listening movement — coming to do a whole series. We’re going to have some walks on the mountain. We’re going to have a meditation at Parc Jeanne-Mance. We’re going to have a screening of the documentary of the life and work of Pauline Oliveros, with a Q&A with Ione. On the Sunday, we’re going to have Ione’s performance with a group of local artists who are doing this deep listening/dreaming performance. It’s going to be beautiful, and legendary. Zulu’s coming from L.A. — a Black powerviolence band. That’s their tagline. 

Zulu Suoni per il Popolo
Zulu, playing Suoni per il Popolo on June 9

Sarah Davachi is coming and performing with the Quatuor Bozzini, who’s going to be performing some of her work. That’s the new avant-classical show that week. Saturday night, we’re having Homeboy Sandman come from Brooklyn, who’s one of my favourite hip hop artists, performing with the local Milla Thyme. William Parker, who’s one of the jazz musicians — a bassist, multi-instrumentalist and poet — who has come (to Suoni) from the beginning. We’re having a number of artists who’ve come from the first year (of the festival) come and play this year. Some of the artists who are legendary, and who have influenced a lot of the artists who’ve come to play Suoni in the past. Somebody like William Parker has been a huge influence on the festival. He runs his own festival with his partner in New York City called the Vision Festival. He’s coming with a group of Canadians to perform this piece he wrote called “Music and the Shadow People.” We’re doing that in a church.

We’re doing five shows in churches this year. This is a big undertaking for us, and something we haven’t done on this scale before. Those are the William Parker show, the Sun Ra show and then we’re having this guy come from Japan called Tomomi Adachi. He’s going to play an organ at the Cité-des-Hospitalières church — the one at the old Hotel Dieu. He’s going to play the organ in… not a normal way. Let’s say that. He’s also coming the next night. Each night, there’s going to be a different guest artist. One night, he’s going to open the show. He has this shirt that he plays that’s hooked up to infrared technology, that then is hooked up to AI, that then is hooked up to synthesizers. The way it makes sounds is through his movements. It’s going to be like, “Oh, what are these crazy things?” I think it’s going to be really fun. 

AIDS Wolf Suoni per il Popolo
Chloë and Yannick from AIDS Wolf, playing Suoni per il Popolo on June 17

That night (June 17) is also with Chloë and Yannick from AIDS Wolf, who are launching their album. That whole series with Tomomi Adachi, we’re doing it with No Hay Banda, who’s the co-presenter and the organizer of that night. We’re working with a lot of great new co-presenters this year, too — some young upstarts who are booking some really fun things. That same night, we’re having Slash Need, Laura Krieg and Crasher play the Sotterenea. That’s going to be a real fun, hot show. Dancing will happen. We’re having a live recording of a queer variety show called The Alex ****** Show. There’s going to be everything from musical acts to comedy to a hot dog-eating contest. 

DM: Whoa!

KS: Yes! We have two events with hot dogs this year. The second is our final BBQ with the CCOV (Centre de Création O Vertigo) that’s going to happen in the Parc des Possibles. There’s going to be musicians and contemporary dancers. We’re having a kids’ piano and music recital — little kids are playing their first shows on the afternoon of June 18 at Sala Rossa. We have everyone in the generations from 8 to 10 years old up to their 90s. There are some 90-year-olds coming.

We’re doing a queer cabaret with the IndigiBabes burlesque (troupe) from Toronto who are wicked fun. Bijuriya and Big Sissy. That’s going to be a whole night — we’re going to do old-style cabaret. And then we’re just having amazing music every night. A lot of big bands, like large quantities of musicians in the bands. We have the Ratchet Orchestra, which is 20 people. We’re having a battle of the big bands — marching street bands. That’s three big bands in the Sala Rossa battling it out. Shanta Nurullah Trio is coming. She’s in her 80s. She was one of the founding members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). She plays oud and sitar, and is one of the remaining women alive who are unsung in the whole movement of ‘60s jazz musicians — free jazz experimenters. 

It’s amazing to have her come at this point in her life, too. Some members of the Sun Ra Arkestra are also in their 80s. Having those three groups of masters — Ione, Shanta and the Sun Ra Arkestra — is going to be really influential for a lot of the young kids who haven’t gotten to see those artists in the past. All these kids who were 18 when COVID started, and are now 21 or whatever they are, missed a very instrumental point in their life to see live music. There’s a desire to have that back.

Shanta Nurullah Trio, playing Suoni per il Popolo on June 15

DM: Which local artists are you excited to have this year?

KS: I’m very excited for Ky Brooks and HRT. We’re also having Moose Terrific, which is Sam Shalabi and Tamara Filyavich, opening for the New York Review of Cocksucking, which is going to be a noise night. I don’t know if that’s a super accessible show, but I think it’s going to be fun. I’m really into what Alison Burik does. She’s a saxophonist, but using pedals and found recorded sounds to loop into her playing. Myriam Gendron is always one of my favourites. She’s a local singer-songwriter who is francophone, but sings in English a lot. She does really beautiful, heartbreaking, grounding music. I put her on to help me fall asleep at night, to soothe me.

We’re having LAL come from Toronto. It’s not local, but it’s Canadian. It’s their 25th anniversary. Le Cypher is all local kids. I’m stoked for that to open the festival. Syngja is doing an album launch at Casa. That’s going to be fun. Funk Lion, who’s a local — that’s going to be a big show. That’s at Sala Rossa on June 6. He’s really fun, a young guy. Chris Burns and His Going Concerns with Yoganathan/Jacobs Sound System and ishi tishi. I think Laura Krieg is local — she’s someone I find really fun.

DM: What do you think separates this edition of the festival from previous years?

KS: It’s me and a whole new team, I guess. But I’m really trying to honour the history of the festival, and new things on the horizon. Part of what has fuelled this festival a lot has been not only the groove of music that we’re into, which is vast, but the size of spaces we host these shows in. We’re limited to smaller rooms, so the kinds of artists we can have in these rooms are either up-and-coming artists who are just launching their careers, or people at the end of their careers who are unsung, or who haven’t got the chance to play a stage like Sala Rossa and be honoured. And everybody in between, but it’s kind of limited. Some of the church shows are 500 people, but we haven’t really done huge shows, except once in a while, over the years. That’s kind of the constant go-through, which makes the kinds of shows we can produce more intimate. You have a bit more of a chance of connection between the audience and the artist.

Cult: Which of the artists that you’ve booked this year do you think put on the most “out there” kind of live show?

KS: I don’t know if it’s “out there”, but we’re having Scott Thompson come. He’s going to play a three-hour trombone piece in the stairwell of Sala Rossa. It’s just going to be happening — we’re having a couple of these (shows) that are just popping up and happening. That’s part of what makes Suoni interesting. You walk into some of this stuff not knowing what it is, then you get the full experience of something new and different and outside of the box. I don’t know if it’s something you want to sit and watch for three hours, but it’s something you’re going to pass through. 

That whole night, there’s going to be the artists’ collective at Sotterenea. Jean Couteau has this whole installation. There’s music around it and live printing, which is free and you can access to see some art with video productions. Upstairs is going to be Maria Chavez, who’s a turntablist from New York City and Slowpitchsound from Toronto, who’s another turntablist. Then Scott will be in the hallway at some point. It’s the kind of night where it’s a whole-building experience. Parts of it are free or are interactive. Then there’s the show itself. Coming to see a show at Suoni, you’re going to maybe have a surprise experience you’re not necessarily expecting. That can be fun.

DM: How much do you think the festival has grown or evolved over the years?

KS: That’s a hard question. What we’re doing is transforming and evolving right now — in the process of it, but still trying to honour the past and what our vision was. We’re given this platform to make challenging, revolutionary fun. Good times, right? That’s what this is: we’re making good times happen. The importance of joy and connection and music and all creative arts — poetry, dance — all these things can bring the same form of human connection that you don’t get from reading a book or looking at the Internet. 

Having that person sharing a space with you and having that connection together. I think that’s the evolution. And how to move forward with that into the future, continuing to bring that to our community and with our community, both here and globally, and what that means as a force of healing and creativity for humanity in general. I think I’ve been really challenged by, “Why am I doing this? Why are we continuing to do this moving forward in this crazy music industry, in this capitalism? What is the importance of it? Maybe I should be putting all my efforts into activism instead of music presentation.” But maybe there’s a way they come together and work together, because music and arts are a kind of activism.

I don’t want to sound too idealistic, but there are many reasons why art and creativity are so integral to humanity. It’s not something that’s given space as much in society — outside of an industry of it, which is a hard industry. It’s a hard industry to be an artist in, to be a promoter in, to be the venue owner in, to be the agent in. All of the different levels of how it’s an industry, they weigh on the soul in a lot of ways, and the hustle that’s involved to make it happen. So (we’re) trying to think of ways that are more celebratory and more connective.

Cult: The shows this year will mostly be taking place at the trifecta of venues facing each other: Casa, Sala Rossa, La Sotterranea. What is it about each of these venues that make them such special environments for live music?

KS: That’s a hard question for me to answer. I created the venues, in a way… The reason we made these venues in the first place was because my partner was a touring musician, and I was a chef/cook in restaurants. I was 27 years old. He was 28. At that moment in Montreal music history, you had to pay to play all the small venues. We made Casa as a place where we and our friends could put on events and have shows. From there, it organically sprung. 

I think that’s what’s special about it: it’s not just one person’s way of thinking. It was really connected to the location it was in, at the time that it was in. At that time, this neighbourhood was very full of musicians and artists. Every week, somebody new would come in and be like, “Hey, what are you doing in there? I want to do something.” Everybody who comes through town (as touring musicians) comes through the doors at some point, Or a lot of people. I shouldn’t say “everyone.”

Cult: What kinds of feedback do you get from people who go to these shows especially if they’re not familiar with these artists? A lot of them are from very disparate genres, and are still working their way up.

KS: I’ve walked into the bathroom stall in the basement and seen somebody right on the wall, “Milford Graves changed my life,” or “Saul Williams changed my life.” People can have really life-changing experiences watching some of this music or hearing some of these artists speak, because there’s a real connection that happens. Not that you can’t have a real connection with trendy or pop music — of course you can. Beyoncé gives me a real connection all the time. But I don’t get to share a small space and hear Beyoncé talk. 

To be in a room with someone like Milford Graves and hear him talk about his process, I think that’s another thing — getting to have that connection on the workshop or talk level with an artist, which we’re going to have a bunch of this year, too. Especially for other artists and musicians who are coming through, it can be a very life-changing experience. And then, I’ve had people get so pissed at some of this music and just walked out and wanted their money back. Like, offended. *mimics audience member* “This is so loud! It’s hurting!” Some of it is made to hurt, and that’s not for everybody.

Mamie Minch, Suoni per il Popolo
Mamie Minch, giving a guitar workshop at Suoni per il Popolo on June 23

DM: You mentioned you were going to have some talks this year. Could you go into more detail?

KS: Damon Locks from the Black Monument Ensemble is going to do a talk about his process with filmmaking in music. There’s going to be a question and answer period with Ione and the filmmaker after the film [about Pauline Oliveros] during the day on June 10. There’s going to be a meditation with Ione. She’s there to talk, as well. Mamie Minch is coming the same night as Myriam Gendron. She’s one of two members of the only women’s lutherie in New York City (Brooklyn Lutherie). She makes guitars, and she also has this very specific way of blues finger-picking. She’s coming and doing a guitar workshop. That would be really fascinating for other guitarists. All three of the artist groups are doing different things. They’re going to be there for the three nights of their installations, and be accessible to talk to people. It’s like going to an art show with the artists there and doing something every night.

DM: Where do you see Suoni going from here?

KS: In the past, the Suoni was 365 days a year, because we were connected to the venues… We haven’t had a big offseason. We’ve mostly just been working toward these 23 days in June. Moving forward, I want to take the off-season side of Suoni into the community more, (rather) than just being in venues — doing work in schools, old folks’ homes and hospitals. We’ve done stuff like this in the past, but to maybe work toward doing more of that.

Last year, we took Suoni artists to Wakefield, QC. We did an outdoor show in the country, next to a waterfall. I want to do more of that. Not necessarily taking Suoni out of community, but working with community. In Wakefield, we worked with some (local) artists as well. It was a joint (effort) between Wakefield and Suoni to present music. Working cross-community in different ways, branching that urban/rural divide that often happens, and taking music to some places that don’t have access to this kind of music, and working with those communities. ■

For more on Suoni per il Popolo (June 1–25) and to buy tickets, please visit the festival’s website.

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