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The Tamtams gears up for another summer of sunshine, music and an odd, lingering smell
by Susan Krashinsky
Photos by Susan Krashinsky
You know that scene in the old jungle adventure picture, when the guy in khakis with the strong jaw and the safari hat - that seemed to be made of cement for some reason - heard the thumping of bongos in the distance, and you just knew there was going to be trouble? This is sort of what living in my apartment is like during the summer. I know a lot of Plateau dwellers can sympathise with the nagging feeling that I get every warm Sunday of the year: the natives are restless, and it's entirely possible that I'm about to be hogtied to a bamboo pole and carried off by men in loincloths and face paint.

Luckily, my fears of death by cannibalism are unfounded; although given the crowd that tends to gather in Parc Jeanne Mance for the Tamtams, I wouldn't rule out the loincloths.

In case you didn't know, "tamtam" is the French word for the bongo drum, and the Tamtams has been part of the Montreal scene for roughly thirty years. Anyone who's anyone in the dreadlocks and patchouli crowd considers Sunday a standing date with the drums, although it attracts a variety of characters.

But the Tamtams wasn't always the gigantic event it is now.

Anyone who's anyone in the dreadlocks and patchouli crowd considers Sunday a standing date with the drums, although it attracts a variety of characters.

It began in the late '70s with a small workshop on African drumming that was held at the now-defunct Jazz Bar on rue Ontario. Like many Montrealers, the members of the workshop - which included Michel Seguin, David Thiaw, Jeremy Dunlap and Godfried Toussaint, among others - were loathe to stay inside once the long winter was done, and so when sunshine prevailed they took their beats outside. Specifically, they took them to the angel statue in Parc Jeanne Mance. There, they joined forces with Don Hill, who had also been drumming with a small group in the park, and the Tamtams began.

They were soon joined by a growing number of dancers (today a circle is always cleared in front of the drummers for dancers, and they often get wildly carried away) observers, and new drummers.

Unfortunately, Toussaint notes that as the crowds grew, musical quality fell by the wayside: "By 1994?there were six hours of only one rhythm, a fast and loud 4/4 that left your ears ringing until the following Tuesday," he wrote on his website. But things did improve, and in the last five years, Toussaint says that drummers have been cooperating to produce much better music. "I still go during the summer when the weather is good and I am in town," he tells me. "I went this year two times already."

The important thing about this development is that Toussaint does not credit any single leader with taking the initiative to reform the music. Instead, he says that the drummers simply started listening to each other. The atmosphere deteriorated - and then rehabilitated itself - organically.

In fact, spontaneity is what makes the Tamtams so special. "Let's not forget that the Tamtams have no official organization, no official leaders, no official sponsors," says Pierre Desrosiers, a participant and unofficial Webmaster of the Tamtams. "Drum players, dancers and visitors, are conscious that they do more than participate to the event, they are the event."

Sceptics will tell you that this feel-good, DIY message is undermined by the fact that, like any good secret, word has gotten out and the Tamtams have become nothing more than a tourist attraction. If you ask me, this is a bit like saying that the moment Arcade Fire became famous, their music suddenly stopped being good. But hey, the argument might have some merit. Music or noise? Cooperative celebration or pot-hazy spectacle? You decide. For now, though, I'm going to get my Bowie knife. You know, just in case.

Susan Krashinsky is a freelance writer, editor and poet based in Montreal, and is a contributing editor for Montréal Magazine. She writes regularly for The Montreal Gazette, Midnight Poutine and The Canadian Jewish News.

It smells like Otto's jacket
The Tamtams are held every warm and rain-free Sunday that graces Montreal, in Parc Jeanne Mance under the angel statue. (Currently the monument is undergoing repairs, so until spring of next year, the beats can be found just a stone's throw from there.) Festivities start around noon and go until - and sometimes after - dark.

For more information and tons of photos, visit http://www.tamtamsmontreal.net/.

To read Godfried Toussaint's account of how the Tamtams began, visit http://cgm.cs.mcgill.ca/~godfried/percussion.html.

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