Vox Sambou

Photo : Benoit Rousseau, Francofolies 2016

An interview with Vox Sambou isn’t so much be about music but about us, citizens, neighbours, friends. The singer-songwriter – who also runs the Youth Community Centre in Côte-des-Neiges (Montréal’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhood) – was born in Haiti, and is at home everywhere he goes, “as long as there’s someone next to me with whom I can share” the moment. Whether he’s talking about music or society, the artist is always animated by one main sentiment: optimism.

“Travelling is a privilege,” says Robints Paul, aka Vox Sambou, just after returning from New York, where he took part in a showcase organized by the Mundial Montréal festival. “This privilege comes from having the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. We all want the same things: to establish a connection with people and learn about their history. And when you dig even just a little, you realize that there really isn’t that much that’s different between all of us.”

That reminds us of the song “Humano Universal,” from his second album, released in 2013, Dyasporafriken. When he visits Limbé, the village where he was born and where his parents still live, at the northern tip of the country near Cap-Haïtien, he feels at home, at the heart of his story, “the cradle of the revolution. But when I fly back to Montréal, I always think to myself how good it is to be back!”

From Limbé to Montréal by way of Winnipeg and Ottawa, Sambou has followed his passion for music and people, and in doing so has become a key player of Montréal’s music scene. And also in the community life of his neighbourhood, as much in his capacity as a member of the hip-hop/funk/soul/reggae collective Nomadic Massive as with his solo project where, as a matter of fact, he’s not truly alone. His backing band is composed of eight musicians from various backgrounds and origins. His musical style is just as varied, a sonic melting pot of kompa, rap, reggae, funk and “chanson.” They come together on stage with the energy and enthusiasm that have become his trademark.

Sambou will soon take his good vibes to the United States again, having been invited to the illustrious South by Southwest festival, in Austin, Texas. Such a man as he, who seemingly takes roots in any country he visits and knows no boundaries, is quite a symbolic presence in a country led by Donald Trump.

On the morning of our interview, the New York Times publishes a story from Tijuana, in Northwestern Mexico, where Haitian refugees are crammed by the hundreds in the hope of crossing the border. “I understand that with everything that’s going on lately, it’s hard to, but we have to keep hope alive,” says Sambou. “Most of those Haitians came out of Brazil,” the country where he recorded his superb current album, The Brasil Sessions, released last year. “They were promised better living conditions than back home. But that didn’t turn out to be true, so they came to the United States, some of them losing their lives in the process…

“What we’re going through today is important: it’s time to wake up, unite, build bridges, reconnect; it’s the only way we can manage to resist,” says the musician, whose positive approach is unwavering. “That’s why we must not be afraid to speak up and denounce. We can’t just sit back because it’s happening elsewhere, in the United States, a society that’s not ours. Because if you’re honest about it, one person’s decisions can have an impact on each and every one of us. Then, I take a look around me: the huge March of Women (in major cities worldwide), demonstrations, that all makes me optimistic, because it’s proof that people are paying attention, that they are awake.”

For the musician, hope stems from the power and unity of the masses. “We see what governments are doing, what the president of the U.S. is doing, all these actions whose sole aim is to divide… But people are refusing to be divided, black people on one side, white people on the other. All people want is to live in peace. That inspires me, makes me want to write and play music: connecting with as many people as I can.”


Claire Lynch has set her personal and musical compass to the North, and the result is proving beneficial to many SOCAN members.

The acclaimed American bluegrass/roots singer-songwriter has earned a 2017 Grammy Award nomination in the Bluegrass Album of the Year category for her recent (and tenth) album North by South. Lynch was previously nominated for a Grammy in this category in 1996 and 1998, and she’s been named the Best Female Vocalist three times by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

As alluded to in the title, North by South is a collection of her covers of songs by SOCAN member songwriters, and the result is being unanimously well-received – including the new Grammy nomination.

SOCAN members whose work is re-interpreted on North by South include Gordon Lightfoot, David Francey, Ron Sexsmith, Bruce Cockburn, the late Willie P. Bennett, Cris Cuddy, Old Man Luedecke, Lynn Miles, and J.P. Cormier.

Lynch explains that the concept came from a very personal place. “I fell in love with a Canadian man six years ago, and we got married two years ago,” she says. “He’s a huge music fan, and a collector of musical instruments, and he began to open up the world of Canadian music to me. I took particular interest in the songwriting, as I’m a writer myself, and that grew into a sense of ‘Wow, these are such wonderful songs.’ I became aware of how un-aware Americans are of what’s going on up here artistically.

“After being exposed to Canadian music, I realized it was a goldmine, and that it’d be really cool to share that with people in the U.S.”

“After being exposed to the music, I realized it was a goldmine, and that it’d be really cool to share that with people in my bluegrass and Americana musical community in the U.S. That’s why I made North by South.”

Produced by Grammy-winning banjoist and composer Alison Brown, the album features such elite American players as Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas. Hearing their songs played by such accomplished musicians and sung by a singular voice has certainly pleased the Canadian songwriters who’ve been covered.

“I’ve always said when I grow up I want to be a bluegrass singer, but this is even better!” says Lynn Miles. “I cried when I heard Claire’s version of ‘Black Flowers.’ I just love it. There will be a crowd-sourced video of that song, and I’m very excited to see the outcome of that.”

Ron Sexsmith is similarly happy with the Lynch version of his “Cold Hearted Wind.” “I loved it!” he says. “I was so surprised that she picked that one. It’s a very personal song for me, so I never thought anyone would ever cover it. I was honoured to be included.”

Claire LynchBrad Machry is the Manager of Royalties & Licensing at True North Records, the label and publishing (via Mummy Dust Music) home of Lynn Miles and Old Man Luedecke. He says that “Chris [Old Man] Luedecke was particularly thrilled to have someone he has revered for many years, Bela Fleck, playing banjo on ‘Kingdom Come.’

Upon learning of the project, Machry sensed the potential benefits for his artists. “We’re registered with Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA) and the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) in the U.S. for mechanicals, so it would have been easy to stay arm’s-length. But I got in touch with LeAnn Bennett at Compass Records [Lynch’s label] and we decided to license directly, and work together on pushing for synch [film and television] placements.

“Claire has done us a great service, covering not only our published works by [True North artists] Lynn and Chris, but also our current and former label friends Ron Sexsmith, Gordon Lightfoot, David Francey, and Bruce Cockburn. If the project opens our neighbours’ minds to exploring all that Canada has to offer, we all win. She was able to bring together some of Canada’s best storytellers in such a truly Canadian way; understated and humble, allowing the songwriting to shine through.”

Lynch explains that the positive outcome of her album for Canadian songwriters “was part of my intention. I’m saying to my communities, ‘Look at these artists. I endorse them.’ I’ve gotten texts from friends saying, ‘I’ve just gone to Old Man Luedecke’s site and ordered his album.’”

Lynch is no slouch as a songwriter herself, having had songs covered by such American country stars as Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, and The Whites. “I’ve never had a huge hit by any means, but a lot of bluegrass-ers have done my songs too,” she says. “The majority of my catalogue has been covered by me.”

Lynch and her husband currently split their time between residences in Nashville and Toronto, and Lynch is seeking permanent residence status in Canada. She now has a Canadian booking agent, Bob Jensen in P.E.I., and the 200-plus dates she played in 2016 included two Canadian tours. “I have two more planned this year, one out West and then one in Ontario and Québec in November,” she says.

Lynch has been checking out the acoustic music scene in Toronto and Guelph, and participating in jam sessions and song circles. “Everyone here has been very gracious to me and I have forged friendships already,” she says.

In most music careers, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific event that became a turning point: The one thing that allowed a music creator to find major allies both in the public and the industry. For SOCAN member Cédrik St-Onge, however, it’s easy: the 2016 Festival de Petite-Vallée. St-Onge was one of eight songwriters in the contest portion of that musical event, and he shone brightly onstage during the seaside festival, during an unusually chilly early July that felt more like a brisk day in early May.

He was a revelation, even though this young musician was playing for an audience that wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with his name and face. St-Onge hails from Caplan, another village on the other side of the Gaspésie peninsula. If you know that region, you’re probably thinking, “but that village is three hours by road from Petite-Vallée,” and you’d be correct; nonetheless, the lad was treading familiar ground, and that allowed him to stand out. And to solidify certain relationships, notably with Moran, who, a few weeks later, piloted the artistic direction of St-Onge’s first EP, Les yeux comme deux boussoles, launched in January 2017 on the Ad Litteram imprint.

This first offering is disarmingly simple, and contains enough songs to make anyone a believer. “I’ve always followed my instinct when it comes to music,” says St-Onge. “I don’t know much about the theory of music, so I trust my feelings. Writing a song always begins with a chord progression that I like, then comes the melody, and later, the lyrics. Most of the time, I don’t really know where I’m headed, so a few steps back allow me to better understand the song’s subject, or who I’m writing the song for.”

Rumours are floating around that none other than ex-Karkwa Louis-Jean Cormier has turned down lucrative production gigs to be able to man the decks for St-Onge. “Louis-Jean is someone who is very understanding and he knows what he likes,” says the young songwriter. “I think we share the same vision of music. In the studio, we had no problem at all with our vision of the project. We knew exactly where we wanted to go. I must say, the first Francophone band that attracted my attention was Karkwa, when I was still in daycare. We could say that it means the universe to me that Louis-Jean likes what I do, and wishes to contribute to my project.”

But even before St. Onge had played Petite-Vallée, Guillaume Lombart’s team at Éditions Ad Litteram – which has since morphed into a record label (Mathieu Bérubé, Simon Kingsbury) – had already taken the young artist under their wing. “By having such a team, that’s there to help and cares about the project, I’m able to think bigger and go further. I think it’s the catalyst that made me realize that if there are people who are willing to help, it means I must be on the right track. Because while these guys are a team, they’re also my second family, with whom I can be open and keep close ties,” says the artist, now slowly but surely working on his first full-length album.