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.”