On a cold, blustery night in late February, I headed over to Harley Avenue in the Westhaven section of NDG in Montreal to document what was very much a typical night at the West-Can dance studio. The studio is located next door to the Westhaven Community Centre and famous Snowdon Bakery. There were piles of boots near the front entrance and I was warmly greeted by several of the parents who were there for their children’s rehearsal. Towards the back of the small rehearsal space, more parents were working diligently to sew the last few costumes together for an upcoming performance of the West-Can junior drum and dance troupe at the annual Monnaie-Money Show taking place that weekend.
I’d been invited by West-Can director Melika Forde-Lewis to document the rehearsal. As I began setting up my tripod and audio recorder, an adorable toddler wandered over and took a keen interest in what I was doing and all the levers and buttons she could easily reach. She listened with intrigue as I put my headphones over hear ears and she heard the sounds coming through. Fortunately, she stayed faithfully by my side for much of the evening as a I worked to document the rehearsal.
For me, this small moment gets to the heart of what West-Can feels like: an extended family gathering. Everyone looks out for everyone else. And everyone — parent, sibling, cousin, and performer — helps out in some way or other. This family feeling is built into the organization’s DNA: West-Can was founded in 1978 by a group of recent immigrant families from Trinidad and other Caribbean islands. According to West-Can’s leadership with whom I spoke, these founding families were looking to ease the pangs of homesickness by continuing their rich folk culture (drumming, singing, dance, storytelling, crafts, and food), passing these traditions from one generation to the next in their new home. Today, many of those who participate in and run West-Can are the children and grandchildren of these founding families.
I was caught off guard as the youth performers began their drumming. The room felt electric and I scrambled to setup my gear to capture what was happening. The drummers launched into complex and overlapping rhythms which propelled the dancers who moved with both an ease and a practiced discipline. It’s always difficult to put these moments of music and movement into words; but thankfully, the video and audio I captured seems to convey just a bit of what it was like.
Here are the junior drummers and dancers are doing a full run-through of the performance they had prepared.
I want to thank the West-Can organizers and parents for inviting me out and trusting me to document a small part of what they do. Like many of our project partners, they have been deeply affected by the current Covid-19 crisis which has halted all public gatherings. But they are a resilient and dedicated organization: Within two weeks of Quebec declaring a state of emergency, they were hosting online classes in Afro-Caribbean dance using their Facebook page and the suddenly-popular Zoom conferencing platform. Most recently, they have begun a storytelling series for children based on Caribbean folk tales. West-Can are in the middle of a fundraising campaign with a 50/50 raffle to raise money for the organization and see them through these strange and difficult times. Visit them online and consider participating in or supporting their initiatives. When things get back to normal, you might even consider hiring one of their performance troupes for your public event!
Below is a photo album of some of my favourite pictures I snapped during the rehearsal.