A Bit of Brazil on the Edge of Mount Royal

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Jean-Michel Labrosse looks like the kind of guy you’d expect to meet at the tam-tams. As he crosses Park Ave. with a big drum in one hand and a saxophone case in the other, you can’t miss his long, grey beard, with two braids dangling from its tip. Maybe that’s why virtually every journalist who writes about the weekly tam-tams is drawn to him. “I’ve had reporters from the United States, from China,” he said, smiling.

The tam-tam draws him because of the freedom it represents; it’s the one place in the city you can just show up with an instrument and play along.

Labrosse has come for twelve years. He plays the sax and totes around a big plastic drum he made six years ago out of a chemical bin his neighbour sold him for five bucks. All in all, he’s been playing sax for thirty years.

“It’s a Sunday community, like a big family,” he said. “When I was young, we’d go to mass — I was raised a Catholic — and now, this is my mass. It’s a way to meet people and celebrate.”

It has been twenty-five years since the first modern drum beats echoed out over the city from the Sir George-Etienne Cartier monument at the foot of the east side of Mount Royal. In 1978, a group of percussionists chose the site for their Sunday drumming workshops. Inadvertently, they founded a Montreal institution.

“We would usually attract a crowd of about five professional dancers and a dozen spectators,” wrote Godfried Toussaint, one of the original drummers and now a McGill computer science professor, on his website. “One summer, all of a sudden thousands of people showed up. Most of them came to watch, hundreds to dance and dozens along with their instruments to join in the frenzy of drumming.”

Today, the tam-tam is as “spontaneous” — nobody organizes the music or dancing — as it is predictable. Each good-weather Sunday, thousands of people flock to the Cartier monument for the weekly ritual. A main group of drummers clusters at the foot of the monument, right below the inscribed quotation from Sir George himself: “Le Canada doit être un pays de liberté et toutes les libertés doivent être protegées par la loi.” (“Canada” has been scratched out and replaced by “Quebec” but the fundamental message remains.)

Off in the corner, another group of drummers pounds away. Dancers twist and turn with the beat, and photographers wander through the crowd looking for interesting subjects. Surrounding it all is a giant ring of small-time vendors and the spectators.

Valerie Pelletier has sold her colourful bead jewelry for five or six years, she says. Is business any good? “It really depends. Last week sucked,” she said. “But — when was it? — Victoria Day I made, like, the biggest day I ever had. I was shocked. And then the next time I came, I made 30 bucks.”

Most vendors are artisans, but a variety of crafts and other wares are available. Some people even go off on vacation somewhere and bring back interesting things to sell, Pelletier says.

“Last week there were people who had stuff from Thailand. They picked up 100 skirts, 100 tops, and they were selling like crazy.”

In the early nineties, a real flea market had sprung up around the tam-tams. Increasingly, vendors sold the same cheap things you’d find in a dollar store — and alcohol.

One vendor recalls the wild days of the tam-tam’s early popularity. “There was some trouble. People were selling beer, really selling beer, they had mountains of beer,” he said. “There were some fights and the police came in. They wanted to shut the whole thing down.”

But, considering the city was advertising the tam-tams in one of its tourist brochures, that would have been somewhat self-defeating. So a compromise was reached. To stop vendors from grabbing spaces ahead of time and hogging them until Sunday, and to control the kind of things vendors sell on the site, a permit system was instituted whereby the vendors call city offices on Thursday nights to secure a limited number of spots.

Vending was restricted to artisans and Montreal residents. Every Sunday morning, after reserving a spot, vendors must pick up their permits from red-shirted officials seated at one of the picnic tables near the monument. The officials are there to answer questions, give first aid, help clean up the site and assist police in keeping the crowd in line, said Andre Lessard, division chief for public events of the Ville Marie borough.

Not everyone is satisfied with the city’s strict controls. The city has a monopoly on water and ice cream sales around the monument, so some vendors sell across the street in Jeanne Mance Park. On one Sunday, a handful of baby-faced, white-shirted police cadets argued with a water seller who had set up his operation on top of the steps on the other side of Park Ave. They told him to move to the east side of the park, near Esplanade Ave.

The vendor, a young francophone Asian man who asked not to be named, seemed bitter. “Selling ice cream, it’s a private enterprise,” he said. “It’s always been private, and now the city has imposed a monopoly. They’ve decided to sell water and ice cream themselves, and they employ unmotivated students.”

But the city is satisfied with the way things work, Lessard said. The police have a duty to keep things safe. “When you have 5,000 or 6,000 people, there’s more risk for accidents and you have to control the crowd.” Private vendors might occasionally be obliged to move away from Park Ave., where large crowds come and go from the tam-tams, he said.

Labrosse, for one, doesn’t mind the regulations. “It’s very peaceful now,” he said. He does seem a little wistful, though, when he recalls a trip to Brazil, where society is much less restrictive.

“In Brazil, you can (drum) where you want, play in the street, anytime, anywhere.”

The tam-tams are Montreal’s little bit of Brazil, a place to escape the stress and structure of workaday life. “We shouldn’t lose this here. This is maybe the only thing we have left just to express ourselves.”

This article was originally published in the Montreal Gazette on July 20, 2003.

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Each week, in the woods adjacent to the tam-tams, young teenagers conduct medieval-themed battles

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday July 16 2007at 02:07 pm , filed under Canada, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “A Bit of Brazil on the Edge of Mount Royal”

  • jimmy schultz says:

    I’m looking for a teacher to teach me intermediate or advanced brazilian drumming for A month or two. I’d like to travel there any time during the winter months of jan or deceber or feb. any ways if you you have any good leads I’d appreciate. thanks.
    Jimmer jones