Behind the scenes of a virtual concert: Zal Sissokho at Nuits d’Afrique 2020

Zal Sissokho Nuits d'Afrique
Photo by Marilou Boutet

Virtual concerts are popping up everywhere. From Nick Cave and Gorillaz to Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa, it’s the only way in which artists can reach a big international audience right now. But do you know what happens behind the screen? How do the artists prepare? And why do music festivals also choose to do them?

At Festileaks, we had the opportunity to attend the filming of a virtual concert as part of Nuits d’Afrique 2020. This Canadian festival is North America’s leading event for world music. It is an institution in Montreal, and has done a lot to help emerging artists and the African community in general. This year, it has embraced virtual concerts because of the pandemic, and the artist we saw perform is Zal Sissokho, a Senegalese musician, kora player and singer. For his project Kora Flamenca, he is joined by Caroline Planté on flamenco guitar. Miguel Medina is on percussions, and Jean-Felix Mailloux completes the set with his double-bass. Just before the digital concert airs, Kora Flamenca won the award for Best World Music Album of ADISQ, the highest prize in the (world) music industry of Quebec.

The Kora Flamenca virtual concert

virtual concert Zal Sissokho at Nuits d'Afrique 2020
Photo by Marilou Boutet

Zal Sissokho released his Kora Flamenca project in February 2020. Just one month later, they interrupted the album tour because of the pandemic. The performance is beautiful, all of the instruments blending together in a fusion perfected by Miguel’s accelerations and changes of rhythm. Jean-Felix also shows us great dance moves during the song ‘Encuentros’. We are travelling around the Atlantic Ocean for 45 minutes. After the concert, Festileaks exchanged words with Zal and Caroline.

Asked about virtual concerts, and how they adapted to the lack of audience, Zal tells us that it is not easy to perform without a crowd. He says that the musicians love to perform mostly for the interaction and exchange of energy. However, given the circumstances, they all recognise the opportunity. They are thankful to be performing at all, especially at a prestigious festival like Nuits d’Afrique. Still, these virtual shows bring a very new kind of stress. Because it’s all recorded and televised, artists’ every move can be scrutinised, much more than in a regular live concert. On the other hand, it is easier to fix technical problems. Caroline explains that the setlist didn’t change, but they took more time between songs. They talked more, because Zal needed time to tune his kora. It’s an acceptable inconvenience, given that it’s their first show since March.

Nuits d’Afrique 2020

Giving musicians the opportunity to perform is one of the many reasons why Nuits d’Afrique 2020 is happening at all. We talked with Diane Ouellet, responsible for the digital development of the festival through the online concert series. She explains that helping artists to promote their talent and reach the public is essential and part of our main purpose. When Nuits d’Afrique was forced to cancel its summer event back in March, they decided to organize a special fall edition including a virtual format. They didn’t want to take any chance and they were right: only three concerts took place in front of a (reduced) crowd. Then, the Quebec government measures were put in place.

Thankfully, the recordings can still take place. It’s a way for the festival to stick together: they watch the premiere all together between the office and everyone’s homes. Virtual concerts aren’t fun but it’s the closest we get to that feeling that only live music can give. Every Saturday in October, as well as the first of November, the festival posts two concerts on its Youtube channel. For more information, you can visit Zal Sissokho’s website, the Nuits d’Afrique website, or our festival page.