There is no doubt that the Montreal music scene is a vibrant and essential part of this city’s culture. From laid-back, funky songs to dance-inducing electro beats, people adore what Montreal DJs are spinning.
But that adoration doesn’t simply extend back a few years; it can be traced across generations of musicians, who expanded their reach outside of the city limits, claiming fans from all over the international spectrum while fashioning careers that earned them reputations as some of the very best in the business.
Mention the word disco and the first club that usually springs to mind is New York’s Studio 54, but running a close second would probably be Montreal’s Limelight. During that influential dance period in the mid-’70s, Montreal was the second most popular disco city in North America, and as a DJ at the Limelight, George Cucuzzella was truly at the centre of the dance scene.
While the days of disco might have started to flame out at the end of the decade, Cucuzzella’s passion for music pushed him to greater and greater heights. After forming the Canadian Record Pool, which supplied music to DJs in Quebec, Cucuzzella went on to found Unidisc, which is now regarded as one of Canada’s largest independent record labels, specialising in everything from funk and soul to hip-hop and jazz.
“You really have to respect the guys who have paved the way,” says DJ Vito V. (née Sciangula). “George has such an amazing work ethic, passion and a vision when it comes to music. His reputation is second to none and he is an incredible inspiration.”
While the heyday of disco had passed when James Di Salvio began playing in the 1990s at his father’s infamous night club Di Salvio’s on St-Laurent boulevard, his brand of DJing was still influenced by the genre. “Disco is a much larger term than a style of music,” he explains. “It embodies the life and soul of dance culture and the romance of the night.”
Di Salvio’s video career was also swinging into high gear during this time and while work had him based out of Los Angeles, he couldn’t resist the temptation of coming home regularly to play. “Playing at Di Salvio’s was a beautiful, exciting time. Montreal is probably the last North American bohemia.
There is an amazing infusion of cultures in this city and people just love to dance here.” Di Salvio’s deep love of playing music took him deeper and deeper into the business. He co-founded Bran Van 3000, a collective group of musicians who penned a variety of catchy songs, including “Drinking in LA”, a hit that twenty-somethings throughout North America sang along to in the late ’90s.
Misstress Barbara’s passion for her music echoes Di Salvio’s. After falling in love with DJing in 1996, the entrepreneurial artist recorded a mix tape that she gave out to several promoters. Her diligence paid off and she booked her first event – a rave in Sorel in May 1996. Barbara Bonfiglio’s energetic music was heavily influenced by jazz and the beats of Latin music and she soon began playing regular gigs at local clubs including Sona and Aria.
But while the Montreal scene was satisfying, she quickly felt the need to take her music to an international level. “I understood that in order to become an international DJ I had to produce my own music,” explains Bonfiglio. “So I built myself a studio and started producing tracks. Then I started my own label and all the music I put out [enabled me] to DJ internationally.” Soon she was being booked in Europe and Japan, playing in some of the world’s top-rated clubs, adoring the fact that she was making people dance.
Like Di Salvio, Bonfiglio also agrees that it’s the mix of culture that helps put Montreal on the map when it comes to music. “When I was starting out, the scene was magic – fresh and new. Montreal is the best scene in North America; it’s the closest thing to Europe, really,” she says.
In January 2009, she launched the Juno-nominated, I’m No Human, an introspective album that featured a few high-profile duets and marked the debut of her singing career. She has since followed up with her finely-crafted second hooks and a gotta-dance vibe that has fans flocking to her live shows. Along with an appearance at the 2012 edition of the Montreal Jazz Fest, Misstress Barbara also played Piknic Electronik on many occasions.
“It’s a very busy life,” jokes DJ Vito V. when asked about his chosen career path. Having gone professional at 17, DJ’ing was a very, very serious hobby that he took up when he was twelve. Of course it can be traced back even further than that. “My mother has a picture of me as a baby and I’ve got a set of head phones on my head. Anytime I could hear music, I was really happy,” he confides.
Vito V. must be happy these days. The 27-year-old has the #1 listened to dance show on Radio NRJ, broadcast every Saturday from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. Add to that a heavy touring schedule that takes him to places like Brazil, Miami and Las Vegas as well as stops throughout the province of Quebec and this young star is pretty much listening to music all of the time.
“When you DJ, you really have to work on pleasing the crowd,” he explains. “I really try to build a mood and a feeling and then I want to surprise the audience with some stuff they don’t expect. Montreal is really a party city. People used to go out for music and dancing, I really wanted to continue that tradition.”
Vito V.’s approach has created a solid fan base as well as plenty of unbelievable career highs. “I played at the Bell Centre in front of thousands and thousands of people. It’s where the Canadians play and it was just the ultimate rush.”
This memory is balanced by another crowdpleasing event. “I was happy to know that this job would really let me explore Quebec,” he explains. “Last year, I played the Jonquiere en Music festival. Visiting it made me understand why they call Quebec the ‘Belle Province.’ And then, there were people as far as they eye could see and they were all chanting my name. It was really incredible!”
While several generations might separate these four DJs, it becomes clear that they are united by several common threads: their talent, their ambition and their ability to create heart-pumping music that puts everyone in a good mood. And with such a rich musical heritage, one can only wonder what lies in store for the next generation of Montreal DJs.
The Montreal of the 1970s is really a city of broken dreams, dreams that had their roots in the cosmopolitan explosion of Expo 67, the most successful World’s Fair of the 20th century, and the 1969 inaugural season of Nos Amours, the Montreal Expos.
Then came the FLQ and the October Crisis; the billion-dollar Summer Olympics that Montreal’s then-mayor Jean Drapeau infamously claimed couldn’t have a deficit any more than a man can have a baby; increased pressure by police on gay businesses as bathhouses and bars were raided. There was the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976 – which shattered yet more dreams and fuelled the anglophone exodus – and four years later, the failed referendum of 1980, which in turn crushed the dreams of Quebec separatists.
Mirabel Airport – built where it was because politicians and urban planners anticipated that Montreal would triple in size to become one of the world’s great metropolises – became a symbol of everything that had gone wrong in Montreal.
So disco music became a salvation of sorts for Montrealers and discotheques their new cathedrals. As Harry Wayne Casey (aka KC of KC and the Sunshine Band) once told me, “Disco was feel-good music that delivered on the promises of the 1960s.”
And the epicentre of Montreal’s famed disco scene – which cranked out many international disco stars like Gino Soccio and France Joli – was the city’s famed Lime Light disco founded by Yvon Lafrance in September 1973, on Stanley Street above where the Chez Paree strip joint stands today.
Montreal DJ Robert Ouimet was the house deejay at the Lime Light from 1973 to 1981, and today Yvon Lafrance says Ouimet – known worldwide as the Godfather of Montreal Disco – was hands-down the best deejay in Canada from 1973 to 1982, when Ouimet won Billboard magazine’s Best Canadian DJ Award.
“The Lime Light really was better than Studio 54, and that’s [mostly] because it was a fun place for everybody – men, women, black, white, straight and gay,” says Ouimet. “I used to go to New York all the time during the week – I remember I was flown over there once for the premiere of [the movie] Thank God It’s Friday [starring Donna Summer]. Then I used to work in Montreal on the weekends.
“A lot of international stars also [partied] or performed at the Lime Light. I saw Alice Cooper. Grace Jones used to come often. The Ritchie Family and Gloria Gaynor played there; so did James Brown [for five consecutive nights in 1977]. One night I was at a David Bowie [concert] with a promotion man and I brought them and Iggy Pop to the Lime Light afterwards to see Gloria Gaynor perform live at the club!”