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The Montreal International Jazz Festival

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The Montreal International Jazz Festival invites over 3000 musicians together from dozens of countries, for well over a thousand performances, most of which are free. We wouldn’t have the chance to see much of the festival, as it began during our final night in Montreal. But we did get a taste.

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The Montreal Jazz Festival was first celebrated in 1980, and has since grown into the world’s largest, certified as such by the Guinness Book of World Records, in 2006. But looking at the lineup, you’ll notice right away that it’s not all jazz. In fact, the invited bands and musicians represent a wide range of genres, including rock, soul, hip-hop and folk.

My heart raced as I looked through the program, which featured acts like Brian Wilson, Danny Brown, Jamie Cullem, Lauryn Hill, Noel Gallagher, Peter Bjorn & John, Rufus Wainwright, The Tallest Man on Earth and Wynton Marsalis. I’d have liked to see all of these! But since we were leaving the city on the festival’s second day, the only act we were able to catch was Cat Power, who was playing a solo show at the Metropolis.

Out of all Montreal’s summertime festivals (and there are tons), the Jazz Festival is the undisputed king. It’s centered around the Place des Arts, where you can enter for free and check out performances by lesser-known artists throughout the day. This is in the heart of the city, and traffic is completely cut off for the duration of the festival, which draws millions of music-lovers.

Every single time we told a Montrealer that we’d be leaving at the end of June, we heard some variation on the same theme: “Are you stupid?!” We’d be missing July, widely agreed upon to be the best month in the city. And that meant we’d be missing the Jazz Festival. It was a little frustrating to be reminded of this fact over and over again, but we didn’t really have a choice. I’m happy that we experienced a bit of the festivities… and we can always return. I have a feeling the Jazz Festival will be around for a long time to come.

Location on our Map: Metropolis | Place des Arts
Montreal International Jazz Festival: Website

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July 19, 2016 at 2:08 pm Comments (0)

The Mont Royal Tam-Tam Festival

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Every Sunday, a curious gathering takes place on the slopes of Mont Royal, near the statue of Sir George-Étienne Cartier. Men and women bring their tam-tams, grab a seat, and spend the entire afternoon pounding out impromptu rhythms, smoking and dancing. You might be thinking, “This sounds like it’d be popular with hippies.” And you would be right.

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We showed up to the Tam-Tam Festival on a sunny afternoon, partly expecting to hate it. Not that we have anything against tam-tams; we’re just not the kinds of guys who “feel” this particular beat. There was absolutely zero chance of us hearing the bongo, and being overtaken by the primal desire to shake our bodies to the rhythm. There was, on the other hand, a very good chance we’d spend the day making fun of those who did.

The festival was everything we hoped and feared it would be. Think dreadlocks, hacky sacks, marijuana and barefoot dancing. But it was also much more fun than we expected, and we had soon dropped our snarky attitudes. Everyone was hanging out with friends, playing games, smoking, drinking and dancing, and there was a great energy to the whole event.

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Oh god, a “great energy?” I’ve been infected! But I mean it, man, there must be something about the rhythm of the tam-tam. After a few minutes of laying on the grass, with the sun warming my face, I kicked off my shoes. I could feel something inside me (was it my ka?) itching to get out and dance. In a delirious semi-trance, I shimmied over to the biggest group of drummers, and jumped into the middle of the circle, twirling and howling like a wolf.

Alright, that’s a total lie. Like I said, there was zero chance of such a thing happening. I did, however, spend almost an entire hour watching others dance, and could have happily stayed for even longer. The dance area had its own complex ecosystem, and it was fascinating to watch it evolve. There were cute girls hopping about, older hippies who still had enough energy to spin, guys doing strange movements with their arms as though they were trying to tell an epic story, and at least one shirtless creep flirting shamelessly with every woman in striking distance. And the drummers were just as fun to watch: a mix of every conceivable type of person. Tam-tam playing apparently doesn’t discriminate on age, gender or race (… or ability).

We had expected to show up, take a few pictures and leave this hippie-fest in a matter of minutes. But we ended up spending most of the day here, and were immediately talking about returning the next week. Our time in Montreal was coming to a close, but we still had one Sunday left, and spending it at the Tam-Tam Festival seemed a smart way to use it.

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June 27, 2016 at 1:58 pm Comments (0)

Glass Blowing at the Espace Verre

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A unique gallery, studio and school dedicated to glass-blowing, Espace Verre was created in 1983 by two artists who wanted to give people in Montreal the chance to learn the artform. The small, private institution is based in a former fire hall in the industrial zone of Pointe-Saint-Charles, and is regularly open to visitors.

Glass Blowing Montreal

If you’re curious about glass-blowing, it’s worth stopping by the Espace Verre for the opportunity to watch artists at work; above the large studio where the kilns and benches are kept, there’s a viewing platform, from which you can observe without being a nuisance. This old firehouse is primarily a school for those learning about the art, but visitors are welcome to pop in.

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Espace Verre offers a technical three-year degree in the art of glass-blowing. It’s a full-time program, which draws students from across Quebec and even Europe. Professional artists can also rent benches in the studio, regardless if they’ve studied here or not. And even if you’re not a trained glass-blower, you can still dip your toes into the kiln by attending one of their intensive weekend workshops.

Location on our Map
Espace Verre – Website

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June 23, 2016 at 3:20 pm Comments (0)

Montreal’s Mural Festival

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Street art is a phenomenon which hip cities long ago stopped trying to fight, and started to embrace. When it’s well-done, street art can beautify otherwise drab buildings, provoke thought, and even drive tourism. If you’ve ever wondered how the artists manage to make use of their building-sized canvases, you should check out Montreal’s Mural Festival, where you can see them at work.

Montreal Mural Festival

Montreal is definitely a city that wants to be on the cultural vanguard, so we weren’t surprised to find a thriving street art scene here. Walking along Saint-Laurent Boulevard is akin to walking through an open-air museum, with massive works occupying every conceivable open space, and more traditional graffiti “installations” in the alleyways.

Mural, a festival which is in its third year, brings a sort of structure to the street art scene, by commissioning artists from Canada and the rest of the world to create new pieces. As you walk around St. Laurent, you’ll find artists with paint cans and sprays, bringing their new creations to life. You can also see the works which were produced in previous iterations of the festival. A large section of St. Laurent is closed to traffic for the duration of Mural, and a lot of festival-type stands open up. Snacks, artsy trinkets, palm readers… that sort of thing.

Montreal Mural Festival

We enjoyed ourselves at the festival; it was fun to watch the artists at work, and see how large-scale street art is done. But still, something was irritating us about Mural. Visitors are encouraged to pay for a “VIP Tour” of the new murals, and buy a ticket to enter the “VIP Zone.” The main corporate sponsor is a phone company, and other partners include Barefoot Wines and Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola has heard that street art is cool nowadays, and since Coca-Cola is down with the kids, Coca-Cola is suddenly all about street art. Make art, live young, drink Coke! I can just imagine some marketing team coming up with a new slogan, and it makes me puke.

But as long as you can divorce your mind from the sadness of a movement being co-opted by the very institutions it was born to subvert, the Mural festival can be a lot of fun. The art is excellent, regardless of who it’s being sponsored by, and it’s hard to fault these artists for taking advantage of the opportunity. Even if you can’t make it to Montreal to see the current iteration of the Mural Festival, don’t worry; these works of art will be around for a long time.

Location of the Main (VIP) Stage
Mural Festival – Website

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June 22, 2016 at 8:21 pm Comments (0)

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

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Since arriving in Montreal, we had been planning to check out the Museum of Fine Arts, but kept finding reasons to postpone our visit. “It’s too sunny out for a museum,” or “it’s Sunday, and will be too crowded,” or “it’s already too late, and we won’t be able to see everything.” But if we’re being honest, the museum simply intimidated us. With over 40,000 pieces in its permanent collection, this the largest and most important museum in Montreal, and one that requires a lot of time to see properly.

Montreal Fine Arts Museum

Finally, on a rainy Thursday morning with nothing else to do, we ran out of excuses. And I’m glad we waited for the right moment… this museum really is a place you’ll want to visit when you don’t have any other plans. It’s spread across four buildings (or “pavilions”), each of which could easily be a museum of its own. You could spend the entire day here, and still not see everything.

The museum is audacious in its scope, attempting to cover the entire gamut of humanity’s dabblings in art, from ancient archaeological finds in Mesopotamia to modern Inuit sculptures from northern Canada, and everything in between. You’ll find rooms dedicated to Contemporary Design, Decorative Arts, Graphic Arts, Medieval Religious Iconography, Napoleonic Art, and much more.

Montreal Fine Arts Museum

Not only is the museum massive, it’s also wonderfully presented. The pieces of art are perfectly illuminated, and each comes with detailed information of its creator and the work itself. And all of the museum’s various sections are quite different from one another, each as compelling as the last. As the day wore on, Jürgen and I would repeatedly say to each other, “Alright, let’s do the next room quickly.” And inevitably, we found ourselves stuck. There’s almost nothing that you’ll want to skip over.

The museum has paintings from European greats, such as Picasso, El Greco, Monet and Rembrandt, as well as contemporary works from artists around the world. There’s a wonderful section in the Stewart Pavilion dedicated to early North American design, featuring everyday items like chairs, lamps, ceramics and vases. And we loved the exhibition on African Art, with its masks, tools and sculptures.

Montreal Fine Arts Museum

And all of this is just from the museum’s permanent collections. There are also first-class temporary exhibits which stay for months at a time. We were able to see one dedicated to the lost city of Pompeii, with artwork and sculptures recovered from the site (including some that were surprisingly erotic), as well as plaster molds made from the bodies covered in ash.

By the time we finished with the museum, we were exhausted. It didn’t seem like it, but our visit had lasted nearly four hours, and still we felt like we had rushed through. If you’re into art, and have a lot of time to kill, you’re going to love this place. Even if you can’t stomach the idea of such a long day, you should still consider a visit. The price is reasonable, so you’ll get your money’s worth even if you see just a fraction of the exhibits.

Location on our Map
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – Website

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June 19, 2016 at 3:23 pm Comments (0)

The St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival

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An uncensored celebration of independent theater at its most creative, the St-Ambroise Fringe Festival entertains Montreal with over 800 performances spread across twenty days. We were in town during the festival’s 26th year of existence, and couldn’t resist taking in a show… the only problem was deciding which to see.

Fringe Festivals came into being in Edinburgh during the 1940s, when independent theater companies began performing without sanction on the “fringe” of the city’s popular International Festival. The practice caught on among companies who’d been unable to gain a foothold in established events, and soon “Fringe Festivals” had become a worldwide phenomenon.

As the fringe scene matured, some ground rules eventually became necessary, and today Canada has even established an “Association of Fringe Festivals.” Such an organization might seem antithetical to a movement born to subvert the establishment, but their rules are hard to argue with: (1) participants are selected in a non-juried manner, so every hopeful has an equal chance of performing, (2) 100% of box office goes to the artists, (3) festivals may not censor or control any content, (4) anyone and everyone must be allowed the opportunity to participate.

Given these all-inclusive ground rules, we expected Montreal’s Fringe Festival to be comprised of a bunch of crazies standing on boxes and screaming poetry about their morning bowel movements. So it came as a surprise when, after going through the schedule, I had circled about two dozen shows that sounded interesting. These were comedies, one-person cabarets, drag-shows, dramas, and bizarre events which defied any easy categorization. I kind of wanted to see them all.

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In the end, we chose “Captain Aurora II: A Superhero Musical Sequel,” performed by the Kaleidoscope Theater Company in the Chapelle Theater on Rue Saint Dominique. The original Captain Aurora was one of the biggest hits of last year’s festival, so we felt confident about our decision. And it was just as fun as we’d hoped.

As a general rule of “Fringe” shows, production costs are kept to a bare minimum, venues are small, and running time is limited, so it’s not as though Captain Aurora II was a big, Broadway-style musical. It felt more like a high-school production… that is, one presented by a high-school filled with insanely talented people. The plot, about the struggle between an evil alien race and Captain Aurora’s Sky Guard, was both ridiculous and hilarious. The props and costumes were budget-level, but cleverly designed, and the singing, music and acting were top-notch.

And at just $12, the tickets are completely affordable. As we were leaving the Chapelle, other artists from Fringe were promoting their shows, and we grabbed a few fliers. Montreal seems to have a ridiculous number of talented artists, and the Fringe Festival gives them all a chance to be heard.

Location of the Chapelle Theater (just one of the festival’s dozens of venues)
St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival – Website

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June 12, 2016 at 10:56 pm Comments (0)

A Night at the Casino

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Housed in the former French Pavilion from the 1967 World Expo, Montreal’s state-run casino opened in 1993, and has become one of the most popular spots in the city. This is the largest casino in Canada, and is as memorable for its unique architecture as for its rollicking atmosphere. We were invited to check it out on a Saturday night.

Montreal Casino

The last couple casinos we’ve visited haven’t been so great; sad, dingy places with chain-smokers joylessly feeding machines and lifeless tables, where you leave feeling bad about yourself even if you happen to have won. But I’m happy to report that Montreal’s Casino is not like that. This is the fun type. It’s the kind of place you go to have a good time, and where gambling is almost an afterthought.

We started enjoying ourselves the moment we stepped inside. Just past the entrance, a band was rocking out in front of a large crowd, most of whom were dancing. The bar area was packed, the machines were ringing, the noise level was insane, and everything was lit up by a massive LED-backdrop the size of a tennis court which extends from behind the stage all the way up to the top floor.

Montreal Casino

Unlike in most casinos, there are plenty of windows and a real sense of space; in Montreal, they’re not trying to confuse you with a maze of slot machines, or make you forget the time of day. The floors of the casino are interconnected by an open central atrium, so that even from the top, you can look all the way down to see the band jamming. And the views are beautiful… the casino is mostly surrounded by water, and the skyline of downtown Montreal is visible in the near distance.

The main building of the casino is the former French Pavilion, built for Expo 67, and it’s also connected to the neighboring gold cube of the Quebec Pavilion, where you’ll find yet more floors of games, as well as the poker tables. This was perhaps the only place in the casino that I would characterize as “quiet.” The people seated around these tables were concentrating so intensely, it was intimidating. If we hoped to one day be able to take a place here, we were going to need some lessons.

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Luckily, we knew where to go. Jonathan Duhamel, a world poker champion, was on-hand at the casino to give free lessons. He’s a native of Quebec and often makes appearances. The game we learned with him was three-card poker, a variation which I’d never heard of before. We played a few hands and, within fifteen minutes, went from total newbies to totally overconfident. Time to hit the tables!

Montreal Casino

We wandered over to the a room called “The Zone”, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a casino. This was more like a dance club, with a set of four DJs on the stage. Except, instead of dancing, we were sitting at terminals playing blackjack, and instead of spinning records, the DJs were flipping cards over. Everyone in The Zone was playing the same hands, and it was all live-projected on the screens behind DJ Croupier… so if he busted, everyone won.

After playing there and at a couple more traditional tables, we gathered up our winnings and went to the casino’s restaurant on the top floor. Even though it was late at night, this place was packed, and for good reason: the food is excellent and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. Plus, from so high up, you get a great view over the city.

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We had an awesome night out at the Montreal Casino, although I’m not sure that’s good news. Our last casino experiences had been so miserable, that we had started to lose our love of gambling. But now it’s been rekindled! Even as we were leaving the casino, I was plotting how to justify a return trip.

(Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed, I discovered twenty dollars worth of chips still in my pocket. “Oh my, I forgot to cash these in. We’ll have to go back at some point.” Jürgen regarded me suspiciously… I’m not sure I fooled him. And I’m not sure I care!)

Location on our Map
Montreal Casino – Website

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May 30, 2016 at 8:11 pm Comment (1)

Arsenal Contemporary Art

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Located within a nineteenth-century shipyard in the neighborhood of Griffintown, Arsenal is a private gallery dedicated to contemporary art. We stopped by to check out the space, and see if we could make any sense out of the collection.

Arsenal Montreal

At first blush, Griffintown seems like a strange neighborhood in which to base a gallery of contemporary art. This has historically been a blue-collar kind of place, home to immigrant families who worked down at the docks. There’s been a recent effort to revitalize Griffintown, but it’s still a post-industrial neighborhood, filled with huge old warehouses, many of which are empty.

But empty warehouses are not without potential, and that seems to have been recognized by the owners of Arsenal. With plenty of space and light, this massive shipyard building is the perfect place in which to showcase contemporary art.

Arsenal Montreal

Arsenal opened in 2011, and has welcomed exhibits from some of the contemporary art world’s brightest stars, while also featuring an equal amount of home-grown talent. It’s a concept that seems to work; in 2013, Arsenal expanded to Toronto, where they occupy another large industrial site, in a former lumber kiln.

The art is definitely cutting-edge. We saw a couple temporary exhibits: an underwater-dancing-drama film project called y20 from Montreal native Dominique Skoltz, and the comedic packing tape sculptures of American Mark Jenkins. These both met with our approval, but much of Arsenal’s collection was hit-or-miss… as contemporary art tends to be. For every interesting piece that captured our attention, there was something like plain, colored blocks hanging on the walls.

Arsenal hosts weekly workshops, called Cultural Tuesdays, during which you can access the galleries for free and interact with the artists whose work is currently showing. The space can also be rented out for events, such as balls and weddings. Even if you’re not into contemporary art, it might be worth a visit to check out the interior of the old shipyard building. Arsenal keeps a strange schedule, often closing for weeks at a time, so make sure to check out their website before heading over.

Location on our Map
Arsenal – Website

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May 15, 2016 at 7:55 pm Comments (0)

The Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art

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Founded in 1964, the Musée d’Art Contemporain was the first museum in Canada dedicated entirely to works of contemporary art. In 1991, the MAC moved into its new location on the Place des Arts, where it hosts exhibitions from the world’s most famous contemporary artists.

Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art

The works displayed at the MAC run the gamut from video and sculpture, to media-painting and performance art. Although they do have a permanent collection of over seven thousand works, only a small number of these are shown at any time. The focus of the MAC is on its temporary exhibits, which makes sense for a contemporary art museum… who wants to see old pieces that have been around for years? Give us something new!

Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art

A visit to the MAC is likely to be impressive and irritating in equal measure, and your enjoyment will depend entirely on how you respond to whatever artist they’re currently hosting; in other words, make sure to check the list of exhibitions before purchasing a ticket. We were drawn by the work of Ragnar Kjartansson, an Icelandic performance artist who has achieved a certain level of fame for his imaginative, often music-based projects. (Since we spent 91 days in Iceland, we felt a kinship towards Rangar; it’s not unlikely we even met him at a Reykjavik happy hour, since we met about 25% of the island’s population at some point during our stay.)

One of his installations at the MAC was called “A Lot of Sorrow,” which is nothing but an extended video of the band The National performing their song “Sorrow” for six and a half hours. As soon as the song would finish, they’d segue into the next iteration. Now, we’re big fans of the National, but still. I think the primary “art” involved in this project, was convincing the band to agree to it!

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We preferred another of Rangar’s installations called “The Visitors,” in which he placed a dozen of his musically-inclined friends around an old mansion, gave them headphones to stay synced, and together had them play an hour-long song revolving around the lyrics, “once again I fall into my feminine ways.” In a large room at the MAC, a separate film of each musician is shown, and the effect is amazing — as you walk around the room (or the house), different facets of the music come to the fore: the cello, the accordion, the drums. And the song was lovely, too.

You probably already know if you’re the kind of person who’s going to enjoy the MAC. Contemporary art is easy to despise, but if you are open to avant-garde works, don’t pass it up. With its focus on challenging artists, prominent downtown location, and spacious rooms which allow its wide-ranging projects to be properly experienced, this is one of the best contemporary art museums we’ve ever been to.

Location on our Map
Musée d’Art Contemporain – Website

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May 6, 2016 at 4:00 pm Comments (0)

Under the Dome at SAT – Société des Arts Technologiques

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At first glance, you might mistake the gleaming dome on Boulevard St. Laurent for that of a modern mosque. But in fact, it’s an immersive exhibition space utilized by Montreal’s Society of Technological Arts, or SAT. SAT is a collective of artists and engineers dedicated to a wide array of projects, from mind-bending multimedia shows in the dome, to practical networking and communication applications.

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Montreal is equally accomplished in both the worlds of culture and high-tech; not only is this city home to Cirque du Soleil and the world’s largest jazz festival, but it’s also an important hub of the aerospace and video gaming sectors. So a place like SAT, a non-profit organization which blends the arts with technology, feels right at home.

About fifty people work full-time at SAT, but there’s a constant influx of artists from all over the world, who come for temporary projects. The organization hosts courses in multimedia disciplines like “Creation of Online Films” and “Compositing Video with After Effects,” offers residencies and even runs technological summer youth camps.

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SAT also opens its doors to the public, welcoming visitors to its third-story terrace restaurant every evening after 5pm. This is a cool spot to hang out and, if the Wednesday night crowd we saw is any indication, it’s not exactly a “hidden secret.” We snatched a table outside on the terrace to enjoy a beer in the sun, and played a SAT-inspired game: is that person an artist or an engineer? It’s surprisingly difficult, both groups seem to have the same fashion sense, and are apparently big beard fans.

We couldn’t linger on the terrace for too long, because a show was starting in the Satosphère. This dome was built in 2011, and is used primarily for immersive artistic endeavors such as “Cauchemar Merveilleux,” the show we’d be seeing. This was a bizarre merging of the poetry of French performer Arthur H and computer-generated visual projections that simulated clouds, stars, tunnels and skyscrapers. It was all in French, so I didn’t understand much (except for the bit about Batman being a homosexual cyborg… which… I guess you couldn’t really say I “understood.”) On weekends, the Satosphère is used for live sets featuring both DJs and VJs, who live-mix video projections against the dome.

Location on our Map
SAT (Société des Arts Technologiques) – Website

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April 29, 2016 at 2:08 pm Comments (0)

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The Montreal International Jazz Festival The Montreal International Jazz Festival invites over 3000 musicians together from dozens of countries, for well over a thousand performances, most of which are free. We wouldn't have the chance to see much of the festival, as it began during our final night in Montreal. But we did get a taste.
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