Drumming to a common beat

Sometimes - and I mean this in a good way - Montreal can seem a city that's living in the past. And by the past, I mean the 1960s and '70s, when it hosted both the triumphant Expo 67 and the financially crippling 1976 Olympics. The most distinctive of its plentiful modernist structures were built in that period, and they still define the look of Montreal.

Another notable holdout from that era is the Tam Tam. This mass Sunday public drumming circle began in 1978, when a small workshop decided to move its drumming sessions outdoors during summer. Within a few years hundreds of people were showing up to watch and take part, and the event remains hugely popular.

Taking part on the plaza next to the angel statue at the foot of Mont-Royal, a monument to Canada's co-founder Sir George-Étienne Cartier, the Tam Tam is a laidback testament to the city's multicultural nature and its love of live music. Lacking any formal structure, it's a classic case of art for art's sake - an expression of the sheer joy of making music with others.

By the time I arrive mid-afternoon it's a big, noisy gathering. In the centre of the beats, by the statue, is a melange of vigorous drummers. A central cluster is playing in time with each other, while a few individuals further out bang on smaller hand-held drums or, in the case of one middle-aged woman, an empty coffee can.

But there's more to Tam Tam than the drumming. The event spreads out in layers of activity, a huge hive intelligence moving lazily in time to the beat.

Along the steps around the monument are arts and craft sellers, their wares spread out on blankets. Browsing, I can see lots of clothing (heavy on the hippie chic look); handcrafted jewellery, including pieces by Canada's First Nations indigenous people; wild artwork; and cloth patches with slogans against capitalism. And many, many sets of juggling balls.

Beyond the vendors, arrayed along the grassy parkland at the foot of the hill, are cheerful groups of friends and their dogs, being served by ice-cream vendors pushing small wheeled carts. With the endless rhythmic beats as a backdrop and the distinctive smell of marijuana in the air, it feels like we're all part of a giant, unco-ordinated, mellow ''happening''.

But it's not the only unconventional musical event on a Sunday. As the Tam Tam winds down near sunset, the Piknic Electronik is hitting its stride on Ile Sainte-Helene in the middle of the St Lawrence River. The open-air electronic music event is another summer fixture, attracting up to 5000 each week.

Reaching it by following the beat from the island's Jean Drapeau Metro station, I find a large crowd dancing loose-limbed beneath an enormous curving metal sculpture. The surrounding leafy park is not the environment I associate with electronica, but Piknic co-founder Nicolas Cournoyer tells me that's intentional.

''We've tried to make this music accessible,'' he says. ''Electronic music events were always at night, in clubs. We wanted to do something original.''

Just as important to Cournoyer was the rehabilitation of the genre.

''There's a lot of prejudice around this kind of music - drugs, that kind of stuff,'' he says. ''We wanted to have the music in daytime, in a different atmosphere, in a park. To be able to have families as well, all kinds of people.''

Though it's mostly a young crowd, there are older people and kids among the dancers. I even see a family with toddlers in tow.

Cournoyer is proud of the diversity. ''Piknic is a good representation of Montreal - there are people of all ages here, young and not so young. We have hipsters, clubbers, it's a real mix.''

I like this crowd and I like the music - a genre I've never had much time for before. I also love Montreal for so effortlessly bringing this vibe to life. If I could bottle the event and take it back home to Melbourne, I would.

I'm not the only one to have had that reaction, says Cournoyer.

''All the DJs coming here love the Montreal crowd. They really respond, and there's a great collaboration between the two. Many visitors tell us, 'This would be impossible to do in our city. How do you manage it?'''

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

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