Security concerns about protesters contributed to SLĀV cancellation, jazz fest says

The show, performed by lead singer Betty Bonifassi, is described as "a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs," but critics are calling it cultural appropriation.

Reimbursement costs of cancellation 'a few hundred thousand dollars,' festival president says

Betty Bonifassi is the lead singer of SLĀV, a Robert Lepage production at the Montreal Jazz Festival based on slave songs, which was cancelled. (Radio-Canada)

Security concerns about some "aggressive" opposition to SLĀV, the African-American slave song performance that garnered controversy for featuring white performers, contributed to the cancellation of the Montreal International Jazz Festival show, the festival said today.

The show, performed by lead singer Betty Bonifassi and directed by Robert Lepage, is described as "a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs," but critics are calling it cultural appropriation.

Bonifassi and Lepage are both white, and that's drawn criticism for their project, which brings together "traditional African-American slave and work songs, from cotton field plantations to railroad yards," according to the event listing.

The first four shows of 16 in total were first cancelled due to health issues suffered by Betty Bonifassi, the show's lead singer, according to Jacques-André Dupont, the festival's president.

If it weren't for those health issues and security concerns due to mounting tensions and protest, the show would have gone on, Dupont said.

He said some of the opposition to SLĀV became "aggressive."

"On Wednesday we had to make a decision. We knew that whatever decision we made, there would be lots of tension," Dupont said.

"It was not in a spirit of censorship."

The security of everyone involved with the festival is the administration's priority, he said.

The jazz festival, Ex Machina, Lepage's production company, and Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, the show's venue, will absorb the reimbursement costs for artists and those who purchased tickets — a few hundred thousand dollars, Dupont said.

'I want us to do better'

Dupont said the festival administration absorbed all the criticism that came in.

"We decided that the debate went deeper than only the SLĀV performance. Many people, artists expressed themselves on this important social issue," he said.

On Friday, festival leaders met with members of Montreal's black communities for four hours to discuss the issues. The biggest takeaway was that the festival needs to listen more and be open to learning, Dupont said.

"I want us to do better," Dupont said.

"Some of what I heard was hard to hear, but I want to continue the conversation."

With files from CBC reporter Matt D'Amours