For those of us who remember the sixties, entering Café Mariposa is like hitting the rewind button. This original little NDG café holds echoes of folk-beat days in Greenwich Village, of sunny summer concerts at the Mariposa Festival, and of Montreal’s Yellow Door hootenannies.

Owner Victor Labelle describes it as a sixties kind of place in the 21st century on the café’s Facebook page. “It’s not about living in the past,” he explains, “it’s about the past still being present.”

When he launched Café Mariposa two years ago, Labelle’s dream was to create a cozy and welcoming place where music would be played, ‘in the key of no ego,’ and a venue that feels like an extension of his living room. His dream has come true. The irresistible aromas of ginger, curry, cinnamon and maple envelop you upon entering, and a homey decor of warm reds and oranges beckon you to make yourself at home. The mellow strains of acoustic folk and blues guitar soothe even the most disheartened souls.

Mariposa is known for encouraging collaboration between musicians of all backgrounds and ages, and on Thursday nights, seasoned and fledgling musicians ages ten to 85 fill the café to play at its open mic night. Labelle tells musicians, “Beginner or expert, you get the same support from me and the audience. You don’t have to be polished. It’s not about the individual performance; it’s about the collective experience. Leave your ego at the door.”

At a recent Thursday event, 11 year-olds Jordan Edelstein and Jonah Levy of the duo Love Monkey received roaring applause after their rendition of Good Riddance (“I hope you had the time of your life,”) by Green Day. Edelstein said he was nervous going up to play, but that “it felt good” to hear the applause. Martin Franklin, a musician in his eighties and a regular guest at open mic nights also wins the crowd over with jazzy, instrumental variations on Gershwin songs and others from the 30s and 40s.

“In Nova Scotia they’d call this open mic event a kitchen party,” says NDG businessman Kent Fletcher.” Someone will wander over with a musical instrument under their arms, then someone else steps up with their instrument, and a whole evening of music just flows right there in someone’s kitchen. It happens all the time in rural Nova Scotia.”

On Friday and Saturday nights Mariposa features booked musicians playing original rhythm, folk and blues music, as well as songs by the greats of these genres. They play for free, but contributions can be made after the show to a hat near the stage. Most are local musicians but word has been spreading, and Labelle is booking acts from other Canadian cities as well as those south of the border.

Long-time friend and fellow musician Hugh Fisher says Labelle has a knack for promoting others. “Vic has a real fascination with peoples’ talent. He talks people up, encourages them. He thrives as both a presenter and a musician in his own right. He also plays CDs of artists who have performed at Mariposa on the sound system when there’s no live music happening. That way people can hear their work and it’s all very good. You don’t find that in many clubs. That sets Café Mariposa apart.”

Labelle often takes the stage together with Fisher and other musicians at Mariposa under the banner of the ‘Gentlemen of Leisure.’ He and Fisher played together for over 12 years in the Victor-E band, formed in 1978. They resumed their musical partnership upon Fisher’s recent return to Montreal from Asia. In Viet Nam he played to captive audiences who drank in the sounds of acoustic guitar, thirsty to hear music from the West played live. He bemoans the difficulties of playing locally to audiences that are busy “computing,” either on their cell phones or on laptops, as is the case in many café’s and bars. You don’t see this at Café Mariposa, where the living room-style layout and the absence of an elevated stage favour a sense of connection between artists and musicians.

“Here there’s no distance between the performer and the audience. They’re connected.” says local visual artist Susan Shulman. “Victor has created a platform that really allows for connection and collaboration, which is the most amazing thing to do as an artist. It’s the collaboration that feeds you,” she adds.
This is a striking feature of what you see when Labelle and Fisher take the stage together. Fisher says: “Victor and I know each other really well. Studies show that the brain waves of musicians become synchronized as they play together. “This might explain what appears to be musical mindreading going on between these two; they shift seamlessly from song to song, improvising along the way, all without missing a beat.”We become immune to connection in this world, but the ways that we connect are far more interesting than the ways we don’t,” Fisher adds. “The vibe here is very open, allowing that connection to happen.”

In addition to its roundup of music, Mariposa offers hearty meals Labelle describes as ‘fine comfort cuisine.’ In the summer a mixed grill barbecue is featured on the terrace on Thursdays, and on Friday and Saturday evenings, there’s a choice of five home-cooked, vegetarian-friendly meals. Sunday brunch consists of pain doré, omelettes, eggs Benedict, bagels, smoked salmon, and south-west tortillas, all served with pierogies and caramelized onions. Labelle and business partner Sue Tress take care of all the cooking. “I’m salty, she’s sweet,” he says. He makes the main dishes, and home-baked goods are her domain.

Before opening Café Mariposa, Labelle had already worn many hats: working in the film business, as owner of the Tartan Pub in Two Mountains, and manager of Monkland Avenue’s St. Viateur Bagel Restaurant. He’d been a chef, a barman and a driver in the film business. Now he divides his time between the café and as a driver in the youth protection system. Halfway through Mariposa’s first year, Labelle was wondering if he’d made a mistake launching this new venture.

“When you open a new place, people think it’s the same owner as the previous occupant, just with a fresh paint job.” So it was slow-going at first. But now, Labelle says, “People like the place. Whether they come at first to eat, drink or hear music, I see them again.”
Labelle has succeeded in creating an unassuming little café with broad appeal, a place that gives expression to a ‘sixties past that is still present,’ and one that is making its mark in Montreal café history with its own trademark style.

“Mariposa is friendly to all levels of creativity and talent,” says Shulman. “There’s no age bracket and no class distinctions. It’s about the joy, not the ego – that’s what’s key here. It’s a very chill place.”
Mariposa…le café: 5434 Côte- St.-Luc Road, 514-439-3190. [email protected]

Written by: Myra Shuster

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