Saturday, November 04, 2006

La Musique du Quebec

In the summer before I came to Queen's I spent a month in Chicoutimi, Quebec to learn French through the Summer Language Bursary Program. While there, I learned that Quebec had traditional music of its own, comparable to that of Cape Breton. The songs are usually of the call-and-response variety, though not always. The instrumental repertoire contains a lot of tunes that are similar in form to Scottish and Irish traditional music (which generally falls under the ambiguous term "Celtic"), namely reels and jigs (or gigues).

There was at least one wave of Irish immigrants to Quebec and they brought with them the musical traditions that the Irish themselves are now popular for. Some of that stuck and became part of what I assume was a pre-existing musical tradition in Quebec. There are other types of tunes in Quebec such as the quadrille, which probably would translate into something like "square dance", but may not resemble what we know as square dancing (the instrumental component of traditional music, from Cape Breton, Scotland, Ireland, Quebec, or the Appalachian mountains was dance music before it was "listening" music, so a quadrille is a type of dance. Calling a tune a "quadrille" means it was meant to accompany the dance by the same name).

The songs, in my opinion, don't resemble songs in any of the traditions mentioned above in their feel. In modern recordings of the tunes, it is sometimes easy to hear the resemblence to the other traditions, and sometimes it would be impossible to mistake the Quebecois tradition for anything else. In older recordings of tunes, it would be hard for me to pick out what's Quebecois and what's Irish, Scottish, or any other tradition (though I've heard only a few old recordings in any of these styles). The experts say that in the Quebecois tradition the tunes are played with more syncopation (though there are other traditions in Canada with more, and more obvious, syncopation).

The fiddle by far is the most important instrument, followed closely by the accordion. Musical spoons and Jew's harp are frequently heard as well. One characteristic that sets the music apart, by and large, is the foot-stomping that accompanies most of their tunes (again, there are other traditions within Canada where foot-stomping is the primary rythmic accompaniment).

There is much more to the music than I know, or want to bother to explain in a simple blog post. Not only that, it's better to hear the music than to read about. So I will leave you with a few names so you can get a feel for it.

Probably the most popular group within Quebec is La Bottine Souriante, which I found out about through the CBC (hey, they're good for something!). They have been around for nearly 30 years now. Their early music is mostly traditional, though polished up, no doubt, for recording purposes (field recordings of the unpolished music might make you wonder why anyone even showed up to dance). In later years they added a horn section which definitely changes the feel of the music, but nevertheless the traditional character shines through. It would be worthwhile to catch a live show, not just for the thrill of live music, but also to see the dancing that usually accompanies the music. More than once, I've seen live concerts on TV, though only when I'm not looking for them. You can listen to three of their tracks on either of the French or English home pages. Hit the play button at the bottom right of the home page. You can also hear samples of tracks (no complete tracks though) from each of their albums by clicking on the album covers under the discography section.

Another group is Les Chauffeurs a Pieds. This name is intended as double entendre that, not being competent in French (the Summer Language Bursary Program was only of short term success), is lost on me. The name refers in part to the foot-stomping mentioned earlier. I can't remember the other half of the double entendre, nor do I remember from where I learned of this, so I can't look it up. You can download about 20 complete tracks, a few short samples, and one corrupted file (La Lombardie. I don't reccommend downloading this one for one obvious reason. For those who don't like classic Irish folk song Raitlin Bog, I don't reccommend listening to "Dans ce joli bois". After many listens, I have concluded that it is the French language equivalent of the Irish song (the tune and words are very different), though I still haven't fully understood the lyrics. ). I'm listening to them as I write. (Thanks to Steve Fruitman, host of the CIUT radio show Back to the Sugar Camp, for informing me of this group.)

Yet another group worth mentioning is Le Vent du Nord. I think the CBC can take credit for pointing me to this one too (though annoyingly, they can also take credit for talking to the group more than playing their music, confirming a well known and well worn right wing stereotype of CBC personalities). The band features a hurdy gurdy player, which, to the best of my knowledge, is not usually a component of traditional Quebecois music (it is in French music, so it's not unreasonable that it would be used here). Sadly you cannot hear any complete tracks at their site, only partial. The hurdy gurdy is instrument you hear at the beginning of the track "Les Amant do Saint-Laurent" under the Albums tab. Much to my dismay, I missed a performance of Le Vent du Nord when they appeared in Kingston a year or two ago. It doesn't look like they're going to appear here any time soon, if the calendar on their webpage is any indication.

I'm sure that these groups are only the tip of the iceberg of traditional Quebecois music, but it's a good start. I should also mention that this is probably only the tip of the iceberg in terms of traditional music in Canada. Wanting to learn more about the Quebecois music has prompted me to find out what goes on outside of Quebec. I have discovered that there are lots of musical traditions in Canada, some associated with provinces, some associated with regions, and some with particular cultures within Canada. Most of it is rooted in the European cultures associated with the two major colonizers of Canada, the British and the French. But it is not limited to those. This is a subject for another day, however.

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