French Canadian Laments and Parties

Le Vent du Nord

Dans les Airs (Borealis, 2008)

Canadian Le Vent du Nord from Quebec plays cheerful music that amalgamates the folk sounds of Quebec, Acadia, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Celtic tunes from the British isles and Medieval France. On their latest album, Dans les Airs, tradition and modernity are mixed, using alluring new arrangements which include contemporary Celtic, new acoustic and jazz influences.

The four remarkable multi-instrumentalists and vocalists use fiddle,  foot tapping, hurdy gurdy (a medieval instrument that is experiencing a strong comeback in France and Spain), accordions and bass. “Foot tapping is unique. It’s a way to do what the drum often does,” explains Nicolas Boulerice, who plays hurdy gurdy, piano and accordion. “In the kitchen, if everyone wants to dance, you have to keep the rhythm somehow. It’s sort of like lazy step dancing, sitting in a chair because of the limited space."

Le Vent du Nord learned many of the nearly forgotten songs of French-speaking Canada and mixed them with their own stimulating material. “Because people loved to dance, they needed music,” Boulerice notes. “They didn’t have a lot of fiddles or flutes, so they did what was called ‘turlutte’ instead, which is like mouth music. It comes from the tu tu tu of the flute.”

The musicians discuss the songs on Dans les Airs:

The nonsensical song “Le veillée chez Poirier”, from guitarist Simon Beaudry’s family recounts the odd flirtations and conversations of a partygoer and a confusing gaggle of women. “It sounds very modern, even though it’s a very traditional song. The guy is at a Saturday party in someone’s kitchen and he’s drunk, and he changes women with each chorus and we don’t really know why.” Boulerice explains. “We’re still trying to figure out what it’s about.”

The colonial wars between the British and the French had a significant effect. “The Acadians on Cape Breton were deported by the British. So they still have very beautiful laments, historical songs. In Quebec, we keep the happier side of the tradition. We had a lot of lumberjacks who sang call-and-response songs to be able to laugh and party at the end of a hard day working with horses or working in the snow. It’s the same roots, just where you got off the boat differed,” Boulerice points out.

An unusual friendship that developed between Le Vent du Nord and a young Acadian man named Robert Devaux revived the Quebecois-Acadian connection. “We played in Cape Breton many times at festivals, and each time we met up with Robert, we would sing songs for hours and hours,” Boulerice laughs. “He’s the only guy who can hold a whole conversation through songs. He works at a school as a janitor and sings all the time. He knows thousands of songs from his family.” To thank Devaux, Boulerice sent him a CD of several of his grandmother’s songs. Soon, Devaux began sending back songs from his village, which has proudly maintained its French heritage.

These bittersweet songs ended up on Dans les airs. “Rosette” chronicles a humorous but mournful conversation between two lovers, thwarted by the man’s lack of means. The sadness of the situation is tempered by wit in typical Acadian style: When the woman chides him for being too poor to buy her a ring, he offers to give her an air ring, one that will never hurt her finger. “Le vieux cheval” is a monologue of a man trying to comfort his aging horse. He reminds the long-suffering beast that soon he won’t have to pull a cart or do hard work anymore. He consoles the horse, but then tells the animal he is poor and is going to kill him and eat him. This tension between laughter and tears in many ways sets Acadian songs apart from Quebecois.

While songs predominated, Canada’s French settlers also built their own instruments or adopted them from their Native American neighbors. Drums, for instance, began to appear at kitchen dances, as Iroquois and other indigenous people intermarried with French newcomers. New France’s settlers also made a few fiddles and even a hurdy-gurdy from local wood.

The hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument with a rotating wheel that acts as a constant bow, was common in France but a rarity in North America. Le Vent du Nord has begun to change that. “We love to dig around the very old French roots of our traditions,” Boulerice recounts. “That’s why we use the hurdy-gurdy. It’s a French instrument, not Quebecois. But it adds something special.”

Boulerice built his first hurdy-gurdy himself, but had a hard time fitting the entire thing in a case without removing the crank that turns the wheel. This had comic consequences, Boulerice relates: “Once, I was invited by some people living several hours away to come and play hurdy-gurdy. I drove all the way there, opened the case, and everyone was saying, ‘Wow, what a great instrument!’ But then I started looking around for the crank and couldn’t find it. I had left it at home! They still make fun of me for that!” Now, Boulerice has what he call the “Rolls Royce” of hurdy-gurdies, and things are a lot simpler. Nonetheless, sometimes even the best hurdy-gurdy has a rough day, as proven by a recent concert in Montreal in sub-zero temperatures. “I could not keep it in tune. That day was a bit hard on the instrument,” Boulerice chuckles, who vows not to repeat that experience.

While Le Vent du Nord breaks new ground by adding hurdy-gurdy, it keeps another instrumental traditional alive, albeit a newer one: the diatonic button accordion. These instruments became easy to mass produce starting in the 1800s and were all the rage around Quebec. But they only became truly ubiquitous once a company selling potatoes launched a clever advertising scheme: “If you bought potatoes in bulk from this company,” Boulerice explains, “they would give you an accordion. So everyone had one.” The squeezeboxes remain popular to this day from Acadia and Quebec down to Louisiana Cajun country.

Le Vent du Nord uses this embarrassment of musical riches freely, taking songs and extending them with newly composed reels, or using old texts, some handed down from family members, to craft new songs. “My grandfather wrote the lyrics to ‘Les larmes aux yeux’”—also on “ Dans les Airs”—“but I couldn’t remember the melody. I had a new baby who was crying all the time and I wanted to play music, but he was always crying. So I told him, just let me work on this song. And he fell asleep on my lap while I was at the piano, as I composed a new melody. Two hours later, when the baby awoke, the song was done. The baby inspired the music.”

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