As Americans get ready to celebrate the Fourth of July, many of our neighbors to the north are also observing a major historical event: This weekend marks the anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's founding of Quebec City on July 3, 1608. At 400, the picturesque Canadian city is one of the oldest in North America, and a yearlong celebration of Quebecois culture is in full swing through October.
Participating in that celebration is a band dedicated to preserving and sharing the musical heritage of francophone Canada: Le Vent du Nord (literally, "wind from the north"). All four of the band's musicians come from musical families, sing and have mastered such instruments as guitar, mandolin, fiddle, piano, accordion, acoustic bass, hurdy-gurdy and foot-tapping board. The group's new CD, Dans les airs, features songs — some more than 400 years old — from Quebec and Acadia, the name given to certain areas along the northeastern coast of America.
Because some of the songs they perform arrived on these shores with early French settlers and date back even more than 400 years, the group is sort of a collector of musical "antiques," preserving and introducing unusual material that has not yet been discovered or recorded, says hurdy-gurdy player Nicolas Boulerice.
"A lot of people call us guardians of the tradition," Boulerice says. "The old people want to know if you are respectful, if you sing those songs in the way of the tradition."
"We don't change the melody or lyrics much, or even the way the old people were playing it — this is its magic," adds fiddler Olivier Demers. "We want to keep the real soul of the fiddle tune." Demers also likes to point out that a lot of this music is not solely French, but a unique blend of French, Irish and Native American influences, with occasional flavoring from the U.S.
The band looks for antique musical gems wherever they go. When they heard about a "very good singer" living in the farming village of St. Guillaume, a short distance from Montreal, they knocked on the nearly 90-year-old singer's door, introduced themselves as musicians, and spent the evening in the kitchen — drinking, singing, and learning some of the precious old songs, such as "La beauté du mariage."
Traditional Quebecois percussion consists of foot-tapping on a special board. Le Vent du Nord's foot-tapper, Demers, explains that it originated in their ancestors' farmhouse kitchens. Saturday evenings were a highlight for the families, many of which had 15 to 20 children.
"Probably there was one fiddle player in every village. Sometimes they put the fiddler on a chair, and put the chair on a table in the middle of the kitchen, because it was the largest room in the house. People would dance around the table while the fiddler played and tapped his feet to keep time for dancing."
Some French songs survive in Canada long after they have been forgotten in France, such as "La fille et les dragons," a song about a young woman who leaves home to live with three dragons (a "dragon" here is not the mythical beast, but a knight or soldier). When her parents come looking for her she tells them, "one brushes my hair, the other one cleans my house, and I'm sitting on the knee of the third one. I'm very happy and don't want to return [home]."
In this song you can hear a kind of French Canadian "scat" singing — called turlutte, in imitation of the flute, which was very popular. It's also called "mouth music," or "mouth reel," and is found in the Celtic tradition as well.
"It's also a way to express joy without anything [without an instrument], and everyone can do it," says Demers. "At that time, with not enough to eat and big families for working in the fields, the early settlers had a hard life. But they had their passion and their joy and the desire to survive. Without any fiddle, without anything, they got together to make this beautiful place called Quebec." And this beautiful music that has survived.