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"La Piastre des États" from Le Vent du Nord
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"Petit rêve III" from Le Vent du Nord
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Le Vent du Nord, Dans les Airs A Baby Awakens in Quebec: The Wind Blows from the North with a Hurdy Gurdy, Accordion, and a Sack of Potatoes

Le Vent du Nord Reinvents Old Quebec on Latest Recording with Mouth Music, ‘Lazy Step Dancing,’ and Acadian Wit

Peek in a kitchen window on a Saturday night in some Quebec villages, and you’ll see French, Irish, and Native American roots intertwine. You’ll hear the sound of a land where instruments were once scarce, the mouth music and foot tapping that makes Quebecois music unique. You may glimpse a later arrival, too: the button accordion that an enterprising 19th-century potato company helped spread across rural Canada. And, of course, you’ll see locals singing their favorite songs, drinking, flirting, dancing, and doing what for centuries Quebecois have been famous for: having a contagiously good time.

Le Vent du Nord, a young quartet of singers and multi-instrumentalists, captures the energy and mirth of a Saturday night kitchen, infusing old Quebec with a breath of fresh, cosmopolitan air. Their latest album, Dans les airs, meshes old songs they learned from the forgotten songkeepers of French Canada—including a school janitor on Cape Breton—with their own reels and tunes inspired by family traditions and the sounds of Ireland, Scotland, and medieval France. It’s a Saturday night get-together with a gently modern twist.

The group began by chance, when a fire alarm in 2002 brought musicians Nicolas Boulerice and Olivier Demers out of their practice rooms at music school. Boulerice noticed Demers, fiddle in hand, and asked him if he knew any old tunes. Demers, now a performer for Cirque de Soleil when not playing fiddle and foot-tapping with Le Vent du Nord, answered yes, and Le Vent du Nord was born. They eventually joined up with Simon Beaudry, a multi-instrumentalist from one of Quebec’s most musical villages, and accordionist Réjean Brunet, who hails from a musical family in a small town near the U.S. border.  

Quebec’s musical traditions sprang from its wild and wooly history. The majority of French settlers who originally landed in New France, a territory that once extended as far south as Florida, came from France’s western provinces, from the Celtic Brittany south to Bordeaux. They spoke different dialects and had different musical traditions. They also had few instruments. Yet Quebec’s early farmers, lumberjacks, and trappers longed for relief from their often harsh lives. That’s where dances like the Saturday night kitchen parties came in, the only events of the sort sanctioned by the powerful Catholic authorities in Quebec.

“Because people loved to dance, they needed music,” explains Boulerice. “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 instrument deficit and mixing of Celtic and French traditions sparked another innovation, foot tapping. “Foot tapping is unique. It’s a way to do what the drum often does,” Boulerice notes. “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.” However it was the songs, often in the form of call and response, that dominated the dances.

Songs on Dans les airs like “Le veillée chez Poirier” reflect this fun-loving spirit perfectly. The nonsensical song from 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.”

Yet while the early Quebecois partied, other French Canadians created a vastly different repertoire. “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 hardday working with horses or working in the snow. It’s the same roots, just where you got off the boat differed,” Boulerice points out.

This old connection has been revived, thanks to an unusual friendship that developed between Le Vent du Nord and a young Acadian man named Robert Devaux. “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 proved to be a gold mine, and several 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.” Known for its bulk and temperamental tuning, the hurdy-gurdy can be quite a handful.

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.”