You might say Pascal Gemme has a unique approach to tune-writing. One night while staying in a hotel in New Zealand, the Québécois fiddle player was tormented by the scratching of a possum on the roof. Feeling certain the possum was getting ready to overtake the room, Pascal began hooting and hollering, making all kinds of weird noises to scare off the critter. Finding the possum undeterred, he pulled out his instrument, serenading the creature with fiddle tunes late into the night. ‘La Grondeuse Opposum’ may have done nothing to frighten the animal, but it made an excellent start to Genticorum’s new release La Bibournoise.
Like jesters in the court, Genticorum approaches this album with fun and lightness. Like Québécois magicians, they pull the crookedest of tunes out of their tall black hat. Like old world storytellers, they spin tales of mischief and a few of heartbreak and lament. In short, this three-man band fills our ears with the best of it all, winding through the hallowed halls of traditional Québécois musicianship with a clever, spunky approach to rhythm, harmony, and arrangement. Though earnest and well-studied, they don’t take themselves too seriously. And with the unique combination of sounds and storytelling, and a band name that comes from a nonsensical word, neither can listeners.
Nonsense words in fact serve a very important function in the Québécois folk music tradition, explains Alex de Grosbois-Garand, the trio’s multifaceted flutist / bassist / fiddler / vocalist. The band’s name comes from a song about a young girl who has a crush on the man working for her father. As the story goes, she delivers a pigeon meat pie to the young man. Poetically, and using lots of nonsense words, the song describes how the two have so much fun eating the pie that it shakes the rocks under the sea—a euphemism for more adult content. “It’s a poetic way of saying things that would otherwise be too... explicit,” says Alex. “You really have to know the tradition to understand the meaning.” By weaving tales with nonsense words and insinuation—a literary predecessor to the modern-day bleep—it’s appropriate for all audiences. Until, Pascal remembers, upon hearing the song later in life, one says, “Oh, I get it!”
Genticorum goes for the unusual, the punch, the trick in the deck. For years, Pascal has visited legendary song collector Jean Paul Guimond, a seventy-year old Quebec singer, infamous for his ability to sing 800 different songs (and now is documenting them with a computer). Jean Paul is the kind of modern eccentric who bellows his evening woodstove fire with the help of an electric blow dryer, and when his attempt to make a good beer goes sour, just mixes in the store-bought brands to his liking. Jean Paul is Pascal’s obscurity barometer; when he wants to be sure a song is not well-known, he asks Jean Paul if he’s ever heard of it. It’s hard to get too many songs past this guy, but many on the album passed the obscurity test.
That includes a little-known chorus Pascal heard ten years ago, which now appears on the title track, “La Bibournoise,” (pronounced la be-bohr-NWAHZ). The song is an example of the group’s outstanding arranging ability. Many songs in this tradition evolve over time, and the same song may exist with dozens of different choruses and melodies. Pascal loved this obscure chorus, but felt the song with which it was associated was too standard to bring into their repertoire. It’s a well-known piece that tells the story of a woman who goes to a fountain and falls in. Eventually, Pascal found some unrelated verses in a book of collected songs and used them, along with this chorus, and some new original lyrics to create this song. Through such intricate song weaving, Genticorum has taken up the Québécois tradition, creating new songs out of the threads of old ones.
They are a power trio in the best sense of the word. Each member of the group is very versatile—Pascal on fiddle, foot stomping, and vocals, Alex on wooden flute, bass, fiddle, and vocals, and rounding out the group, Yann Falquet on guitar, jaw harp, and vocals. With the different combinations of instruments, one might wonder if it’s the same group from one song to the next. Their unique blend of timbres, and surprising vocal harmonies, has given them an edge of popularity not only in their hometown, but in festivals and venues worldwide.
The band does entertain and entrance, and are particularly interested in finding the funny side of life through their songs. “Les Culottes de V’lour” from the new album tells the story of a young wife who is having an affair while her sailor husband is out at sea. The husband returns earlier than expected, while the new lover is in her bed. The sailor knocks on the door, and the lover jumps naked into a dark corner of the room. The husband, both tired and happy to see his wife, gets undressed and gets in bed with her. The wife, now in a difficult position, tells her husband that she is very ill and asks him to go immediately to the potion maker. The naïve husband goes, and when he’s about to pay he realizes that he is wearing the lover’s velvet pants, filled with gold coins and a gold watch. He goes to the tavern, drinks himself silly, and in the morning asks the town bell-ringer to make an announcement regarding the owner of the pants, so that he can properly return them. Of course the wife comes with all kinds of excuses, but in the end the husband uses the French cliché ‘you had me wear the horns’ (you cheated on me), and claims the pants and the gold as his own as repentance.
On “Le Moine Blanc,” a monk’s secret lover covers her face with black ink, thinking it is a bottle of perfume in the dark. When the monk enters his room, he sees a creature dripping in black and calls for help from the other monks. When they finally catch her, and reveal a beautiful naked woman, the monk is punished for his misdeeds.
Another trick up their sleeve is the use of uncommon meters or ‘crooked time’—songs that don’t fit evenly in the usual 4/4 or 3/4 structure, adding a beat here and there. While these rhythmic surprises are humorously and strongly rooted in tradition, Genticorum is especially partial to their use. “Hommage à André Alain” is a nice ‘rare’ example of this crooked rhythmical approach, as Pascal explains, analogous to how well a steak is cooked (or not). The song’s namesake, André Alain, is a fiddler known for popularizing this style. Some trends, such as ‘5,4,3’ tunes, have emerged in the last fifteen years from the insistence of step-dancers looking for something more challenging to jig to. Another type of tune called grondeuse—meaning ‘growler,’ perhaps for the response of the audience, or the tough skill required of the musicians—switches between 3/4 and 2/4 meters.
And if all that isn’t enough to keep you guessing, there is much more to be enjoyed in the mastery of these three musicians. The Québécois sound of the album is a fascinating and enjoyable collection of tunes that seem to segue easily from one to the other, despite their crooked timing and soap opera themes. Possums and monks, beware.