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Sample Track 1:
"Lanlaire" from La Part Du Feu
Sample Track 2:
"Octobre 1837" from La Part Du Feu
Sample Track 3:
"Petit Reve V" from La Part Du Feu
Sample Track 4:
"Mamzelle Kenedy" from La Part Du Feu
Layer 2
Le Vent du Nord, La Part du Feu (Borealis Records) Windswept Traditions, Québécois Revolution, and Historical Sojourns Made New: Le Vent du Nord Has One Foot in the Past While Winking at the Future

As the powerful wind whips across the Canadian landscape it brushes away layers of debris to reveal gems once buried and thought to be lost in the past, while it simultaneously fans the flames of innovation. Québec’s Le Vent du Nord (The Wind of the North) has rewritten a transatlantic francophone story of discovery and loss seeking to uncover their heritage while sailing along new paths of artistic discovery.

The title of their latest album La Part du Feu (November 3, 2009; Borealis Records) hints at this dual objective, coming from an old French proverb which states that one must give to the fire its share, or forfeit something in order to build our collective future. Without sacrificing the integrity of their heritage, the group uses the kindling of the past to produce a hotbed of creativity. By welding a wealth of musical genres into a seamless artistic statement, the band successfully lights their way forward. The members of this ensemble have a keen sense of their local history, seeking to recover, restore, and reinvigorate Canada’s deep musical roots, so that they may blossom once again in a modern setting.

“Through traditional songs we discover pieces of our history,” says founding member, pianist, accordionist, and hurdy-gurdy player Nicolas Boulerice. “The songs provide direct contact with a moment from long ago, showing us what life was like at that time.” Accordionist Réjean Brunet adds, “On this record we wanted to put a spotlight on the texts of the songs to bring out their stories. We wanted to show that this music is not just for parties, but can also tell us about who we are as Québécois.”   

“Octobre 1837,” for instance, recounts a French uprising against British rule, which Boulerice explains was a democratic movement and a patriotic revolution. “Because of it,” he adds, “a lot of things changed here in Canada. It altered the way the French saw themselves, and their relationship to the British.” This song was inspired by Boulerice’s personal connection with this historical event. After one of the revolutionary battles, some of the soldiers returned from the nearby river to stay at the house in which Boulerice currently resides. Boulerice sees this track as a way to remind people about the significance of this event, and to “sing the courage of the men who changed the world and helped our nation find its place under the sun and assert its differences.” Quoting the renowned leader of the Patriot movement, Louis-Joseph Papineau, the liner notes acknowledge that when it comes to reforming our world, “songs can do as much as cannonballs or swords.”   

Le Vent du Nord digs deep and expends great effort in their relentless quest to recover the past. Their attentive journeys into various traditions give their music a profound historical weight and accuracy. The album benefits from manager Genevieve Nadeau’s many hours of research in the Archives de Folklore de l’Université Laval, Québec in Québec, as well as her passion for collecting traditional Canadian music. Although, as the band puts it, she likes to “hide” her favorite finds in her files to sing herself one day, the group was able to “steal” one, called “Les Métiers.” On the album, the tune was blended with another gem whose story includes an old railroad track, a remote house, and a clever Google search.

One day, an eighty-year old man sent Olivier Demers, the band’s violinist, a cassette of his French Canadian father, Sam Jalbert, playing harmonica. Demers knew the elderly son Maynard lived in Maine, but there was no phone number attached to the package.  The band wanted to locate this man to gather more information about his musician father. The letter with the cassette mentioned a train passing overhead as the recording was made, so Demers looked on Google maps and found a little town in northern Maine, close to Québec, where train tracks ran through. He located a house and called the number, reaching the man on his first attempt. Demers spent hours talking to him about the music’s history. This is part of the band’s modus operandi: Even when a treasure falls into their laps, it is not enough to glorify it in song. They must learn its history and understand it inside and out. “So again we stole someone else’s song,” jokes Boulerice. “It’s basically what we try to do.”

The band also went to great lengths to recover the lyrics for the track “Elise.” Boulerice had a recording of the song, but the quality was so poor he could not discern the lyrics. The Acadian repertoire belongs to the descendents of French settlers of Canada’s northwestern regions and can sometimes be re-created with surviving versions in France, Ireland, and other regions of Canada. With the help of his friend Charles Quimbert, a Breton singer who visited Canada in 2008, Boulerice recalled that, “after two days of drinking and jamming in my house we were finally able to restore his memory and the lyrics of the tune.”   

While carefully reconstructing musical traditions and recounting the history of their nation, Le Vent du Nord gusts in uncharted directions, leaving innovative sonic landscapes in its wake. “We wanted to do something different from the outset of this album, but we didn’t quite know what that would be,” says Brunet. “We wanted the music to be based on traditions but also open to any kind of arrangements,” adds Boulerice. “We were looking for new sounds.” On the track “La Mine,” he continues, “Simon Beaudry, our guitarist, was looking for another sound. I suggested he play his bouzouki with a metal slide.” The result produces a bluesy cry that captures the pensive beauty and melancholy of this song. The song, adapted from a field recording, tells of a mine explosion in 1891 in New Brunswick that left a community desperate for answers and crying to God. In Le Vent du Nord’s delivery, this song, in the character of a continental dirge, stands as a memorial to lives lost and ruined, yet wanders in questions under a cowboy starry sky.

Further plotting new ground, the band gently experiments with pedals and digital effects on this album, modifying certain sounds to meld a touch of modernity with various traditional elements. “Rossingnolet,” for instance, features a hauntingly dark legato vocal duet laid over an eerie, echoing, reverberous soundscape. This droning backdrop was a creation of the audio engineer, who cleverly modified the musicians’ acoustic performances of bass, fiddle, and hurdy-gurdy. A fellow folksinger left a cryptic snippet of this tune on Nicolas’ answering machine with the message “I am sure it would be nice with your voice.” That led Le Vent du Nord on a hunt through old songbooks to find more relics of “Rossignolet,” a ballad of husband-cide by poison that they pieced together from a dozen Acadian sources.

The quartet further expands their sound with guest collaborations. Fusing gypsy and Dixieland jazz with Québécois charm, the energetic upbeat “Montcalm” features the Montreal-based brass ensemble known as Grüv ‘N’ Brass. Le Vent du Nord had come into contact with them last summer at a festival to celebrate Québec’s 400th anniversary. The concert was held in Brouage (France), the town where Champlain had set off across the Atlantic to found New France (a colony that included Newfoundland, Acadia, and Louisiana). Aware of this historical significance, the group had a chance to “close the loop” between France and North America. While this arrangement explores new sonic areas for Le Vent du Nord, the danceable “Montcalm” was originally a strange and violent victory song written by a soldier in 1758 in a letter to his mother shortly after the victory at the Battle of Carillon in 1758. This track encapsulates the bands’ overall artistic philosophy as their sweeping sonic breeze rescues numerous traditions from becoming dusty relics, simultaneously breathing new life into historical treasures.

Le Vent du Nord handles parallel traditions with an incredible facility. They take themes from estranged cousins of musical culture and reunite them in sanguine harmony. The group sails across the Atlantic, both on tour and in their music, tying French enclaves and songwriters over four centuries into a polyphonic common history. These songs crossed the ocean once, and Le Vent du Nord takes them back again, bringing us along for the discovery, for the fight, for the voices of people who once made poetry.

With this latest offering, Le Vent du Nord “blows open a different door,” Boulerice remarks. “It is as though we have one foot in the beginnings of our nation, but are winking at the future.”

<< release: 11/03/09 >>