(For Sing Out! magazine) I suspect that the Quebecois band Le Vent du Nord is unfamiliar to many in the English-speaking world. Which is too bad, because they are exceptionally skilled, exceptionally experienced, and exceptionally entertaining.
Since they formed in 2002, the band has been breathing new life into the traditional music of Quebec, often taking up some of the most traditional songs you could ever hope to find there. On their 2005 release, Les Amants du Saint-Laurent, they begin with the title track which, musically, is as much a statement about music historically in Quebec as it is about the band itself. The piece begins with the instruments that the Habitants would have played: a button box accordion, a mouth harp, a bodhran. As the piece advances, it’s like we’re coming forward in time, ultimately to electric instruments. It’s about the past, and it’s about the present, too. And it’s kind of thrilling the way it all plays out.
As there, this new album, Têtu, digs deep into the tradition and, again, it is presented as modern and vital. There’s a hurdy gurdy in here, and a mouth harp, and fiddles. There’s also a masterful approach to arrangement. “Petit reve IX” begins in a very traditional vein yet then expands to include complex harmonies, and a very rich, full arrangement that draws connections to the classical music of Europe. “La march des Iroquois/Papineau” does the same, though in a different way. Men’s voices in a drone harmony, singing non-sense syllables, accompanied by a bhodran. It sounds like a historical piece, something that might be sung over a round in a bar somewhere on the periphery of polite society. But then the harmonies grow, as does the counterpart, and you know that you’re here, now.
This is music that benefits from close listening, and a repeated listening. There’s something just, well, thrilling in the off-chords in a “D’ouest en est,” and the piano accompaniment, on that departs from the one/three accents we associate with eastern Canadian folk music, accenting rather in the way that a jazz pianist does. “Amant volage,” too, brings a jazz tradition to the music, yet in a wonderfully sympathetic way. The musicians here are not interested in building walls around the music they cherish, and they also are clear to locate themselves within the context of North American music today.
One of the things that I love about this recording, as with all the recordings that Le Vent du Nord have done, is that they clearly identify their audience as francophone. They are making this music for their community, and perhaps not thinking of the larger world of north American music, or the music industry that supports it. The notes are all in French, the only exception being a sentence or two describing each song in English. These descriptions are like found poetry, and can be as enigmatic as the capsule descriptions that Harry Smith wrote for the liner notes of his Anthology of American Folk Music. The description of “Chaise ardent,” on of the traditional tunes included here, reads, “Extreme curiosity drives the character to hell, literally, to see what has become of his lover.” The description of “Papineau” reads “After the Patriot’s War, an author took the liberty of changing the characters, probably to free himself of a political obsession.”
It sounds like curation, in a way, yet there’s always a wink or a nod or a bit of wisdom. The description of “Confédération” reads “A song about North-American French speakers who can often be forgetful. Perhaps they don’t recall their own existence.” Truly, that’s a message to us all. Le Vent du Nord reminds us that North America is perhaps a bigger, richer place than we my typically give it credit for.