Québecois band Le Vent du Nord have been at the forefront of popularising the music of their homeland for over a decade. Nicolas Boulerice and Olivier Demers initially recorded an album Le Vent du Nord est Fret as a duo but they soon expanded to a four piece and took Le Vent du Nord as the band name for the first band album in 2002. There were a few personnel changes in the early years but current members Simon Beaudry and Réjean Brunet joined in 2004 and 2007 respectively and the line up has been stable ever since. They continue to tour worldwide, but profess to dislike being away from home base for more than two weeks at a time. So, as they favour short sharp tours, late July / early August found them packing 12 UK dates into as short a time as possible. Their storming performance at Wickham Festival gave Folk Radio the opportunity to chat with Nicolas (vocals, hurdy gurdy, piano and piano accordion) and Réjean (vocals, button accordion, acoustic bass guitar, piano and jaw harp).
They were quick to praise the Wickham audience describing them as the liveliest so far, not bad considering this was gig 11 out of 12, give yourselves a pat on the back, Wickham audience. Certainly, there had been no shortage of enthusiasm from a packed main stage tent. But that prompted an obvious question, was there anywhere that produced difficult audiences? They both agreed the oddest crowd they’d experienced was in the north of their home province where a predominantly Inuit audience largely appeared to ignore what was happening on stage. Rather, members of all generations sat around in family circles, a discrete distance away from the stage and not at all bothered about whether or not they faced the band. Subsequently, it seemed they did appreciate the music, it just wasn’t thought necessary to be demonstrative about it. Audiences in France could also be a bit restrained at times, perhaps, Nicolas mused, the French were just a little reluctant to embrace the music of a former colony. The great exception to this, of course, is Brittany, Bretons quite definitely being on the same wavelength.
The band’s dedication to the traditional music of Québec became clear from the start of our conversation. They feel they are mining a rich seam and that there is still much to be discovered. In fact, they stressed, their aim is for as much as possible of the traditional material they perform to be previously unrecorded. Nicolas was keen to expand on why there is such a wealth of traditional music available. Following the ceding by France of the northern portions of its American territories to Britain in 1763, the French speaking population was left largely without an aristocracy or even a substantial bourgeoisie. Yet a French speaking culture continued to develop, producing a true people’s music. In a similar situation to the UK, very little of the music of Québec was written down before the 1880’s. Prior to then it was almost entirely an oral tradition, but good public archives have now been developed and there are rich resources in the form of family song books still in private hands.
Not content with discovering and performing this traditional music, all the members of Le Vent du Nord are prolific song and tune smiths, they reckon that their sets are roughly 50/50 traditional and self-penned. They describe their way of working as “very democratic”. Whoever brings a song or tune to the table shares the idea and everyone else pitches in to develop the piece. But, at the end of the process, they still identify it as one person’s song.
So what are the elements of the band’s music that have ensured their popularity with British audiences? Instrumentally, there is a familiar Celtic flavour to some of their tunes, there’s been a couple of hundred years of assimilation between French, Irish and Scottish immigrants to Canada and its precursors that has ensured that jigs and reels in addition to more obviously French dances are well represented. But equally attractive, there is a freshness coming from the use of less familiar instruments. The most obvious is the hurdy gurdy, Nicolas’ speciality, and the jaw harp from Réjean. Vital to the overall sound is the use of both feet to tap out the sometimes complex rhythms of the tune, given the delightful name of podorythmie.
Song lyrics are, naturally, in French but the obvious problem this could create for English speaking audiences is neatly sidestepped by the often hilariously entertaining explanations, rarely translations, offered by the various band members. This humour and the clear enjoyment that the band derives from describing and then singing their songs contributes vastly to the Le Vent du Nord experience. Many of the songs, both traditional and band compositions, are cast in the call and response format very much at the core of the Québecois tradition but far less common, other than in work songs, over here. Whilst it might be asking a little too much of most British audiences to join in, this communal singing style generates a bond that engages both audience and performers.
It was a delight to watch this combination of musical virtuosity and great stage presence work its magic on the Wickham audience, who responded with absolute enthusiasm. A parting comment from Réjean about the music scene in Québec lingers in my mind, there are, he said, so many seriously good traditional musicians. Let’s hope that we get to see some more of them over here soon, or maybe I should book that Montréal holiday I’ve been promising myself.
Interview by: Johnny Whalley