Le Vent du Nord:
the French-Celtic connection

An interview with Benoit Bourque,
October 2004

Following hard on the heels of the Celtic music resurgence, French-Canadian music is making more and more people sit up and take notice -- or, as is often the case, stand up and dance wildly about the room.

Le Vent du Nord (The Northern Wind) is a Quebecois band that certainly grabs your attention by the short-hairs and refuses to let go. During a series of performances at Celtic Colours 2004, the group was an obvious crowd favorite -- and the connections between the Celtic and French-Canadian styles of music were a topic of considerable interest.

Benoit Bourque, the band's accordion player and a deceptively light-footed stepdancer despite his bearish size, sat down in the Festival Club's green room to help sort it all out. He's certainly eager to see the distinctive sound of his and similar bands spread beyond the boundaries of Canada, where the style developed among French immigrants who interacted with and were heavily influenced by the music of neighboring Scots-Irish settlers. In Cape Breton, for instance, the Acadian colonists had ample exposure to transplanted Scottish music before being driven out during the French & Indian War; drifting south along the Mississippi River, many of them resettled at its mouth and became known as Cajuns, where their music still thrives today.

Benoit has seen the French sound thrive during his time in this and other Quebecois bands. "Since I started at this years, years, years ago, Cajun has become a very popular kind of music in the folk milieu," he said. The style is very big among English-speaking people despite being sung in French, he noted. "Since the '90s, there is a very strong interest in the folk style. Now, people know what Quebecois music is -- or French-Canadian, as many people know it."

Because Quebecois songs are typically sung in French, there is a communication barrier between the musicians and a great many potential listeners. "But it's also a good way to keep our culture true to our culture," Benoit said. For instance, New Brunswick's traditional music has been greatly influenced by American bluegrass because of the English-speaking connection.

A defining trait of French-Canadian music is the rapid-fire foot percussion that drives the beat. The Scots-Irish traditions don't have anything quite so vigorous, Benoit said. He spent some time trying to find its origins, and finally found an old musette (pipe) player in France who was tapping out a similar, if slower, three-beat rhythm in his music. That, Benoit said, could be the source of the signature North American style. "I think when they moved to the New World, they adapted that tradition. It's the easiest way to synchronize the music and the dancers."

Dance is a vital part of French-Canadian culture, he said, and a strong rhythm is necessary. "It's so important that, in some areas, the fiddler puts his chair on a table so (the foot percussion) is even louder."

Despite some residual similarities, the music of France is in many ways dramatically different from its western cousin. Of course, the Celtic influence that has so radically altered French-Canadian styles has entered France through Irish settlements in Brittany and post-Famine immigrants.

The reel is the primary form of French-Canadian dance style, and a fair number of Irish jigs have been converted from 6/8 to 4/4 for that purpose. Also, Benoit said, Irish and Cajun musicians use many of the same instruments, although in French-Canadian music, the piano is more common than the newer guitar. And, while the genre makes ample use of instruments these and other instruments, such as the accordion and harmonica, the fiddle remains the primary focus.

"For years, the fiddler was the only musician for dancing," Benoit said.

Another contrast between Irish and Quebecois music is the use of ornamentation, he added. Where Irish emphasize the tricks and twiddles, Quebecois music prefers a strong "basic groove."

"It's like Irish music with some spice of joie de vivre," he said. Relationships likewise can be drawn between Quebecois music and Acadian music from the Maritimes and American old-time music.

Starting with Eritage in the 1970s, Benoit is possibly known best so far for his work with the French-Canadian trio Matapat. That band split after two successful albums because "we just had a different vision of the future."

He had already met Nicolas Boulerice (piano, hurdy-gurdy) and Olivier Demers (fiddle) in Vancouver and wanted desperately to work with them, he said, but unfortunately they were already members of another group. In a timely twist, just two hours after telling his wife about the pair, Benoit got a phone call from Olivier. "He told me they were quitting the trio. They were moving to my town -- to the same street, maybe a mile and a half away -- and were living in my friend's apartment. It was like destiny." Simon Beaudry (guitar, vocals) was a later addition, replacing original guitarist Bernard Simard.

The musicians played together that summer (July 2002) at Benoit's oldest daughter's wedding, although they didn't officially start working as a band until that September. Their first album, released in 2003, won a Juno, the Canadian music award for roots and traditional album of the year.

"The mix is really magical between us," Benoit said. "Both the personalities and the instruments."

The magic is necessary in a tradition that's all about "performing, impressing, sharing and enjoying the music," he said. "It's a very passionate tradition."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 30 October 2004

[ visit the band's website ]