Back in 1759 when the British finally conquered New France, one of the things they did to ensure the loyalty of the French population of Quebec was pass legislation protecting their rights of language, religion, civil law, and education. What this did was ensure the survival of French Canadian culture as a distinct society within the rest of Canada.
Aside from ensuring that French Canadians in Quebec, and later the rest of Canada, would have their language rights protected, it also made certain that the musical traditions they had brought over with them from France survived as well. The majority of settlers in New France had come from the Normandy and Breton areas of France, so the music had a distinct Celtic feel to it, similar to the music of Scotland and Ireland, but with its own unique flavor.
While the music was played mainly in rural areas in the late 1960s and early 1970s part of the nationalist movement that swept Quebec included a revived interest among young people in traditional music. You could hear that influence in the work of pop groups at the time; Harmonium and Beaux Dommages from Quebec, and from Ontario, Collective Artistic Nord Ontario (CANO). Like the English bands Renaissance and Fairport Convention, they utilized traditional folk tunes and conventions in a pop setting.
Today the interest in the traditional folk music remains strong among musicians in Quebec and one of the newer groups performing the reels and revels of their fore bearers are Le Vent du Nord, who have just released their third CD Dans Les Airs on the Borealis Records label. The band was formed in 2002 and has quickly garnered a reputation as one of the best traditional acts in the folk music community. In 2004 their first CD won the Canadian music award, the Juno, for traditional album of the year, and in 2005 they were named traditional artist of the year in Austin Texas.
Like other Celtic groups from around the world that perform the music of their community, the musicians of Le Vent du Nord (The Wind Of The North) perform on instruments that are as authentic as possible to the region. These include instruments most of us are familiar with; guitar, violin, accordion, and squeeze box, and one we may not have heard before – a viellie a roue, or hurdy gurdy. The only references to hurdy gurdies that I've ever come across before had been the Donavon song "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and street vendors with dancing monkeys. I had always considered it to be along the lines of a player piano in that you couldn't actually play the instrument – but turned the crank so it could play a scripted piece of music.
Although the hurdy gurdy is a stringed instrument it actually sounds more like a set of bagpipes. When the player turns the crank it in turn causes a wooden wheel to rotate and rub against a set of strings similar in action to that of a violin bow. Instead of fingering the strings for notes, the musician uses a key mechanism. The droning sound that we associate with pipes is produced by four additional strings sounding individual notes continuously as a backdrop for the melody. Some hurdy gurdies also have sympathetic strings, which while not actively played, resonate with the instrument as it's played.
Now, I have to tell you that I've never been much of a fan of straight traditional Quebecois music as I've heard it played in the past. Reels and other fiddle music that are normally associated with square dances usually end up boring me to tears. It turns out that while the barn dance may have been one of the mainstays of rural life in Quebec, it isn't the only type of music that was played. Either that or the four men in Le Vent Du Nord have the talent to make the reels and hornpipes that used to turn into an irritating drone on par with the sound of a mosquito after a couple of songs, a lot more interesting then anyone else has in the past.
Even though a number of the songs on the Dans Les Airs are ones that have been handed down to the group from previous generations, they sound as fresh and interesting as if they've been written this year. Of course, some of their material is original, "Petit Reve lll" for example, or traditional lyrics adapted to the new tune. "Les Larmes Aux Yeux" uses lyrics from a song that one of the band member's grandfather used to sing to him as a child and sets them to a tune of the band's composition in honour of one of their children finally falling asleep.
If you're like me and your French language skills are minimal to non-existent, the meaning of the lyrics are going to be lost on you, and your enjoyment will come from listening to the sound of the voices and the instruments working together to make music. In the past I think this has been why traditional Quebecois music, or any similar barn dance style music, has failed to sustain my interest; the lack of variety in tone. That's not the case with the music of Le Vent Du Nord as they not only create lovely vocal harmonies, but each song has it's own unique identity instead of being simply another reel that sounds like the previous reel.
Dans Les Airs by Le Vent Du Nord is a fine example of how traditional music does not need to be stuck in the past but can continue to grow and evolve. Traditions can be a trap that hold us in place if they refuse to change, but if every generation is allowed to breathe new life into them they are renewed and invigorated. Le Vent Du Nord is a north wind blowing new life into the traditional music of Quebec and keeping it alive for us to enjoy today