Quebec's Belzébuth dances with the devil

You won't get far into traditional Québécois culture without tripping over the tail of the devil. Le yab, as he's popularly known, is lurking everywhere—in songs, jokes, stories, and legends.

One group of young folk musicians has decided to embrace the prince of darkness wholeheartedly. Belzébuth—the French variant of Beelzebub—takes its name from one of Old Nick's many monikers, and its debut album is titled Les Péchés du Diable, which translates as “the devil's sins”. The cover features the black silhouette of a horned-and-winged demon with a violin in hand.

“People outside of Quebec often think we're satanic in some way, but that's not how it is at all,” explains Jean-Benoí®t Landry, Belzébuth's frontman, on the line from his home in the Lanaudií¨re region outside of Montreal. “We pick up on his [the devil's] folkloric aspect, which is usually more comic than sinister. The legend that inspires us in particular is one where he appears at a house party as a mysterious visitor, disguised with a big hat, and starts playing fiddle.

“He's such a fantastic musician that everyone starts dancing wildly, especially the young women,” continues Landry, a fiddler himself, in addition to being Belzébuth's percussionist and lead singer. “You can imagine the rest. That's the devil we relate to—the one who adds something boisterous to the evening or, as we say in French, qui endiable la veillée.”

One summer's night in July 2005, I caught Landry and Belzébuth setting fire to an audience of mad dancers at an outdoor festival in their home region of Lanaudií¨re. The band joins the long list of great traditional musicians and groups who've sprung from the area in and around the town of Joliette—including La Bottine Souriante, La Volée de Castors, and Yves Lambert.

“Lanaudií¨re is one of the cradles of Québécois music, and the tradition is very much alive here,” says Landry. “During the Christmas holidays, you can find folk bands in several bars in Joliette on the same night, and there are weekly jam sessions like in Irish pubs.”

In the 19th century, many immigrant families from Ireland settled in the region, bringing their music with them. The instrumental tunes from Lanaudií¨re are often the same as those you'd hear at a Sunday session in County Clare—but given French names and a distinctive Québécois swing. As for the songs, the band draws mainly on texts found in collections and archives, and those inherited from family elders. One of Les Péchés du Diable's many highlights is “Le Pí¨re la Débauche” (“the father of the debauchery”), a lively song learned from Landry's grandfather.

“There are many singers in my family, and at our gatherings everyone would do ”˜their' song,” Landry recalls. “Some people like my grandfather had many, and ”˜Le Pí¨re La Débauche' was one associated with him. I'm particularly proud of it because I've never come across a version anywhere else. The song highlights, shall we say, the cheeky side of what people got up to in the old days.”

Belzébuth performs at Coquitlam's Blue Mountain Park on Saturday and Sunday (March 3 and 4) as part of the Festival du Bois.