Traditions are often thought of as things frozen in time and space, but with a living tradition—like French-Canadian folk music—that’s never the case.
Across the country the old airs and songs are being reshaped in a multitude of ways. That’s definitely the case with two innovative Quebec acts performing at this year’s Festival du Bois: singer Mélisande and her touring quartet, and the trio Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs (the Big Howlers).
“We started our project to make trad music but while venturing beyond the well-beaten tracks,” says Pellerin, calling from Saint-Élie-de-Caxton, Quebec. “I’ve been playing folk a long time—I know the sources and the roots. The first stage of renewing or modernizing a genre is to understand it in depth. I was even a purist in the beginning. However, knowing and respecting where the music came from, we gave ourselves freedom to do what we liked with the arrangements.”
Pellerin and the Grands Hurleurs have achieved the rare feat of bagging a Félix award—francophone Canada’s Juno equivalent—for each of their albums. Their latest, ¾ Fort, strikes a fine balance between old and new approaches to tradition.
The brief nonsense-type song “Pis C’était” gets a heavy contemporary treatment. “We wanted one tune that was electro and a bit trashy, and I thought of that piece with its very repetitive rhythm—sung slowly. In the studio I brought in big garage chains that I dropped, which make the crashing sound, and a metal garbage can with its lid removed and a cymbal placed on top. Tap on the sides and the cymbal shakes and vibrates, which creates a brash, aggressive sound.“
Pellerin isn’t limited to traditions from Quebec, and is inspired by the music of Brittany, western France’s Celtic region. On ¾ Fort, three songs come from there.
“We’ve done tours in Brittany,” Pellerin explains, “and after one show a lady sang me some really beautiful songs I’d never heard.” They include the galloping, percussive opener, “Entre la Rivière et le Bois”, and the final track, “Fleur de Lison”, which Pellerin has slowed down, highlighting his compelling and penetrating voice. “It was a dance tune, much brisker and lighter. I was having a beer after the show and had my elbow on the bar, when she came up and sang the songs. It was almost surrealistic.”
Singer and guitarist Mélisande comes from a different background—contemporary pop, rock, and French chanson. Her husband and musical partner, Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand, is, like Pellerin, steeped in traditional music, and long played flute and electric bass in the trio Genticorum.
“Our intention since the first album, Les Métamorphoses , is to bring together our two worlds,” says Mélisande, reached in Montreal. “We thought it would be an interesting project to take trad music somewhere else, where it hasn’t been before. It’s based on songs only—no instrumental pieces, unlike with most bands playing Québécois folk, which mix the two.”
Last year, Mélisande obtained an award from the U.S. Library of Congress to search its francophone archives for songs. She and de Grosbois-Garand also did research at the Canadian Museum of History and the archives of Laval University for her second album, released a month ago.
“We had the idea of calling it Les Millésimes [The Vintages], and giving each song the date when the version that inspired us was first sung. Just like great wines, good songs improve with age. Most of the tracks relate to wine, whether the cultivation of the vines or the merrymaking when the bottles are uncorked.
“When we listened to the songs, Alex and I were looking for natural grooves in the original melodies for ‘electro-trad’ treatment. Our basis is traditional song, for which Alex writes new music for the various instruments we use, to make it all dance-friendly—and give it a swing.”
Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs and Mélisande perform at Festival du Bois in Mackin Park, Coquitlam, from Friday to Sunday (March 3 to 5).