[1 March 2010]
There are different ways of introducing local folk music into a wider arena. You can emphasise the energy of it, appealing to the audience’s taste for movement—the Kočani Orkestar, various Romanian bands. You can emphasise eccentricity and difference—US weird folk, recordings of the Congotronics. You can modernise the instruments—Selda Bagcan accompanied by electro-saz. You can hybridise it quite deliberately—the Afro-Celt Sound System, Albert Kuvezin. You can achieve a messier hybrid and leave it to other people to sort you out—the Pogues. You can do the opposite of messy and make everything as shapely as possible, as if perfection is somehow achievable in this life, as if you genuinely believe that all imperfection can be banished, and here—here—is the key, your key, this music—Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the subject of this review, Le Vent du Nord. If Shane McGowan sings like a man who has lost half his teeth then the musicians in Le Vent du Nord play like men who not only retain their teeth, but floss.
I know as I write this that it sounds like a backhanded compliment. There’s a stigma attached to flossing, a suggestion that the person is too finicky. But I’m thinking of the refinement that goes with it, the effort that leaves you with an apparently effortless result, the music ending up exactly as you wanted it to, exactly as you meant it to—you sweat like mad to get there, and then you keep the sweat out of sight of the audience, and all they hear is achievement (—the Mamas and the Papas). You come up with things like “Mamzelle Kennedy”, a tune that starts innocently then builds and builds, slipping in new instruments and increasing its speed until by the end the fiddles are ripping along and Nicholas Boularice decides to calm you down with a piano. This is exciting, because it is fast, but neat, because of the way you’ve perfected it. After that you segue into a storytelling piece called “Les Métiers” and the male chorus accompanying your lead singer buzzes like a set of synchronised zips. The lead enjoys the middles of his words and tucks them down at the ends, the chorus draws out the ends instead of tucking them, the fiddle slides up and down between the two vocal parts as if negotiating the differences between end-tuckers and end-buzzers—everything is measured and complete. Nothing asks to be added or taken away: there it is. You’ve made yourself a little impregnable.
Le Vent’s four musicians come from Québec, and the music they play is Québécoise folk, Acadian music, its roots in dance. The core sound is made up of the toe-tap that keeps the dancers in time and the voice that accompanies them. The fiddle joins in along with other instruments, a guitar, a bouzouki, an accordion. The songs tell stories, as traditional music likes to do. A man disguises himself as a priest to hear the woman he loves confess that she loves him; a mine collapses, killing the miners and leaving the widows howling above; and a bachelor named Lanlaire, whose like we’ll never see again, has died. La Part du Feu is the group’s fifth album after 2008’s live Mesdames et Messieurs, 2007’s Dans les Airs, 2005’s Les amants du Saint-Laurent, and 2003’s Maudite Moisson! The regularity of their output seems as adroit as one of their songs.