Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of Canada
O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada! we stand on guard for thee
I am proud to say that I can sing the above song (granted, not very tunefully) with better aplomb than my own national anthem. This has nothing to do with any political motive (though I have to admit, I think the notion of a national anthem is quite silly) or hanging out with nationalistic Canadians at a ripe age, or the hopeless high notes required when hitting "By the dawn's early light". I owe my ability to sing the Canadian National Anthem to the advent of cable television, specifically to ESPN when in 1985 they brought the NHL into my California living room. As one might surmise, hockey didn't rank high on the outdoor sports list where the water never froze except in those towns in the mountains where people skied anyway. So as a teenage boy, the discovery of a sport where tooth-gapped men wearing funny shorts over long underwear chased each other on metal blades, whacking each other with wooden sticks while slapping around a seriously solid piece of rubber on a seriously solid piece of ice, well, that was hella cool. And so were those guys with the funny accents, who had their own song to sing before the opening face-off. And so it was this song I learned while I fantasized about one day being that lucky silent hero whose job was to smooth the crystal-like surface with his trustworthy zamboni.
Well, like the numerous other wonderful Rough Guide compilations out there, The Rough Guide to the Music of Canada fails to include the respective country's national anthem. Which is fine. Nor does it include any songs from those Canadian musical forces people who aren't from Canada might know, like Rush, Neil Young, the Barenaked Ladies, Leonard Cohen, or that '80s metal band Saxon. Now, most people I know probably would mistake any of the above as American artists, as their respective genres don't shout anything distinctly Canadian. Though, odds are if you ask most Americans about Canada they'll mention hockey, ice, snow, crappy health-care or maybe something about Canada still being a part of England or France. And they might be aware of the South Park movie's disparagement of the Northern land. I'd bet my vinyl "Tom Sawyer" single that much knowledge would not be kicked regarding Canada's musical heritage. Which is why the Rough Guide series provides such a valuable service. Say what you will about sampler compilations, but if they're done well -- with the intention to educate (and tastefully make a few bucks) -- they're a godsend for the person whose curiosity is thick about a particular genre or country's music but whose wallet's thin.
All right, so what's Canadian music like? Well, judging from this 19-song collection, one would say that it is very "roots" based. Acoustic instruments like the fiddle, guitar, and accordion dominate, as do saxophones and the Jewish harp. And the human voice is central. Much of the music here could be classified as folk music, which makes sense given Canada's rich Celtic, Gaelic, French, and English immigrant history. And with song titles like "Field Song", "The Ballad of Gordy Ross", "Northwest Passage", "Vive La Rose" you get the picture.
Thankfully, First Nations music is also represented by several indigenous styles. In fact, my favorite "song" from this Rough Guide sampler is by the Inuit group, Tudjaat. Actually, it's not a song, nor does it have a name. It's just called "Throat Singing" as that is what Madeline Allakariallak and her cousin Phoebe Attagotaaluk do for a memorable 42 seconds. This is not the really deep throat singing one might associate with Tibetan monks. It is more like listening to Grover from Sesame Street try to rhythmically clear his throat of a honking goose while a tuneful E.T. timbre resonates and huffs underneath. And I don't mean that out of disrespect to the Inuit, believe me. These are fantastic guttural sounds, and the fact that they are derived solely from the human voice is incredible. The liner notes tell us that Inuit throat singing isn't just musical but serves as a game: "Two singers stand facing one another with hands on each other's shoulders as they create their sounds... The first one to lose the pattern to coughing or laughter is considered the loser." Inuit battlin' way before the Bronx birthed an MC.
One impression one gets from this collection is that Canadians are dang funny. I guess you better be able to laugh when it's cold much of the year and your "friendly" Southern neighbor pretends you're just a bad haircut. Wendell Ferguson's hilarious "Rocks & Trees" is an acoustic rock ode to two of Canada's staple features: yup, rocks and trees. It is a whimsical song that pokes fun at what most people might think about when they think of Canada, including Canadians. While Ferguson commemorates the Canadian flora, Wade Hemsworth pays tribute to Canadian fauna, specifically the ubiquitous blackfly. With his spry guitar and deep, lilting voice, Hemsworth's "The Blackfly Song" promises another laugh, as he recounts a day spent outdoors with other unemployed folk forced to do a day's meaningless survey work for the state: "The black flies, the little black flies / Always the black fly no matter where you go / I'll die with the black fly picking my bones / In North Ontario-i-o, in North Ontario". Another gem is by Victoria's the Bill Hilly Band, who offers their brilliant "Bulkley Valley Home", a satirical bluegrass love song that starts, "Oh it's been another sweet winter my love..." then explodes with speedy banjo picking and walking bass. It's music to get you off your rump, stomp your feet and warm you up a bit.
The French influence is also well represented on this 72-minute disc. La Bottine Souriante, "the pride of Joeliette, Quebec", put their unique, swinging stamp on Quebecois folk music. This nine-piece band jams with Jewish harp setting the quick tempo, followed by fiddle, accordion, and horns while the piano plays counterpoint. It is quick, complex and lovely. Another wonderful Francophone song is offered by the late Pierre Imbert and his remarkable trio, Cordes En Folie. A hurdy-gurdy revivalist, Imbert leads the group with a voice made for lullabies, which weaves between sounds of flamenco guitar, oud, bouzouki, and hand drums, the sound becoming more and more mesmerizing with each added layer. I find it interesting that with so much of the Canadian population nestled just north of the U.S. border that there isn't any music represented that one must surely find in Canada. Are there no legitimate Canadian hip-hop groups? What about the deft MC Choclair. No Maple Leaf wearing rockers? What about Bran Van 3000? Doesn't NAFTA allow for the flow of music? Maybe the Rough Guide series is working on a special Canadian hip-hop compilation or a speed metal fest that ice hockey players can crunch each other to. Or maybe, if we're truly lucky, they'll deliver something you can hum along to while taking that zamboni for a spin.