In a few days, the Folk Alliance International conference will head North to Montréal, moving from its current home in Kansas City to the heart of Francophone Canada for the week. With the additional news that Folk Alliance will then be held in 2020 in New Orleans, it seems like our favorite folk music conference and festival is learning to speak French! “This year’s conference theme, The Spirit of Creativity, explores the process from inspiration to innovation,” says Folk Alliance’s Executive Director Aengus Finnan. “One motivation for the theme is our host city of Montréal. The city has long been a creative hub with an impressive legacy of influential writers, musicians, and artists. Montréal is also a hub for the national Francophone artist community. Interestingly, the province of Québec and the Francophone culture there have a musical, cultural, and linguistic relationship to the exiled Acadians who largely settled in the American southeast. We’ll be exploring these themes more at our 2020 conference in host city New Orleans.”
I’ve said before that I believe Montréal to be the dream of the global Francophonie. It’s a city that brings together nearly all the world’s Francophone cultures into one space. It’s messy to be sure, and there’s plenty of tension and controversy with how Montréal’s Francophone cultures interact with the long-standing Jewish, First Nations, Inuit, and Anglophone communities in the city (and province), but for those of us with a flair for the French language, Montréal is a global wonderland.
Here’s a look at some of the key Francophone artists, from Québécois traditional singers to Congolese afro-futurists, who will be showcasing at the Folk Alliance International conference in Montréal, February 13-17, 2019.
Listen to the Spotify playlist – HERE.
Yves Lambert Trio – it’s an honor to get a chance to see the elder statesman of Québec’s traditional music scene bring some of his magic to the stage. Yves was a founding member of La Bottine Souriante, the greatest Québécois roots band and the band that kickstarted a new revival of Québécois traditions in the late 70s and 80s. He went on to lead La Bottine Souriante for decades until breaking out on his own with his eclectic and wildly entertaining trio.
De Temps Antan and Le Vent du Nord – Two of the best of the next generation Québécois folk bands, De Temps Antan and Le Vent du Nord have been swapping members back and forth a bit recently and even teamed up last year to put out an album with both bands together. With either group on the stage, expect the blazing intensity of Québécois podorythmie (a powerful kind of seated step-dancing foot percussion) and roof-raising harmonies on the old medieval songs the French brought over to Canada. They bring the party too, and that’s the key to Québécois traditional music: this is music for dancing, drinking, and partying the night away.
Pierre Kwenders – Montréal’s a hotbed for traditional music, but it also boasts one of the most cutting-edge scenes for trailblazing electronic African and Haitian music. Congolese afro-futurist Pierre Kwenders is one of the leaders of this scene, a key figure at the underground dance party nights at Ti-Agrikol that Win Butler of Arcade Fire frequently attends. He sings in five different languages, and melds space-age electronic elements to his polyglot singing, jamming Congolese soukous guitars next to jazz horns. His recent album featured members of acclaimed avant-hip-hop band Shabazz Palaces, helping build a genre-blurring new sound.
Mélissa Laveaux – Laveaux may have been born in Montréal to Haitian parents, but she epitomizes the life of a modern Francophone artist, splitting her time between France and Québec, with time spent growing up in Ottawa. Her new album is a hazy, Caribbean dream, rife with Haitian Créole songs, a late night dance party hazy with cigar smoke, helped by Toronto calypsonian Drew Gonsalves of Kobo Town. But the fun belies a more serious core; Laveaux based these songs on her research into Haiti’s occupation by the US in the early 1900s and was particularly inspired by Haitian activist/singer Martha Jean-Claude.
Beausoleil and The Revelers – Sure the connection between Louisiana and French-Canada dates back to the beginning, to the Acadian settlers expelled by the British in 1755 who went South to become the Cajuns. But the connection continues to this day. Cajun/Creole artists from Louisiana learn French in French Canada, and both Francophone regions have much love for the other. It’s great to have Cajun legends Beausoleil playing Folk Alliance in Montréal; in many ways they were key to kickstarting the Cajun revival of the late 70s, early 80s. For the next generation, The Revelers bring that old-school Cajun spirit (accordionist and singer Blake Miller speaks and writes in French) but meld it with a bit of well-researched and well-loved swamp pop from the 50s and 60s. Cajun with a mid-century modern vibe.
Vishtèn – Québec gets the most attention in French Canada for the music and culture, but the Acadian music of Canada’s Maritime provinces has its own flair, mixing heavily syncopated, swinging tunes, with a thick drawl and old world ballads of murder, drinking, and love lost. Vishtèn are one of the few touring Acadian bands, hailing from Prince Edward Island, where the two sisters Emmanuelle and Pastelle hail from a family of traditional musicians known for their kitchen parties. Fiddler Pascal comes from the rugged Magdalen Islands, one of the last strongholds of traditional Acadian fiddling. Their new album mixes this traditional sound with new compositions and indie influences.
Les Poules à Colin – The generational wheel just keeps rolling and this group of Québécois artists, mostly all female (except for Colin, hence the name), are the children of key folk revivalists. They bring a strong indie sensibility to the music and some impressive musicianship, but they also hew towards the old, dark ballads. The ones full of guts and gore, disturbing warnings for the next generation in the days before Buzzfeed clickbait articles.
Doolin’ – Québécois culture keeps close ties to this day with France, the original homeland, so it’s nice to see some French-from-France artists on the bill at the conference. French band Doolin’ may be named for the tiny town in Ireland’s County Clare that’s known as the Mecca of Irish traditional music, but they’re part of a whole world of French traditional artists who love Irish music. Doolin’s last album came out on the venerable Compass Records label and they bring a refreshingly open-minded perspective (including rap!) to the Irish music they love.
Melanie Brulée – Though New Brunswick is the only actually bilingual province, there’s still a thriving world of bilingual singer-songwriters in Canada, many of whom come from Francophone communities outside of Québec. Americana songwriter Melanie Brulée was born in Ontario to bilingual parents and broke out with her French-language album, Débridé, in 2015. But her new album, released last year, is a suite of hard rolling country rockers all in English. In whatever language you prefer to listen, she’s got a knack for turning a phrase, and a no-BS attitude to songwriting that’s refreshing.
Cécile Doo-Kingué – New Yorker Doo-Kingué is a force of nature. She’s a brilliant blues guitarist, a powerhouse singer, and an absolute badass. She’s funny too, and bitterly sardonic. Though born in New York to Cameroonian parents, she, like many on this list, exemplifies the continual movement of the Francophonie, ending up in Montréal after also having lived in France. There’s a rich tradition of blues in Canada, ranging from New Brunswick blues bands out to First Nations communities. Doo-Kingué melds the blues from two countries (Canada/US) with a touch of West African guitar, and a slice of singer-songwriter. She puts on a great show too!
Musique à Bouches – French-Canadians love their language and love their songs. A cappella ensemble Musique à Bouches pay homage to both, bringing densely packed, rich male harmonies to the classic “chansons à réponse.” These call-and-response songs in which the chorus of voices sing back each line to the song leader, are a hallmark of the tradition and a rousing thing to be part of (they’re often drinking songs and seem to have been designed to be sung at the end of a great bottle of wine). Many of these songs came over from France, but you can hear the playfulness of the French-Canadians in the lyrics that have been warped and changed, twisted to make fun of the church perhaps, or modified to tell a story that could only happen in the New World.
Mélisande [électrotrad] – Drawing inspiration from the plight of women in traditional French Canadian song, Mélisande [électrotrad] brings a markedly feminist perspective to the old songs, and mixes in all kinds of new influences, including electronic beats, keyboards, and interesting arrangements. Anchored by Mélisande’s beautiful vocals, the band’s been pushing the boundaries of the music hard, and bringing a much-needed feminine perspective to a tradition that’s too often represented onstage solely by alpha males.
Lula Wiles – Though an American band à l’origine, Lula Wiles’ band member Mali Obomsawin’s Abenaki heritage ties her to a First Nations francophone culture that spans across the border, from Québec to New England. She speaks French and lived in Paris, and with Lula Wiles’ new album on Smithsonian Folkways, Obomsawin’s taken some key shots at those “good old American values” that serve to further white supremacy and colonialist narratives.