How returning to my father's hometown recalled my love for live music
The Festival de Musique Émergente in Rouyn-Noranda gave me a much-needed feeling of community after lockdowns
This First Person article is the experience of Caitlin Stall-Paquet, a Montreal-based writer. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
Descending through the clouds on a tiny plane full of media and music industry folks, I see the expansive conifer-dominated boreal forest, surrounded by chopped-down swaths. We've headed 630 kilometres northwest of Montreal to the country's copper capital of Rouyn-Noranda, Que., for the Festival de musique émergente (FME).
Though it's my first time attending the festival, it's not my first time in the region otherwise known for its mining and logging industries. This is where my father grew up, where he took my brothers and me 25 years ago to show us the lakes and woods of his childhood and it's a landscape I've wanted to return to since he passed away in 2017. This Labour Day weekend — a relatively calm moment in the pandemic storm — is the opportunity for an overdue return as we collectively try to redefine normal.
From the moment we step into the shuttle van, it's clear FME is anchored in community, as volunteer drivers regale us with tales of editions past. Co-founder Jenny Thibault emphasizes the not-for-profit fest wouldn't be possible without these volunteers. Communal effort in the eclectic, inclusive event dates back to its pre-Spotify origins when the founders wanted to bring independent music home rather than always having to drive to bigger cities. It's changed the culture here from when my family called it home.
Thibault says part of the festival's legacy in the area is turning more people into engaged music lovers, who now sometimes suggest new artists to organizers. Though it's become the town's biggest weekend of the year, FME's modest main goal is to put on memorable lineups while still breaking even.
After a very pared-back festival in 2020, this 19th edition is a step toward returning to normal, complete with restricted venue capacities and Quebec's new vaccination passport made visible as green-means-go plastic wristbands. Some COVID-caused differences may become longer lasting shifts, like the inclusion of more anglophone bands from outside the province, as travel for European acts is currently impossible. This reaching across linguistic divides is something Thibault has tried to do for years, and it reminds me of my francophone father from this majority French-speaking region, who told me he considered himself bilingual.
One of the opening night's lineups, at the outdoor Poisson Volant stage on a bank of Lac Osisko, is packed with linguistic diversity. There, Toronto-based quintet Pantayo, from the Filipino diaspora, plays a set combining traditional kulintang gongs and drums with groove-heavy synth lines and addresses the crowd in Tagalog. There's excitement in the air for this overdue return to the stage for many artists, and our own return to the crowd.
When Congolese-Canadian musician Pierre Kwenders steps out, opening with the track "Rendezvous" from his 2017 Makanda at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time, he tells us how happy he is to see us after so many months, "c'est un rendez-vous" — it's a date, he says. The people are here to meet, too, dancing to his sexiness-suffused tunes that deliver his singular indie-Afro electro with lyrics in Lingala, French, English, Tshiluba and Kikongo.
My father would have marvelled at these sounds resonating through his hometown built around the copper mine active into his teen years. I envision him next to me, discreetly doing his signature awkward shuffle (in true Quebec dad fashion, he was more accustomed to Jethro Tull — he even played the transverse flute), alongside visitors and young local parents with babies sleeping on their chests, all dancing.
The Canadian programming shift also brings my friend Tom McGreevy from Toronto to the stage of Cabaret de la Dernière Chance that's been hosting shows since the early 1980s, along with his bandmates from Ducks Ltd. When a barefoot Tom proclaims his joy at being in a province that is "so belle" after a stage hiatus since 2019, the math of months-turned-years adds up in my head. They quickly break into their EP's title track "Get Bleak" that strikes a clever balance between despair-centric lyrics and sunny jangle-pop melodies — a timely combination I danced alone to in my kitchen during lockdowns.
The main area FME takes over in Rouyn-Noranda is compact — a 20-minute walk will get you almost everywhere in what feels like a sonorous playground. Surprise shows play all over, from DJ Gayance spinning in the parking lot of poutine institution Morasse (the site of the festival's first spontaneous show by Frannie Holder of Random Recipe) to hardcore-meets-hip-hop Polaris-winning artist Backxwash rapping from inside a garage with its door flung open. This pop-up format binds locals to FME, emphasizing how the fest and place are one and the same.
Thibault tells me these spaces are often offered up free of charge, calling back to a history of helping your neighbour in Abitibi's often-inhospitable environment.
On a gray afternoon, I walk east past the FME central hub toward a personal landmark, the airy notes from a middle-aged wandering transverse flutist vanishing as I go. Turning onto leafy Chadbourne Avenue, I'm reminded that memories work in mysterious ways, lying dormant in the hippocampus until stimulus returns to revive them. I'd forgotten that the tin roof of the house my father grew up in was orange until I saw it. Standing in front of the modest house, I imagine my eight family members living here, half of them gone now. I imagine my aunts, uncle and father running along this sidewalk I stood on 25 years ago just like now, my throat tight, all spectres in a time loop.
Remembering the orange roof echoed the previous night, after walking to Eighth Avenue through an alleyway punctuated by the Horne copper foundry's stacks, like a smoking umlaut. The pounding rhythm of Montreal psych post-rockers Yoo Doo Right was entrancing a small crowd at a sidewalk pop-up show that got louder until I stood in it. The stimulus returned; I realized how much I'd missed being in the blast radius of amplified guitar and bass, flooded by sound. I'd forgotten that sensation until I felt the waves reverberating off the water in my guts.
CBC Quebec welcomes your pitches for First Person essays. Please email email@example.com for details.