The Sunday Magazine

With an eye on the past, Quebec traditional music is reinventing itself — again

Young musicians are tapping into Quebec's folk tradition to create music that's equally concerned with the past and the future.
Les Poules à Colin, a group of 20-somethings who are the offspring of traditional musicians, are putting their own spin on centuries-old sounds. (Luna Calmette-Ratelle/Radio-Canada)

There's a traditional Québécois song that's devoted entirely to leg afflictions.

Sung without instruments, Le pied fait su'l'cant plaintively describes a misshapen foot, a crooked ankle, a fat thigh.

For Françoise Malo, who grew up in Saint-Marc-sur-Richelieu, it's one of many simple call-and-response songs she'd belt out with her family — a Québécois tradition that stretches back generations.

It wasn't until she sang it for Mélisande, a contemporary singer and jaw harp player, that the song began its second life.

Mélisande, who performs with her partner, Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand, decided to re-record the song, adding in echoing synths and hard-driving beats for a sound they call "électrotrad."

"Then I added some lyrics," said Mélisande "I am not perfect. But I am sexy like this." 

Mélisande, left, and Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand bring strong electronic and techno influences to traditional music and lyrics. (Radio-Canada)

The story of Le pied fait su'l'cant's transformation from call-and-response folk song to empowering electronic hit is, in many ways, the story of Québécois traditional music.

As each new generation of musicians looks to the past, they update the music with the sounds and spirit of their times.

"It's amazing to dig into this tradition that is so old and so rich," said de Grosbois-Garand, who serves as musical director and plays flute and bass.

"On stage … we have synths and drums and a lot of technology. We really make a 21st-century version of that tradition," he said.

Out of the kitchen

It was 100 years ago this month that anthropologist Marius Barbeau organized the first-ever concert of traditional Quebec music, Les Veillées Du Bon Vieux Temps, at the St-Sulpice library in Montreal.

Barbeau spent the following decades roaming the province with his Edison wax-cylinder recording machine, ultimately cataloguing more than 7,000 songs and stories.

Marius Barbeau, shown singing with a drum, was an anthropologist who spent his life recording and cataloguing Indigenous and French-Canadian music and stories. (Radio-Canada)

That music, shot through with French, Scottish and Irish musical traditions, and using simple instruments like fiddles and stomping feet, became popular again in the politically charged 1960s and 1970s.

"In the 70s, there was a movement of recognition of our traditional music. It's the kitchen music," said Gilles Garand, Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand's father, and president of Folquébec, an organization that works to preserve Québécois music.

Nicolas Boulerice, singer and hurdy-gurdy player from the folk band Le Vent du Nord, credits the pure sound of long-running band Le Rêve du Diable with being the first to reinvent traditional music for more modern audiences.

Boulerice remembers the experience of hearing Quebec traditional music when he was a child taking music lessons. His friends were into rock music, but to be contrarian, he got into traditional music, instead.

"It was the way to be punk. To destroy the wall and do something else."

Members of the band Le Vent Du Nord, formed in 2002, have 10 albums under their belt and travel the world year-round, playing their music. (Submitted by Le Vent du Nord)

Transform and transform again

New bands continue to add their own chapter to Quebec's musical story — though for some, the political underpinnings have changed over time.

Les Poules à Colin (Colin and his hens), a group of 20-something musicians who take their name from a traditional song, La poule à Colin, describe themselves as "five descendants of traditional musicians who were raised in the wings of folk festivals."

To the backbone of traditional sounds, they've added rock, pop, bluegrass and jazz influences. Sometimes, they even sing in English.

Colin Savoie-Levac, who plays mandolin, banjo and lap steel with the band, acknowledges that the separatist political element of traditional music has shifted since the genre's renaissance.

Savoie-Levac, who was just two in 1995, when the last Quebec referendum took place, says his generation is more worried about global issues like the environment and climate change.

"We all feel we are in a situation of crisis, and we need to really focus on taking decisions to survive as a species," he said. "Maybe that's the reason there's a little bit of a shift of the political views of our generation."

Global audiences, homegrown identity

That fluidity, and the practice of constantly adding and subtracting musical and lyrical elements, is how it should be, says Garand, senior.

"The new generation, they renew the sound," he says.  

Musicians like Les Poules à Colin and Mélisande follow in the footsteps of Le Vent du Nord, and like that more established band, they have found enthusiastic audiences outside of Quebec who embrace the music's boisterous energy and soulfulness.  

We invent new ways to be part of North America and be Québécois.- Le Vent du Nord's Nicolas Boulerice

"We play most of all outside of Quebec. They come to the shows; they dance, and they don't even speak French," says Béatrix Méthé, a singer and fiddler with Les Poules.

For Boulerice, a hurdy-gurdy player and singer, and a veteran of international touring with Le Vent du Nord, re-interpreting traditional music has always represented the process of re-imagining Quebec's identity and its place in the world.  

"We invent new ways to be part of North America and be Québécois. I don't know how we will need to fight, but we will fight anyway. But, the Quebec way: with the violin, and the song."  

Click 'listen' above to hear David Gutnick's documentary "Like the Sea, the Waves Will Continue."


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