Jordan Verner has had a song running through his head for the last 25 years.
For most of that time, he had no idea what the lyrics were, who sang it or what it was even called. But he knew he would give anything to hear it again.
The song in question was part of a series of cassette tapes played during French class at his elementary school in Thunder Bay, Ont. Verner remembers the teacher wheeling the tapes around on a cart from classroom to classroom, and says the tunes were a highlight of his childhood.
He remembers one about a canary and another about Thanksgiving. But his favourite — the tune he can’t get out of his head — was one he now calls “the elusive cha-cha-cha,” because the only part of it he remembers is the chorus, which goes: “Cha-cha-cha.”
Listen to the documentary The Lost Dimoitou Tapes from The Doc Project:
“Because I didn’t keep up with my French, I don’t necessarily remember all the words,” said Verner, now 32 and living in Brantford, Ont. “But I do remember the melody and how the melody made me feel.”
He says one reason the music resonated with him so much is because he was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, a condition that effectively renders him blind.
“I have light perception, which means that I know if the lights are on in the room or if the sun’s shining, but I don’t know what colour that is. I don’t see shapes, shadows or anything,” he said.
Verner says that as a child, he couldn’t fully participate in activities with his classmates, like chasing each other around or just throwing a ball back and forth. So he spent a lot of time alone. At recess, while other kids went outside to play, Verner would often stay inside, listening to whatever records and tapes were available in the classroom.
At a time when Verner felt so disconnected from the people around him, music gave him comfort — and those French cassettes most of all.
“Some of [the songs] were sort of goofy and amusing, but a lot of them, to me, just had this sort of soothing kindness to them,” Verner said. “That was maybe what I needed.”
The songs on these tapes would pop up in Verner’s mind every now and then for the last two decades — but without so much as a title, there was nothing he could do to solve the mystery. Then in 2020, he had a chance encounter with a former elementary school teacher at a Tim Hortons in Thunder Bay, who connected him with his former French teacher.
“I drafted this email and I said I would be very interested in finding some of the songs that I remember, and detailed what I remembered about the songs in hopes that it would jog her memory as to what they actually were,” Verner said.
The pair started meeting regularly at a local coffee shop. His former French teacher didn’t have much recollection of the programs, but she did help Verner figure out how to spell the names of the characters he could remember, like Berlingo and Clafoutis. But it was the name of one particular character that led to the title of that series of educational cassette tapes: Dimoitou.
But getting his hands on a copy of the music proved a lot more difficult than he thought. With the help of CBC’s The Doc Project, it turned into a year-long quest not only to satisfy his aural yearnings but preserve a piece of Canadian culture.
II. ‘A sucker for nostalgia’
If you were a student in Ontario’s Core French program in grades 1 through 3 sometime in the 1980s or ‘90s, you might have heard of Dimoitou. It was the title of a series of programs first produced in the 1980s designed to teach French to English-speaking schoolchildren. There were three levels, one for each grade.
The programs were essentially kits, comprising workbooks, teachers’ guides and cassette tapes filled with stories, activities and songs meant to be taught throughout the school year. For October, for example, there were songs about Halloween and Thanksgiving; December offered activities about Père Noël; and April featured themes of spring and nature. Meanwhile, Dimoitou, the titular character, was a well-loved, fuzzy green puppet.
Once Verner learned the name of the series, he assumed finding copies would be a piece of cake. After all, these tapes would have been used to teach French to thousands of children in Canada.
But YouTube and Google turned up nothing. He searched through places like Library and Archives Canada and university libraries, and even contacted the original publisher, a Quebec company then known as Centre éducatif et culturel (now called Les Éditions CEC).
While he was able to cobble together parts of the series here and there, most were in poor condition, and a full set of the 20 tapes was nowhere to be found.
I first contacted Verner after he posted on a Toronto forum of the website Reddit in December 2020. He was offering a bounty of $1,000 to anyone who could help him find the tapes, issuing a plea to teachers or school board workers to check their classrooms, closets and drawers to see if they might have a copy of the tapes tucked away and forgotten.
“This post and its motives are insane. I accept that,” Verner wrote. “But I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and right now I’ve got a pretty bad case of it.”
While most people might not be willing to throw down $1,000 to hear an obscure song from their childhood, many of us can relate to a strong nostalgia when we hear music we listened to back in the day. There’s a reason for that.
“Memories are encoded in many different ways in our brain,” said Sandra Garrido, a researcher at Western Sydney University in Australia with a background in music and psychology. She also co-authored a book called Music, Nostalgia and Memory.
One of the strongest ways to encode memories is via the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that creates emotional responses. That’s why we can often remember every little detail of our wedding day — what we were wearing, what the weather was like — but can barely remember brushing our teeth the day before. When you’re emotional, the memories are stronger.
“And music is one of the most powerful ways to stir emotions in an individual,” Garrido explained.
There’s also a phenomenon in memory research called the reminiscence bump, where people form more memories and retain more details from tumultuous periods in their lives. For most of us, that’s adolescence, although it doesn’t have to be.
“If it’s a song you first hear in an intense emotional moment, at any stage of life, that’s also going to form a stronger memory that’s kind of linked to that music,” says Jonathan De Souza, director of the Music, Cognition and the Brain Initiative at Western University in London, Ont.
Verner says he probably only heard the songs on Dimoitou a handful of times, when the teacher played them in class, “yet my memory of them, while sometimes foggy and sometimes vivid, is just profound.”
He believes his fixation on music is also due to a childhood accident that blunted senses other than sight. When Verner was around six or seven, he and his brother were horsing around in the living room, and he flew nose-first into the corner of a coffee table. Since then, he hasn’t been able to smell anything; as a result, his sense of taste is also compromised.
“With 60 per cent of [your senses] gone, it’s very hard to convince yourself that you live in a world and not in an isolated bubble,” Verner said. “So that has sort of been an ongoing challenge ever since then.”
He says his elementary school in Thunder Bay didn’t really know how to accommodate his disabilities. He has memories of being sent out into the hallway during independent work time, so that the sound of his Perkins brailler — a typewriter-like machine that punches braille notation into thick pieces of paper — wouldn’t disturb the other students. Now, as an adult, he understands why it might have been necessary. But back then, he resented it.
At a time when Verner felt disconnected from the people around him, music comforted him. His favourite thing to listen to during those recesses alone was an album called Igg’s Pig by an obscure Canadian folk band named Tanglefoot. He says he must have listened to it daily from grades 3 through 5, before he eventually transferred to a school for the visually impaired.
Listen to Tanglefoot’s Igg’s Pig: Songs and Stories for Young Canadians:
In a precursor to his quest for the Dimoitou tapes, Verner managed to track down a vinyl copy of Igg’s Pig in 2019 by calling record shops across the country.
“I wanted to hear it again… I wanted to let it take me back to a time when things were simple and I didn’t have to understand why things were so different, why things were so, so challenging,” said Verner. “And I wanted to feel the way that those things made me feel at the time, when they were really all I had to cling onto.”
III. The Elusive Cha-cha-cha Song
The pursuit of Dimoitou was not going to be as straightforward as the one for Igg’s Pig. Through his Reddit post, Verner enlisted a ragtag search team. There was him, me and Adleen Crapo, a bilingual researcher from the University of Toronto who offered up her services as a researcher and translator.
For the next several months, the three of us took a multi-pronged approach in the search for Dimoitou; we contacted children’s book stores, schools, teachers and school boards across Canada.
We had some success — like when a teacher who had Level 1 on CD responded to one of Verner’s online posts and allowed him to make a copy. (The quality, unfortunately, was poor.) There were also setbacks, like when someone on Kijiji claiming to have the tapes scammed Verner for $130.
Despite finding bits and pieces of the series, the track Verner really wanted to hear — the Elusive Cha-cha-cha Song — remained in the wind.
Part of what was driving Verner was the mystery. Beyond the lyric “cha-cha-cha,” he didn’t actually remember what the song was about. But that was enough for it to keep finding its way into his brain, as an earworm will.
De Souza says, “Usually, what you remember when you have an earworm is just the tune. It’s just the part you would sing.”
Most people can fill in the blanks by pulling up the track on YouTube or Spotify. De Souza says that’s actually one method of getting rid of an earworm: listening to the song all the way through. But what happens when that’s impossible?
“Wanting to complete that sketch, wanting to hear that song from the beginning to end, with all the parts — I mean, I can see why that would maybe contribute to this quest, to this obsession with this song,” De Souza said.
There’s research that suggests yearning for the good old days can be a way for us to reconnect with our sense of self, Garrido says, especially during times of insecurity.
“So we might often engage in nostalgic remembering when there’s some kind of external threat to our sense of self, when we’ve experienced a big change in our life,” she said.
A big change like a pandemic. Looking back to 2020, it makes sense that when our lives were disrupted in such a major way, people were standing on their balconies to sing to each other, throwing porch concerts and hosting virtual singalongs.
Verner’s search for Dimoitou began in earnest at the height of the pandemic, when his in-person college classes were cancelled and he was stuck at home in Thunder Bay, relying on paratransit buses to take him to the local Tim Hortons just to get a bit of fresh air.
Armed with information from WorldCat, a site that lets people search library collections around the world, Verner, Crapo and I tried to get in contact with Dimoitou’s creators and contributors. But many of them had no online presence. We figured most of them were probably past retirement age.
Then, about four months after I joined the search team, we started to make contact. One of the authors for Level 2, Denise Amyot, was now CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada. She didn’t have any tapes, but she did mail us some original Dimoitou workbooks.
We also tracked down Suzanne Pinel, a musical contributor to Level 1 who Canadian children in the 1980s and ‘90s might have known better as Marie Soleil. Back then, Pinel, along with her friends Samuel the clown and Fergus the dog puppet, taught French through song to anglophone kids on TV. Later, she became a citizenship judge and received both the Order of Canada and Order of Ontario.
She had the song cassettes for Level 1 (which contained the music, but not the audio activities and stories) and gave them to Verner, adding yet another piece to his slowly expanding collection.
We also managed to find another Dimoitou musician, Matt Maxwell. He was a teacher in the 1980s, before he started his career as a children’s performer. Still teaching and working as a musician today, he’s performed thousands of concerts across North America, released six albums and was nominated for a Juno in 1987 for his third album, Le loup du Nord.
Maxwell wrote his first hit, C’est l’Halloween, in 1981, while he was still working as a French teacher in Halifax.
“Dimoitou is just one little part of the different things I did,” Maxwell told us on a call. “But yeah, the part that matters to me is the fact that it was musical, and anything with music just fills my soul in a very deep, deep, deep, deep way, because music for me is the language of the spirit.”
We asked Maxwell if he had any tapes. We were still missing all of Level 3, which we knew contained the Elusive Cha-cha-cha Song. Maxwell said he was only contracted to write music for Level 2, and never received any copies of the tapes.
IV. ‘I don't know whether to laugh or cry’
Unbeknownst to us, Maxwell continued to conduct a parallel search. About three weeks after our conversation, he forwarded us an email with the subject line: “We are one step closer.”
It was an email from a woman named Jayne and two people from the University of Ottawa. They had a copy of Level 3. They also sent a scan of the liner notes detailing the song titles and artists. From that we finally learned the name of the Elusive Cha-cha-cha Song: it was called Cha cha cha de la moufette, or The Skunk’s Cha Cha Cha, and it was written and performed by a musical duo known as Édouard et Micha.
Édouard et Micha are Édouard Labonté and Micha Boudreault, who met in a piano bar in Sainte-Adèle, Que., in 1973, fell in love and started a music career in 1979, when they began performing musical tours in schools across Canada. They continued to perform and produce music together until Boudreault’s death in 2005.
Back in 1988, they were approached by producers at Centre éducatif et culturel to compose songs for the Dimoitou project. They spent that summer writing every day at Edward Gardens in Toronto, surrounded by nature and wildlife, which is probably how the skunk became a central figure in the song.
“We had two songs to write a week, so we wrote 30 songs… I created themes and Micha worked with music,” Labonté told us.
Fortunately, Labonté still had a copy of the song tapes for Level 3 — not the entire collection of activities and stories that Verner was hoping to find, but at least enough to hear the song.
Labonté mailed them to Verner, with one request: that Verner upload the audio so that he could listen to them again and hear the voice of his Micha.
After receiving the tapes in the mail, Verner decided to throw a virtual listening party over Zoom with me, Adleen, Labonté and Maxwell in July 2021. Each with a drink in hand, we toasted, and then Verner cued up the tape and pressed play. Even through a screen, the excitement was palpable.
The song began with a swinging piano melody backed by rhythmic percussion that vaguely resembled maracas. A few bars in, Micha started singing, her vocals feeling like a kind smile from your favourite kindergarten teacher. It was a simple ditty, but warm and pleasant, like something you might hear from a three-piece band at a Latin lounge — except that Micha was singing about a skunk who loved dancing, hamburgers and napping.
Listen to Cha cha cha de la moufette by Édouard et Micha:
When the song ended, Verner’s face was euphoric, his smile stretching from ear to ear. After almost a year of searching — which included dozens of calls and emails, false leads and dead ends — Verner had finally heard his song again.
“I feel like I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” he said. “That was amazing.”
Despite having found the Elusive Cha-cha-cha Song, Verner says his mission is not over. Because his Dimoitou collection is a hodge-podge of CD rips, song-only tapes and cassettes of varying quality, he’s on a mission to find the complete set of tapes and workbooks, including something called Petit Dimoitou, the kindergarten-level program, in the highest quality he can find.
“This is no longer just a personal nostalgia project,” he said.
Ideally, Verner would love for the publisher, Les Éditions CEC, to find the seemingly lost Dimoitou master tapes and offer them online. But he says the next best thing is for him to digitize and upload whatever he can get his hands on.
In June 2022, he launched a website where people can reach him with leads to more material. So far, he’s collected the workbooks, puppets and a complete set of Dimoitou 3 cassettes in fantastic condition. But he’s still on the hunt for complete sets of levels 1 and 2.
Verner says he wants to preserve Dimoitou as a piece of Canadian history, so that future generations can listen to it without embarking on an exhausting search.
“This is now about trying to make sure that something that was pivotal in our development is not completely forgotten.”
Written by: Althea Manasan | Edited by: Andre Mayer | Photography by: Damien Gilbert | Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Senior Digital Producer: Brandie Weikle | Audio Documentary: Althea Manasan, Acey Rowe and Alison Cook