Le Vent du Nord, which translates to North Wind, brought the rollicking traditional music of Quebec to the Windy City on January 8. In kicking off the Old Town School of Folk Music‘s winter World Music Wednesdays, these enduring cultural ambassadors displayed how Quebecois music is, literally, foot-stomping.
People who know the more familiar trad music of Celtic lands such as Ireland and Scotland would find familiarity in the tunes in Quebecois music, with its heavy emphasis on the fiddle and accordion. The biggest difference is what performers do with their feet.
Celtic music concerts often include one or more step dancers, performing in the traditional rigid (arms at your side) style or the looser, more fluid style of tap familiarized to a mass audience by the Riverdance spectacle. In Quebec, the propulsive sound of the music is driven by foot percussion, high-velocity seated tap performed on wooden footboards with specialized heavy shoes.
Known in Quebec as podorhythmie, it was performed by Le Vent du Nord fiddlers André Brunet and Olivier Demers, and it was almost irresistible for audience members to not tap along. It also did not take much prompting for the band to get people on their feet during their two-hour-plus, 19-song concert, with a few bold people doing reels in the limited floor space at the foot of the stage.
Le Vent du Nord also features instruments that you seldom see elsewhere in traditional folk music or, well, anywhere. Nicolas Boulerice, the band’s lead singer and keyboardist, spent most of the concert on his feet with his hurdy gurdy, the bulky stringed instrument played with a crank (and a cousin to the barrel organs that gave rise to the term “organ grinder”). A rambunctious extended solo inspired my wife — whose Irish roots prompted my interest in this kind of folk music — to describe him as the “Jimi Hendrix of the hurdy gurdy.”
Réjean Brunet, a towering figure with flowing locks, was unmissable at center stage with his accordion, but he also accompanied some tunes with the twang of the jew’s harp, aka mouth harp. He performed next to André Brunet, his brother.
Quebecois music is a cousin to Cajun music, created by Acadian refugees who relocated to Louisiana (then a French colony) in the 18th century after England won the war for dominion over Canada. All of Le Vent du Nord’s songs were performed in French, more specifically in the Quebecois dialect, which guitarist/mandolin player/singer Simon Beaudry described as “French, but friendler.”
There was a sizable contingent of Quebecers in the audience who probably understood every word. For the rest, it did not matter. While the band put down their instruments from time to time to perform beautifully harmonized a cappella songs, this was definitely a concert that was more about the music than the words.
Le Vent du Nord was formed in 2002, following in the footsteps of La Bottine Souriante, a sprawling band that played a leading role in the Quebecois music revival. With its tireless touring schedule — the band says it has played more than 2,000 concerts — Le Vent du Nord has become the more visible proponent of this lively niche: They recently released Territoires, their 10th album, and they will be featured in a QuebecFEST concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on January 24 before launching a European tour.
The concert was sponsored by the Quebec government office in Chicago, and I happened to overhear delegate Martine Hébert express amazement that there were so many Quebecois music enthusiasts in Chicago. Le Vent du Nord blows through town fairly frequently, and it is highly recommended that you catch them next time around.
The World Music Wednesday series at Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square is free to attend, though a $10 per person donation is encouraged. Performers through the remainder of January include Wesli, a Haitian-born musician from Montreal, on January 15; Miguel de Léon, born in Mexico, who will perform Brazilian music on January 22; and Rini, named for singer/violinist/composer Harini “Rini” Raghavan, who according to Old Town plays “her own version of Indian electronica.” The full schedule can be found here.