Sunday 1 June 2014

Less Politics, More Rock 'n' Roll - 10 Franco-Canadian Artists Worth Getting To Know

Between the Quebec Liberal Party's triumphant return to power in April to the Montreal Canadiens' inspiring run at the Stanley Cup (alas no more), something interesting has happened in Canada in the first half of this year: English-speaking Canadians seem to be rediscovering a love for La Belle Province.

What a difference a year makes! A year ago the rest of Canada seemed to have all but given up on Quebec. From the standpoint of most English Canadian media outlets, Quebec was a basket case mired in cultural and political isolationism, economic dysfunction and an alarming xenophobic streak in the form of the Parti Québécois' so-called "Values Charter" that would have passed a raft of laws against public displays of hijabs, turbans and other religious accoutrements. At the peak of the Values Charter debate, Western Canadian animosity towards Quebec was reaching such a fever pitch that it appeared a "yes" vote on sovereignty would actually be welcomed by many.

Today, however, the mood appears quite different. Canadians coast to coast cheered as the myopic, mean-spirited PQ government of Pauline Marois crashed and burned in April's election and mild-mannered brain surgeon Phillippe Couillard took the reins in Quebec City. All of a sudden National Post, a paper that can normally be counted on to blast Quebec's provincial leadership, started printing articles with titles like "Time to take Quebec seriously again" and whatnot. Even the Sun Network (once led by would-be PQ Sith Lord Pierre Karl Péladeau) has softened its usual anti-Quebec stance.

All of this is of course music to the ears of western Canadian Francophiles like myself. At the same time, though, we've seen enough of this teeter-totter in Anglo-Franco Canadian internal relations to know that if we're to build a bona fide bridge between Canada's two "solitudes" we need to try something different. My modest proposal, and one that's a win-win for everybody in my opinion, is that Anglophone Canadians can start by not only getting to know Quebec's lively homegrown music scene, but genuinely embracing it as part of a greater Canadian scene.

The fact is, in spite of all of Quebec's current problems - a moribund economy, rising unemployment, skyrocketing provincial debt, ugly (and still lingering) ethnocultural friction and the ever-present spectre of separatism and language politics, Quebec's cultural scene, and in particular its music scene, is as vibrant as it's ever been. Trouble is, almost nobody west of the Ottawa River knows this, as Francophone artists hardly get any radio play outside Quebec - and Quebec artists (understandably) feel it's more worth their time and effort booking tours in France and Belgium than in Alberta or BC.

It's a real tragedy - and a really unnecessary one at that. Unlike French-language TV and movies, which is unlikely to develop a significant following outside the French-speaking world, music has the well-demonstrated capacity to travel well outside their geolinguistic roots. Back in the fall of 2012 I wrote a post about the history of foreign language hits within the English-speaking world, including one of the few French-Canadian pop hits to ever hit the Anglo-Canadian charts, Mitsou's extremely silly but equally catchy 1988 hit 'Bye Bye Mon Cowboy'. (To Anglos she's a one-hit wonder; to Quebeckers she's a pop icon and the granddaughter of a legendary playwright who's still in the public eye as a TV host.)

The real paradox of Anglophone Canada's complicated relationship with the country's rogue province is that Anglos love visiting Quebec, especially the city of Montreal, especially in summer when the city's bazillion performing arts festival are in full swing. But as much as the rest of Canada has a love-in for Montreal's cultural scene, they tend to regard it as a foreign country - basically Paris except you don't need a passport to travel there. The result of this, of course, is that while Just for Laughs, Osheaga, the Montreal Jazz Festival and other cultural extravaganzas are well attended by non-Quebeckers, the province's homegrown acts (unless they're English language acts) are completely overlooked. Why is this? If a nerdy-looking Korean rapper can command the attention of English-speaking Canadians, why not our fellow passport-holders east of the Rideau?

My theory is that English Canada's reluctance to embrace French Canadian artists is rooted, at least in part, in fear - fear of the unknown, fear of reproach from the other "solitude" for some sort of perceived cultural Philistinism. I suspect this goes both ways, which is why Quebecois bands and solo artists hardly ever make appearances in Canada's other major cities, even as they make appearances in Paris and Brussels. Quebec and English Canada are like a strained married couple who haven't had sex in far too long, and are now in marriage counselling and trying to make amends but each one is scared to make the first move in bed.

To my mind the best prophylactic against future sovereignty SNAFUs is a genuine cultural rapprochement, starting with a genuine embrace of Quebec's currently exciting Francophone music scene. In other words, less politics, more rock 'n' roll. And for those Anglos looking for a primer to get them started, here are ten very different acts worth getting to know.

1. Ariel

Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Glam Rock, Post-Punk, Electroclash
Recommended for fans of: T. Rex, The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Libertines

Noisy, sassy and glamourous, Ariel is one of the most exciting rock bands on the Canadian scene today - and one that graphically illustrates Canada's linguistic problem when it comes to arts and culture. One of the freshest young rock acts in the country today, Ariel is virtually unknown in Canada outside La Belle Province in spite of a growing following in Paris and Brussels. Founded in 2007, this Montreal-based quintet is made up of members from across the province (including Baie-Comeau, Saguenay, Sherbrooke and Quebec City) and centred on a fetching, multitalented Richey Edwards lookalike named Ariel Coulombe.

Since the release of their 2010 debut album Après le crime, the grungy, synth-heavy glam punk of Coulombe and his gang have gained considerable critical acclaim for both their music and their outlandish music videos, including best emerging artist at the 2010 Osheaga festival and a Juno nomination for the video for "Chargez!" (see below). Their latest lineup for their brand new 2014 release Fauve features an unorthodox twin bass configuration and a darker sound overall, according to Coulombe in a recent interview. Having already established themselves as one of Montreal's most exciting young bands, the next obvious step would be a western Canadian tour.

Which, I should mention, I've already bugged them about on Facebook. So if you see these kids in a western Canadian city near you in the next little while, I say "de rien" in advance.

2. Jimmy Hunt

Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Folk Rock, Alt-Rock, Shoegaze
Recommended for fans of: Wilco, Bright Eyes, Mojave 3, Robert Charlebois

Montreal is a busker's paradise, as anybody who has spent anytime there in the summer months will attest to. And indeed it has been this street music scene that has launched the careers of many a Quebecois singer-songwriter, including that of newcomer Jimmy Hunt, who in spite of his Anglo-sounding name is a thoroughly Francophone singer-songwriter very much out of the tradition of Robert Charlebois, Gilles Vigneault and other iconic Quebecois song crafters. After about 12 years as a guitar and harmonica-toting street busker, Hunt made his recording debut in the mid-2000s with the briefly successful alt-rock combo Chocolat before going solo with his distinctive blend of Dylanesque folk rock, twangy alt-country and synth-laden pop evoking everything from late-seventies Bowie to the early 1990s British shoegaze scene.

Like so many Quebec artists, Hunt's acclaim, while widespread in his own province, has largely ground to a halt at the provincial borders, forcing to look across the pond for touring opportunities. Which is a real pity given that his poetry remains firmly rooted in the scenery and vibes of the city of Montreal, particularly in his critically acclaimed latest album Maladie d'amour, which beautifully merges his many and varied musical influences. If anybody truly captures Montreal's inimitable street vibe, it's this guy. And Montreal, last time I checked, was still in Canada. So it would be worth the rest of Canada's time to give this Jimmy Hunt guy a chance.

3. Forêt

Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Dreampop, Trip Hop
Recommended for fans of: Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, Lamb, St. Vincent, Portishead

Montreal's rich musical legacy has generally come in two flavours: French and English, with the city's Francophone artists usually taking their cues from Paris and their Anglo counterparts from London and New York. But while the political divide between French and English Canada has never been more pronounced, there are signs that the artistic (or at least the musical) divide is starting to narrow. Case in point is the highly acclaimed new group Forêt, a group that's been lauded by numerous Quebec music critics as a breath of fresh air in the province's music scene. Unlike the electropop of groups like Le Couleur that hearken to Daft Punk, Stereolab and other continental artistes, vocalist Émilie Laforest and her group combine French-language lyrics with a very British sound evocative of Cocteau Twins' hypnotic dream pop and the melancholy trip hop of Portishead - one of the band's oft-stated seminal influences.

With Laforest's haunting, Liz Fraser-esque vocals and Joseph Marchard's shoegazey guitar work, Forêt is most definitely a departure from the music typically associated with La Belle Province. And as a brand new act (only a couple of years old), these trippy Montrealers make great candidates for some serious music bridge-building with the rest of Canada - if the rest of Canada can get over its phobia of French-language lyrics. But in the shoegaze/dream pop genre, the lyrics really don't matter much, do they? After all, is there a single Cocteau Twins or Slowdive song where the lyrics were actually intelligible?

4. Lisa LeBlanc

Origin: Rosaireville, NB
Style: Alt-Country, Blues Rock
Recommended for fans of: Dixie Chicks, Riff Cohen, Bonnie Raitt, Karen Zoid

It should be noted at this point that La Belle Province is not the only provincial player in Canada's Francophone music scene. New Brunswick's 200,000-strong Acadian population (roughly a third of the province's population) has long had an outsized artistic presence, fired up by a turbulent history and a gnawing aggravation from having been forgotten about by both Quebec and English Canada in equal measure. While Acadian music remains, for most Canadians, synonymous with cheesemeister Roch Voisine, the Acadians' long tradition of great poetry has made Francophone New Brunswick a treasure trove of great singer-songwriters, including the late Angèle Arsenault, legendary hillbilly-hippy country star Réginald "Cayouche" Gagnon and the multitalented singer-poet-actor Marie-Jo Thério.

The latest addition to the ongoing Acadian musical love-in is the young and sassy Lisa LeBlanc and her unique brand of twangy, raunchy 'trash rock' delivered in the characteristic 'Chiac' dialect of northern New Brunswick - a blend of French, English and lumberjack drawl. At 23, LeBlanc is getting a great deal of exposure in the Francophone media, and her star is clearly rising. At any rate she should made a refreshing departure from Roch Voisine's suburban fromage.

5. Syncop

Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Worldbeat, Reggae
Recommended for fans of: Abdel Ali Slimani, Michael Franti, Riff Cohen, Asian Dub Foundation

For a province that gets more than its share of flak from English Canada for its supposed isolationism and ethnocentrism, Quebec is a pretty diverse place. Roughly ten per cent of Quebec's population belongs to a visible minority, putting it smack dab in the middle of the provincial pack and only a tiny bit below the national average of 11 per cent. That said, Quebec's "ethnics" (to quote Jacques Parizeau) are disproportionately concentrated in the Montreal region (and to a lesser degree in Quebec City), with the 'Pure Laine' rural ridings, with their outsized electoral sway, ensuring that the xenophobes in the Parti Québécois have plenty of ethnocentric outrage to tap into. But even this is slowly weakening, as the latest provincial election results would suggest.

It's worth noting, particularly amid the recent anti-religious accoutrement hysteria in Quebec, that the province's third most widely spoken language (after French and English) is Arabic, a fact due primarily to immigration from the former French colonies in North Africa, as well as from former French Middle Eastern mandates Syria and Lebanon. Arab cultural influence is particularly evident in the city of Montreal, and is starting to find its way into the local scene thanks to worldbeat artists like Karim Benzaïd, the Algerian-born frontman of the popular Afro/Arab/reggae crossover project Syncop. Founded in 1998, Syncop mixes Berber-style raï and chaoui music together with reggae, hip hop and Afrobeat, with lyrics centred on the immigrant experience in Montreal. Their party vibe coupled with punny titles like Scirocco d'érable and Cabane à souk have made them festival favourites.

6. Ponctuation

Origin: Quebec City, QC
Style: Garage Rock, Punk
Recommended for fans of: The Who, The Cramps, Ramones, The White Stripes

Thus far with the exception of Lisa LeBlanc this list has focussed solely on the city of Montreal, but with half of Quebec's population living outside the Montreal region, it's only fair that the rest of the province be given its due attention. Further up the St. Lawrence River in the province's eponymous capital city, a smaller but nonetheless energetic music scene has long churned out great artists, including iconic poet-musician-activists Félix Leclerc and Gilles Vigneault, legendary theatre artist Robert Lepage and, of course, Q-pop starlet-turned-media personality Mitsou. Having long been overshadowed by Montreal on the global music scene, Quebec City has, out of necessity, grown a scene all its own, but thanks to a thriving club scene and steady tourism revenue, the town continues to do well artistically.

One of Quebec City's most interesting current band is the gnarly garage rock duo Ponctuation, made up of brothers Guillaume and Maxime Chiasson. With Guillaume on guitar and vocals and Maxime on drums, Ponctuation's gritty analogue recordings and stripped down garage punk sound makes them one of the most refreshing rock acts to come out of anywhere in Canada in recent years - let alone poor, neglected Quebec City. Established in 2011, Ponctuation are definitely a band to watch - and yet another candidate for some welcome language divide-bridging.

7. Dubmatique

Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Hip Hop, Acid Jazz
Recommended for fans of: Gang Starr, Mos Def, MC Solaar

While French-language music in Quebec has generally taken its cues from across the Atlantic in France, one notable area of musical divergence between the two French-speaking "nations" in the domain of hip hop. Since its first appearance in the banlieues of Paris in the early 1980s, rap music has been embraced by the French (particularly within its Afro-Caribbean immigrant community) like few other countries, and today France is the world's second largest hip hop market after the US, with French rappers like MC Solaar, Doc Gynéco and La Fouine achieving international success. Quebec, on the other hand, has been much slower to embrace hip hop music and culture, perhaps out of a knee-jerk resistance to perceived Americanization. (Indeed MC Solaar among others have criticized their country's scene for being overly derivative of American hip hop.)

But while Montreal still miles behind Toronto as a hip hop city, beats and rhymes are on the rise in this increasingly cosmopolitan metropolis, thanks in large part to increased immigration from the same cultural influences that brought the genre to France. Among the scenes most notable pioneers are the duo Dubmatique, featuring the duo of Cameroonian-born Jérôme-Philippe "Disoul" Bélinga and Senegalese-born Ousmane "OT MC" Traoré. Founded in 1992, the group's acid jazz-infused freestyle and Solaar-esque word craft made them Canada's first commercially successful Francophone hip hop act. Today Disoul and OT remain Quebec's hip hop "elder statesmen" and are frequently called upon to speak about the state of the current Montreal scene.

8. Le Couleur

Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Synth Pop, Disco
Recommended for fans of: Dragonette, Daft Punk, M83, Depeche Mode, Serge Gainsbourg

Both Montreal and Buenos Aires vie for the title 'Paris of the western hemisphere'. Generally speaking Montreal hits closer to the mark - both in terms of language and pop culture proclivities. Quebec's largest city has long taken many of its cultural cues from Paris, and nowhere more so than in the former's long love for schmaltzy synth pop music. It was Montreal that gave the world synth pop icons Men Without Hats in the 1980s as well as bubblegum pop princess Mitsou, and the genre has continued to thrive in the city, inspired by the likes of Daft Punk, Air and M83 across the pond. The genre also spans the city's linguistic divide, featuring notable Anglo-Quebec artists like Chromeo and Vancouver-born Claire "Grimes" Boucher (just goes to show Francophone names can be deceptive - just ask Jimmy Hunt) as well as numerous Francophone standouts in the genre.

Newcomers Le Couleur are the latest exponents of a genre synonymous with Canada's sexiest metropolis. Bilingual, kitschy, sexy and unapologetically hipsterish, Le Couleur hearkens to late-1970s, early-1980s Eurotrash disco pop along the lines of Giorgio Moroder and Gainsbourg's Love on the Beat era, an influence further emphasized by vocalist Laurence Giroux-Do's lighter-than-air Jane Birkin-esque vocals. Established in 2008, this combo has a well established fan base in La Belle Province and has toured extensively in Europe, and this year have made inroads into the English-speaking world, albeit in the UK courtesy of Liverpool's Sound City Festival. Western Canada next? We can only hope.

9. Akitsa

Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Black Metal
Recommended for fans of: Gorgoroth, Bathory, Burzum, Rudra

I have to be honest here - I really can't tell the difference between all the myriad different sub-genres of extreme metal out there. While many of my best friends are metalheads and I certainly have an abiding respect for a music style that perhaps more than any other has managed to implant itself in virtually every part of the world, the evolutionary family tree of metal has become so dizzyingly complex (perhaps a reflection of its global ubiquitousness) that I really can't begin to tell the difference between so-called 'black metal' and other subgenres like 'doom metal', 'technical death metal', 'goregrind', 'deathgrind', 'mathcore', 'war metal', 'blackened death metal', 'seared and pan-fried trout metal in a white wine sauce' et cetera. So if you're one of my metalhead readers - and I know you guys are sensitive about people getting this taxonomy wrong - I would love a tutorial on how to navigate my way through this terminological labyrinth.

All I know for sure about the Montreal-based group Akitsa is that they are officially categorized as 'black metal', putting them in the same genre as the infamous Scandinavian noise merchants Gorgoroth, Bathory and Burzum that more or less defined the idiom. Other than that, all I could really ascertain about these guys is that they were founded in 1999 and are still apparently active (but with no locatable website), they have two permanent members (OT and Néant) who play 'all instruments', and that they 'sing' in French. C'est tout! The one interview I could find with the band, by some Finnish guy back in 2001, raises more questions than it answers. Anyone know more about these guys? I'm intrigued.

10. Samian

Origin: Abitibi-Témiscamingue, QC
Style: Hip Hop
Recommended for fans of: Rezofficial, Eekwol, Eminem

Quebec's Aboriginal population may only be two per cent of the province's total (Alberta's is over five per cent), but the province's ten First Nations and 13 Inuit settlements have long punched above their weight politically thanks to their vastness of their traditional lands, which represent over half of Quebec's total territory. Quebec's Aboriginal leaders have historically never been afraid to assert themselves in the face of provincial governments indifferent to their cultural and economic needs and desires (including an ongoing threat to 'separate' from Quebec in the case of a vote to withdraw from Confederation), up to and including armed standoffs with the provincial police. That said, the post-Oka story of Aboriginal relations in La Belle Province has been relatively serene, and while many of the province's more isolated indigenous communities remain mired in poverty and social ills, many other communities have enjoyed steady economic growth and improving quality of life indicators.

While Aboriginal artists' impact on Quebec's music scene has generally been limited, the most notable exception in recent decades has been the acclaimed Innu folk rock duo Kashtin, whose trilingual (French, English and Innu) songs gained brief international fame thanks to Robbie Robertson's 1994 album Music for the Native Americans and cameos in the soundtracks for shows like Northern Exposure and Due South and the Bruce McDonald rez drama Dance Me Outside. Currently the province's fastest rising Aboriginal star is young rapper Samuel Tremblay better known by the stage name Samian. A member of the Abitibiwinni First Nation north of Val-d'Or in western Quebec, Samian raps in French and Algonquin and achieved a critical breakthrough in 2010 thanks to an appearance at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. With two albums and concert appearances in Europe and China under his belt, this Franco-Algonquin hip hop star is definitely worth following.

Bonne écoute!

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