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.
Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Glam Rock, Post-Punk, Electroclash
Recommended for fans of: T. Rex, The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Libertines
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
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.
Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Dreampop, Trip Hop
Recommended for fans of: Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, Lamb, St. Vincent, Portishead
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
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.
Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Worldbeat, Reggae
Recommended for fans of: Abdel Ali Slimani, Michael Franti, Riff Cohen, Asian Dub Foundation
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.
Origin: Quebec City, QC
Style: Garage Rock, Punk
Recommended for fans of: The Who, The Cramps, Ramones, The White Stripes
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.
Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Hip Hop, Acid Jazz
Recommended for fans of: Gang Starr, Mos Def, MC Solaar
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
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.
Origin: Montreal, QC
Style: Black Metal
Recommended for fans of: Gorgoroth, Bathory, Burzum, Rudra
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.
Origin: Abitibi-Témiscamingue, QC
Style: Hip Hop
Recommended for fans of: Rezofficial, Eekwol, Eminem
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.