Thursday, June 18, 2009

Deux solitudes

I tend not to get political on this blog, but sometimes stories come along that intersect with my life as a musician in Montreal. Big news here this week, on the eve of St-Jean, was the brouhaha over two anglophone acts performing at a St-Jean party.

For non-Québécois readers: St-Jean-Baptiste day, also known as the Fête nationale du Québec, is a summer statutory holiday taken to celebrate Quebec and its culture, originally to unite all the settlers in Lower Canada. More recently, with the separatist/souverainiste/indépendantiste movement in Quebec over the last 30-something years, it's become at times a fiercely nationalistic celebration.

The party in question, L'Autre St-Jean, was booked by a management company called C4. Two of the acts on the roster were Lake Of Stew and Bloodshot Bill - anglophone acts who call Quebec home. One of the co-sponsors of the party, the Association culturel Louis-Hébert, demanded that C4 drop them from the bill, stating that the St-Jean party should be a French-only affair. C4 refused, many Québecois (anglophone, francophone, and allophone alike) supported the two bands and C4, and the ACLH relented.

To me, this whole thing has always been a farce. St-Jean is a celebration of Quebec, and should not necessarily be French-only. The province, Montreal especially, has so many immigrant communities from all over la Francophonie, Latin America, as well as English- and French-speaking Quebecers. If the celebration is to be true to its roots - a reunion of all Canadiens - then it should embrace the whole spectrum of the Quebecois populace. Anglo Quebecers of my parents' generation question why English bands would want to play at a St-Jean party anyway (remnants of the hostile language politics of the '70s and '80s), but for me, I feel that I should be as welcome as a québécois de souche.

I've written about how the language barrier can exist among musicians here. I don't think that, in my generation, it's an intentional thing: I think it just happens. Students that move to Quebec from out-of-province or out-of-country to study at McGill or Concordia don't always experience the entirety of Montreal, especially the events that are held in more French-speaking settings.

My first McGill combo was made up of an anglophone trombone player from Ontario, and a Québécois rhythm section. Our coach, Rémi Bolduc, conducted rehearsals in both languages. From the outset, that was my impression of how the music scene here should be. One thing I love about Montreal is that there is a lot of crosstalk between different musical scenes, although I still think there could be more. The world music scene is predominantly French-speaking here, and a handful of musicians aside, it doesn't really interface with the Anglo hip-hop or R&B communities, even when there is artistic kinship. McGill and Université de Montréal foster very different scenes - I've met and played with a handful of UdeM students and alumni, but we seem to hang out at different places, for the most part.

There's some musicians here that are catalysts for the intersection of multiple cultures, musics, and languages - Kalmunity is a hub for all sorts of great players, MCs, and poets; Gordon Allen has set up L'Envers with like-minded Québécois; Tim Brady is a bright spark in the predominantly Francophone new music/actuelle community here. For my part, I've often been the only Anglo in a band, and I love that setting. I get to practice my French, for one, and the experience of growing up here is often vastly different than growing up in Toronto. There's a whole history of Québécois pop and rock that doesn't make it over to Toronto. I invited a Francophone percussionist onto an Anglo R&B gig, and I really hope that all of us collaborate in different settings more often. The Karkwatson shows last year - an amalgam of Patrick Watson and Karkwa - are hopefully previews of more cross-linguistic explorations to come.

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