French Canadians have a long history of being misunderstood. Only seven million or so people out of Canada’s 34 million total speak French as their primary language, and most of them live in a single province, Quebec. They live on an island of francais in an ocean of English.
But there’s more than just the language barrier.
Misunderstandings over politics, religion, social identity and cultural traditions have colored, and occasionally seriously strained, Anglo-French relations in Canada for centuries. Happily, these things often tend to even out over time—perhaps as some sort of sly, karmic payback, Quebec is now home to some of the hippest, happiest music on the planet.
Genticorum, a traditional music “power trio” based in Montreal, Quebec, plays a kind of music that’s as misunderstood as any style in North America. Like their confreres in La Bottine Souriante, Les Chauffeurs á Pied, Le Vent du Nord and other traditionally minded Quebec bands, Genticorum is deeply rooted in the history and culture of French Canada, playing music that is similar to—but also very unlike—the music of Canada’s other traditional music hotbeds, Cape Breton and the Ottawa Valley.
Genticorum was formed in 2000, the three musicians in the band—Pascal Gemme (fiddle, foot percussion, vocals), Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand (wooden flute, electric bass, fiddle, vocals) and Yann Falquet (guitar, Jew’s harp, vocals)—having become friends after playing together at various traditional music festivals.
“We all discovered the traditional music of Quebec before we met,” says Grosbois-Garand. “We all studied instruments that we don’t play in the band. I studied bass and I play the flute. Yann studied electric guitar and he plays acoustic guitar. Pascal studied guitar and he plays fiddle.”
The traditional music of Quebec is a unique and totally captivating blend of musical ideas from near and far. “It comes from Irish and Scottish and music from France,” says Grobois-Garand by way of explanation. “There is a big so-called Celtic flair to it because there are a lot of Irish and Scottish reels that have become Québécois reels. Sometimes the reels will change a bit, or the way of playing them. That mixed with the French song tradition and marching band music from the United States and German polkas and waltzes.
“All that mixed together over a few centuries into what we refer to as Québécois traditional music. Most of the bands, including us, will focus more on the party aspect of it. But we try also to play some laments and some waltzes because it’s not just fast reels and call-and-response drinking songs. There’s much more than that, so we try to give the diversity of the tradition.”
The traditional music of Quebec contains several musical elements that set it apart not just from the Celtic music mainstream but also the regional Canadian styles of Cape Breton and the Ottawa Valley. The most obvious to casual listeners is probably the sound of the singing. The vocals are in French and are characterized by lush multi-part harmonies, call-and-response (chanson à répondre) choruses and a sonic richness not found in most traditional styles. Some of Genticorum’s vocal harmonies have an ancient sound that’s at times reminiscent of medieval madrigals. The band is also adept at a form of “mouth music” called turlutteries (conceptually similar to jazz scat singing or lilting in Irish music).
Driving, intricate “foot percussion”—provided by Pascal Gemme in the case of Genticorum—is one of the coolest parts of traditional Québécois music. Not only does this provide the band with a percussionist at no extra cost, a real boon for a small group like Genticorum, it adds an exciting touch to performances that audiences love, as well as a distinctive rhythmic signature that is quintessentially Québécois.
Maybe someday in the future, a musicologist or anthropologist will explain the astonishing, at times nearly unbelievable, facility that Canadian fiddlers appear to have for dancing while they fiddle, from Natalie MacMaster’s step-dancing to the ensemble work of the Step Crew to the seated tap dancing done by Gemme. If it were just one or two fiddlers who did this, it could be written off to individual obsession and long winters, but it seems like every fiddler who comes out of Canada possesses this wonderfully strange talent. Curious, eh?
Genticorum has released four critically acclaimed albums since 2002. The band’s debut, Le Galarneau, received widespread acclaim in the international music press. Sing Out noted accurately that “For a three piece, Genticorum makes a very full and glorious noise, both instrumentally and vocally” before predicting, “This is a band that’s going to go places.” The follow-up, Malins Plaisirs, earned a Canadian Folk Music Award, Ensemble of the Year, for the trio and was nominated for both Juno (Canada’s Grammy) and Felix (a regional prize in Quebec).
While their CD La Bibournoise, released in 2008, received international recognition, Genticorum’s most recent album, Nagez Rameurs, was released in 2011 and was promptly hailed as “one of the year’s most unusual and beautiful collections of folk music” (New York Post). Graced by a particularly compelling collection of traditional and original songs and tunes and guest appearances by such musicians as Grey Larsen and Olivier Demers (Le Vent du Nord), Nagez Rameurs won Genticorum its second Ensemble of the Year award at the 2011 Canadian Folk Music Awards.
At last count, Genticorum has performed in almost 20 countries. The band has found enthusiastic audiences wherever it has played, from Scotland and Ireland to New Zealand and Australia. “We are within a certain tradition and play with a certain aesthetic, without really radical changes,” says Yann Falquet of the band’s wide-ranging appeal. “And people are able to enjoy it for what it is, whether they are Scottish folkies or Malaysian teenagers.” And pretty much everybody in between.
Cityfolk presents Genticorum, Sat. Feb 25 at Stivers Centennial Hall at 8 PM. Info and tickets are available at cityfolk.org or 937-496-3863.
(submitted by Jon Hartley Fox for Cityfolk)