When Olivier Demers first met his musical partner, Nicolas Boulerice, about 13 years ago, he had been playing violin in chamber orchestras and jazz groups.
Through that meeting, Demers was introduced to the traditional folk music of Quebec, known as Quebecois music. He fell in love with it, and has been working with Boulerice ever since, performing internationally with Quebecois group Le Vent du Nord.
“When I met [Boulerice], he made me discover that music,” Demers said during a phone interview from his home in Montreal. “Since that time, I have dedicated my life to that music.”
Le Vent du Nord will help bring an international flair to the 28th annual Old Songs folk festival, which will take place Friday through Sunday, at Altamont Fairgrounds in Altamont. On Saturday, the group will perform at the main stage concert, which begins at 7 p.m., as well as a handful of smaller shows and workshops throughout the festival. For a complete schedule of all events at this year’s Old Songs Festival, visit www.oldsongs.org.
Formed in 2002
At first glance, Le Vent du Nord would seem to be an unusual choice of performers at a festival called Old Songs. The group’s four members, consisting of Demers, Boulerice on hurdy gurdy and accordion, guitarist Simon Beaudry and bassist Réjean Brunet, are all in their early 30s, and the band itself only formed in 2002.
Old Songs Festival
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: Altamont Fairgrounds, Altamont
How much: Adults $100, $115 with camping; $65 for ages 18 to 25 with camping; $50 for ages 13 to 18, camping free with an adult, for all three days. For individual events, check www.oldsongs.org.
More info: 765-2815 or www.oldsongs.org.
But since then, Le Vent du Nord has been gaining attention in international folk circles for its recordings, three studio albums so far of traditional, often-rare Quebecois songs, interspersed with original material that builds on these traditions. The group has won numerous awards, including best traditional artist from the North American Folk Music and Dance Association in 2006.
The name Le Vent du Nord translates to “The Wind of the North.” The band originally formed out of an album recorded by Demers and Boulerice in 2001.
Quebecois music developed in French Canada over the past 400 years to include elements of Celtic music and instrumental reels, as well as traditional French songs. The members of Le Vent du Nord aim to continue this tradition, using only acoustic instruments and researching their traditional material through texts, recordings and even their own families.
“There’s a lot of joy, energy, vital energy; the music is very powerful. It’s just that no matter how well you play it, this music is played all over here with passion in the late evening,” Demers said. “You know, still now we meet in our living rooms and play that music all night. In Le Vent du Nord, we want to reflect that type of energy in the show and not lose that original meaning of the music.”
Respect for the music
The band tries to record rare songs.
“We don’t want to record music from other CDs. So we do the research, a lot of it in our families, old tapes from evenings in the ’60s and ’70s,” Demers said. “When friends will give us that particular rare tune, there’s the question of confidence, and our translation is based on the confidence that we’re not stealing it, but having it for a real purpose, for real meaning, to put that music in the larger public, but with respect of that music.”
In keeping with tradition, the band’s song lyrics are all in French. That presents a language barrier issue for English-speaking audiences, although this is relatively minor, said Demers.
“The language barrier, it’s there for the comprehension of the lyrics, but the energy of the tunes and the songs, the reels and the jigs, is very communicative; there’s no barrier there,” Demers said. “And on the Web site [www.leventdunord.com], we have translations of the lyrics in English for those who want to clarify the lyrics, although sometimes that’s not a good idea. Sometimes, the lyrics are just crazy, a little bit of an unclear message because it’s a drinking song; there’s a lot of lying songs.”
A “lying song,” as Demers explained, will often have nonsensical lyrics set to traditional Quebecois music.
“Life was very hard, and people had to take it with a little bit of a sunny side,” Demers said. “They reflect that in the lyrics of the song, compose very, very crazy things.”
There are other times, though, when the English translation does make sense, as with the song “Rosette,” which opens up the group’s most recent album, 2007’s “Dans les Airs.”
“Also the poetry in the tradition is very interesting,” Demers said. “In the song ‘Rosette,’ there is a description between a man and a woman who have been away from each other. Finally, the boy doesn’t love the lady anymore, because she was cheating when he was away. So he said, ‘I will give you a ring that will never hurt your finger,’ but he doesn’t give her the ring. It’s a way to twist it to say something very simple, but that means a lot of things.”
Covering the world
Le Vent du Nord will join Galitcha, a group that fuses traditional Indian music and jazz, at Old Songs this year. Each year, the festival’s organizers attempt to include a variety of world music in the lineup, according to director Kay “Andy” Spence, one of Old Songs’ original incorporators in 1977.
“We’ve presented music from Vietnam, China, France, Scotland and Brittany,” Spence said. “We’ve tried to cover the world the best we can based on our meager finances.”
And Le Vent du Nord and Galiticha are only two of about 80 or 90 artists in this year’s Old Songs lineup. The festival focuses on acoustic music of all genres, although this year there is a little more emphasis on blues music, said Spence.
Workshops and participatory events are a large part of Old Songs, as well. In this vein, Le Vent du Nord will host an “accordion jam” at 4:15 p.m. Saturday.
This is Le Vent du Nord’s first year at Old Songs. The band has performed in Albany and has worked with students at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. Demers also performed at Old Songs a few years ago with a different group.
“I remember a lot of good moments from that festival,” Demers said. “I like the size also, it’s not too big. You have very personal contact with the audience.”
With all of the performing the group does in the U.S., traditional American folk music has begun to seep into the band’s sound. However, Demers said that this doesn’t take away from the group’s mission to keep traditional Quebecois music alive.
“On the last album, in my composition for the guys, they told me it sounds a little bit like a twist of American music,” Demers said, referring to one of the songs he wrote on the group’s last album. “I didn’t realize it, but it’s part of the moving tradition; it’s the same as when the Irish came here and brought their music. It became Quebec tradition. . . . It’s very imortant to not just stop that evolution there but continue to be a part of that movement; it’s really a movement. There’s so [much] nice traditional music in the States, why not be influenced by it?”