by Paula E. Kirman
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of Cameo, an Alberta-based Arts magazine. It turned out to be Cameo’s final issue. My editor for that publication commented that this was one of the most deeply-researched articles he had ever worked with.
If you ask an Albertan about their favourite local musicians, most will rave about a band or solo artist who performs in English. But if you speak to one of the 80,000 Franco-Albertans you may get a different response.
For generations Franco-Albertans have been making music that reflects their experiences, especially as people with a minority language and culture. While the current music scene is as diverse as the community it speaks to and from, language and the Franco-Albertan attitude is what marks it for distinction.
Most Franco-Albertan musicians perform all or mostly in French to preserve their language and culture. And the roots run deep. Francophones have been in Alberta since the fur trading days of the mid-1700s. But even as a founding people and with strength in numbers, Francophones are still in the minority. Unlike some Quebecers, few Albertans live exclusively in French.
As a result, explains Joël Lajoie, Franco-Albertan musicians often perform in both official languages. Lajoie, 22, is host of Le Gros Show, a French radio program heard every Tuesday evening on CJSR, the University of Alberta campus station. He often plays music from local French releases and live performances. “Franco-Albertan artists can go either way, but because they have a language that they work well with, they have decided to go that route instead of the English route.”
To Pierre-Paul Bugeaud, who was born in Bonnyville and raised in Spirit River, the reason for choosing French is clear: “The joie de vivre. It is just so much more fun. The culture comes into play at that point. In an Anglophone band it was more business-like and more ‘let’s get to the point and do it.’ In the Francophone band we joke around, do it, then laugh about it afterwards.” Bugeaud is a string bass player who has performed in Edmonton since 1976. He currently plays with a jazz trio consisting of a sax player and his pianist-brother.
“Your native language is what is going to keep you going,” affirms Yvon Loiselle. “It is what makes your culture. This is something that is difficult to understand in English because it is not necessarily a culturally defining language, unless you go to Newfoundland, or to Cockney places in England where the language really describes what it is to be who you are.”
Loiselle knows what it is like to be in the minority. Born in Ontario to Francophone parents, he did not learn to speak English until he was five. After high school he moved to Alberta and started writing songs on a dare from his brother. It took eight months to write his first one but Loiselle’s efforts paid off when he won in the songwriting category of the first Gala Albertain de la Chanson, a yearly competition founded in 1989. Several of Loiselle’s songs are on compilations produced by the CBC and RADO (Regroupment des Artistes De l’Ouest Canadien/ Collection of Western Canadian Artists). He also performs regularly at La Fête Franco-Albertain, a yearly Francophone celebration, this year held the last week of June in Fort McMurray.
Of the French community in Alberta, Loiselle says “we are realizing that we are one community amongst an international language and culture. There are things which tie us together with other parts where French is spoken, like Madagascar, Acadia, and New Brunswick. I feel a need to write in my native language. It is not political, it is cultural. It identifies me; it defines who I am.”
Even for someone like Jason Kodie, who lives and performs mostly in English, roots are hard to shake. Kodie, 28, is an accordionist with Hookahman, one of the biggest bands, literally, in Edmonton–it has nine members. Their music features an eclectic array of instruments and genres from polka, to reggae, to pop. While Kodie is French Canadian, Hookahman’s two CDs only feature a few French songs, but their live show lets loose with French, Spanish, and Russian. “I lived in Québec for many years, and when I was a kid we used to have kitchen jams. It’s part of my culture, part of my life.”
For others, performing in French is about comfort and expression. Christian Villeneuve, 19, a member of Jellybean, an Edmonton-based funk band, and an unnamed folk duo explains that “French has a better effect; it’s more of a romantic language than English. I often use both languages in one song just because French is smoother and more poetic. English is coarser and more aggressive.”
Crystal Plamondon agrees, “In French, ballads are way more beautiful just because the language is more romantic and sexy. You can say things that you can’t say in English,” she laughs. “But in general, when I am writing, whatever comes out–either French or English– that’s how it comes out.” Plamondon is Canada’s Cajun queen; her unique blend of country, pop, and zydeco spans three languages–English, French, and Cree. A native of Plamondon, Alberta, a town founded by her great-grandfather, she performs to audiences around Canada, including the televised Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill.
Etienne Grangé, singer/songwriter/guitarist with the Calgary-based band Alendaï, started writing and performing in French simply because it best suited his voice. “When I started writing I wrote in English, but my very strong accent sounded awkward, even to me,” he laughs. Grangé has lost none of his accent even though he immigrated from the Pyrenees Mountains in the south of France fifteen years ago. It only enhances the world-beat feel of Alendaï’s music, which embraces Celtic, African, and folk rhythms.
Despite pride for their mother tongue, not all performers with French roots want to be strictly labelled Francophone. Alex Mahé, a children’s entertainer living in St. Albert explains: “I get a little too held up in being only Franco; a lot of English-speaking people organizing festivals and shows may not contact me thinking I do only French.”
The native of St. Vincent, Alberta, from a farming family of ten children, has a lifelong love of working with kids. He was the first male graduate of the Early Childhood Education program at Grant MacEwan Community College (1981), and made up songs with the children in his class. After working at music full-time for over seven years he would definitely like to become better known. A career highlight included a community TV show some years back called Alex Mahé’s Goodtime Train. Mahé is currently exploring ways of getting his work into France and the States.
Les Bûcherons (The Lumberjacks) presents French folklore in the form of a duo consisting of Gilbert Parent and Declan Murphy, of Irish descent. The pair appear in concerts and festivals wearing lumberjack garb, and perform jig and folk music usually heard at such French events as la cabane à sucre (the Sugar Shack), known to English Canadians as the maple syrup pull. “We either perform all in French, all English, or bilingual,” says Parent, who used to dance in a jigging group in St. Paul called Les Blés d’Or (The Golden Wheat), and was “turned on fire” at the prospect of being able to both jig and perform music on stage.
Parent notices a difference between English and French audiences. “The English find our stuff fairly cute, while the French go, ‘oh, that’s old, that’s passé, we’ve had that, Grandma and Grandpa used to do that,” says Parent, whose audience is typically 60 to 70 per cent English.
Mahé is especially enthusiastic about bringing French to young people. “When I do school shows, I often play to students who are taking French as a second language. It’s always a challenge because a lot of them can’t speak much of the language. Some of them don’t know any at all. I am so surprised when Anglophone kids come up to me after the show and say, ‘You know, I didn’t understand everything, but I really enjoyed it.’ I think I bring a lot of good feelings towards the French language, helping to diffuse some of the fears they have,” he explains.
In fact, Marie-Josée Ouimet believes that well-known Francophone performers who broke through into the English market, like Roch Voisine and Celine Dion, should use their celebrity to further public acceptance of French music and language. “I think they should incorporate more French into their current work, because the English community will accept it because of their names,” says the 17-year-old who performs as a vocalist with Pierre-Paul Bugeaud’s trio. “I saw Celine Dion in concert last May; she sang only two songs in French. A big part of the audience was Francophone and that really disappointed us.”
While some Francophones feel that artists like Dion and Voisine sold out their French roots to cater to the English mass-market, 21 year old singer/songwriter/guitarist Pierre Sabourin doesn’t agree. “As a French artist, there is only so far you can go in Canada. You’re only going to sell to the French population. As for English music, it sells to both French and English.”
Lise Villeneuve, 21, Christian’s older sister and a bandmate of Loiselle in the pop trio Euphonie, agrees. “When you get to that level I don’t think you have much choice. If you want to be an international artist, sooner or later you have to sing in English. But I also think there is way to stay a Francophone artist as Daniel Bélanger [a singer/songwriter who’s albums consistently go gold in Québec] has done–he sings only in French and still makes it.”
CHALLENGES AND PERSEVERANCE
“Making it” in Québec and in Alberta involve two entirely different scenarios. Being a Franco-Albertan musician brings many challenges specific to a province where English is dominant. There are fewer people and venues. “We have some specific places like the French Canadian Associations, but we have toured Alberta over the past year and been pretty much everywhere,” says Lise Villeneuve, winner at the 1995 Gala Albertain de la Chanson in the performance (interpréte) category. “Now we have to find a way to move on either to different provinces, or to an English public.”
That might be easier said than done, according to Ouimet. “It’s hard to get your name known in the English community. It’s easy to be known in the Francophone community because it’s smaller, but then you have to try and break through in the English community, and that’s the hardest part.” Ouimet, who is in Grade 12 at École Maurice-Lavalee, was a competitor in the recent 8th Gala Albertain de la Chanson.
It is a competition that Sabourin knows well. In 1995, he won in the auteur-compositeur- interpréte (singer/songwriter) category, and went on to win the Western finals. One of his French folk-rock songs is currently in rotation at the CBC. He agrees with Ouimet that acceptance outside the French community is difficult. “It’s getting past those language barriers. A lot of people have a negative attitude to start off.”
In order to combat the problem of finding a performance venue, and to signify the presence of the French community in a concrete way, the Edmonton office of the French-Canadian Association of Alberta (l’Association Canadienne-Française de l’Alberta–Régionale d’Edmonton) commissioned La Cité Francophone, a community/cultural centre with a theatre and office space for French organizations and businesses. The building is located on Marie-Anne Gaboury street, named after the first French-Canadian woman to set foot on Western Canadian ground, and is across from the Faculté Saint-Jean, the French campus of the University of Alberta, Edmonton.
Still, this does not help those performers wishing to break out of the province towards national recognition. “The biggest challenge is exposure; getting out of the province, sharing the talent inter-provincially,” says Loiselle, who teaches music at a French St. Albert elementary school. He suggests that a series of concerts be established in Alberta, featuring artists from other provinces, in exchange for the opportunity to perform in their province.
To Charles Chenard, Director of Arts and Culture at the Edmonton office of the French Canadian Association of Alberta, the challenges of Francophone musicians are rooted in politics. “We’re caught between a rock and a hard place when trying to get funding from the recording industry,” he says.
“The Anglophone side often says there is funding on the Francophone side. About 97 per cent of the Francophone funding goes to Québec artists, while the million Francophones outside of Québec have trouble getting access to it, even though it is federally allocated.”
Politics come into play in areas other than financial support. Artists with English content often experience ironic problems of acceptance from both communities. “I have been successful in selling my cassettes in French immersion schools and festivals, but placing them in record stores have been more difficult,” says Mahé. “Where the people are primarily English, a lot of them are not interested in buying albums with French songs.” Likewise with French stores. “I had one distributor in Manitoba tell me he would not take my cassettes if there was one word of English.” In order to combat this problem, Mahé is undertaking the expensive task of recording an album in French and another in English.
Even with the broad range of her repertoire, Plamondon often finds herself in the same Catch-22 as Mahé. “Some record companies say I’m too French and some say I am too English,” she says. As a result, she is considering recording an all-French album in order to get more radio airplay in the East. And her live show? “Throughout Canada I can do my usual number of French songs in a show. The only place where I have to go all French is Quebéc.”
Plamondon, however, still sees being bilingual as an advantage. “I’ve had a lot of breaks because I sing in French. I think people remember me for that reason. If I was a totally English singer I’d have to move to Nashville to make it.”
Her career is definitely on an upswing — she recently released La Rousse Farouche and toured Québec and the Maritimes. “People are finally discovering me in the East,” she says. Plamondon, who now lives on a farm outside of Calgary, is on her way to an international reputation; she charted in France with her song “Capitaine.”
Most Franco-Albertan musicians have not had success like Plamondon–yet. The biggest challenge is simply making a living. “Once you have played in the small regional communities a couple of times, that’s it. What do you do?” asks Loiselle. “People have already seen you, if you are not drastically different each time you go, how are they going to be entertained? It just isn’t viable to be a Francophone artist in Alberta, and stay here.”
Patrick Spiers, 21, disagrees in some respects. “For someone who is trying to make themselves known, it is not that big of a problem in Alberta because the community is so small. Most of the people know who you are,” he says on the phone from school in Montréal. When at home in Alberta, he performs with IntelliBandzia.
“Alberta is full of small French communities. The challenge is to keep it going as a viable life, as a viable artform,” says Kodie.
As one who constantly observes the local French music scene–his own sister Josée is a well-known performer in the Francophone community–Lajoie sums it up the best: “Just staying Francophone is probably the biggest challenge.”
THERE ARE NO FRANCO-ALBERTAN SOVEREIGNTISTS
Despite its geographical distance from Alberta, and its ever-publicized political struggles with the rest of the country, Québec is still very important to Alberta’s Francophone musicians. It brings federal support for French culture and language and is the heart of the French Canadian music business.
“Sooner or later you have to go there,” emphasizes Lise Villeneuve, who holds a BA and works part time in a local theatre company. “It’s really easy to start out here because there is a lot of support, but eventually because of the limited market you have to go if you want to get really known.”
If the referendum had gone differently, Lajoie is certain the fallout would have been disastrous. “Québec is the only thing giving us some sort of recognition of our language. If Québec separated the Francophone community outside of Québec would decline dramatically. Without Québec, why have bilingualism? It is hard enough as it is. The Francophone community here and in other provinces is diminishing every year. Québec is still the backbone, the lifeline. I haven’t met a Franco-Albertan sovereigntist for the simple fact that that would kill him and his right to speak his language outside of Québec,” he adds.
Surprisingly, though, many Franco-Albertan musicians, especially younger ones, are as influenced by English as by French artists, if not more so. Says Spiers, “lots of music comes out of Québec, so we can’t help but be influenced by it, but the themes we sing about as far as being Franco-Albertans go, and the feel that we have in our music, and the attitude we have is not the same. It’s regional. Artists from Saskatchewan are not necessarily the same as artists from B.C.”
Lajoie programs a good deal of Le Gros Show to include popular Quebec artists such as Daniel Bélanger, Jean LeLoup, and Paul Piché – Québecois artists who sell a tremendous amount of albums in the East, but who are virtually unknown out West, even by the Francophone community. When Sabourin says that “there is little good French music over here,” the truth is that there is little good French music getting heard over here.
Christian Villeneuve finds that most of the Albertans listening to French music are older. “The youth in Alberta are not as into French music as they are into English music. Unless they are Quebécois who moved over here, no one knows about the big name French artists.”
Lajoie blames this on the American influence: “French music is not our number one thing. If we don’t have the French basics at home, we are completely immersed in an Anglophone society that is becoming more and more Americanized.”
For now, Lajoie is doing his part to guide young Franco-Albertans by studying to become a French Immersion teacher. “Music and TV are very big parts of everyone’s lives. If I can show my students French culture through music I’m doing a small part, but I’m keeping them alert–otherwise it’s just going to go right by them.”
Hopefully Franco-Albertan music will stop going right by English audiences. Whether they are known only in their community or beyond, French performers are alive and well in Alberta, and as demonstrated by their determination, they are becoming an integral part of the province’s music scene. As Loiselle says: “Franco-Albertan artists are existent in Alberta and we are talented and we can entertain people.”