De Temps Antan will tell you: There’s no right place to learn a song. They’ve picked up tunes in sugar shacks on the U.S.-Canadian border as the maple sap bubbled. They’ve spent weeks digging through tens of thousands of ditties in university archives. They’ve learned ballads from granddads and uncles, in villages where thousands of traditional songs are alive and thriving.
But there is a right way to perform them: with all the foot-stomping, tongue-twisting energy of a good old Quebecois family party. That’s why the trio of veteran French Canadian roots musicians laughs out loud, dashes out a virtuosic stream of mouth music, or clogs for all their worth. The music demands it.
“For us, it’s not only the story of the music we need to tell,” exclaims accordionist Pierre-Luc Dupuis, “but we try to live the story on stage, to really get across what you’d hear and feel and do during a family party.”
All three musicians hail from small Quebecois towns and majorly musical families. They grew up hearing relatives jam on fiddle and guitar, or following their lead on the call-and-response songs common at kitchen parties. The echoes of these good times ring on the fun-loving Cajun-flavored “La maison reenforcée,” learned in a sugar shack, or the onomatopoeic original “Pétipetan,” both from Habits de Papier.
Yet the trio also followed their roots deeper—and further afield—transforming tradition with fresh, technically astute musicianship. These roots extend into the difficult past endured by Francophone communities in North America and show the musical ingenuity of generations of Quebecois.
The fancy footwork the trio does—all three bring their footboards to tap on tour—stems from the days long ago when dance parties, powered by a lone fiddler, needed a good strong beat to keep the couples going. The solution: sit the fiddler on the table and let him tap his feet. “To amplify the foot tapping, the fiddler would get up on the table and tap in middle of kitchen,” Dupuis notes. “That would make it much louder and get everyone in the whole house dancing.”
Festive mouth music numbers like the quicksilver “La turlutte de rotoculteur” also have a long (and tragic) history: “It’s a way to remember a tune, or dance without an instrument,” explains Dupuis. “I’ve heard, for example, that when the French settlers were driven out of the Maritimes centuries ago, they used turlutte to avoid losing their repertoire.”
De Temps Antan, a double-entendre name meaning both “from time to time” and “in olden days,” got together as a side project when Dupuis, guitarist Éric Beaudry, and fiddle player André Brunet were playing with the Quebecois super group La Bottine Souriente. Practicing and performing the occasional gig when they had the time, De Temps Antan honed both their musical bonhomie and their ability to move large crowds. “Our approach has stayed the same in many ways, even though we are a much smaller band,” Dupuis says. “You have to play grooves and have fun on stage. You have to be tight and keep the same energy.”
Now that the time-and-again project has become a full-time deal, the group is on a constant quest for interesting old material. They have scoured archives, uncovering gems like the sorrowful “Jeune et Joli.” They have learned from older musicians, like Gaspé fiddler Édouard Richard sand his reels (one forms part of “Roma au lac bell”). They have heard new songs among friends, relatives, and neighbors: Beaudry’s hometown of Saint-Côme is famous in Quebec traditional music circles as the capital of traditional song, and Beaudry managed to collect more than 1,000 tunes there.
The group loves experimenting with new sounds for these old chestnuts. Take “Dominic a Marcel,” a silly song with some serious grit. “The song comes from Nova Scotia, but we decided to plug the bouzouki into an old amp for this grungy sound,” Dupuis recalls. “We were inspired by the southern musicians we’ve played with over the past few years at festivals, all the bluegrass and old-time and Cajun players we’ve met.”
De Temps Antan are also creating the traditional favorites of the future, like Brunet’s gentle “La fée des dents,” an homage to the tooth fairy’s arrival, following a long line of songwriters and tunesmiths who created Quebec’s rich musical heritage. “You can play traditional tunes all your life, but if you don’t compose new stuff, there won’t be any traditional stuff to play,” Dupuis comments. “We have lots of great composers in Quebec who add new rich tunes to the traditional repertoire. Our grandparents composed, and we’re keeping that tradition alive.”
Guest post via WMNW