By Colin Ryan
It’s pronounced keh-beh-kwa, and it is the traditional dance, percussion and song of French-Canadians and Franco-Americans. Last week, Williston Central School students were introduced to Québécois, the country dances and call-and-response laughter-filled songs of French Canada.
French teacher Michele Choiniere arranged the event as a cultural component of the school’s French curriculum. Thanks to her efforts, the students learned about Québécois music from an impressive set of instructors.
For the demonstration, Choiniere had the help of two Montreal-based fellow musicians, accordionist Sabin Jacques and pianist Rachel Aucoin. Originally from the Gaspé peninsula,Jacqueshas played the accordion since age 14. He is widely regarded as one of Québec's top accordionists, and has played at festivals internationally and on many albums.
Aucoin has also recorded with various artists, and is considered one of the best Québécois-style accompanists. Both Sabin and Rachel provided the accompaniment for the workshop held Tuesday, March 29 in the school auditorium.
Choiniere, a Franco-American and native of Vermont, is every bit an artist in her own right. From an early age she played traditional Franco-American music with her father, an accomplished harmonica player. In 1995, she began writing and composing her own songs and performing for audiences throughout New England, Quebec and France. In 2003, Michele self-released her debut solo album, “Coeur Fragile,” which was recognized as one of the top 10 Vermont albums of 2003 by the newsweekly Seven Days.
The workshop, which helped the French students learn traditional quadrille dancing, dance games and percussion with bones and spoons, was led by Benoit Bourque of the Montreal-based Québécois group, Le Vent Du Nord (“Northern Wind”). In 2004, Le Vent du Nord’s recording “Maudite moisson!” won a prestigious Juno ( Canada’s version of the Grammy awards) for best traditional music album.
“Rather than pressure the students to try something new, we worked hard to create this opportunity for the students,” Choiniere said. “Because of this, they can sing traditional songs and learn from the most famous step dancer in Quebec.”
Bourque is an energetic, charming sort of an artist. His eyes sparkle and his laugh is contagious — and so is his love of dance and song. His lighthearted persona made it easy for the students to catch a glimpse into the exuberance and community of Québécois, and helped them throw themselves into something new.
New for them, that is. Québécois music traces its origins to a blending of cultures during North America’s colonial days. The Scots came to the New World for the fur trade, and Irish immigrants built canals around Montreal during the Irish potato famine. Both influenced the repertoire of the local folk music of the day, which became Québécois.
Bourque clearly enjoys teaching Québécois, and he humored, cajoled, and encouraged the students to embrace the music. He sat them in a circle and taught them to play clappers made of animal bone, laughing at the curiosity his odd instruments raise.
"Spoons and bones are played in many countries, including France, the U.S., Sweden, Switzerland, England, Ireland, Scotland and Spain," he explains.
“You’re doing very well, but remember that in my tradition, a good step dancer can dance with a glass of water on his head,” Bourque said, as students’ eyebrows raised in disbelief. Then the youthful artist clapped his hands and laughed. “Try again!”
In addition to dancing and singing, Bourque plays the accordion, guitar, mandolin, and jaw harp. He has represented Québec in the North American and European folk music circuits for 25 years. He has a reputation as an inspired dancer, a choreographer and teacher, and a multi-talented instrumentalist.
He toured all over North America with the group Éritage, performing on the group’s five albums, and then as the artistic director of the troupe Les Éclusiers de Lachine. All the while, he has led step dance and traditional dance workshops in France and in North America.
“This is so fun!” one student exclaimed.
Although students took great pleasure in the lessons, the workshop wasn’t merely an exercise. The following day, the students displayed their newly learned skills for their fellow students, parents and the general public during two performances. In addition, the audience enjoyed a concert of traditional songs sung by the students and led by Choiniere.
Bourque insists that what makes Québécois music special is its combination of infectious energy and its community roots.
"Québécois music to many ears is a mix between Irish and Cajun. And there's also an aspect that's very strong in Québécois music — to just share with your neighbors, friends and family,” he says. “The music is meant to bring people together."