Festival de Musique Emergente, Quebec

Image: Christian Leduc

To paraphrase a Godspeed album title, this year’s Festival de Musique Emergente lifted its skinny fists to the world and showed what it was made of. Like Tallinn Music Week in Estonia, FME shows that local and sustainable can also mean elegant and cool.

Held in Rouyn – Noranda and now in its tenth year Festival de Musique Emergente, otherwise known as Emerging Music Festival, itself emerged as an elegant solution to a local problem.

A pristine mining town in backwoods Quebec made a refreshing place to be turned into a pillar of salt by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.With most reunions the mystique flies as quickly as demons from the Ark in the Indiana Jones films. It’s to be hoped Godspeed record new music but here the signs looked good.

Photo: Christian Leduc

 Numbering eight or nine men and women, the group are seated in an hermetic semi circular knot, and what they are unleashing is more mythic and elemental than generic post rock. Kletzmer violin hovers mournfully and gracefully over a furious cauldron of bracing dirges which suggest the Lou Reed orchestra playing Metal Machine Music to the power of three guitars. In the din, these scour and flagellate, whipping circular tornadoes of noise.

But while it’s a bleak form of merriment, a couple in the audience are making merry still, tiptoeing through a crowd sitting cross legged, student protest style, picking out a waltz time in a set teetering between resignation and the word ‘hope’ scratchily etched onto a 16mm film backdrop. Everyone’s on their feet for the next number. Its Labor Day weekend, the event’s celebrating its anniversary and celebrate people will, come what may.

Playing in a deconsecrated church (decorated with giant luminous antlers on its spire) Godspeed were keeping faith with their Montreal community rock roots, playing to a mere (for them nowadays) 400 people.

It’s a vivid locale and performances tend to be sharply etched into it. Last year Montreal’s Patrick Watson played at sundown at the entrance to a local copper mine. This year Plants and Animals, also from Montreal, actually played a 10am show down the mine. Unfortunately we missed this, as we had a prior engagement, zip wiring in the vast acres of pine forest around Rouyn.

At this event big names like Godspeed and perhaps its biggest coup thus far, Toronto’s Feist, draw attention to a little known world of francophone music (Quebec is a French speaking province) as well as to Quebec regionalism. Quebec is proud of its creativity and this event keeps it determinedly local.

In a 7-ieme Rue shopping arcade that’s cordoned off, Feist is kicking back. Stripping back her band to a four piece unit of some great ensemble playing, a full wilderness moon, fortuitously just up, accompanies her magical transformation from smoky chanteuse to faerie PJ Harvey jagged rock priestess. Her guitar’s wielded like a totem, the ethereality of her vocal, the natural imagery of the songs being bathed in added moon glow magic.

Image: Christian Leduc

Surprisingly ferocious in her guitar playing, she howls at the moon, inciting the same from a packed audience before ‘My Man, My Moon’ punches a whole through the night as a White Stripes garage rock thrash-a-long.

A main strip of streets between 6-ieme Rue and 10th indeed seems sequestered as one stage and the inhabitants of this 41.000 town are out in force, with multicolored stockings festooning trees and local monuments alike. There’s a sense of a hidden world here which is opening up, the language barrier adding to this cloistered feeling.  Though Rouyn’s residents are open and friendly if it’s opening up it will do so on its own terms.

Image: Christian Leduc

With a massive mining refinery giving an atmospheric hint of darkness on the edge of town, as well as a visual echo of Godspeed’s decaying chords, a 24 hour truck stop now churns out a Quebec delicacy, poutine, as comfort food to Godspeed fans at 2am. But previous to FME, the only traffic into Rouyn comprised of Polish and British immigrant miners. It’s a full seven hour drive to either Toronto or Montreal, Quebec’s largest city.

It’s a full seven hour drive to either Toronto or Montreal

One of the event’s organiser’s, Sandy Boutin, a Rouyn resident, explains FME’s genesis. “It was a crazy idea, but for friends”, he says. “They were driving to Toronto or Montreal only two or three times a year to see gigs so we thought; why not bring the groups here?”

A francophone act, Avec Pas d’Casque, cut through the language barrier in a downtown bar, as did the music of Julian Sagot and Jean-Louis Cormier, both from Montreal. Tickets for shows were sold on a gig to gig basis, with a choice extending from metal to francophone hip hop, many needs appeared to catered for. An estimated 20,000 tickets were sold, 70% going to Rouyn residents, with over 5,000 expected to see shows in a sell out this year.

Their name meaning, roughly, ‘without the use of a helmet’, Avec Pas d’Casque are signed to Montreal’s Dare to Care label. With a welcome musical edginess to some country folk blues influences, their sound exists in an harmonious space between melody and discordancy, the resinously rural and the urban. Think a backwoods Neil Young serenading Flaming Lips. Have they played outside of Canada, I ask their singer Stephane Lafleur? (A recent LP, Astronome, was long-listed for the Polaris, Canada’s equivalent of the Mercury). No, he replies. As they’re francophone, it’s hard to get gigs outside of Quebec. He hardly seems worried though, with a committed but laissez-faire attitude that might also sum up FME.

“If you’re forcing things, it’s just a job, isn’t it?” he says. “That’s the great thing though, when people come by accident, naturally, they will bring someone else, and then it grows, your fanbase is solid, on solid ground.”

At a converted theatre Julian Sagot also showed that it’s less about understanding the words than building an atmosphere, in this case, of softly breathed intimacy and mystery and suspense around just piano and twangy Bad Seeds-esque guitar. A Gainsbourgian style, when done well, as here, can still sound timeless.

Image: Christian Leduc

 The event also began with an appealing mystery which may say something about Rouyn – Noranda and FME. Namely, who is the Dave Keon whose name is emblazoned on the local sports stadium? A ramshackle New Orleans style opening procession starts from here, involving a woman on stilts wearing antlers, this year’s motif, along with a saw, also present, and a lot of balloons. It transpires Dave Keon is a hockey player, who didn’t in fact play for the big Quebec team, the Montreal Canadiens, but in fact for their arch rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Generous, open folk, in a quirky place, and with no sponsorship (apart from the radio station, Sirius XM), the festival stills brings in 3 million dollars a year for the area, with its organisers taking no profits.

We had to come over three thousand miles to find a true community and festival spirit, and found it in Festival de Muisique Emergente in Rouyn, Noranda.

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