The Squid's Ear
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  Separatism and Sound in French Quebec  

a parait pas, mais a parait


By Mike Chamberlain 2002-12-19

At the Guelph Jazz Festival in 1999, Jean Derome, leader of Les Dangereux Zhoms, provoked unease in the middle Canadian audience when he declared that it was a pleasure to play in Canada for a change.

When I asked Derome about the statement later, he told me that it was, in fact, the first time the group had played in Canada, "including Quebec," he added, in about a year. "So I wasn't really making a political statement by saying that." He paused for a moment, then said, "But of course, it is a political statement."

As Rene Lussier says in "Salade du Chef:" Ça parait pas, mais ça parait. Translated, "it's not obvious, but it is." Or, one could twist the phrase a bit and get "sépares pas, mais sépares." (That is, "Not separate, but separate.)

Even as an English-speaking resident of Quebec whose stance on the question of Quebec's sovereignty is as much pragmatic as emotional, to hear Quebec and Canada referred to as two different countries can be a bit jarring. But it is also clear to me that the question of Quebec's status as a nation-as opposed to an independent political entity-is hardly in doubt, and that even if the sovereignty project is stalled for the moment, with Quebec in an uneasy 50-50 impasse after two failed referendums, psychologically, at least, Quebec and Canada might as well be two different countries.

Ça parait pas, mais ça parait.

Derome and Lussier are two of the founding members of the record label Ambiances Magnetiques, a Montreal-based collective whose music has been labelled as musique actuelle. The term, most famously associated with the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, was coined-most people agree-by Universite de Montreal composer Pierre Mercure sometime around 1960. Mercure meant music of now, and the path he took indicated a break from the European hegemony of contemporary classical music in Quebec. Since then, the term has acquired new meanings.

In his book, Plunderphonics, Pataphysics, and Pop Mechanics, Andrew Jones described musique actuelle as "distinct music for a distinct society." My question is, what is particularly quebecois about musique actuelle? Additionally, and particularly, how do discourses within and around this musical practice tie in with discourses of Quebec nationalism?

In dealing fairly quickly with the first, and elaborating a bit on the second by examining several works of Rene Lussier, I hope to open up avenues for further discussion.

In 1982, Michel Levasseur inaugurated the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. It is unclear whether Levasseur had even heard of Pierre Mercure at the time, but the mix of programming at Victo came to define the eclecticism for which musique actuelle is known.

Ambiances Magnetiques was founded as a non-proft collective in1983 by seven Montreal musicians-Jean Derome, Andre Duchesne, Joanne Hetu, Diane Labrosse, Robert Marcel Lepage, Rene Lussier, and Danielle Palardy Roger. Shortly after, Michel F. Cote and Martin Tetreault joined the collective. The musicians came from a variety of backgrounds-jazz, classical, folk, and rock-but they were all experimentalists who had experienced difficulty in getting their music recorded and released. The term musique actuelle-which only record stores in Quebec employ as a musical category-came to be applied to the work of the various members of the Ambiances Magnetiques collective.

The materials used by the Ambiances Magnetiques musicians had Quebecois antecedents: the non-serial contemporary classical music of Pierre Mercure and the Societe Musique Contemporain du Quebec; the free jazz of the politically radical Quatour Jazz Libre du Quebec of the late 1960s; Walter Boudreault and Raoul Duguay's mix of classical, jazz, rock, and multimedia experimentalism with L'Infonie; and traditional Quebec folkmusic. The notion of metissage, or mixing, then is integral to the practices of musique actuelle. For Rene Lussier, as we will see, metissage is also a vital component in the formation of Quebecois cultural identity.

One must also consider the historical context of the emergence of this new hybrid music. I hesitate to call it a style-musique actuelle is defined more by reference to methodology than to genre. The central problem for the Quebecois is in pursuing a national project based mainly on preservation and of a French-language heritage and the evolution of identity within an overwhelmingly English-speaking environment culturally and economically dominated by the United States. However, while there is anxiety about the emerging modernization of Quebec society, for creators, modernization presents opportunities as well.

Robert Marcel Lepage claims that it was in the process of translation of the music that the members had in their large, eclectic record collections that the shape of musique actuelle was formed. As he puts it, "For the creative musician, the Tower of Babel is a blessing, not a curse. When we played Albert Ayler, we would mix it up with folk music. So you might get a free jazz jig." Again and again in conversation with the Ambiances Magnetiques people, the word transformation came up. In fact, something is gained, not lost, in the translation.

Turning to the work of Rene Lussier, Le Tresor de la Langue is an exemplary text that deals with vital questions in the formation of a Quebecois identity. Lussier took to the roads of Quebec in the late 1980s, asking people the simple question, "Is it important to speak French in Quebec?" One can hardly imagine an English-Canadian asking the same question outside Quebec. Tresor immediately foregrounds the difference between Quebecois French and the French spoken in France, as the first interlocutor is a woman from France who says that it is important to speak French in Quebec but that she has difficulty understanding the Quebecois dialect.

Rather than engaging in a useless debate over the relative merits of standard French and Quebecois French, Lussier explores the richness and the musical possibilities of Quebecois French, which has been formed by its 400-year separation from France and its incorporation of native and English terms and phrases. Among other things, he turns Charles de Gaulle's famous "Vive le Quebec libre" speech at the Montreal City Hall in 1967 (in which he riled federalists by openly supporting a "free" Quebec) and the FLQ (Front de Liberation du Quebec) manifesto into musical texts. So we see the process of translation and transformation at work in Tresor.

Quebec aux Quebecois. This phrase, which we see and hear at public spectacles such as the St. Jean Baptiste Day parade, is an ominous one for non-francophone Quebecois. Imagining the nation involves delineating the borders of the community, and the notion that there are pure laine Quebecois who constitute the nation is frightening for those who do not fit into this category. One thinks of then-premier Jacques Parizeau's infamous concession speech after the 1995 referendum when he asked what "we" (the separatists) were defeated by? His answer: "money and the ethnic vote." Thus, anti-separatists employ the term "ethnic nationalism" to discredit Quebec nationalism.

For Lussier, Parizeau's position is a non-starter. A central thesis that emerges in Tresor is that the Quebecois identity is itself a metissage of French, English, native, German, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Haitian, and North African elements. Instead of marginalizing the ethnics, he incorporates them into the cultural heritage of Quebec. By valuing the non-francophone elements of culture as part of the very patrimonie of Quebec, Lussier shows a way out of the dilemma posed by the cosmopolitan nature of Quebec society. Or, if it's not a way out for francophones, it is a way in for non-francophones.

Lussier's impatience with certain dominant nationalist discourses that have served to hold up the sovereignty project can turn to despair. While the dream of a sovereign Quebec is still a vitalizing force for most members of Ambiances Magnetiques, there has also been a shift in emphasis to more personal concerns, which are, nonetheless, political. This is a turn away from a focus on the preservation of the French language in Quebec to be found in Derome and Lussier's "P'tit Pain" or anxiety over the attractions and pitfalls of modernization expressed in Andre Duchesne's "Train, Train." Lussier's song, "Salade du Chef" is ostensibly concerned with the economy and technology of food production, but it can also be read as a comment on the current political situation in Quebec.

Making une salade du chef involves mixing in all kinds of food. Once ingested, the salad becomes part of the body. Lussier considers modern food production, with its reliance on chemicals (fertiilizers, herbicides, pesticides), antibiotics, and genetic modification, noting that even the lettuce is not in control of itself. Modern agriculture is not about growing healthy food, and it's not about stewardship of the land. It's all about money. "Toutes est au cash."

Taken literally, the lyric expresses Lussier's concerns of daily life, not different from people anywhere. For the past several years, he has spent most of his time in a rural region where industrial pig producing facilities have polluted the rivers and ground water. His retreat is analogous to the retreat from overt separatist concerns by other Ambiances Magnetiques artists, such as Diane Labrosse and Michel F. Cote. Labrosse noted that her work has become less political and more poetic since the heady days of nationalist fervor around 1980. Cote, whose work as a sound artist tends to be less political in anyevent, now regards the sovereignist project as irrelevant to the challenges posed by globalization.

Lussier might-he didn't say as much, and I don't want to put words in his mouth-agree with Cote's view that Quebec premier Bernard Landry is only a little less stupid than Canada's prime minister, Jean Chretien. But "Salade du Chef," given a reading in light of the current Quebec government's obsession with economic development and the recent history of the separatist movement in Quebec, reveals deeper meanings.

Even if my translation is imperfect, the transformation can be quite productive in terms of the issues discussed here. Lussier's text is saying, quite clearly, (ca parait pas, mais ca parait) that we are all part of this salad,this metissage, but we are subject to the totalizing discourse of global capitalism in which we are regarded as no more than productive units (toutes est au cash). We are prisoners, the 5000 pigs under one roof, the cattle, the sheep, the turkeys, even the vegetables, who are not in control of themselves, and we only have to look at the very basic elements of our lives to see this reality. Jacques Parizeau said that the sovereignists were defeated by "money and the ethnic vote"but money was really just a code word for anglo Quebecois. As I noted earlier, Lussier disavows the separation between the terms Quebecois and ethnic or anglo, but it is really our obsession with money that hinders the creation of a healthy body politic and keeps us apart.

Ca parait pas, mais ca parait. Separes pas, mais separes.



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