Bourque, Bernard & Lepage,
(Borealis, 1998)

An accidental exposure to La Bottine Souriante opened up a new world of French-Canadian music which, while very different from the traditions of the heavily Scottish provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, still exhibit a strong Celtic root. Bourque, Bernard & Lepage are another excellent example of that often overlooked musical subset.

The album is sung entirely in French (although the liner notes, thankfully, provide English translations for some of the lyrics and most the accompanying text). And most of the titles contain words I wouldn't dare even try to pronounce. But the music is very much accessible to anyone with a taste for Celtic-influenced music that's played with passion and flair.

The trio is Benoit Bourque, Gaston Bernard and Simon Lepage, three musicians and dancers from Quebec who've put in some time with groups like Eritage, Ad Vielle Que Pourra and Ouzo Power. They bring a touch of dance to their music, clogging along for precision percussion, and add touches of jazz and other world styles to create something their own. They also juggle a host of positions in the band: Bourque sings, plays button accordion, bones and spoons, and adds foot percussion; Bernard sings, plays fiddle, mandolin, guitar and bouzouki, and dances; and Lepage sings and plays fretted, fretless and acoustic bass. Guest musicians include Tom Slavicek on banjo and Mario Loiselle on piano.

The album begins with an energetic reel set, "La Suite du Casse-Reel (Broken Reel Suite)," which hooks you in before you have time to even ponder the music's origins. It leads straight into a lively love song, "Je Sais Bien Quelque Chose," which is infectious even if you don't have a clue what they're singing about. Before you have much time to start wondering, they snatch you back into the reels.

The title song, "Matapat (Use Your Paw)," is another love song, complete with sneezes and a near-rap vocal rhythm. "La Suite des Trois Rubans (Three Ribbons Suite)" is another set of lively instrumentals -- in this case, originals by Bourque -- surrounding the traditional song "Les Tres Rubans." Go figure, it's a love song.

"La Musette et le Hautbois (The Bagpipe and the Oboe)" is a jazzy lament about love rejected, and features some particularly nice group choral work. "La Traverse du Saguenay/Le Grand Triomphe" is a pair of hoppin' dance pieces which boast some odd key changes and have not a thing I can detect to do with love at all.

When I read the title of "La Valse Matique (The Asthmatic Waltz)," I expected to hear something wild and bouncy -- the sort of tune designed to induce an attack on the dance floor. But it's actually a quite slow and melancholy waltz tune, written by a dejected Bourque during an attack of his own. I suppose he figured that, if he couldn't dance wildly for a while, no one else could either!

"Le Damne (Plea of the Damned)" begins with a brief religious chant and tells the story of a wicked man whose last-ditch attempt to avoid damnation doesn't work, and his soul is dragged shrieking to hell. (This one isn't about love, either. But it does have some nice instrumental work to lighten the mood.) Back to the basics -- "Beau Rossignol Sauvage (Beautiful, Wild Nightingale)" is about love, a slow song featuring guitar and bass, and telling of a 14-year-old girl's escape from the tyrannical father who thought her too young to marry.

"La Turlutte a 'Pit' (Pit's Mouth-Reel)" is Lepage's contribution to the mouth-music tradition, using only voices and foot percussion (and someone, I swear, playing an uncredited mouth harp in the background) to carry the rollicking, too-short tune. "La Pipe Cornue/Le Capitaine" is a hornpipe and love song about a sea captain's desire for the King of France's daughter. "Valse Clog/Valse de Cesny" is a pair of waltzes spotlighting Bourque's tireless stepdancing techniques. And, lastly, "La Suite du Bourque Emissaire (The Scapegoat's Suite)" closes the album with a final set of fast-paced reels.

If the French-Canadian branch of Celtic music appeals to you, Bourque, Bernard & Lepage deserve some of your time. They won't steer you wrong.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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