Hart Rouge,
Une Histoire de Famille
(Homestead Musique, 1998;
Red House, 1999)

I never really thought much about French culture. Delving into music rooted in French traditions probably wouldn't have occurred to me if a band of Irish legends, the Chieftains, hadn't thought to include a track with La Bottine Souriante on a recent compilation album. With that decision, my own exploration into French-Canadian music -- with its unique brand of Celtic influence -- began.

A newcomer to my own experience is Hart Rouge, which combines tight instrumentation with a set of excellent singing voices on Une Histoire de Famille. Built around the foundations of three Campagne siblings, this band from Willow Bunch, Saskatchewan, has its roots in the 1970s but blossomed in the '90s after adding musicians Davy Gallant and Michel Dupire to the mix.

The liner notes in this Canadian release are entirely in French, so it's difficult to tell you a lot about it, but the sound is the important thing, and there Hart Rouge is a winner.

The 10-track album begins with "Marie Caissie" and introduces listeners to the sharp-edged, bluesy vocals of singer Suzanne Campagne, backed with fine harmony by sister Michelle Campagne. Michelle then takes over for a gentler song, featuring both her voice and acoustic guitar, on "Peine." Davy Gallant adds a lovely touch on flute, and brother Paul Campagne provides a nice violin harmony. "Grain de Mil" is a galloping song, again featuring the vocal talents of Suzanne and strong harmonies of Michelle and Paul. Then Paul takes the lead for the mellow "La Belle S'est Endormie," now backed by his sisters and Gallant on the Irish bagpipes. Then they mix it up for choral singing in "Trois Hommes Noirs," which Gallant accents with electric guitar. And so on.

The cool thing about Hart Rouge is the distinctiveness of the three Campagnes' vocal styles -- all very different in approach and execution, each strong individually, and yet they blend together for an even greater whole. The instrumentation here is very good, but it is wisely kept to the background, providing a framework for the vocals without ever overwhelming the singers' voices. They do a great job on upbeat pop-influenced tunes as well as melodic ballads and traditional songs from their prairie homeland.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if you can understand what they're singing. The music is good, the voices excellent. Do yourself and expand your musical horizons; pick up Hart Rouge and walk on the French side of the street for a while.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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