La Bottine Souriante,
La Mistrine
(Mille-Pattes, 1994)

The final track on the Chieftains' Canadian tribute album, Fire in the Kitchen, led me on a quest in Toronto to find more by French-Canadian band La Bottine Souriante. I found several albums (There are entire French-Canadian SECTIONS in some Canadian music stores!) but, because they were all labeled entirely in French, I ended up choosing one based primarily on cover appeal. La Mistrine features a 16th century painting of peasants dancing by Peter Bruegel, if you're interested in that sort of thing. Opening it up later, I discover I can't read anything in the liner notes, either. (Ignorant Americans beware, it's all in French.) But I don't worry too much about it. The music -- and let's face it, I don't buy albums for the liner notes -- is excellent.

The French-Canadian style is a variant on Celtic traditional music via Brittany, the Celtic coast of France. It is experiencing a resurgence in Canada these days (It pays to listen to public radio when you're in Canada if you want to learn this sort of thing. By odd coincidence, I tuned into a program on the French-Canadian revival before my rental car was out of the Toronto Airport parking lot) and, if it follows on the heels of its cousin from Canada's eastern shores, it should spread farther afield.

The 10-member La Bottine Souriante isn't content with a pure drop of tradition, however. To my ear, it sounds like something you'd hear in New Orleans today if a large contingent of Irish immigants had settled there a few centuries ago. There is plenty of Celtic flair, featuring the usual assortment of fiddles, guitars, an accordion, mandolin, piano and several voices. But throw in a brassy Dixieland component: trombone, saxophone, trumpet, harmonica ... is that a Jew's harp I hear? Wow, this definitely isn't the sort of thing you'll hear in an Irish pub, or even in a Newfoundland kitchen.

On top of it all are some bouncy, happy vocalizations -- all in French, of course. Again, I understand not a word of it (although that did sound like "mayonaisse" just there) but, again, it doesn't really matter. This is good, solid, lively music that gets into your bones and sets your feet to tappin'. One hopping set of reels is called "Le Reel Irlandais ou Bees Wax, Skin Sheep," and even my French is good enough to guess that these tunes are straight from Ireland. But the mandolin melody makes way for some fine, dirty sax, and the brass section throughout gives the tune an unusual sparkle. The song "Le Rap a Ti-Petang" might not sound Irish, but I suspect many an Irish musician would gladly down a few pints of Guinness to this merry accompaniment.

The title track, "La Mistrine," has a plodding, lazy rhythm which puts me in mind of a romantic Sunday jaunt through the countryside on horseback. Someone will probably translate the lyrics and tell me it's about post-nasal drip or somesuch thing, but until then, I'm sticking to my interpretation. Another tune, "La Tourtiere," sounds like a song about food, but then again I could be projecting my own hunger.

Oddly, the tune which first drew me to the band, "Le Lys Vert" on the Chieftains' Fire in the Kitchen, is performed here in an earlier arrangement. At least, it sounds like it to me, but it has an entirely different name this time: "Le Reel de la Main Blanche." Who knows, perhaps "Le Lys Vert" and "Le Reel de la Main Blanche" are synonyms in French.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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