I don’t always listen to French-Canadian folk music, but when I do, I prefer Le Vent du Nord. This is another installment in our ongoing “I can’t understand the lyrics” series, as this song is entirely in French. But, like with Getz/Gilberto, I don’t really think you need to understand in order to appreciate the music.
Here, even more than in other songs I’ve written about, simplicity is the watchword: Voices and percussion alone propel the first half of this medley. For the first 40 or so seconds, all the instrumentation is provided by two feet tapping a triplet pattern. It’s an instrumentation that I’ve only heard in this type of music—a sort of seated tap dancing—that allowed fiddle players two hundred years ago to accompany themselves as they played.
At around 00:43, more percussion comes in. Although they sound like castanets, I believe they’re either bones or spoons. Listen to the complexity and constantly evolving patterns the percussionist is playing—the driving polyrhythm pushes the song right along until the 1:50 mark, when the rest of the unusual instrumentation builds in.
The vocal patterns are classic call-and-response, a form that you hear in music, traditional and otherwise, throughout the world. The lead voice says a line, and then a group repeats it back. This kind of form is in sea chanties, chain-gang chants, blues songs, etc. It’s everywhere.
And although I know I said you don’t need to understand the lyrics to enjoy it, they are pretty funny. The lead singer has a very inflated opinion of himself, boasting about his hat (made of kindling), his rat-skin vest, etc., to which the group responds “I’ve never seen anything so handsome!” This continues until a turn in the last verse, when the group finally responds “I’ve never seen anything so ugly!” You can find a translation here.
The second part of the piece, “La turlette du rang des Sloans,” is a fiddle tune that features a penny-whistle type thing (maybe it’s just a recorder?) as well as a fantastically named old instrument called a hurdy-gurdy. If the music sounds a little repetitive, that’s because it’s supposed to be. Like a lot of traditional music, this came about as a dance tune, and the music is designed to keep people moving and happy. The call-and-response vocals continue with some pretty tricky scat singing—see if you can keep up.