The traditional folk music scene in Québec has a rich and storied history. The call-and-response style of songs goes back to the days of the voyageurs, while the musical accompaniment of fiddles, bones and feet still help provide the rhythm that’s so intrinsic to its sound. Since the 1970s an ever increasing number of Québec artists have released influential albums, laying the foundation for today’s newer performers. For more than 40 years Benoît Bourque has played an important part in the development of traditional Québecois folk music. The list of bands he’s been a part of reads like a who’s-who of the premiere groups to come out of the province: Éritage, Ad vielle que pourra, Hommage à Alfred Montmarquette, Bourque et Bernard, Matapat, Le Vent du Nord and La Bottine Souriante.
For the past 10 years, Benoît has been in a duo with his son, Antoine, as Bourque Émissaires, who this year were performing at the Celtic Roots Festival in Goderich, ON, which is where I caught up with him. The duo gives listeners an interesting juxtaposition of performing styles, given that Benoît learned to play by ear while Antoine had a more formal, classical education.
“The younger generation like Antoine, especially fiddlers in Québec, the majority of them learn the classical technique,” Benoît explained. “They use this after that to play traditional music. It’s helpful to know how to read music but they go by ear a lot.”
While Benoît can read music, he still prefers to play by ear, since that’s how he learned the music. That traditional method of playing music also suits Benoît’s performing style.
“When you play in a small ensemble of three or four, you have a lot of room to do your stuff and improvise with the audience,” he said.
It’s this preference for improvisation that lead Benoît to leave La Bottine Souriante at the beginning of this year.
“With La Bottine, the arrangements are so tight and complicated that for me to be ready, the rehearsal time was so much. And we only played three or four times a year. So I felt the time I spent there, I can spend with Antoine or other projects.”
Some of those projects include the Artists In School program involving students from pre-elementary to high school, and music therapy programs working with elderly, physically disabled and mentally challenged people.
“I started this year to play for a storyteller doing the music and singing a bit,” he said. ” I play also with a quartet that’s kind of a little Bottine. We were three members out of four who were in La Bottine Souriante. Now there’s only one left. It’s a little easier performing because we don’t do fancy arrangements.”
Other projects in the works include collaborating with Antoine to mix a classical tune with a traditional tune played on two accordions. Benoît is also working on a song that’s all in French but with words that are used in the English language. When not performing with his dad, Antoine is busy as a member of the sea shanty group Brise-Grace and the band Saligaude, which combines folk music with jazz, pop and electro.
One of the highlights of Benoît’s career has been serving as the longtime co-host of the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
“I do music, I sing, I play, I dance. I do okay with that, but I know so many people who do it better than me,” he said. “But I think I have a very natural talent to present. I think my real talent is to build bridges between performers and the audience.”
To that end Benoît is a co-founder of Le Carrefour de L’Accordéon in Montmagny where he emcees many shows. At the New Bedford Folk Festival in Massachusetts, Benoît is in charge of programming the Celtic Extravaganza that closes the festival.
Returning to the topic of traditional folk music in Québec, Benoît sees a different perception has taken hold in the province.
“Now people seem to know more about it,” he said. “But back then, we had no clue it was folk music. Bob Dylan was folk and Joan Baez. What is folk? We still ask that question too. The basis of a festival like Mémoires et Racines in Joliette is Québec traditional music but it’s open now to other traditional music.”
For more information on Benoît Bourque and Bourque Émissaires, go to benoitbourque.com.