Leading up to my chartered flight to Rouyn-Noranda last week, I was cracking wise about how the free flight and hotel room provided by the city’s Festival De Musique Émergente was how far a festival based in rural Quebec had to go to in order to get the English-speaking media to show up. I didn't mean to be a jerk, but it certainly sounds that way now. While a freelance journalist (like myself) probably wouldn’t be able to go to FME without a free ride, it’s also true that the English speaking Canadian media (like me) rarely engages with the Francophone music landscape without some kind of incentive to do so. And that's a real shame.
On the first night of FME, I picked away at a plate of food, sitting on a curb in the middle of the festival’s main hub, a converted street block fashioned into an array of stages, art installations, food and alcohol vendors. The food was free to anyone in the hub whether they were ticket holders, industry or media, as long as they didn’t mind waiting in the sizeable line that snaked through the premises.
It was at that point I realized the special treatment I was joking about earlier was really just great hospitality. FME wasn’t just flying the English journalists out — there was media presence from Radio Canada, VRAK, Voir, Cult Montreal, as well as the Quebec-based satellites of ELLE, Metro, and the Huffington Post. There were members of the international press and industry, mostly from France. In total there were 210 industry delegates attending the festival that weekend, a number that quickly made me reconsider what the festival’s purpose really was.
Outside of the media presence there were other indicators that FME was a bigger deal than I’d anticipated. I was joined on my flight to and from Rouyn by the head of FACTOR. We were encouraged to attend parties sponsored by Bonsound and SOCAN, where artists like Les Deuxluxes and Les Soeurs Boulay performed intimate sets. Journalists were offered various outdoor excursions hosted by the local tourism board so we could beef up our reports with colourful anecdotes of canoe trips and visits to the local wildlife refuge.
Surrounded by all these people at what I thought would be something small and curious, I was confronted with my own obliviousness to the role FME plays in the greater scheme of Quebec’s music industry, and the industry itself. As a city that’s equidistant from both Toronto and Montreal (about 633km) Rouyn might just be the perfect middle ground to come to that realization.
Exploring the space between binaries is a theme that ran through the majority of great performances throughout the festival. Though FME primarily championed emerging artists, it was the artists that straddled two different worlds through language, performance, or style that really set the festival apart.
In Quebec, Charlotte Cardin was known initially as a model, and then in 2013, as one of the finalists on La Voix, the province’s version of The Voice. Outside of Quebec it’s a different story. Without the same context, she seemingly appeared out of nowhere last year via the excellent single, “Big Boy,” which later featured on her debut EP of the same name.
Though she’s distanced herself from her reality show days with a much more modern, distinct sound, her fame and profile have only increased in Quebec, following her to Thursday night’s packed performance at Agora Des Arts. At FME, pass holders have priority over media for venues of limited capacity, so I almost didn’t make it inside. Once in, it was easy to see why the house was full. Cardin sings love songs grounded in jazz and hip-hop, harnessing the moodiness of both, but cuts through it all with her incredible voice. Though Cardin mostly writes in English, in between songs she addressed the audience in French and bookended her set with the two French songs from Bad Boy. Her voice was arresting either way.
Brown are also bilingual, and even though they share a member with Dead Obies, they don’t yet have the same wide appeal. The group is made up of David Beaudin-Kerr (Jam), Dead Obies’ Gregory Beaudin-Kerr (Snail Kid) and their father, reggae artist Robin Kerr. Unlike Obies, Brown’s songs don’t have to accommodate six personalities all taking turns to rap, so the songs feel less in your face, and more relaxed. They have more time to experiment, blending soulful reggae with more modern hip hop production and rhymes. That the group is also made up of two generations of musicians makes the songwriting even more interesting, a kind of comment on the origins of hip hop, family and communication.
La Colonie De Vacances performance was also very experimental, but in a league of its own. The title of the show is French for “Summer Camp,” and is apt name for a group of four bands from France visiting rural Montreal in the summertime. The performance, which situated Papier Tigre, Pneu, Electric Electric and Marvin facing each other in a cross pattern at the centre of Rouyn’s town square, saw the bands bounce, volley, modify, amplify and copy each other, like a quadraphonic war between alternate realities. It was a truly immersive experience, listening to each band in the middle of the square, or choosing to walk the perimeter of the stages, hearing the song change as I moved closer to one band and further away from another. Guitars, bass and drums all fucking with space and time — the first time in a long time anyone could say such a thing about such a “traditional” setup.
Like La Colonie De Vacances, Érick D’Orion created another immersive sound experience, but in the sense that the sounds he made enveloped everything within reach. D’Orion performed behind local gallery L’Ecart... Lieu D’art Actuel, looping and then layering passages taken from metal records. The first few layers of loops were discernible, but after a short time, the resulting sounds were as maximalist as metal can get, like the sonic equivalent of grey goo. He simultaneously nullified the genre while also adhering to its most basic rules: the performance was still loud, heavy, and abrasive, hinting at an imagined future.
Though we’ve only heard a glimpse of the band so far, both of Abakos’ singles “New Constellation” and “Money To Burn” are thematically linked via their emphasis on hope for the future. In just their third performance together, Abakos’ Pierre Kwenders and Ngabo Kiroko stepped onstage clad in ornate masks and jumpsuits, looking as if that “New Constellation” is our own. Their songs were catchy, but resisted simple hooks, growing and developing over time instead. Most impressive was their range. They were political, they were funky, and although Kwenders and Kiroko’ voices sound similar, their individual personalities became the raw organic material used to power Abakos’ futuristic mothership.
Like so many of the performers invited to play the four day festival, FME conflates binaries rather than reinforcing them. FME has the ability to be a grassroots festival that probes the Canadian identity and a major industry event that draws people and performers from all over the world without ever losing its whimsical charms. It shifted my own perspective, rewarding me for honestly engaging with music I was unfamiliar with, and encouraging me to continue doing so, long after the festival is over.