BRANDON — Modern interpretation of traditional songs took centre stage at a special concert to showcase Métis songcraft. The concert, “From Paris to the Prairies,” was arranged by Brandon University Professor Emerita Dr. Lynn Whidden, an ethnomusicologist whose teaching has helped to maintain local Indigenous traditions.
On stage at BU’s Lorne Watson Recital Hall, listeners were treated to a prairie fusion sound that comes from Métis song.
“The Michif language, is a fusion if you like, of Cree and French,” Whidden says. “And the fiddle tunes are also a blend of European melodies and Indigenous rhythms. The songs, many living only in oral tradition, also lend themselves to musical change. The Métis had a promising beginning as a founding people provisioning the fur trade, but by the 19th century they were excluded from both First Nations and white worlds. They became, as Métis historian Antoine Lussier wrote, ‘a forgotten people.’”
Now, Métis people have once again found their stride, taking pride in their Michif language, their culture and traditions, which draw on a rich repertoire of songs from medieval France, from Parisian dance halls, from Quebec, and some created in the Northwest Territories.
The lyrics of old French songs on the prairies, some going back to the 17th century, also intrigue historians. They tell of local events as well as European heroes such as Napoleon, of the joy of love and “the bottle.” Others are just plain funny: in “Le beau plumage” the singer, flouting his finery as “big bird” is shot in the tailfeathers by a hunter.
These old French songs were dramatically interpreted by Conlin Delbaere-Sawchuk with backup of a dozen Brandon University students. They skillfully negotiated many “rum-diddle-dum-deedle-deedle-deedle-dum-dums” and accompaniments that involved traditional and modern rhythms and instruments such as Indigenous drumming with electric keyboard and guitar sounds that propel these songs into the 21st century.
The Métis are well-known for their stirring fiddle music and in the concert Gary Lepine energized the audience with his fiddle tunes; Edgar Desjarlais sang his dad’s song, well rooted in the story of the Red River society; and Ray St. Germain brought his unique sound to a masterful rendition of his song, “The Métis.”
For many the concert was too short, only a taste, instead of a meal, hinting at the possibility of Métis prairie songs. But it’s a start.