They are Québec's premiere roots music ensemble, but La Bottine Souriante are not strictly folk musicians. Nor can their music really be called "Celtic," despite its obvious affinities with the Irish tradition. La Bottine's concerts involve the tautly-wound energy of Irish dance music, the sexy pulse of salsa, and the swinging abandon of brass band jazz, all wedded to the French-language song tradition of Eastern Canada. The result includes powerful new renderings of medieval ballads, serious and jocular songs about life in the lumber woods and historical towns of Québec's past, and lots of over-the-top instrumental music in which the driving foot-tapping of Michel Bordeleau underpins a huge, hot, happy sound that blends traditional music on accordion, fiddle, and mandolin with jazz sounds from piano, double bass and brass quartet.
Mention the name "La Bottine Souriante" to a musician or critic on the English or Celtic roots music scene, and you'll hear responses ranging from worship to mere adulation. When they play in England, Folk Roots reports, most of the country's professional folk musicians are in the audience. The same publication has called them "the tightest and most exciting band of any nature anywhere." Members of Mabsant from Wales and Dervish from Ireland have told me of their brilliance, and John McCusker, of Scotland's Battlefield Band, recently said of them, "It's official: They're the best band in the world."
What makes their music so appealing, and how did it get that way? In an interview recorded before a recent Philadelphia concert, several of the members of La Bottine Souriante explained the history of the group and their perspective on music. Their frontman, singer and accordionist Yves Lambert, did most of the talking, but contributions also came from multi-instrumentalist and foot percussionist Michel Bordeleau, brass section arranger and saxophonist Jean Fréchette, and pianist Denis Fréchette. We spoke in French, the only language with which they are truly comfortable, but we lapsed occasionally into Franglais, of which the larger-than-life, gregarious, mustachioed Lambert is the world's reigning master.
According to Lambert, La Bottine Souriante has come a long way from humble beginnings in rural Québec. He explained that La Bottine weren't even really a band at first, but "a gang of young guys in search of adventure, a little group of musicians from the country who played in a hotel for the weekend." The original "gang" included pioneers André Marchand and Mario Forest, who were later on some of La Bottine Souriante's many albums, but none of the members who are currently in the band. Indeed, the loose assemblage of players had yet to decide that their focus was traditional music. "They played their own compositions, jazz, a little South American ... it was really a weekend jam," said Lambert. Soon after the jam sessions started, before the creation of the group per se, Lambert began attending the weekly get-togethers.
The first step in the transformation from an informal jam session to a working band was the selection of a name for the group. Lambert recalled that it was the proprietor of the hotel who asked them to find a name, so that he could advertise their performances. La Bottine Souriante, or The Smiling Boot, was the name they came up with. It refers to the way a work boot appears to "smile" when the sole begins to peel away from the upper in front. That's a great image for a band playing rural working-class music, but that fact hadn't occurred to the group yet, as Lambert explained: "We wanted it to be a little harebrained, but we could just as well have chosen 'The Flying Tie' or something like that." A few weeks later, in the fall of 1976, the band definitively chose the path of traditional music. They saved their original name, which, as Lambert pointed out, "had become amusingly appropriate."
As a traditional music band, La Bottine Souriante was lucky to come from Québec's Lanaudière region, around the town of Joliette. The region has some of the most extensive and rich traditions of song, dance and music in Québec. This is partly explained by the area's relative isolation from the homogenizing effects of Anglophone and American culture, but it is also based in part upon Lanaudière's unusual history as a meeting-place of different strands of Franco-Canadian tradition. After the expulsion of the Acadian population from Nova Scotia in 1755, for example, many Acadians settled in the Lanaudière region, bringing their musical traditions with them. The resulting cross-fertilization was extremely healthy for Lanaudière folk music. When La Bottine hit the scene in 1976, they carried these vigorous traditions with them, a fact that helped them stand out from other folk music acts.
La Bottine Souriante were also fortunate in that they chose an opportune moment to begin playing folk music: 1976 was a watershed year for the Québec cultural revival. The Montreal Olympics and its various elaborate ceremonies brought Québec culture to the fore. Rene Levesque, head of the separatist Parti Québécois, was elected to power, and it looked for a brief time as though Québec could even secede from Canada. It was a year when Québec culture was on display, in the world spotlight, and Quebeckers became proud to be French speakers, proud of their common heritage. "A nationalist ground swell," as Lambert described it, swept the province, and Quebeckers began yearning to rediscover their roots. This yearning created a sudden and intense demand for all forms of traditional culture. Although, Lambert explained, they simply fell in love with traditional music and were not themselves politically motivated, it was certainly the political climate that made them a hot commodity.
Their popularity in Québec lasted for several years, during which they were part of a small but thriving Québécois roots music scene that also included bands like Le Reve Du Diable, Breton-Cyr and Barde. They toured locally, but rarely made it even as far as Montreal. After a year or so of existence, based on the strength of their local following alone, they were given an important opportunity: a chance to record an album. The LP, titled Ya ben du changement, was released in 1979 and featured a few original compositions from the group's pre-traditional phase, mixed in with many traditional songs and instrumentals. After a brief interruption, when members of La Bottine seceded and formed the group Harlapatte, the group was reformed and recorded its second LP, Les épousailles, as solid a set of traditional music as the Québec revival had seen, in 1980. La Bottine Souriante were off to a flying start.
Just as the future was looking bright, however, disaster struck. The political situation, which had worked so much in their favor, changed drastically and caused their fortunes at home to fall. In 1980, Québec held the first referendum on separation from Canada. The referendum, which had been the stated goal of the reigning Parti Québécois from the outset of its campaign for the provincial government, seemed likely to result in a vote of "yes" on the question of secession. But Québec's nationalists were to be disappointed, as the people's will became clear: Québec would remain part of Canada. The failed referendum demoralized those who hoped to make Québec a nation, and by extension anyone who wanted to keep French-language culture alive. It marked the beginning of what Lambert often refers to as "the great blackness," a period when La Bottine Souriante couldn't get a job in Québec. "There was an evacuation of everything folkloric in Québec," he explained "and, in parallel, of everything Francophone." Among the casualties was all popular demand for traditional music, which came to be totally denigrated by most Quebeckers.
The loss of popular support could easily have meant the end of La Bottine’s professional career. Happily, they decided to persevere. Pulling themselves up by the smiling bootstraps, they approached the Anglophone world in a search for a new, broader marketplace in which to play. “Our first contact the with Anglophone world,” Lambert remembered, “was the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1982. In 1982, we did Winnipeg, and then the Vancouver Folk Festival.” On the strength of those performances, they were recruited by a U.S. agent and began to tour the States. “Our first American tour was in 1983,” Lambert continued. "We had a great time. We got a feeling for the American traditional music scene... folk clubs, small rooms, basements…” he trailed off, laughing at the memories.
One of the most important factors in their success south of the border, Lambert said, is that Americans "recognized a lot of our similarities to Celtic music." Indeed, the connections between Franco-Canadian and Celtic music traditions are strong and obvious to any listener. They are the result of the long presence of Scottish and Irish people alongside French settlers in Canada. Most of Québec's popular dance music types, such as the jig, the reel and hornpipe, were first borrowed from Scottish soldiers in the late 18th century. Then, during the 19th century, many Irish people uprooted themselves and crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life in Québec, where their Catholic religion made them natural allies of their French neighbors. Their musical traditions were similar to older Québec styles, and Québec musicians eagerly borrowed Irish tunes, adding their own, uniquely Québécois swing.
These Celtic roots gave Americans a handle on La Bottine's music, but their lyrics were still a problem. "It's very unusual to travel in the States and sing only in French," Lambert said. 'The U.S. is a country where you don't import cinema, you make remakes. But we've done about 15 tours in the United States without ever singing a song in English." La Bottine use good humor and appalling Franglais to circumvent the language barrier. Bordeleau jumped in to explain, "When Yves introduces a song or a tune, or when André Marchand used to do it, it's always humorous. Our songs remain in French, all the words are in French, but the introduction before the song is designed to be humorous, to put people at ease. La Bottine has always been able to serve the music by showing that it's pleasing dance music, good time music. I think that's the raison d'être for this music. It communicates this value, the value of fun." The strategy certainly worked: the band members recall always getting a good reception from welcoming American audiences.
The "value of fun" is also in plentiful evidence on the band's two albums from the era, Chic 'n swell and La traversée de l'Atlantique. Both are full of uptempo, happy, sometimes risqué material, with sad songs thrown in only for flavoring. Also evident on these releases is the group's decision to orient itself toward the U.S. Celtic music market; they use typically Irish instruments, such as the bodhrán, and are available in the U.S. on Green Linnet, an almost entirely Celtic label. Indeed, the sleeve notes on La traversée make explicit reference to "the original fashion in which our forbearers transformed Irish music by giving it a typically 'Québécois' spirit." In some ways, La Bottine Souriante was returning the favor, imbuing their Québécois music with a touch of the Irish folk revival.
Although it was clearly an enjoyable time, during which the band got to meet and play with a lot of musicians on the Celtic music scene, Lambert persists in referring to this period as "the great blackness." La Bottine Souriante were confined to Anglophone and European audiences, which gave them global exposure but also a feeling of rootlessness. Several key band members, including Daniel Roy and Mario Forest, left the group, leaving behind saddened comrades and musical deficiencies that needed to be addressed. It was only with great perseverance and teamwork that the remaining musicians made it through to the other end.
They did make it, though. By 1986, when La traversée de l'Atlantique was released in Québec, they found that Quebeckers were warming up to traditional music once again, and they worked more and more at home. By 1987, they were ready to release their first live recording, a house party caught on tape. The house belonged to the group's friend, jazz band leader and folk music veteran Denis Fréchette, who sat in on piano, and who brought along Régent Archambault on double bass. The album also marked the first appearance of Bordeleau in the group, playing mandolin and mandola. It was designed to be party-friendly. One side featured songs, while the other contained medleys of dance tunes, so that one could put on the record and cut the rug.
Tout comme au jour de l'an is a fine album, but by 1987, La Bottine Souriante's house-party days were coming to a close. They felt that the band's "Celtic" period had to end, and be replaced by something new. Their homecoming allowed them to meet and play with other musicians in Québec, not only on the folk scene. They experimented with new sounds and styles, and a lot of influences were assimilated into their music. Lineup changes ensued, as founder Marchand left the group, and Fréchette and Archambault joined. This made further exploration possible. "It was the first time there were people who could read music in the group," Lambert explained. "It made experimenting easier."
The band's most experimental period is preserved on the appropriately titled album Je voudrais changer d'chapeau ("I Would Like to Change Hats"). Everything from classical string quartets to big-band horn arrangements, and even simple, unaccompanied singing, is included in its eclectic grooves. The disc can't be called consistent, but it gave an idea of the range of exciting options that were opening for a band who were comfortable enough with the tradition to move it ahead.
For their efforts on Je voudrais changer d'chapeau, the band members were rewarded with their first Juno award, in the "Roots/ Traditional Album" category. "Winning the Juno ... is an honor, but it's not something that changes your life," Lambert said. Still, he will always remember the weird experience of winning an award in Toronto from an overwhelmingly Anglophone industry. He even mimicked their Anglo accents when he told me, "We had been around for 13 years, and had five other albums, but we'd never even won a Félix before. [The Félix awards are given out by the Association Québécoise de l'industrie du disque, du spectacle, et de la video. (The Québec record, concert and video industry association). They are for the best Québec records, shows, and videos of the year.] So when we went to Toronto, and they said, 'And the winner is, La Bow-teen Soo-ree-ant,' we said, 'Oh, lord!' It was strange that it would be Toronto that would give us an award. In the political context, it was even better. The judges must not have based their judgments on politics!"
Having achieved such widespread notoriety, La Bottine Souriante was poised to begin making radically progressive and influential strides in the idiom of traditional Québécois music. All that remained after the release of Je voudrais changer d'chapeau was for the band to pick a direction and follow it. Recognizing this, the group went through its most fundamental change to date, the addition to their ranks of a brass quartet. "We said, 'Hey, brass! That would sound great in the band.'" Lambert remembered. "Denis Fréchette had a big band at the time, who were the kings of Montreal salsa," he explained. "He was our connection to Jean [Fréchette] and the brass players."
Despite the movement toward smaller ensembles and "unplugged" performances in the pop music of the late 1980s and early 1990s, La Bottine Souriante thrived as a nine-piece, reaching new heights of popularity. The trend began in 1989, after Je voudrais changer d'chapeau won the Juno award. La Bottine Souriante decided to set up a pair of December concerts at Montreal's Club Soda. Even though they had played in Montreal only once before that, the concerts were a great success. The following year, they made it four shows, and, once again, they were sold out. In 1991, they celebrated the release of their first album as a nine-piece band, Jusqu'aux p'tites heures, with an eight-concert run at Club Soda, and the year after that, when that album had won both a Juno and a Félix award, they moved their party to the Montreal Spectrum, where it continues to be one of Montreal's greatest New Year's attractions. During the same years, the band played numerous other prestigious concerts in Québec, including a stint playing alongside the Chieftains at the 1994 Québec Summer Festival.
La Bottine Souriante's great success in the home market, and particularly in Montreal, is an indication that they are uniquely capable of destroying people's stereotypes and prejudices about traditional music. These stereotypes are still very much alive in Québec today, as Lambert told me. "Prejudices are firmly anchored," he lamented, "to the point where one of our current members believed for a long time that traditional music was just grandpas singing 'ziguezon,' and was justly restricted to amateurs." But La Bottine prove all the naysayers wrong, and because of this talent, they have gained a following that crosses lines of age, gender, and cultural background, and have brought the music to people who would never have heard folk music otherwise; Lambert even described a concert at which a rocker and a nun became so entranced by the band's music that they found themselves dancing with one another!
In addition to the home market La Bottine Souriante continue to impress people abroad. It is their breathtaking appearances at the Celtic Connections festival in Scotland that have gotten the Celtic music scene to sing their praises. Similar coups at the Tønder festival in Denmark have left the European continent reeling. They have played numerous concerts in France, including one on the tiny island of Tatihou, in Normandy, which brought in a crowd of 300—huge by Tatihou's standards, anyway. And limited tours continue to bring the group to the States for at least a few concerts every year.
Lambert believes that it's the group's rhythm and energy that allow it to appeal to audiences all over the world, particularly to young people who might not otherwise enjoy traditional music. Remarkably, the only real "rhythm section" in the band is Bordeleau's feet, pounding out the distinctive rap-a-tap of Franco-Canadian folk music. But what a difference the feet make; once in every concert, the other members of La Bottine leave the stage and allow Bordeleau to play a foot solo; he begins tapping fast, then slows down to an incredibly controlled slow-motion, and finally speeds back up again, sounding for all the world like an old steam train getting up speed. By the time he is finishes, the audience is in an absolute frenzy. It is estimated that he taps his feet 15,000 times in a typical concert, and he knows more about the acoustic qualities of different kinds of floorboards and different kinds of shoes than anyone alive.
Besides the feet, there is another element that keeps La Bottine's music razor-sharp and red-hot: the creative tension among the instruments and styles brought together in their unusual fusion. As Martin Carthy once noted of his band Brass Monkey, accordions, mandolins and brass don't so much blend as clash, and a lot of the music's sense of restrained energy comes from these combinations (or confrontations) of instruments . Similarly, fiddle tunes and bebop aren't exactly peas and carrots. It takes considerable effort on the part of horn arranger Jean Fréchette to make the sound work. According to Fréchette, there's no formula to creating brass arrangements, and every song or tune has to be approached fresh. There is one constant, however, to his work: "It's not easy!" The results of his efforts are worth it, and La Bottine enjoys a rich sound that is much more than the sum of its parts.
The last three La Bottine Souriante albums have continued along the same creative path as their live concerts. Jusqu' aux p'tites heures, which won the band its second Juno award, introduced the integrated brass quartet. It is mostly an album of traditional drinking songs, but takes detours into other areas as well; one original song by Lambert is about the Gulf War. La Mistrine, the group's most recent studio album, goes a step further, using Latin, reggae, Tex-Mex, and other modern influences to create a wholly original synthesis of traditional music and unabashed pop. Its "hit single," "Le rap à ti-petang," is a strange little ballad in which a woman marries a man so small that he gets lost in the bedding. While she searches for him, her candle ignites the bed's straw and roasts the fellow alive. The humor is augmented by a pun that works only in French; the phrases “trop petit” (too small) and “rôti” (roasted) are near-homophones, so when she “finds him too small” and later “finds him roasted” the phrases are comically similar. To complement the bizarre and sexually suggestive lyrics, it features reggae-like guitar chords, bluesy piano riffs, ska-style brass attack, a wailing saxophone solo, and highly infectious foot-tapping. For both albums, as for all the albums that preceded them, their principal sources of material were relatives and friends of the band members who live in rural parts of the province.
En Spectacle, the most recent recording from La Bottine Souriante, is a look back at the group's history, covering songs from throughout its 20-year career. It presents them in the band's new style, bold and brassy, as recorded live during their 1995-96 New Year's concert series. As Jean Fréchette told the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir, the recording session proved hard to manage. "The first night, the crowd was so enthusiastic that we could hear the building creaking in the microphones," he told them. "So the second night, Yves had to ask people not to react during the songs. It was awful! No right to clap their hands or tap their feet! After a while, Yves said to them, 'You don't like this, eh?' And he said to the guys at the console, 'Hey, up there, sorry, but we're going to let them hang loose for at least one song.' The place exploded'"
The popular appeal of La Bottine Souriante's music is as apparent in their record sales as in their audience's reactions. La Mistrine sold 100,000 copies, enough to be certified platinum in Canada. This is hard enough for roots albums in English to do, but in French, it's all but unheard of. "In the market right now," Lambert explained, "there's a crisis in Québec music, so to sell 100,000 albums ... that's really good." Bordeleau continued his train of thought. "To sell 100,000 albums in Québec is very good in popular music, but it's better if it's a traditional music group. It's really exceptional. We had no support from radio, because traditional music in Québec has always been kind of hidden. It's never been a form of music that could take its place at the same level as all the other kinds of music. So having these results, selling more than 100,000 copies of an album, seiling out halls, it's all good for traditional music. There's been a little revival in the last five years, with a lot of young groups seeing what we have done."
With the youngsters breathing down their necks, will La Bottine Souriante keep on changing their approach? It seems only natural that, after reviewing their 20 years on the road, they might move on to new challenges. Bordeleau discussed the idea a bit, hinted at a lineup change (it seems fiddler Martin Racine, who has been with La Bottine for 16 years, has been replaced by newcomer André Brunet), a new album and a film about the history of the band. After all that, he said, it's time for "a re-evaluation after 20 years. Where are we? Are there major changes to be made? What can we do to find new ways to surprise people?"
Bordeleau shook his head before summing up the foreseeable future. "It's work," he said. "We need to get to work'"