Squeezebox Sensations at Quebec Festival

Some 70 performers from around the globe are given free rein on free-reed instruments

by Earle Hitchner

Le Carrefour Mondial
de l'Accordéon

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Montmagny is for the birds. Thousands of migrating snow geese, to be exact. Each autumn, they land in this small Quebec town on the southern coast of the St. Lawrence River to feed on the plentiful bulrushes growing along the riverbanks. It's bird watchers' heaven, and Montmagny holds Le Festival de l'Oie Blanche every October to mark the occasion.

But that fowl festival no longer flies as high as Le Carrefour Mondial de l'Accordéon, the most prestigious North American gathering of international accordion masters and enthusiasts. About 34 miles east-northeast of Quebec City, Montmagny is a proudly French-speaking town that is over 300 years old and has 11,885 residents. But from August 30 through September 3, the population swelled to more than 50,000, most of them intent on hearing some of the finest box players in the world.

Classical gas
The technique of Andreï Romanov was nothing less than phenomenal on the five-row, 120-bass, bayan button accordion, an instrument that first surfaced in Russia around 1871. At his unamplified recital in Montmagny's Center of Migrations, this virtuoso from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk played Scarlatti sonatas, Bach and Mendelssohn scherzos, a Mozart adagio, and Vivaldi's "Winter" concerto from "The Four Seasons," all of which he had transcribed for his instrument.

The Vivaldi selection Romanov performed was especially breathtaking, full of brilliantly executed runs of notes and precisely placed bellows shakes to convey the shivering weather of winter. He also played "Night in Buenos Aires," an adventurous tango adapted from the work of the late Argentinean bandonéon master Astor Piazzolla.

The bandonéon itself, a square-shaped South American accordion with single-note buttons for treble and bass, came alive in the hands of Jacques Trupin, a member of the French duo Artango with pianist Fabrice Ravel-Chapuis. The two specialize in a free-form, tango-flavored music, and at their Saturday performance in the sold-out, 550-seat auditorium of the Louis Jacques Casault Secondary School, they were joined by three violinists and a cellist. Highlights were a sweepingly beautiful original waltz, "Valse Lente," and the aptly titled "Désorienté," where
bold flourishes on the bandonéon and piano combined with tartly plucked or sweetly bowed strings.

In the shadow of Irish sacrifice
A short ferry ride from Montmagny is Grosse Isle and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada. It commemorates the tragic plight of Irish immigrants in steerage who were quarantined at Grosse Isle in the mid-19th century, a time when cholera and typhus epidemics claimed thousands of lives.

Fittingly, Irish music was spotlighted at Carrefour Mondial de l'Accordéon, and seven-time All-Ireland button accordion champion John Whelan's poignant solo rendition of "From the Heart," his own slow air, seemed to echo a past symbolized by the graves on Grosse Isle.

Irish traditional jigs and reels are no stranger to the Québecois repertoire. So when Whelan joined North Yorkshire accordionist Chris Parkinson, whose grandfather came from Atmass, Co. Mayo, for such Irish dance tunes as "The Foxhunter's" and "The Reconciliation" on an outside stage Sunday afternoon, the audience responded with strong applause.

Also appearing on that stage was 14-year-old Dan Gurney, a Mid-Atlantic Region Fleadh Cheoil winner from Rhinebeck, N.Y. A button accordion pupil of Whelan, Gurney performed solo on a jig he wrote, "Rhinecliff Hotel," and joined his teacher and Parkinson for a medley of reels made famous by Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman in 1934, "Tarbolton/Longford Collector/Sailor's Bonnet." The music played by all three accordionists was an inspiration, including a standout solo turn by Parkinson on one of his own compositions, the plaintive "Golden Grove."

Going Gallic
The diversity of accordion sounds from France was impressive. The duo of button box player Benoît Guerbigny and guitarist/fiddler Robert Thebault performed the traditional dance music of Poitou, a region in west-central France. During late Sunday morning in the Louis Jacques Casault Secondary School auditorium, Thebault ably laid down the rhythm and also deftly flatpicked the melody from time to time, while the inherent swing in Guerbigny's accordion playing--and his in-tempo calling of dance figures as he played--made it easy for guests Marif Cofineau and Jean-François Miniot to demonstrate some of the traditional steps popular in Poitou.

Swing was at the core of what Alma Sinti performed. This French quintet -- three guitarists, acoustic bassist, and button accordionist -- offered a heady mix of tzigane (music in the gypsy style), musette (post-1910, accordion-driven music played for public balls), and jazz associated with Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and the Quintette du Hot Club de France during the '30s and '40s.

La Belle Société is a trio led by the highly accomplished Breton button accordionist Étienne Grandjean. There was a broad, cabaret-like feel to much of their music on box, brass, keyboards, and guitar, with a heavy measure of comedy shtick and circus-like antics. But on tunes like "Retour à Paris," which began with a "Take Five"-like piano rhythm, the quality of La Belle Société's playing amply shone through.

Like Andreï Romanov, France's Baïkal Duo played large bayan button accordions. Jacques Péllarin and Jean-Luc Brunetti did a presto rendition of a Bulgarian piece, and the two brought similar energy to tangos, tzigane, and original music.

Other native French accordionists who distinguished themselves at the festival were Alain Chatry and Sébastien Farge, as well as Brittany's Janick Martin. Also, the sextet of L'Orchestre du Petit Robinson performed popular French standards for a bal musette, or old-style ball, where a few hundred Quebecers waltzed and tangoed joyously.

Québecois clout
At Parc de la Mairie on Sunday, an overflow crowd saw some stirring Québecois music and dance for free. The apex of the afternoon entertainment was la gigue, an older, often highly improvised form of solo stepdancing in Quebec that's akin to Ireland's sean-nós style of stepdancing. Dancing la gigue in rotating pairs were Normand Legault, Benoît Bourque, Serge Mathon, Gilles Pitre, Érick Tarte, and Yvan Gagné, and the excitement of their steps met with enthusiastic roars from the audience.

Quebecers Stéphane Landry, Yves Hélie, William Vézina, Sabin Jacques, Gaston Nolet, and Frank Sears on button accordions, Normand Legault on bones, and Benoît Legault (Normand's brother), Dorothée Hogan, Rachel Aucoin, and Léopold Tremblay on keyboards were all in prime form throughout the festival. Their incisive, driving style of dance music was exhilarating, and they frequently invoked the names of Brooklyn's John Kimmel and Boston's Joe Derrane, two Irish-style button accordionists of enormous influence in the Québecois tradition.

Raynald Ouellet's duties as artistic director fortunately didn't deter this great Montmagny button accordionist from some spirited playing on Thursday night as a guest with an Ontario klezmer band called Beyond the Pale and on Monday morning at Le Brunch d'au Revoir, where live music and breakfast/lunch were served to 650 people in Nicole Pavilion.

Global village
Other international and regional traditions of music were well-represented at the festival. Within Canada, there were piano accordionist Jacques Arsenault from Prince Edward Island, button accordionist Roger Lanteigne from New Brunswick, piano accordionist and dancer Marian Rose from British Columbia, and the guitar-accordion duo of Ti-Jardin from Newfoundland.

Originally from Colombia, button accordionist Antonio Rivas led a trio featuring electric bass and guacharaca (metal cylinder played with a scraper). They stayed mainly within the tradition of vallenata, a rural, rootsy Colombian music that was hypnotically danceable.

From Italy were button accordionist Roberto Lucanero and piano accordionist Daniele Ravaglia, from Bulgaria was piano accordionist Milen Slavov (now relocated to Mississippi), and from Portugal was 18-year-old chromatic button accordionist Ana Sofia Campeã.

The Lisbon-born, conservatory-trained Campeã displayed a stunning command of the five-row, 120-bass box, at one point playing two separate traditional Portuguese melodies simultaneously. Her embrace of fado (mournful, moving folk music indigenous to Portugal) was magic, and her vivacious performance of popular music ("Oh, Susanna," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Do-Re-Mi") on another accordion, one with flashing lights, was a sight and sound to behold.

For five days, from seven different stages, free-reed instruments ruled, and the music played on them was mind-expanding in the best sense of the term. Le Carrefour Mondial de l'Accordéon is, without doubt, the squeezebox summit of North America.

For information about the 2002 festival, contact:

Carrefour Mondial de l'Accordéon
Manoir Couillard-Dupuis
301, Boulevard Taché Est, C.P. 71
Montmagny, Québec G5V 3S3, Canada

418-248-7927 (phone)
http://accordeon.montmagny.com (website).

Be sure to visit Le Musée de l'Accordéon at the same location. The two-story museum contains rare instruments, vintage photos, period music, reference books, and a wide selection of CDs and cassettes for sale.

Copyright 2001 by Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the Irish Echo newspaper, New York City, September 12, 2001. Reprinted at the Celtic Cafe by permission of Earle Hitchner, "Trad Beat" columnist. Besides the Irish Echo, Earle Hitchner has also contributed articles and reviews to Billboard, Details, Irish Music, New Choices, Wall St. Journal and The Oxford American magazines. Earle has written liner notes for over 40 recordings, including 1999's Grammy-nominated "The Celtic Album" by the Boston Pops Orchestra. In 1999, he wrote six essays for the widely praised reference book "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music," co-published by Cork University Press and New York University Press. He also consulted on four film documentaries of Irish traditional music broadcast on public television.

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