Barachois is a fun-filled quartet performing traditional Acadian music, a style kept alive through two and a half centuries on tiny Prince Edward Island, Canada. Albert Arsenault, his sister Hélène Bergeron, Louise Arsenault, and Chuck Arsenault make up the group.
(This interview was recorded in Glasgow in 1999.)
Our band is from Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada, from the French-Acadian community. 'Barachois' is a French term for a tidal pool.
You're here at Celtic Connections. What is the Celtic Connection for you?
We all grew up in musical, "fiddling" families. Fiddling in Acadian communities goes back a few centuries and the Acadian race have been on PEI since the 1600s, surrounded by Scottish and Irish communities. Over the past few hundred years the music has merged and the cultures have influenced one another. All play the fiddle but all use it differently -– especially rhythmically: Acadians use their feet. Style is different although some of the tunes are the same -– the songs are all from France and have been handed down through the generations and Barachois keeps that tradition alive.
People are familiar with other Canadian musical traditionals: Quebecois music or with music from Cape Breton. But Acadian music from PEI is a well kept secret. Is it a fairly small community?
There are only 400 families and the music has all been handed down in families in the kitchen. It's only being played more commercially now. Traditional music is very popular now.
It's on the upswing. People, even from the next province, often don't realise there's a French speaking community on PEI.
If you listen to Acadian music from the other maritime provinces in Canada, it sounds different. Different regions have different styles, depending on their influences. In some of the Acadian regions in New Brunswick you can hear the Irish influence. Our style is fairly different from the Quebec style and the songs are from a different area in France too. The Acadians are from Poitièrs in the North West, a different region from most of the Quebecois.
PEI is separated from Quebec by a twelve hour car drive so the cultures have taken on their own directions.
When most people listen to fiddle music from any part of the world, but particularly Scotland or Ireland, they can't help but tap their feet. But with Acadian music, you tap your feet while you're playing -- it's part of the music. Talk about the rhythm in the music and how you're expressing that with your feet because your feet are really another instrument.
In the old days, the fiddlers had no accompaniment and so the fiddlers and singers used their feet to accompany themselves. The guitars only appeared after the Second World War. A lot of people had pump organs which is related to the church, but they were also used to play traditional music because it was the only other instrument that was around.
We were in a room last night practising and we didn't want to bang our feet too much with the plaster ceilings and there were rugs. Banging feet softly on the rugs –- we couldn't hear anything -– we weren't really gelling and we knew it was because the feet weren't there.
For us the feet are what keeps the whole thing tied together. They're a central element.
They go together. If you ask our fiddler, Louise, to play without her feet, half of what she does is not there.
Sometimes it goes beyond tapping your feet and you're dancing. The step dance must be quite tied in with Celtic step dance from Ireland or from Cape Breton or Scotland. Is that the case?
The step dance is the same as the fiddling. It's a reflection of the style of fiddling in your area. A lot of the men used to work in lumber camps and a few generations ago, it was mostly the men that danced. They learned a lot of different steps, Scottish and Irish, even American Appalachian clogging steps, Quebecois steps. In the maritime provinces it's a big mass of all the influences mixed together, but each region has its own style and it's a reflection of the fiddle style.
More and more, everyone knows the same steps because it's being taught now, but still, each region has its own way of doing it. Our father and uncle both dance and we go to them for inspiration for steps.
I often think when people talk about the connections between the Celtic countries that dance is a wonderful thread that is often overlooked. If you look at all these lands with inter-connected music, they also have related forms of dance which seem to be having a wonderful renaissance right now.
It's definitely a big part of the music.
We have a world dance festival at home and one thing I've come to realise is that in some cultures, if the men can't dance, it's like not being able to drive: you're not a real man.
Another thing about your music is the pure joy that's in it. You're having a big time on stage and it's an extension of your joy in your culture.
That's the way it was played when we grew up. It was played in houses at family gatherings to forget everything else. People worked very hard and had very tough lifestyles. The music and fooling around and being crazy was a big part of being able to forget about the hardships and have fun for a while. So that's how we think of music – it's as much a part of it as the dancing.
It seems that your music has been wonderfully immune from something that happened in Scotland in the last Century where it got cleaned up a bit and became like parlour room music, and had to be done in a prettier more formal way. People somehow lost the edge and spirit. Your music never seems to have been parted from its original spirit.
That's because it was never done for serious reasons. It was always done to forget about work and hardships and to be able to cut loose and have fun.
Our father is a fiddler and I think if you told him that the music he's played all his life should be on the big stage he'd laugh. It was for the kitchen.
It would make him very nervous, because it wasn't meant to be taken very seriously. It was used in the French community as a form of entertainment as much for the people doing it as much as for the people in the room.
We've been talking about Celtic Connections with your music and with some of the other artists playing at the festival, but I want to make a North American connection with you. Can you tell us about the connection between Acadian music from PEI and Cajun music from Louisiana?
The Cajuns in Louisiana are our distant cousins. Most of them come from the maritimes originally. They have the same kind of feelings towards their music –- it's very happy, but their influences were not the same as ours because of the big distance. It's probably a ten hour plane ride instead of a car ride. They were influenced by the cultures from the Southern States whilst our influences were different.
But some people tell us that they can hear similarities in the music.
And it is the spirit of the music that people respond to sometimes. What would happen then if we got Barachois up on stage with a Cajun band?
We did last summer at a festival! We got put on stage with Balfa Toujours and we did 45 minutes together, but we have such a connection with the Cajuns, it's like being with family all of a sudden.
Can you understand each other if you speak in your various French dialects?
It's so funny, because the dialect has remained the same over 200 years, separated by all those miles and years. The French is still the very same.
It's an old, old French, eh? Most of it is not spoken in Quebec and it's not spoken in France any more. The words, and the way we say them and use them were once a part of the language, but it's still a part of our language and of the Cajun language.
That's why there's such a connection there. There's an instant recognition and even our physical traits and characteristics are very similar.
There was a great response here in Glasgow to the music of Barachois and I'm wondering what the response is like back home in Canada for your music. Is there a following that's regional or do you manage to capture the attention of Canadians from all ethnic backgrounds right across the country?
We're starting to travel more and more in Canada. We've played in PEI quite a bit -– we're from there and it's not big. But now we're going out West a lot to the Western provinces and we're going to start playing in Ontario and the central part of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. We're getting around more and more and the reaction is always positive.
There's a huge revival of interest in traditional music. People are very open and receptive to Celtic music and, in Canada, there's a music known as "Maritime Music" and we've fitted that category. It's from Eastern Canada.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, and here's wishing you all the best as you share the music of Prince Edward Island with the world.
Thank you it was a real pleasure. Bye bye!