Dancing on Red Islands: Vishtèn Unearths and Deconstructs Wild Acadian Joys on Terre Rouge
They knew they had to go back. Back to the red soil of their home islands of the Magdalens and Prince Edward Island. Back to the local characters and torchbearers. Back to the simple act of absorbing, then making, music.
Vishtèn, the trio of musicians from the Francophone communities of Maritime Canada, had been on the road for too long. “We wanted to be just musicians again for a while, to think only about the music,” reflects multi-instrumentalist Pastelle LeBlanc. They returned to Prince Edward Island, working with local French-speaking researchers, dancers, musicians they had longed to collaborate with for years.
It sparked their imaginations. PEI is home to the group, and a constant source of unexpected inspiration. The island has musical terroir of sorts, a sound shaped by soil and clime, by quiet eccentrics and unsung local legends. Its red earth, the image that guided the ensemble’s new album Terre Rouge, sprouted unique music fed by French, Micmac, and Celtic roots.
Vishtèn has gathered the fruits of the islands, turning footwork and mouth music, “crooked” fiddle tunes and touching French ballads into dynamic, contemporary pieces. Working with visionary Montreal producer Éloi Painchaud to craft and record the new material, they deconstructed the island’s intriguing sonic elements, then reassembled them with a keen sense of rhythm, texture, drive. Musicianship abounds, but never overpowers: At heart, it’s about the kitchen party, the dance down a starlit road, the wild times traditional music marks.
The party will come to the US for a tour in Spring 2017.
Vishtèn’s multi-instrumentalist powerhouses, Pastelle and Emmanuelle LeBlanc and Pascal Miousse, grew up with traditional Acadian music all around them. It became their profession, but after years of working away at all sides of the business, they longed for fresh engagement with their lifelong love. “We decided to participate in residencies in our local communities that would help us pursue some long-standing interests, some parts of the tradition we had never explored fully,” explains Pastelle.
Emmanuelle decided to study percussive dance, collaborating with local performers and inviting friend and La Bottine Souriante dancer Sandy Silva to PEI. Together, they brought new, more rock-inflected beats into flying Acadian footwork, an approach that shines on “Trois Blizzards,” a whirlwind tribute to last winter’s fury. Miousse worked with master Prince Edward Island fiddlers, to learn more about the tradition and how it related to the fiddle music he grew up with on the Magdalens. (“Corandina” is a Vishtèn favorite from the islands that got a revamp for the album.)
Pastelle dug into mouth music, a nimble vocal tradition used at dances when no instruments were available. She turned to a local devotee of the practice, Georges Arsenault, a folklorist and historian who had dedicated himself to recording this fast-fading tradition. She listened to his extensive archives, and savored how snatches of French and Micmac form driving rhythmic patterns, all to catchy melodies. Pastelle found herself weaving them into other tunes and songs.
Vishtèn had always known how to juxtapose favorite moments from songs or tunes, to find a verse here, a melody there, and create something new yet true to the sources’ spirit. “Je vous aime tant” came together that way, with a melody from upstate New York, verses and choruses from two old ballads. “Coeur en Mer,” a gorgeous account of a captain’s wife who disguises herself and joins her beloved husband’s crew, got a newly minted chorus. The album’s homage to Cajun tradition, “Joe Féraille,” unites a side-splitting song from the Lomax collection with a tune, the “Lake Arthur Stomp,” that the band learned in a wildly round-about way, via an Irish band Vishtèn jammed with in Austria.
Yet this album, they wanted to capture the joyous intensity of their live sets. As they worked out the new pieces, the rhythms took center stage. Their role grew as the band took their new material into the studio. Working with Painchaud, they took apart tradition, and reassembled it with real glee and new fire. “He took us out of the comfort zone, pushed us even further into the rhythmic stuff,” reflects Pastelle. “The album heads into new territory that’s interesting rhythmically.”
Sometimes the beat drives the tunes, yet sometimes the pulse sways and swings (“Valse à Alonzo”). Rhythmic ingenuity has always been a part of Acadian fiddle tunes, which were once known for being “crooked,” syncopated in unexpected ways, with their own peculiar pocket. “The crooked style is really different from what we grew up listening to and has a sound of its own,” notes Pastelle. “Earlier, dance steps weren’t so uniform. People would just get up at kitchen parties and dance the way they felt the rhythms. Every fiddler would have had his own crooked way.” The trio unites several crooked tunes on the wide-ranging “Sarazine.”
Idiosyncratic music making continues on PEI and on the Magdalen Islands: local musicians continue to craft tunes, invent new steps, and revel in their red earth-born ways. Crooked or not, the beat goes on, thanks in part to Vishtèn’s celebratory curiosity and unflagging energy.