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Peggy Latkovich talks with the gentlman tricksters of Genticorum about Quebec's crooked tunes.

Photo by Ariane Jacob

Genticorum is a band of trickster conjurers, performing rhythmic sleight-of-hand on the dance music of their native Quebec. They have the wry, slightly skewed attitude of a cabaret emcee, dropping the occasional naughty joke into their songs just to watch the audience titter in guilty delight. Even the band's name is nonsensical, evoking what? A quorum of gentle folk? A gentleman's forum? Who knows?

The trio has three albums under its belt, the second of which, Malins Plaisirs, garnered a Best Ensemble award at the 2005 Canadian Folk Music Awards. The band is currently globe-hopping in support of its latest release, La Bibournoise. I caught up with flute/fiddle/bass player Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand by phone between tours.

The group formed in 2000, having met at various music festivals and other gatherings in the Montreal area. All three hail from in and around Montreal and come to Quebecois music via jazz, classical, and other routes. Grosbois-Garand started his career as a funk-Latin-jazz composer/arranger and bass player. Pascal Gemme has a degree in big-band arrangement and classical and jazz guitar, and Yann Falquet has a Bachelor's in jazz. "We all discovered the traditional music of Quebec before we met," says Grosbois-Garand, "We all studied instruments that we don't play in the band. I studied bass and I play the flute. Yann studied electric guitar and he plays acoustic guitar. Pascal studied guitar and he plays fiddle."

While all three have backgrounds in arrangement, Gemme does most of the arranging on the band's CDs. He's also the one who digs up much of the group's repertoire. "He finds the tunes either in books or transmitted from elders," says Grosbois-Garand, "He's a music collector."

One of Gemme's primary informants is Jean-Paul Guimond, a seventy-year-old Quebec singer. "Jean-Paul is a really active elder singer," says Grosbois-Garand, "He is always at festivals and parties. He has a project of transcribing and recording all the songs he knows on his computer so people won't forget - to leave as a heritage. He's quite aware of what he has and how to preserve it. He's sort of auto-collecting on himself, sort of like field recording on himself. Pascal met him many times and learned many songs from him. There is [also] Roger Proteau, an uncle of a friend of Pascal's."

Many of the songs Gemme brings to the band are hybrids, combinations of different traditional versions. "He might take a chorus from a book and put the melody of another song that he heard somebody sing," says Grosbois-Garand, "He [takes] the melody of one chorus and mixes it with the story from another and things like that. He likes to play with the songs, maybe write some verses to make the story make more sense if there are gaps in the story or no ending."

One of Genticorum's trademarks is the propensity for irreverent, often bawdy lyrics. La Bibournoise has, for example, a song about a philandering monk, one about an unfaithful wife whose husband accidentally dons his rival's pants, and one about a prison with walls made of food. They are all delivered with a deadpan humor that makes even non-Francophone audiences guffaw. For English-speaking audiences they introduce the song "in a silly story," says Grosbois-Garand, "Usually the presentation is even more funny than the story in French. It's more subtle in the song, so you really have to listen carefully to the lyrics to get everything."

But the band is not just about the impish humor. They can drive through a reel set like a tornado, swirling on an eddy of fiddle, flute, guitar, and foot percussion. And they have a warm way with waltzes and airs. On La Bibournoise Grosbois-Garand debuts on fiddle, playing some lovely harmonies and counterpoints with Gemme. "It's been a hobby for a few years," he says, "I was studying bass and then picked up the flute as a hobby and the hobby took over my main instrument. I started playing fiddle a few years later, also as a hobby. I've been playing long enough now that I've picked up some new tunes. And the band said, 'Oh, we should play that and you should play fiddle.'" He looks forward to playing the instrument more.

A quick scan through their CDs shows a preference for "crooked" tunes, melodies that don't quite fit into the 4/4 or 6/8 mold, but add a beat or a measure here and there. "We like to compose more crooked tunes," says Grosbois-Garand, "but if we play for a dance, we will play hundreds of tunes that aren't crooked. For shows and CDs we like to treat ourselves and play some tunes that have some rhythmic irregularities. A lot of people outside Quebec think that most Quebecois tunes are crooked because the bands play a lot of crooked tunes, but there are more straight tunes in Quebec than crooked tunes."

Quebecois music is one of those pan-cultural styles that draws on many facets of the immigrant experience. "It comes from Irish and Scottish and music from France, "says Grobois-Garand, "There is a big so-called Celtic flair to it because there are a lot of Irish and Scottish reels that have become Quebecois reels. Sometimes the reels will change a bit, or the way of playing them. That mixed with the French song tradition and march band music from the United States and German polkas and waltzes. All that mixed together over a few centuries into what we refer to as Quebecois traditional music. Most of the bands, including us, will focus more on the party aspect of it. But we try also to play some laments and some waltzes because it's not just fast reels and call-and-response drinking songs. There's much more than that, so we try to give the diversity of the tradition."

The band's been touring extensively over the past year, playing shows in Australia, Great Britain, and North America and will continue touring in support of the new CD into early 2009. They will have a brief break to welcome Grosbois-Garand's new baby into the world in February, and then they'll be back on the road. The difference between touring and playing festivals becomes obvious after several months of traveling. "We found it takes more energy to change towns every day and do two sets of music," he says, "We're tired, but it's part of the job." The band draws its vitality from the audience's enthusiasm. Says Grosbois-Garand, "There's a live energy and some surprises sometimes." - Peggy Latkovich

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