About 650km north of Montreal – a seven hour drive or an hour’s plane ride (plus an extra two flights if you’re coming from the UK) – past seemingly endless forests and uncountable numbers of lakes lies the town of Rouyn-Noranda in Northern Quebec, the setting for Festival de musique émergente.
On one hand, it appears an idyllic location akin to making the, albeit less exhausting, journey down the end of the road to End of the Road. Imagine a festival in the wilds of Canada, and you might think of artists playing in forests with the possibility of moose and bears wandering into view, and while the reality isn’t quite so maple candy box as that, FME is still one of the most unique festivals I’ve ever been to.
Celebrating its fifteenth year in 2017, FME’s aim is to celebrate the music of Quebec and in particular artists who reside in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region. Each year those playing make the arduous drive up the road from Montreal, or throw their gear into a prop plane for an eye-popping journey from one of Canada’s bigger cities, and it’s a testament to the reputation of the festival that people are willing to make the effort to get to Rouyn-Noranda.
On the morning after the first night of the festival, wandering around town, I’m initially left wondering why. The previous evening I’ve watched Andy Shauf play a beautiful full band show in Agora des Arts (a converted church), transforming the gentle songs from The Party into fully-realised and orchestrated gems to a packed house. Across the road, the sort-of town square has been turned into an open-air venue where Pierre Kwenders and the incredible First Nation act A Tribe Called Red played blistering sets to warm up a crowd chilling under a cloudless Quebec sky. The locals, knowing their weather better than I, are wrapped up with warm drinks while some of the invited guests (including myself) have nothing more than a light jacket and a beer to keep me warm…and it wasn’t working. Anyway, it felt like a festival, and a well-organised one at that.
Yet that next morning I wonder if I’m at a festival. It might be Labor Weekend and Rouyn is a town of only 40,000 people but I as I explore the streets I wonder where everyone is. Up and down the wide streets dominated by wooden-framed houses with porches there’s barely a soul – and when you do encounter someone the surrealistic nature of the situation is enhanced by French being the first language in the town. Surrounded by everything that screams small town North America (Tim Hortons, big cars, the most enormous articulated lorries I’ve ever seen) it’s something of a shock to someone who’s never visited Canada before to experience just how proudly French this part of Quebec really is.
As I wander down one of the handful of unfinished streets – most roads are tarmac as you’d expect, but some are covered in small stones – I notice that the sidewalks are split with cracks and riddled with ridges, some of the houses falling into a little bit of disrepair. I’ve seen streets like this before and you don’t have to look far to see why. Rouyn was established in 1917 with the Noranda area (a contraction of Northern and Canada) following in 1922 – both towns came into being thanks to the discovery of copper and gold deposits in the region and there are still eight mines in operation today. Dominating the edges of the town is the industrial behemoth of the Noranda Mines complex. It’s a stark mark on the landscape and jars slightly against the beauty of the bodies of water surrounding the town, Lac Osisko and Lac Kiwanis.
Yet of course it’s vital to the existence of Rouyn-Noranda and the population fluctuates due to the economic situation. And it’s perhaps foresight from the organisers of FME to realise that one day the mines will finally run out of copper and gold and the town will need something else to draw people in…and that’s where FME comes in. The power of arts to regenerate a place is one for debate but over the course of the next few days you can see how vital FME and other ventures are to the development of the town.
On Saturday afternoon the industry types are invited to a pool party and barbecue in the backyard of one of Rouyn’s beautiful wood-framed houses. Hosted by Bonsound, a label and booking agency out of Montreal, it’s the location for one of the finds of the weekend in the shape of synth-punks Duchess Says. Singer Annie-Claude Deschênes is a highly-strung star, prowling around the pool constantly on the edge of tipping in, throwing berries at the crowd, singing right in the faces of a lucky few and swigging wine from the bottle. You can’t take your eyes off her, and the band behind her are electric.
Speaking to Bonsound owner Gourmet Delice after the performance he reveals just one of the emerging links between Rouyn-Noranda and the festival. “The people that own the house, they rent it as an Airbnb,” he explains. “So we’ve had this party here for a few years and they’re happy to help the festival and the community.” In return it looks like us industry types are being respectful of the local generosity. I spend some time talking to journalists from Canada and further afield around the pool and find that there’s a range of experience. Writers from France and Switzerland have been here before, returning for the fourth and fifth visits, seem obvious choices due to the commonality in language and are effusive in their praise for what is clearly a well-run and well-funded festival. I spend a little more time speaking to people with more in common with my own first-timer experience. A couple of journalists from Montreal, along with a respected PR, have been here before and say that while it’s a world away from their city they keep coming back because they’re looking to build a connection between the locales, uniting across such a vast country.
“I’d never even heard of the place,” says one punk rock writer from Montreal. Later, during the closing concert show on the shores of Lac Kiwanis, the same person is elated to have seen his first moose and has been won over by his new experience. And this happens again and again over the weekend; people are charmed by FME and Rouyn-Noranda, won over by a festival with the community at its heart.
That sense of community is enhanced a couple of hours after the Bonsound event. On the shores of Lac Osisko there’s an event called Makwa, celebrating First Nation culture – in particular the lives of the Anishinaabe peoples. There’s a drum circle, local crafts and a spectacular parade featuring indigenous dancers and it’s one of the most energising moments of the weekend. FME reach out towards the cities of Canada, further to the industry people of Europe but perhaps most importantly to the indigenous people. The festival needed this celebration of culture, it needed A Tribe Called Red to headline the opening night. In a year when Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday and – whether accidentally or not – ignoring the history of the indigenous people for many, many years before 1867 it’s to FME’s credit they’re not letting this slide.
The artists also add to the community spirit. Being so far away from any other city or town they perhaps don’t have any choice, but across the weekend it’s refreshing to see musicians becoming part of Rouyn-Noranda for a few days. So after her great opening night show filled with pulsating electropop tunes I find myself next to La Bronze as she buys a beer, still buzzing from what she described as a great experience, clearly thriving off the pressure of being the first on stage. Across the road in the converted church Andy Shauf can be seen watching Philippe B play his winsome acoustic songs before he takes the stage himself. The next day garage pop act Laura Sauvage plays on the porch of a craft beer pub and is happy to stick around after and try some of the local brews.
Likewise immersing myself in the festival, I find there’s much to love about Rouyn-Noranda. Maybe it’s coming from a town similarly built from a mining community but I start to feel its charms working on me. Whether it was the excellent poutine from the 24 hour place going since 1969, the owner of the pub who was concerned about my warmth (thanks but I’m Scottish, it was practically tropical) while being the only person out on the terrace having a beer watching the world go slowly by, the kind woman who stopped to give me directions when I looked lost, the shop windows which became art installations or gig venues for the weekend it was hard to know where the festival ended and the town began.
And you can see how the town benefits; Rouyn might not have the arts venue Petit Théâtre du Vieux if it wasn’t for FME. A multi-purpose and modern venue it hosted Zen Bamboo, one of the discoveries of the weekend. With links to Malajube, the band recalled the blistering emo of the Blood Brothers mixed with some gentler mid-00s blog rock, somehow bringing the two together to make their set one of the most exhilarating of the weekend. A five minute walk round the corner and you’ll find the Paramount, an old cinema converted into a gig venue and another example of the town’s musical regeneration. In there, hip hop duo Eman X Vlooper – a French language production and rap pair – create a party atmosphere swinging from dope-cloud intensity to loose R&B-inspired beats. They’re terrific and embody the eclectic spirit of FME. From rock to hip hop, folk to black metal, the festival caters for many tastes and takes advantage of all of Rouyn’s spaces. A barbershop turns into a record store and gig space for the weekend, pubs turn into sweaty venues, parking lots host popup shows. One particular highlight was the fizzing art-rock of Belgians It It Anita turning a pub floor into a moshpit with their Gang of Four meets Fugazi jams.
And of course the closing show, the spectacular concert celebrating the music of local hero Richard Desjardins, takes place on the shore of Lac Kiwanis as the sun sets. It feels like the whole town is in attendance, and is a fitting tribute to the 69-year-old (a local activist and documentary maker as well as a country and folk musician) as a rotating cast of musicians pays their dues The Last Waltz style. It’s a little too middle of the road for my own tastes but hearing how much Desjardins means to Rouyn-Noranda you can’t really argue with the FME’s choices. Yet, having witnessed the gorgeous compositions of neo-classical pianist Jean-Michel Blais (think Nils Frahm, Michael Chapman etc) in the church earlier in the evening I can’t help wonder what some eclectic thinking could have achieved with this closing show: imagine Blais’ beauty, the incendiary and confrontational bounce of A Tribe Called Red and Shauf’s full-band brilliance on this lakeside stage with the flickering lights of the town in the distance and you’d have something truly special. But I’m nit-picking; looking around the masses of people huddling together for heat, the majority are entranced by the massed and reverential musicians.
On arrival in Rouyn-Noranda I had the impression of a town as the setting for a gritty, Casey Affleck-starring film where the protagonist finishes work at the mine each night and heads to a local bar where he ends up punching out his small-town frustrations. On leaving, I’m transformed and inspired by the power of music and art. FME is making a difference in so many ways; it’s going to get an international reputation sooner rather than later, it’ll continue to convince metropolitan Montreal and Toronto that it’s worth making the trip, it will continue to build bridges with indigenous communities.
But more than that, FME will continue to develop a town in flux. Once the mining eventually goes there’s more than a good chance that a strong arts infrastructure will remain in Rouyn-Noranda, inspiring locals and attracting people from further afield, knowing that what they’re doing contributes to the continuing existence of a warm and welcoming community.