Grosse Isle – Le Bonhomme Sept Heures / The Bonesetter
Québec and Ireland have a long and intertwined cultural relationship that goes back centuries.
In 1847, at the height of the great potato famine of 1845 to 1852, 441 ships sailed for Québec, and many on board were sick and starving. Typhoid fever was epidemic. Many thousands died, either on the ships or in quarantine on Grosse Isle in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. The people had largely been tenant farmers in Ireland and had been expelled from their homes due to land reforms taking place during the era of the crop destroying potato blight.
It is with this background that we understand the complex relationship between Québec and Ireland. Thousands of the survivors of the voyages settled in many places in North America, and in the province of Québec, over time, they largely assimilated into the French Québecois culture, bringing their music and dance traditions with them. Irish traditional music is just as prevalent in Québec today as is traditional Québecois, and the Irish melodies and ornamentations have found themselves wrapped right around the traditional French melodies. The influences can be heard today everywhere trad music is played in the province.
Such is the setting into which the band Grosse Isle was conceived. Some years ago, Sophie Lavoie, Quebecois fiddler and singer, was visiting Ireland, the home of much of the traditional music she plays. She met Fiachra O’Regan, player of Irish bagpipes, Uilleann pipes, banjo, and whistles. They became a couple and settled together in Sophie’s home province.
These two superb musicians subsequently joined forces with André Marchand, legendary Québecois guitarist and singer who has been a force for trad music in his home province for over 40 years. The trio has worked together for several years now – Le Bonhomme Sept Heures is the second CD they have created together, and this is a true melding of both the music of Québec and of Ireland.
The title of the album refers to the “seven o’clock boogeyman” a mythological creature conjured to scare children who are not yet in bed. But the music on this album is anything but scary. It is moving, joyful and exciting to listen to. There are songs and lively tunes composed by Sophie, as well as traditional Québecois and Irish melodies.
The arrangements are superb as well. We hear the pipes, the fiddle, banjo and whistle all beautifully played with a lovely clarity of sound. The singing voices of Sophie and their guest, Michel Faubert, are stellar. The production values are simply excellent, André Marchand being at the controls of the sound board during the recording sessions.
But perhaps what sets this album the most apart is its subject matter. The tragedy of the quarantine island Grosse Isle and the huge wave of Irish immigration to Québec is very much at the forefront of the music here. The opening cut, “Le Bonhomme et la Bonne Femme,” is a song from the repertoire of the legendary Québecois singer of the 1930’s, La Bolduc, whose father was of Irish descent. The final song on the recording is Sophie’s composition about the story of Sarah McDonald from Sligo, who lost five daughters in a shipwreck off the coast of Gaspé while they were on their way to Grosse Isle. In between, we have tunes – some lyrical, some sad, some with unrepentant joy – all of which conjure that amazing mixing of cultures that occurred in Québec in the middle of the 19th century.
This album is nothing short of fantastic. It gives us history, tragedy and joy. It gives us the old and the new side by side, and it represents the musical best of two great cultures.