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Festival Chants de Vielles – 20 years of music at a human scale

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Twenty years ago, Nicolas Boulerice and Olivier Demers shoveled out manure from some barns in Calixa-Lavallée, QC, to host the first Festival Chants de Vielles.

This little festival was about to become famous for its charming rural Québec setting, its intimacy and its human scale. That was in 2004. Aside from a one-year hiatus when the festival did not run (due to moving), it’s been a huge success ever since, showcasing the sounds of fiddles, feet, human voices, and the weird, wheeled string instrument called the Vielle à Roue, otherwise known as the hurdy-gurdy.

We asked Nicolas what the idea of human scale means to him. “Consider the land a child can walk in one day,” said Nicolas. “That’s your country. It’s a human landscape with buildings constructed by the people of the village. Everything is close, and that’s why Chants de Vielles is the size it is – it’s the size of heaven, and it’s all human scale.”

From its inception, Chants de Vielles has been intimate. Starting with about 500 people that first year, Olivier and Nicolas have kept that human scale and community focus. There are performances in the neighbourhood church. There’s a ‘family photo’ taken on the church steps. There’s a parade through the village, food made by local volunteers and, of course, music, music and more music flowing through the hands and hearts of people from the larger roots music community.

Looking at photos from the first year, we see some now well-known Québecois musicians. There are younger versions of Nicolas and Olivier, of course, but we also see Claude Méthé, Simon Beaudry, Daniel Thonon, Ben Grossman, Daniel Roy, Jean-Claude Mirandette, Élise Guay, Benoît Bourque, Geneviève Nadeau, and Les Frères Berthiaume. There were concerts, workshops, jam sessions and dances. It was informal, and fun.

Twelve years ago, the festival re-started in the village of Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu after the original site, the agricultural fairground in Calixa-Lavallée, became unavailable. Once it left the barns, the team did not run the festival the next year and thought about folding. But the mayor of Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu overheard the team’s mournful conversation in a café one day and stepped in to welcome the festival in his village. With open arms, he offered park space and docks on the river for concert and workshop stages, and nearby land for camping. The rest is history.

The whole village of Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu has stepped up to help, and now, instead of 500 attendees, they have nearly 5,000 each June. From just a few musicians, the festival now showcases 60 to 70 artists in nearly 100 concerts.

People in the village and beyond have embraced the festival, welcoming festival goers to swell the population of the municipality every year at the end of June. People around Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu have taken it to heart so much that now, they regularly run master classes and house concerts around the calendar year. Festival Chants de Vielles has for sure had a huge impact in enabling the people of this community to re-connect with their heritage. Nicolas tells of a great desire to keep the music playing year-round.

During pandemic lockdowns, Festival Chants de Vielles did not stop. They chartered a river boat and installed a stage on its top deck. Families and “bubbled” groups of friends were invited to sit in defined circles on the shore and were given a time

But even though the festival attendance has increased ten-fold, it has still not lost its human scale. Most of the same team members have been with it since its humble beginnings.

“It’s a bit more professional,” said Nicolas, but the friendly and calming rural atmosphere and the playful ambiance have not changed a bit.

The concert stages in Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu today are a far cry from the barns and cow pens of Calixa Lavallée 20 years ago. Today, they use the docks and parks along the water; you can join in paddling a canoe during a singing workshop; and you have the gorgeous vista of the Richelieu River tickling your eyeballs as you listen to the likes of Le Vent du Nord; participate in Breton and Bal Folk dances, hear performances of Vielle à Roue, fiddles, feet, accordions, guitars and more.

The festival organizers also realized some years ago that the roots of Québecois traditional music are the same as in roots music everywhere, so in recent years, they have embraced the music of the world, bringing in roots music from Africa, America, English Canada and much more. It’s nothing short of merveilleux!

Check out the program they have planned for this coming festival: https://chantsdevielles.com/. You don’t want to miss this very special 20th anniversary event.

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