Mademoiselle, voulez-vous danser?

Franco-American Music from the New England Borderlands

Smithsonian Folkways SWF CD 40116

Choose Your Partners!

Contra dance and square dance music of New Hampshire

Smithsonian Folkways SWF CD 40126

Mademoiselle, voulez-vous danser? is a fascinating mix of informal sessions (or soirées as the Franco-Americans call them) and more considered performance-type studio recordings which reflects the cultural ethos of the largely French community which these recordings represent.  Cover pictureThere is a clear and obvious affiliation with the music of Quebec whence the 'Francos' were exiled and the form of the songs and tunes is much closer (naturally enough, given the geography) to the Canadian traditions than those other Acadian emigrées, the Cajuns.

Taken as a whole, this CD and its informative booklet successfully presents the struggle for, or against, cultural assimilation (within the framework of traditional music) inherent in any displaced community.  Initiated as a class project for Dartmouth College and all recorded within a two-hour drive of Hanover, New Hampshire, it is a bite-sized chunk of ethnomusicology far easier to digest than a weighty study of the whole of the French diaspora.

At the core of this CD is the French tradition, represented here by the older singers and musicians.  However, there is an intriguing two-way cultural traffic demonstrated in the recordings and the sleeve notes.  Some of the younger performers, notably 'Chanterelle', find themselves on the periphery of the Franco-American society and this is reflected in the composition of a song in English (The Shuttle, track 1) and the use of the first line of the American national anthem as part of the melody for the song on track 12, Entre moi.  As the sleeve notes state; the song expresses "Vachon's" (the composer's) "feelings about being caught between the traditions of her French heritage and contemporary American culture.  Others on the CD, some sporting newly Americanised surnames, are making the return journey to their roots and bringing along with them Americans such as Rod Miller and Dudley Laufman who, having no previous connection with the French community, have embraced the Franco tradition by choice.

All this cultural theory apart, this recording is not a dry and dusty piece of academic research.  There is a warmth throughout this CD, especially in the 'field' recordings of the soirées, that is often associated with 'home-made' music; and a smattering of absolute gems.  Track 7, Te souviendras-tu de moi? (Will you remember me?), is sung by Maria Perrault who was nearing 80 years old at the time of recording - she learnt this song from her father and sings it with the passion which reminds one of the Gypsy singers of the Southern English tradition.  Of the instrumental tracks, I would single out Reel St Hubert as being a favourite; the resonance of the two fiddles, with slightly rough-edged technique creates a sense of traditional music at its most exciting.

If I had to choose one track which epitomises the sense of community which this CD offers, it would have to be the Soirée Medley.  The generations combine seamlessly on this track which culminates with a song from the late Alberta Gagne, 90 years old at the time.  A more than respectful nod to the roots of this diverse tradition.

Something strange often happens to traditional music when it is dressed-up for the stage and, for this reason, the second CD, Choose your partners! is rather more problematic to enthuse about.  Cover pictureIt is, purely and simply, an album of dance tunes complete with dance calling - tuneful calling maybe, but nevertheless calling all the same.  This makes it difficult to listen to repeatedly.  Perhaps I'm being too pedantic about a recording which makes no claims for itself other than to offer a cross-section of bands/tunes/dances currently popular on the burgeoning New Hampshire dance circuit (about which I know absolutely diddley squat!).

The music is admirably rhythmic with the rock-steady vamping piano as its driving force, delightful to dance to I'm sure ... but ... well, maybe it's just me that finds that the passion which oozes from the Mademoiselle ... CD is forsaken for 'prettiness'.  I'm generalising here but the melodic and tonal timbre of the traditional tunes on the first CD has largely been lost in favour of 'a good sound', despite the appearance of some of the musicians from Mademoiselle ...

Perhaps these two CD's can be categorised by their titles.  The first is an invitation, the second, an instruction.  We are drawn into the first by the feeling of community and social participation; the second keeps the listener at a distance (although I'm sure dancers will disagree) and presents the music to us as a fait accompli, no longer the domain of the amateur musician.

Both CDs are expertly produced and researched and maybe I am in hair-splitting mood but the first conveys an animated life beyond the disc whilst the second seems rather stilted by comparison.  I know that Choose your Partners! will appeal to many who wish to expand their knowledge of contra dances and I respect that - but if faced with the dilemma of which to chose, accept the invitation to dance with the Franco-Americans on Mademoiselle, voulez-vous danser?

Martin Ellison - 23.9.99

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