The history of music in La Nouvelle France, or Quebec, as we know it today, actually precedes colonization, with roots traceable back to the the French regions of Île-de-France, Picardy, Normandy, Poitou, and Brittany. Celtic music from the Irish wave of immigration to Québec in the 19th century, survives as well in addition to a still vibrant culture of First Nations music.
The diversity of Quéecois music is evident in the intricate cultural history of the Francophone province, which was first colonized by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534 but was later transferred to British power in 1763.
In 1865, two years before Canada established itself as an independent nation, Ernest Gagnon created a compilation of the local music that had been developing from this confluence of Old World roots.
Later on, the 1960s were a testimony to not only political changes but musical styles as well. Canadian radio and television began to broadcast French folk songs, particularly after the 1967 foundation of the Centennial Collection of Canadian Folk Songs, with performances by Yves Albert and Jacques Labrecque, and the Acadian Edith Butler.
Recently, the traditional music of Québec has seen a revival in the neo-trad movement with groups like Les Cowboys Fringants:
Québec is home to La Licorne, a theatre which is sometimes dubbed North America’s first ‘discothèque.’ It opened in 1963 in Montréal, at that time the city was the largest metropolis in Canada and it continues to be the country’s cultural capital.
As an article by Will Straw in the music publication Red Bull Academy notes, “unlike other venues for popular music, like the boîtes à chansons which showcased solo French-language singers and poetic, often political songs, discothèques drew their customers from both the English-speaking and French-speaking populations of the city.” In the late ’70s there were also apparent links between these clubs and organized crime.
Disco reached such a level of cultural ubiquity, that French-Canadian hockey hero Guy Lafleur made his own disco record:
Straw continues in the article: “straining belief, the police reported in 1970 that 80% of Montreal’s missing young people could be found in discothèques.” A huge draw for these crowds was cultural architect from the height of Québecois disco Pierre Perpall, known as Quebec’s James Brown, who sang French covers of English-language funk songs.
Mirroring the intense cultural-political climate surrounding the anglicization of Francophone Québec, bilingual singer Patsy Gallant sparked furor when she reached the top 10 in several countries with her English disco re-working of the Québecois separatist anthem “Mon Pays”, which she called, “From New York to L.A.”
Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon Pays” was originally written as a film score for “La Neige a fondu sur la Manicouagan” (1965). It would become both a proverb and unofficial anthem in Quebec as the separatist movement gained support.
Vigneault is a recipient of the Félix LeClerc award, named after another Québecois poet, songwriter, and activist “discovered” by Jacques Canetti and known for his songs “Moi, mes souliers”, “Le P’tit Bonheur” and “Le Tour de l’île”.
Québec has produced many greats in Jazz as well, notably Oscar Peterson, who grew up in Montréal’s Little Burgundy neighborhood and would, taking influence from classical composers, stride pianists, and Art Tatum (among others), go on to develop a high-speed, incomparable style that places him among the greatest jazz pianists ever to tickle the ivories.
A fusion jazz trumpeter known for his aneurism-inducing high notes and a rock-star in his own right, Maynard Ferguson was born in Verdun, Québec.
An eternal legend and one of the world’s most beloved divas, Celine Dion’s early and humble roots in a large Québecois family from the small village of Charlemagne, are well-documented in her work.
The complex history of Québec and its culture is constantly being revisited, such as the following psychedelic interpretation of Aboriginal music from Morley Loon.
In the 21st century, Montréal has become a creative epicenter for independent and avant-garde pop, rock and electronic music, with Jacques Greene, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and Arcade Fire among the groups to form up north.