How Surreal Humour and the Internet Are Giving Acadian Musicians a Voice Across Canada
"The fact that I speak like an alien to [a Quebec audience] is instantly going to get me noticed," says P'tit Belliveau
Published Apr 13, 2021For most English-speaking Canadians, Francophone music is synonymous with household names like Céline Dion and indie darlings like Coeur de pirate — products of Quebec's insular yet lucrative entertainment industry.
If you look a little further east, you'll find another French-language music scene that more than makes up for its smaller size in talent. The Acadians of the Maritimes have their own unique cultural identity and accents, distinct from the Québécois. In the late 2000s and through the 2010s, they broke major ground in the Quebec music scene, topping the charts and winning awards in spite of some very real cultural barriers. That thriving scene has persisted in the pandemic, and a simple YouTube search turns up all sorts of surreal, low-budget videos from Acadian artists.
Acadian music once was mostly known for country folk fare, and Star Académie winner Wilfred LeBouthillier. That all changed with Acadian group Radio Radio's debut album, Cliché Hot, in 2008, which featured rapping in Chiac, an Acadian dialect combining archaic and modern French with English.
"For the indie type of bands, it was Radio Radio that really broke the barriers and got people talking about l'Acadie again. And here [in New Brunswick], there was this scene that kinda started to bubble up, like Les Hay Babies and Les Hôtesses d'Hilaire," Juno Award-nominated folk rocker Lisa LeBlanc says of the Acadian invasion that kicked off at the time.
Former Radio Radio member Arthur Comeau says that success came with strings attached. He says he often felt the Quebec media treated them as an amusing novelty, often only asking them questions about their accents. ("We feel about Quebec as Quebec feels about France... kind of like a little cousin," explains LeBlanc about the cultural divide.)
"They wanted to frame us as a comedy act," Comeau says, referring to Radio Radio's often playful lyrics. "Yeah, I'm a funny guy, but I'm not the comic relief. We were rappers! For us, being Acadian rappers was empowering. For them it was like, 'Alright, send in the sideshow.'"
All this came to a head when the band was working on their album Ej feel zoo in 2014. Comeau said the titular lead single was originally meant to be about his feeling of being misunderstood; it was instead made into a straightforward party song. That was one of the main factors leading to his acrimonious departure from the band during the production of the album.
He made the surprising decision to return to Meteghan, a small fishing community on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, and start his own studio in the hope of establishing the Baie Sainte-Marie region as its own music hub. Comeau decided he was finished with the Montreal music scene and wanted to return to work with an audience who understood where he was coming from. He now says he always felt his music was misunderstood in Quebec — not just due to the use of Chiac, but because of an intangible cultural disconnect.
With his label-slash-hip-hop collective, Tide School, Comeau worked with up-and-coming local artists on all sorts of off-the-wall, experimental tracks in the late 2010s. When asked about some of the tongue-in-cheek, almost self-deprecating material that fellow Acadians have been making lately, he says it has nothing to do with the condescending treatment they are sometimes subjected to in the Quebec press. Instead, he attributes it to the Acadian community's innate love of ironic humour, along with an ingrained mentality of going after big ideas with not a lot of means.
One of his Tide School protégés, Jonah Guimond (a.k.a. beat producer Jonah Meltwave), has recently achieved a considerable level of success as tongue-in-cheek folk provocateur P'tit Belliveau. He agrees with Comeau's assessment.
Having started making beats under Comeau's guidance as a teen, P'tit Belliveau also believes it's related to the Acadian music scene's online nature. Being an Acadian artist means being rurally-based, at least at first, he says.
Though the pandemic has slowed it somewhat, the so-called "rural exodus" that plagues the Maritimes has resulted in Acadian communities — including LeBlanc's native Rosaireville, NB, and Guimond's home region of Clare, NS — becoming even smaller and more isolated. "We are people making music in the middle of nowhere, and in today's day and age, that's going to involve the internet. For example, in Montreal, there are like a hundred different French rap scenes. Basically, the people you're hanging out with are going to influence you."
Guimond adds that, while there is still some community influence, things have changed since the 1970s when Acadian bands like 1755 could start their careers playing in bars. He believes that drawing inspiration from lots of random, seemingly unrelated things on the internet — he cites Kenny G and death metal, among others — contributes to what some might perceive as a quirky, out-of-left-field image. "When you're just starting an Acadian project, you're not performing in a bar, you're posting it online," he says.
That has become even more true in the pandemic. One of the most visible "gigs" he's been playing recently is Bingo avec Johanne, an online bingo show in the style of old-school cable access TV hosted by Lisa LeBlanc and her partner, Benoît Morier.
Bingo avec Johanne features Morier in drag as the titular Johanne, a middle-aged fortune teller, and LeBlanc as Johanne's rival, Bélinda. It started as more or less of an inside joke between friends after LeBlanc and Morier were forced to stay in Moncton longer than intended due to the pandemic. It took off so much that LeBlanc's booking agent now books her for Bingo-related appearances in an attempt to keep up with the demand. P'tit Belliveau and other well-known Acadian artists like Les Hay Babies appear on the show as musical guests, dressed as the kooky sorts of characters one encounters at a bingo hall in the sticks.
P'tit Belliveau has recently moved back to Clare from Moncton, NB. He doesn't feel a need to move to Montreal to gain a wider Francophone audience. As for the cultural barriers his mentor Comeau describes, Guimond feels that things have changed since artists like Radio Radio and Lisa Leblanc broke ground, and he sees it as an advantage that sets him apart from the competition. "I can clearly see that being Acadian and being 'exotic' has only helped me," says Guimond. "The fact that I speak like an alien to [a Quebec audience] is instantly going to get me noticed."
He's taken inspiration from his hometown on his latest EP, consisting of covers of community radio regular Baptiste Comeau, who he describes as "the original Clare DIY musician" who inspired him. Baptiste's rudimentary compositions using drum machines rather than actual percussion instruments capture the DIY spirit that inspired P'tit Belliveau's own sound, which he describes as "country bluegrass with Casio keyboard demo tracks as the rhythm section."
For LeBlanc, being silly and writing songs about bingo has gotten her through a long spell of writer's block, and she's now working on a new record, though she's tight-lipped about the details. She's not sure whether she'll stay in Moncton after the pandemic, saying she's taking things one day at a time, but she's enjoying the unexpected burst of creativity.
"I don't know what it is," she says when asked about the quirky turn the Acadian music scene has taken. "Maybe it's something about the Maritimes: we're very down-to-Earth, we like to poke fun at ourselves. There's just a lightness here," she says with a smile.