As they packed up their equipment, the members of the Douglastown Dance Orchestra figured they had dodged a bullet. It was March 14, 2020.They had spent the morning clearing snow from the forecourt of the church in Gaspé where that evening’s dance was scheduled. Less than 24 hours after the show, public gatherings were banned due to public health restrictions. At least orchestra founders Guy Bouchard and Laura Sadowsky finally had it all on tape – dancers old and young performing the traditional local sets carrés they had helped bring back from obscurity. Bouchard is a fiddler, music teacher and former radio host who moved to Douglastown from Quebec City in 2018. “When we got here, we realized that almost no one was playing [local traditional music] anymore. There were dance halls everywhere in the ’60s, but since then it [had become] very rare,” he recalled. “The orchestra was a crazy idea that started around the dinner table.” Bouchard and Sadowsky, also an accomplished fiddler, learned local dance tunes from cassette tapes that until recently had been stored in their friends’ attics, and learned steps from a core group of older dancers who still remembered the patterns. The birth of the dance orchestra and the dance workshops gave rise to a documentary about the rebirth of traditional music in the Gaspé, with release expected in late 2021. Its working title is La Grande Chaîne. Bouchard explained that la Grande Chaîne refers to a dance figure where everyone links hands, but also to the Appalachian Mountains (la chaîne des Appalaches) and to the increasingly fragile chain of intergenerational dialogue that assures that regional music and dance are handed down. “The music used to be transmitted by word of mouth, and then one link got cut,” said Bouchard. “This was the ’60s, the Quiet Revolution, the arrival of TV, social life was completely transformed. People who loved traditional music were embarrassed to admit it, because they were seen as backward. Now you can’t learn tunes from your neighbours because your neighbours don’t play anymore.” For Bouchard, the music is anything but backward. “I’ve always loved Gaspesian and Acadian music because it’s very old; it’s kind of like hearing Gregorian chants. It’s complex and hard to learn. That’s what always amazed me – the people who played this music worked all day, and often could barely read or write, but they paid so much attention to the finer details of their playing.” Bouchard and Sadowsky aren’t the only ones searching for a place in the sun for Gaspesian traditional music; ethnomusicologist Glenn Patterson has spent more than a decade delving into Gaspesian fiddle traditions. “There’s this assumption that the music must have come from Ireland, and certainly some of it did, but fiddle music is as old in North America as it is there; the violin comes out of the 18th century, and people had started emigrating to the New World by then. This music is a product of Quebec, and the interaction between Indigenous, French-speaking and English-speaking people,” he recently told the Gaspé Speaks podcast. “It sounds different than music around Quebec City or the Ottawa Valley or Lac Saint-Jean [because] those places were far apart years ago. Regional styles developed because people copied their parents and grandparents and that was their only frame of reference.” Patterson, Laura Risk and Brian Morris launched the Douglastown Project trio in 2018 to bring the traditional music of the Gaspé to a wider audience. Patterson and Morris, the son of Douglastown fiddler Erskine Morris, started the Gaspé Fiddle blog in 2010 to document and promote the fiddle traditions of the Gaspé coast. The elder Morris, who worked far from the Gaspé most of his adult life, taped himself performing many traditional tunes; these tapes provided the base of the Douglastown Project repertoire. “It’s so exciting to play these lovely melodic lines and these great dance tunes,” said Risk, an award-winning fiddler and musicologist, and co-producer with Patterson, of a book and CD project released by the Douglas Community Centre in 2014. “It’s a treasure trove of beautiful melodies.”“Glenn [Patterson] and I taught fiddle workshops during Douglastown Irish Week [a celebration of Irish-Québécois culture held annually until 2017] and we had people in our workshops whose parents or grandparents played, and some younger people,” she said. “Some of the older [participants] hadn’t played in many years. My sense is that there’s a bit of resurgence of interest, from people seeing how great it feels to do these dances and play these tunes.”Risk believes the grande chaîne will survive the pandemic-induced freeze on social gatherings. “These songs have been through a lot – they go back a few hundred years, and they’ve been through wars and pandemics and out-migration. There is a core group of people now who are into it, and that’s what it takes.”
Discover the Gaspé sound at douglastown.bandcamp.com.