De Temps Antan
by James M. Manheim
The traditional music of the Quebec trio De Temps Antan ("Yesteryear") is all acoustic, but you might say it has a reliable power supply. The main engine is foot percussion, known in French as podorythmie. It's compelling stuff! I downloaded a seventy-minute podcast of a De Temps Antan performance from a Quebec roots music website and listened to it on an iPod while walking around downtown Detroit a few weeks ago, and it kept me going through the cold rather than entering a building and breaking the mood. Nor did De Temps Antan feel out of place in an urban sonic landscape of electronic sound banging out of people's cars their music is rhythmically intense enough to command your kinetic impulses in the way contemporary dance music does. Yet my sounds were people powered.
De Temps Antan consists of young current and former members of La Bottine Souriante, a Quebec group that appeared at the Ark and used to be featured from time to time on WCBN's late, lamented folk show. In place of that group's large collection of instruments, De Temps Antan distills the high-energy songs and dances of Quebec down to a very hard core: some combination of fiddle, accordion, a plucked stringed instrument, and the irrepressible foot percussion (executed, remarkably, while the instruments are being played). The band's repertoire is about two-thirds traditional; the rest is new compositions following traditional models.
Some instrumentals fiddle tunes, or sets of them are easy to imagine as accompaniments to traditional dances. But there's a second source of impulse power in De Temps Antan's music, and this one is more specific to Quebec. (Podorythmie, like some of the tunes the group carries forward, originally came to Quebec from Irish sources in eastern Canada.) A good number of De Temps Antan's songs feature close-up call-and-response vocals that date back to the work songs of the province's lumber camps. Put this high-spirited musical give-and-take together with
the forward drive of the foot percussion, and you have the ingredients for a major musical rush.
It's hard to find an ensemble these days that hasn't left any traces on English-language sites on the World Wide Web, and it's noteworthy that De Temps Antan is one. This band is a local phenomenon, drawing energy from age-old community traditions, and it offers a rare local sample of a vibrant roots tradition that is perhaps less shaped than any other in North America (zydeco would be a competitor here) by external forces that work to define folk music as an aesthetic category.
De Temps Antan comes to the Ark on Monday, March 5.
[Review published March 2007]