Every once in a long while, you stumble upon a piece of music that immediately moves. In a matter of moments, it reaches from the speaker through the ether directly into your soul. Parler bien is a chamber music duo led by Jane Chan (Victoria, BC) and Nicolas Hyatt (Whitehorse, YT), with contributions from many artists and friends. “histoires du comté d’essex” is a debut release that itself is a series of pieces written around, and with the words and stories of francophones from around southwestern Ontario, combining partial conversations or sound bytes with acoustic and electronic instrumentation.
I was so impressed with the introductory track, “préambule,” upon its release that I immediately found their website to order a copy of the vinyl. As strange as the world is, being on the fringe of the music business, I was lucky enough to receive a digital preview copy of the record. Hitting play, it was too good for my small computer speakers. And after listening to the digital version of the first three tracks, I pressed stop and decided to wait. Well, friends, it was worth it! I was extremely excited when the record arrived, and similarly relieved because Parler bien included the lyrics in both English and French. I belong to a large group of Canadians who can understand enough French to listen to a hockey game broadcast on RDS, and get a general gist of topics in conversations, yet song lyrics are often difficult to translate.
The spoken word stories set the tempo base and structure for the songs. The music itself is an assortment of jazzy, dub-style drums, with deep, heaving cellos, and a delicate peppering of keys. It is beautiful, tranquil, original, and very mesmerizing. These songs inhabit a world somewhere between post-rock, classical and ye-ye French pop, yet wholly and completely unique to itself. I’m not certain any language has the proper words to describe the sound and performance of cellist Jane Chan. The notes and tones she creates are passionate and exquisite. Honestly, if you removed everything else and all that remained was her cello, I’d still happily keep the record spinning.
Moving my attention from the music for a moment, it would be a great disservice to neglect the wonderful stories found here. These aren’t lyrics, per se, but rather brief stories and responses to questions recorded several years ago. In hearing the selected portions from these conversations, we learn not only a little about the people responding, but a lot about Nicolas also. He has decided what was removed and what remains. Isn’t that the point of most great art? A stranger, sharing intimate parts of their mind, and life, and history; some of it you relate to, some of it you don’t, but the art itself gives you a glimpse into another perspective.
I won’t go into detail for every song because each one is as wonderful as the next. But “génération de nos parents” (generation of our parents) is a perfect example of the heartbreaking unison of music and words. As the narrator tells us of how, when losing his grandparents, the loss wasn’t only of their two lives, but of the traditional French language within their family – something he sees happening more and more often – and the hairs on my arms have stood each time I play this song.
As a society, we have the privilege of history to learn from and the duty to act accordingly. The loss of social identity is difficult to see or measure in the short term, but over time the effects are irrefutable and more often than not, irreversible. Canada is rich with history. Indigenous people have been here for thousands of years, yet for the large part, we ignore that in favor of focusing on the last few hundred years and reinforcing the European idea of settlement. These are heavy ideas and topics for a record. Some people may choose to ignore such conversations. For me, however, this is one more cherished album in my collection which flames my own personal desire to learn about and better understand the French language. Parler bien have created and exceptional piece of music and oral record.
Photo credit: Elisabeth Pilon