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A Québecois Five-Four-Three Tune

In a recent column titled “How Quickly They Change” I shared my first Québecois tune to see print on this page.  Since then I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to Québecois tunes and getting more familiar with their quirks and unexpected turns.  There’s also a feeling of unabashed joy that flavors the playing up there, making it all the more tempting to delve a little deeper into the style and to spend more time with the tunes and the players.

So for weeks this CD by the Québec band Genticorum has been in my car stereo, stuck in Endless Repeat mode and brightening my every errand.  This ’09 Mad River Records release, “La Bibournoise”, contains the tune that I promised to write about in that other column… that tune I described as “particularly weird”.

The first time “La Gigue à Pierre Chartrand” jumped out of my car speakers I practically had to pull over, I was so amused.  It was familiar and yet not, immediately accessible and yet somehow impossibly odd.  In my first frisson of amusement, I tried to come up with words to describe the tune to my bandmates and the nearest I could come up with was “it’s like they’re trying to play “The High Reel” after being kicked in the head by a horse.”

After stopping the car I scoured the liner notes for information.  The tune was described as a 5-4-3, that is, a 3-part tune all in 2/4 time, but in which the A part has phrases five bars long, the B part phrases four bars long and the C part phrases 3 bars long.  Like most Celtic trad tunes, each part repeats, though even there “La Gigue à Pierre Chartrand” slips in a twist or two, which I’ll mention later.

Hungry for information, I contacted the Genticorum fiddler (and foot-stomper and vocalist) Pascal Gemme in Québec.  He filled me in on this unique corner of the North American dance tune tradition.  It turns out he wrote this particular tune, but it’s not the only 5-4-3 out there.  Gemme said the form is a recent development, originating in the Lanaudière region of Québec, and is a natural connection between two existing rhythmic forms already popular in eastern Canada.

There are apparently a good number of tunes up there with a 5-bar A part and a 4-bar B part.  There are also plenty of tunes with a 3-bar A part and a 4-bar B part.  And the 5-4-3 simply unites the two forms in the same piece.  Gemme believes the first 5-4-3 was born when some modern musicians took a two-part tune titled “La Gigue à Ti-Cogne Picard”, which had a 5-bar A and a 4-bar B, and added a third part with a 3-bar pattern.  Et voilà!

My correspondence with Pascal Gemme ended up including some other helpful musical colleagues and one found me another very cool 5-4-3, titled amazingly-enough “Reel 5-4-3”.  It’s performed by the father-son duo Daniel and Louis-Simon Lemieux and is included on their 2006 CD “Au Studio des Trois Lits”.  It was likely composed by accordionist Adélard Thomassin.  A live video of Daniel and Louis-Simon Lemieux playing the 5-4-3 can be found with minimal fuss on the internet.

So, how to tackle “La Gigue à Pierre Chartrand”?  As I mentioned above, there are some phrases in this resolutely major-sounding A tune that strongly resemble phrases in the popular Scots “High Reel”.  But the repetitions are very different.  The A part repeats not once but three times, for a total of four.  The B part plays fair and just repeats once.  Then the C part is really two halves, with the second half a variant of the first.  Each half repeats once, before the tune rockets back up to start all over again.

As is common in Québecois tunes, the strong pulse is on the one-beat.  This tune seems uninclined to swing, but if you can pull it off, more power to you.  This would be a very subversive tune to have up your sleeve in a session, maybe launching into it right out of “The High Reel”, if you wanted to cement a reputation as a real session trouble-maker.  Or just teach it to everybody you play with and then hunt up more 5-4-3’s.  Or write your own.  New twists on the old stuff always freshen the tradition.

Oh yes, just for the record, the Pierre Chartrand honored by this issue’s tune is considered by some to be Québec’s finest living step-dancer.  There are many videos out there showing his amazing feats.  And feet.  Go find them and learn more Québecois tunes.  We’ll all be the better for it.  Allons jouer!

Click here for printed tab notation for “La Gigue à Pierre Chartrand”



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