Don't let the step-dancing slapstick and high-spirited comedy fool you. Prince Edward Island's preeminent light-hearted musicians Chuck & Albert Arsenault are seriousand seriously committed to the Francophone communities of the island they love. The dynamic and internationally successful touring duo draws on centuries of Acadian laughter and tears on their debut CD, energie (release: November 13, 2009), a quirky virtual tour of a land and people who fought difficulty and desperation with a silliness and biting wit that still resound today at kitchen parties and on old field recordings.
To uncover this Acadian energy, Chuck & Albert searched the thousands of jokes, stories, tunes, and songs collected by local celebrity, folklorist, and historian Georges Arsenault. "Everyone on the Island knows him. Georges is a walking encyclopedia," exclaims Albert. "We went with him to Quebec once, and it took ten hours to get there. He had endless stories and details about all the people in the communities we passed, all the way over there and all the way back."
Chuck & Albert first became familiar with Georges' ground-breaking work in Acadian folklore as members of the Acadian musical group Barachois, but wanting to gain a deeper insight into the collection, they urged the library that houses the collection to get cracking on a long-overdue digitization project.
What resulted were 2000 MP3s, everything that Arsenault had taped while talking with community elders at their kitchen tables or retirement homes during the 1970s, when the social fabric of Acadian life was beginning to show signs of dramatic change. "The songs don't do anything just sitting in the archives of a library," Albert notes. "They're a way to connect with the way our ancestors thought, talked, and interacted with each other. We wanted to give people a way to get plugged into that."
"Of 2000 MP3s, 1200 were songs or bits of songs. Some songs had four or five versions," Chuck explains. "Our island is just a three-hour drive from tip to tip, but in different pockets of Acadian communities, you find the same song but maybe with a different melody part or refrain, or a variation in some of the verses, and we could use various bits and pieces. As was the tradition, the songs in Georges' collection were sung using the feet for rhythm but otherwise unaccompanied. We're the first to add chords and harmonies to the eight traditional songs chosen for this album," often weaving together several tunes or new melodies as the arrangements evolved.
The songs, some locally composed about community events ("Dans la ville d'Egmont-Baie" / "In the Town of Egmont Bay") and some brought from France centuries ago ("A la claire fontaine" / "By the clear fountain"; "Il etait une bergere" / "There once was a shepherdess"), quietly reflect generations of hardship, social marginalization, and resourcefulness native to the Acadians. "Acadians were seen as second-class citizens and they knew it," Chuck reflects. "Basically, the English, Irish, and Scottish considered themselves superior to the French and the indigenous people, the Mi'kmaq. Especially after the Deportation," the tragic 18th-century Great Expulsion of Acadians by the British from what is now the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
When Acadians returned to places like Prince Edward Island, they often faced great adversity. Their choices and their effects on the close-knit Acadian social fabric are reflected in songs like "La Fievre" ("The Fever"), about a lumberjack dying far from home, and in the reels Albert's musician father poignantly calls "desperate tunes." Albert remembers that even in his own childhood, many homes had no running water in his native and highly francophone Evangeline region. "Many were dirt poor," Albert recalls. "We rarely got new stuff. I gave my neighbor his first pair of shoes, some of my old ones. He was close to ten at the time."
Yet Albert's family was highly creative: His mother is a storyteller; his father, brother, and sister are musicians; and visitors were constantly coming over for tunes and tales. Though things have changed, Evangeline is still home to old-style kitchen parties, as Chuck discovered. "Until I was 23, I didn't know there were live Acadians on PEI. Granted I didn't pay too much attention in school, but when I got a call to teach in the region where Albert was living, I thought, 'What? Real live Acadians, cool And I guess I am one of them' Chuck laughs. "The first house party I went to, I was relearning French. I had very little experience playing traditional music then, but within five minutes I had a pair of spoons in my hands. Even though I might not have been able to speak French well, it was all about the spirit of inclusion. And that is something very Acadian."
Hard times and this welcoming spirit sparked a clever and resourceful culture, one rich in humor, practical jokes, and general silliness. "You tend not to take yourself too seriously when you don't have too much. I think, because Acadians are in a minority here on the Island, that kind of gives us permission to tease each other. There's a whole prankster tradition," Chuck smiles. "We all know we don't mean it."
Acadian singers and musicians also used whatever was at handthe tapping of feet, the melodies of psalm readings from Catholic mass, a pair of spoons, some jaunty nonsense syllables when making music. "For an Acadian, the sound of foot accompaniment is something so tribal and basic that it really can't be separated from the melody," Albert laughs. "When you tap your feet to accompany a song, the melody really fuses with the rhythm and encourages the interpretation of the song. It lifts the song to a place that's hard to describe. It's almost like going into a time machine." Chuck & Albert keep this spirit alive by using a suitcase as a kick drum, cow bones, or their favorite antique pie pan as a DIY drum kit. A triangle their local priest bought in Louisiana, now dubbed the "The Cajun-Acadian Holy Triangle," spontaneously became part of the show.
The duo also revives the old tradition of putting new words to good old fiddle tunes, an approach echoing to the local custom of tounage. "Tounage has similar history as Celtic mouth music, but here on PEI, you can also use some tounage to replace words that you might have forgotten. Sometimes it's a sentence taken from another song. Or you put together a string of random fun words that make people dance," Chuck explains.
Albert chimes in, "Let's say somebody really likes fiddle music. They don't play the fiddle but they know all the tunes. Some of these people get really good at tounage. There was an old fellow who used to come to our house. He would come over and fall asleep every time. Anyway, he was well known for falling asleep but also for his tounage. He knew every tune and had his own interpretation."
Practicing in Albert's icy garage"That's where we do our best work, especially in February," Chuck laughsthe duo added new compositions to the Acadian repertoire and in the process created some tounage of their own. Taking a fiddle tune composed by Albert's brother, Peter, they string together quirky local expressions to make songs like "Chavire-toi pas" ("Keep your cool"), a goofy chronicle of a very, very bad week; or "Danse le caoutchouc" ("Dance like rubber").
Not content to play the lucrative garage circuit of PEI's Evangeline region, Chuck & Albert have transformed the joys and sorrows of their community into an elaborate, constantly shifting spectacle with a vaudevillian flair for physical comedy, high-speed dance, and witty banter. But music, especially traditional music, is the heart of what the duo are all about, guiding all that boisterous energy. "We've always used music to approach everything we do, even our comedy and dance numbers," Chuck reflects. "It creates context, the right mood. We do what we know best, the great stuff from the PEI repertoire, and we feel it very deeply."