Pop Music in Quebec and French Canada

Woodwind ensembles and military bands were promoted under British influence. Early in the 19th century, Charles Sauvageau was one of the first French-Canadian conductors to direct patriotic wind music and dance bands.

Carignan, Ti-Jean
Carignan was the leading exponent of the Celtic tradition in French Canadian fiddling (courtesy National Library of Canada). The music is Reel de Lévis a traditional Québec reel (courtesy CBC).

Pop Music in Quebec and French Canada

Beginnings to 1920
Violin music and dance made up part of French-Canadian gatherings of all social classes from the time of New France. Under Irish, Scottish and Loyalist influences, reels and folk dances (gigues, quadrilles, cotillions, etc) became a complex mix of French and English traditions. By the late 1830s, songs appeared in La Revue canadienne, l'Album littéraire et musical and Le Ménestrel. Popular sheet music in all likelihood was first published in French Canada in the mid-1850s.

Woodwind ensembles and military bands were promoted under British influence. Early in the 19th century, Charles Sauvageau was one of the first French-Canadian conductors to direct patriotic wind music and dance bands. Brass ensembles gained in importance in the second half of the century; Joseph Vézina conducted several in Quebec City.

Some songs such as "Ô Canada! mon pays! mes amours!" (lyrics by George-Étienne Cartier, music by Célestin Lavigueur), "Le Drapeau de Carillon" by Charles Sabatier, and "Un canadien errant" by Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, live on. In 1880, "O Canada" (lyrics by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, music by Calixa Lavallée) appeared in its original French version. Traditional tunes were also compiled in collections such as Chansons populaires et historiques du Canada (1863) by François-Alexandre-Hubert LaRue, and Ernest Gagnon's Chansons populaires du Canada (1865).

The science of recording was born in 1877 with Edison's invention of the phonograph. In 1899, Emile Berliner founded E. Berliner of Montreal, to obtain exclusive rights for the manufacture and distribution of records in Canada; in 1903 his son, Herbert Samuel Berliner, opened the first Canadian recording studio in Montreal. Despite this, French recordings in Canada in the first 20 years of the 20th century were mainly by artists from France, such as Alfred Fertinel, Henri Cartal and Victor Occelier.

Folk Music, Country-Western, Traditional, Néo-trad and World Music

In the 1920s, folksongs and instrumental Celtic music were first recorded by French-Canadian musicians. On the Starr, Columbia, Bluebird and Compo labels, around the time of the Veillées du bon vieux temps (founded in Montreal in 1919), several singers and groups such as Charles Marchand, Eugène Daignault, Ovila Légaré, Conrad Gauthier, Les Troubadours de Bytown, Madame Bolduc and le Quatuor Alouette revived the folk music of yesteryear. Classical versions of Quebec folk music were equally in vogue. Opera and concert singers Éva Gauthier, Paul Dufault, Alexandre Desmarteaux, Joseph Saucier, Salvator Issaurel, Hercule Lavoie, Placide Morency, Sarah Fischer, José Delaquerrière, Émile Gour, and Le Trio Lyrique (with Lionel Daunais), and the companies La Bonne Chanson (with Charles-Émile Gadbois and Albert Viau) and les Variétés Lyriques, offered versions of traditional tunes. In collaboration with Herbert Berliner, producer Roméo Beaudry played a dominant role in the burgeoning French-Canadian music industry.

About the same period, fiddlers Joseph Allard, Arthur-Joseph Boulay, Joseph Bouchard, Isidore Soucy, Louis "Pitou" Boudreault, Ti-Jean Carignan and Ti-Blanc Richard recorded reels, cotillions, quadrilles and other dances of French or English origin. The accordionists Alfred Montmarquette, Philippe Bruneau, and Donat Lafleur, and harmonica players Henri Lacroix, Louis Blanchette, and Joseph Lalonde recorded similar repertoire. Traditional songs and dances continued to be published in Le Passe-Temps, La Lyre, Le Terroir and Le Carillon. In 1927, 1928 and 1930, the CPR Festivals in Quebec were notable folk music events.

There is no doubt that Quebec country and western music was influenced by the US, but from the 1930s it began to merge with folk, as demonstrated by the music of Joseph-Ovila LaMadeleine, Oscar Thiffault and Les Montagnards laurentiens. The history of French-Canadian country music dates from the career of Soldat Roland Lebrun, in the late 1930s. After Lebrun came the country music pioneers Paul Brunelle, Marcel Martel, Willie Lamothe, Roger Miron, Lévis Boulianne and Bobby Hachey. Closer to the present, La famille Daraîche, Édith Butler, Georges Hamel, Renée Martel, Patrick Norman, Stef Carse, Véronic Dicaire, Manon Bédard, Gildor Roy, Mara Tremblay and Cayouche are the best known French-Canadian country-folk musicians.

After a few decades, French-Canadian folk music seemed to distance itself from its roots, but artists like La famille Soucy, Les Cailloux, Les Cabestans, Les Quatre-vingts, Pierre Daignault, Raoul Roy, André Lejeune, Jean-Paul Filion, and Jacques Labrecque kept it alive through popular music. The establishment of the Folklore Archives at Université Laval by Luc Lacourcière (inspired by the work of Marius Barbeau), and the television program La soirée canadienne, are two examples of the efforts invested in folk music preservation.

The mixing of styles became more deliberate in the 1970s. Quebec and French-Canadian musicians in that decade and later, such as La Bottine souriante, Garolou, 1755, Beausoleil Broussard, Barachois, Suroît, Le rêve du diable, Les Karrik, Cano, La vesse du loup, Barde, Breton-Cyr, Calixte Duguay and Donat Lacroix, employed a hybrid artistic approach. Beginning in the 1990s there was a "trad" folk revival, by the younger generation and in a style said to be authentic, with Les tireux d'roches, La volée d'castors, Les langues fourchues, Le Vent du nord, Mauvais sort, Les charbonniers de l'enfer, La veillée est jeune, Légende and Les chauffeurs à pieds. Meanwhile, the revival of the same popular traditions with a fusion of musical styles as in the pop music of Mes Aïeux, Les Batinses, Michel Faubert, Grand dérangement and Québecissime, was designated "néo-trad."

The work of these artists is often categorized as "world music." Conversely, many contemporary Quebec musicians originating from elsewhere produced a repertoire of sounds considered "exotic" in Canada. Among these musicians are Bia, Lhasa de Sela, Jamil, DobaCaracol, Les frères Diouf and Soraya Benitez.

Mass-Market Popular Music and the Quebec Chanson

The first Quebec mass-market popular musicians were influenced by the "crooner" style (born in the US in 1925), and the "chanson de charme" (from France). Among these singers, Albert Marier, Fernand Perron (Le Merle rouge), Roméo Mousseau, Ludovic Huot, Jean Lalonde, Fernand Robidoux, Georges Beauchemin, Lionel Parent, Claude Blanchard, Fernand Gignac, Alys Robi and Robert l'Herbier were the most famous, receiving top billing in cabarets and on radio. Hosts Guy Mauffette, Jacques Normand and Robidoux also played key roles in the evolution of the Quebec music industry. Pop music of the time was close to jazz "swing." Its practitioners rubbed shoulders with Oscar Peterson, Oliver Jones and Charles Biddle. In 1948, the variety cabarets Faisan doré in Montreal and Chez Gérard in Quebec City opened. The next year, the Radio 49 pop charts were the first to list Quebec hits.

While the 1950s saw the emergence of the "grande chanson" (by Félix Leclerc, Claude Léveillée, and Raymond Lévesque) and the arrival of rock and roll, other popular musicians including Dominique Michel, Paolo Noël, Aglaé, Pierre Sénécal, Guylaine Guy, Colette Bonheur, Yoland Guérard, Claude Valade, Lucille Dumont and Monique Leyrac were also active. In 1957, impresario Yvan Dufresne launched Michel Louvain, the Quebec crooner who made young women swoon.

Traditional accounts have emphasized the division between chansonniers and yé-yé, but many artists of the period, like Les Alexandrins, Tex Lecor, Claude Dubois, Jacqueline Lemay, Ginette Ravel, Lucien Hétu and Pierre Perpall, could not be classified by these categories. The hit charts in La Presse of that period give a good indication of the fads in Quebec pop music.

In April 1964, chansonnier Claude Léveillée became the first Quebec pop artist to appear at Montreal's Place des Arts.

In the 1970s-80s, Quebec singer-songwriters like Robert Charlebois, Plume Latraverse and Paul Piché were in the forefront. However, other performers who were primarily singers were also successful (Nicole Martin, Emmanuelle, Renée Claude, Isabelle Pierre, Fabienne Thibeault, Patsy Gallant, Nanette and Boule Noire, René Simard, the disco group Toulouse (with Judi Richards), Ginette Reno, Céline Dion, Pier Béland, Belgazou, Marie Carmen, Johanne Blouin, Mitsou, Joe Bocan, Martine Saint-Clair, Martine Chevrier, Marjo, Diane Tell, Marie Philippe, Marie-Michèle Desrosiers, Mario Pelchat, Laurence Jalbert and Julie Masse). Certain French-speaking singer-songwriters were also active outside Quebec, such as Robert Paquette, Angèle Arsenault, Roch Voisine, and the group Hart Rouge.

Lyricists Stéphane Venne and Luc Plamondon attracted attention (the latter with the hit musicals Starmania and Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Yet other Quebec musicals like La légende de Jimmy, Cindy, Demain Matin, Montréal m'attend, Pied-de-poule, Vis ta vinaigrette, Nelligan, and more recently, Dracula, Don Juan (with Jean-François Breau), Roméo et Juliette and Le Petit Prince also made their mark.

Since 1990, the distinctions between artists have tended to ease. Still, performers like Marie Denise Pelletier, Luce Dufault, Nancy Dumais, Isabelle Boulay, Natasha St-Pier, Bruno Pelletier, Lynda Lemay, Dany Bédar, Nicola Ciccone, Ima, Gabrielle Destroismaisons and Caroline Néron seemed to be less appreciated by the Quebec intelligentsia than such singer-songwriters as Jean Leclerc (Jean Leloup), Pierre Lapointe or Ariane Moffatt, who were closer to their chansonnier roots. Acadian artists Marie-Jo Thério, Fredric Gary Comeau and Zéro Celsius remained equally marginalized in Quebec. On the other hand, song festivals in Granby, Petite-Vallée and Tadoussac helped discover new talent. The same was true for televised competitions like Star Académie and Canadian Idol, which, among others, brought Wilfred Le Bouthillier, Marie-Élaine Thibert, Annie Villeneuve, Éva Avila and Stéphanie Lapointe to the limelight.

Rock and Roll, Yé-yé, Pop-Rock, Progressive Rock and Metal

It was in the 1950s that the first Quebec rock and roll emerged from a mixture of country and western, jazz, rhythm and blues, and crooner influences, with artists like The Beau-Marks, Les Jérolas (Jean Lapointe and Jérôme Lemay), Aglaé, Roger Miron, Léo Benoît, Jen Roger and Dean Edwards. During most of the 1960s, Quebec rock and roll was dominated by the yé-yé movement, such as the groups Les Classels, Les Hou-Lops, Les Gendarmes, Les Mégatones, Les Lutins, Les Baronets, César et les Romains, Les Bel-Canto, Les Sultans, Les Excentriques, Les Sinners, Les Miladys and Les Aristocrates. Several solo musicians associated with yé-yé - Nanette Workman, Tony Roman, Jenny Rock, Joël Denis and Patrick Zabé - began their careers in the 1960s. The television program Jeunesse d'aujourd'hui and the work of producer Denis Pantis greatly helped spread the movement. By the end of the 1960s, Quebec rock was transformed by Robert Charlebois, Louise Forestier and l'Osstidcho.

In the 1970s, the Quebec rock scene was initially marked by a panoply of progressive pop and rock groups eg Beau dommage, Harmonium, Offenbach, Corbeau, Octobre, Aut'Chose, Maneige, Abbittibbi, Morse Code, Contraction, Ville Émard Blues Band, UZEB and Sloche. Since then, numerous musicians have contributed to what came to be designated Quebec pop rock: Michel Pagliaro, Jean-Pierre Ferland, producer André Perry, Plume Latraverse, Claude Dubois, Breen Leboeuf, Gerry Boulet, Les BB, France d'Amour, Vilain Pingouin, Les Parfaits salauds, Noir Silence, Éric Lapointe, Rudeluck, Zébulon, Garou, Andrée Watters, Yelo Molo, Les cowboys fringants, Daniel Boucher, Fred Fortin, Capitaine révolte, Marie-Chantal Toupin, Les Trois Accords, Martin Deschamps, Les Respectables, Projet Orange, Richard Petit, Mononc Serge, Simple Plan, Karkwa, WD-40, Les Breastfeeders, Malajube, Marie-Mai Bouchard, Anik Jean, the Porn Flakes, etc. The alternative rock and heavy metal of Voivod, Grim Skunk, Groovy Aardvark, Kermess, Anonymus, BARF, TSPC, Kataklysm, Martyr, Quo Vadis and Cryptopsy generally appealed to younger audiences.

Rap and Hip-Hop

Because rap initially was produced in marginalized circles, it is difficult to trace its Quebec origins precisely. However, the proximity between Montreal and New York led to its presence in Quebec in the early 1980s. For practical purposes, other than the 1984 popular hit "Ça rend rap" by Rock et belles oreilles, French B can be considered the first Quebec rap group to make a mark, with "Je m'en souviens" (1989). At the turn of the 1990s, le Mouvement rap francophone (MRF) influenced the development of hip-hop, as did (to a lesser extent) the LMDS, Jodie Resther, K-Maro, KC LMNOP, Dubmatique and No Déjà. Since the public criticism of ADISQ in 2002 by Collectif 83, hip-hop musicians turned radio and the television channel Musique Plus to their advantage. The year 2004 saw the establishment of the Gala Montréal Underground, an annual event celebrated by emerging rap artists. Among newcomers, les Loco Locass, Muzion, Sans Pression, Psychose poétik, 01 Étranjj, Taktika, Accrophone, La Constellation, Atach Tatuq, Black Taboo, Sir Pathetik, ArseniQ33, ZPN, Yvon Krevé and D-Natural are the best known, with the Acadian rap group Jacobus et Maleco the most notable outside Quebec.

Techno and Electronic Music

The first Solstice evening at the Musée d'Art contemporain de Montréal in 1993 is recognized as the beginning of techno music and raves in Quebec. By collaborating on this event and establishing Turbo Records in 1998, the DJ Tiga played a key role in the advent of techno music in Montreal. The year 2006 marked the twelfth Bal en blanc, an annual techno event held at Montreal's Palais des congrès. Today, the main representatives of the Quebec techno scene are the DJ Champion, Plaster, Millimetrik, Misstress Barbara, the DJ Maus, Freeworm and Les jardiniers. Quebec electronic music spread to the general public when artists like Laymen Twaist, Bran van 3000, Lili Fatale, Ariane Moffatt, Daniel Bélanger, Yann Perreau and Stefie Shock produced pop music with techno influences.

Comic Songs

There are many examples of comic songs in French-Canadian folk music. Before 1960, such songs were not a popular art separate from theatre, monologues, burlesque and other variety shows. Since the Quiet Revolution, numerous comedy groups such as Les Cyniques, Paul et Paul, Sol et Gobelet, Ding et Dong, Réal V. Benoît, Les Foubracs, Rock et Belles oreilles (RBO), Les Bleu poudre, François Pérusse, le Boum Ding Band, Crampe en masse, Les Grandes gueules, Ringo Rinfret, Chick'n'Swell, Les Denis Drolet, Laurent Paquin and Patrick Groulx carved out niches in the Quebec musical landscape with their pop songs.

Songs for Children

In Quebec, popular songs for children began with the Passe-Partout generation (based on the celebrated TV program) at the turn of the 1980s. Nathalie Simard also recorded hit songs for children in the same decade. More recently, Carmen Campagne, Annie Brocoli, Caillou, Shilvi, and Arthur L'Aventurier revived the genre.

First Nations Pop

Among Aboriginals, Gilles Sioui and particularly the duo Kashtin (Claude McKenzie, Florent Vollant) had the most success, yet that success was dampened by the 1990 Oka Crisis. Kashtin's style illustrated the mix of country-western, blues and popular rock that characterizes most Aboriginal pop musicians.


Further Reading

  • Baillargeon, Richard, and Côté, Christian. Destination ragou: une histoire de la musique populaire au Québec (Montreal 1991)

    Giroux, Robert, Constance Havard, and Rock Lapalme. Le guide de la chanson québécoise, 3rd ed (Montreal 1999)

    Labbé, Gabriel. Pionniers du disque folklorique québécois : 1929-1950 (Montreal 1977)

    Léger, Robert. La chanson québécoise en question (Montreal 2003)

    L'Herbier, Benoît. La chanson québécoise: des origines à nos jours (Montreal 1974)

    Millière, Guy. Québec: chant des possibles (Paris 1978)

    Moogk, Edward B. Roll Back the Years: History of Canadian Recorded Sound and its Legacy: Genesis to 1930 (Ottawa 1975)

    Roy, Léo. La merveilleuse époque des groupes des années 60 (Quebec 2003)

    Thérien, Robert and Isabelle d'Amours, Dictionnaire de la musique populaire au Québec 1955-1992 (Quebec 1992)

    Thérien, Robert. L'histoire de l'enregistrement sonore au Québec et dans le monde (1878-1950) (Quebec 2003)

    Voyer, Simonne, Gynette Tremblay. La danse traditionnelle québécoise et sa musique d'accompagnement (Quebec 2001)