Back by popular demand!!... Benoit Bourque (and son!)
May 2012, Lewiston, Maine – Benoit Bourque is one of the true treasures of North American folk artistry. He has plied his skills as a singer, instrumentalist and step dancer with many popular Canadian ensembles over the past 30-plus years, including Matapat and Le Vent du Nord, and is currently a member of the distinguished Quebecois band La Bottine Souriante, a multi-time winner of the Juno Award, Canada's version of the Emmy. Benoit has countless fans from his many earlier visits to Maine, both as a performer and as a teacher through the Maine Arts Commission's traditional arts apprenticeship program, where he mentored Maine Folque Co-op founder Cindy Larock in Quebecois step and social dancing.
In the spring of 2012, the Maine Folque Co-op was lucky enough to have been able to bring not only Benoit but his 22-year-old accordionist son Antoine to Lewiston for a three-day community residency featuring music and dance activities for all ages. This endeavor was organized by the Maine Folque Co-op in collaboration with Bates College (the French/Francophone Studies Dept., Theater/Dance Dept. and Freewill Folk Society), the Franco-American Collection at USM's Lewiston-Auburn College, the Lewiston Public Library, the Lewiston Chapter of the Association Canado-Américaine/Royal Arcanum, and the Farwell School PTA. Following is an overview of what took place:
Friday, May 18 – The residency kicked off bright and early at Lewiston's Farwell Elementary School, where Benoit & Antoine spent the day introducing some 250 kids from grades K-6 to a lively assortment of French Canadian music and dancing. The most popular activity seemed to be the "snake dance," in which Benoit led lines of giggling youngsters (and teachers) in a serpentine path which had them weaving to and fro around the floor and ducking under each others' arms. (And watching Benoit squeeze his 6-foot-5-inch frame under an arch formed by two five-year-olds was, believe us, quite a sight to behold.) Other mirthful moments included a bones-playing tutorial, a jigging routine which had the kids balancing green plastic bowls on their heads, and an introduction to the broom dance, which ended with a few brave student volunteers - not to mention a couple of even braver teachers - wrapping themselves into pretzels as they attempted to replicate Benoit's famous broom escape trick. One of the first-grade classes had such fun that they hurried back to their classroom and wrote personal thank you letters to Benoit & Antoine, decorating them with art work depicting themselves jigging and dancing the snake dance. Their teacher - Ms. Bernier - then collated and bound the letters into a booklet for B & A to take home with them as a keepsake of the wonderful time they spent with the children at Farwell.
As a special bonus, Benoit & Antoine were invited to have lunch at the home of Farwell school volunteer (and retired teacher) Louise Gagne, where they were joined by her 102-year-old mother-in-law Antoinette Gagne. As she herself was born in Quebec, she was delighted to have a chance to parler Francais and share some of her favorite old French songs with B & A., and after lunch, she accompanied them back over to the school where she enjoyed watching her great-granddaughter, a 5th-grader there, participate in a workshop with them.
That evening, Benoit and Antoine were joined by Maine master fiddlers Frank Ferrel and Ed Pearlman and others in a “Franco-Celtic Connections” concert at the Olin Arts Center Concert Hall at Bates College. Frank opened the show, accompanied by pianist Rob Choiniere, with a choice set of tunes from Ireland. Ed then took the stage with his son, Neil Pearlman, on piano, for a sublime selection of music rooted in the Scots tradition. Following intermission, it was the guys from Quebec, with highlights ranging from an inspired spate of gigue-ing from Benoit to a gorgeously romantic musette waltz played by Antoine. They then invited the others back on stage, along with Lewiston musicians (and Benoit & Antoine's hosts for the weekend) fiddler Jessie Boardman and her husband Greg Boardman on guitar, for a rousing final set which brought the audience to its feet. Particularly memorable were a guest appearance by 89-year-old local Franco-American fiddler Maurice Pelletier and his spoons-playing wife Marie, who led a charmingly crooked rendition of "La Bastringue," and a firey stepdance "duel" between Benoit and Neil.
Saturday, May 19 – Benoit and Antoine headed across town to the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College the next morning where they were greeted by a roomful of senior citizens eager to participate in a workshop during which B & A introduced them to a lively collection of chansons à repondre and other traditional songs from Quebec. This event was sponsored by L-A College's Franco-American Collection, an archival facility which holds a wealth of materials documenting the rich heritage of the area's extensive French community, and most of the participants were recruits from the monthly Franco-American sing-along series hosted by the FAC at L-A College. After the workshop, the visiting musicians lingered to chat with attendee Antoinette Gagne, age 102, who had brought with her the handwritten songbook she created when she was a young teenager living in Rumford (another of Maine's noted Franco-American communities, located about an hour north of Lewiston) not long after she emigrated to Maine from St. Damien, Quebec. Benoit remarked on the value of such an artifact and requested a photocopy of the songbook to take home with him. Another copy has been added to the FAC archives.
Next on Benoit and Antoine's agenda was a Quebecois-Style “barn bance” held downtown in Callahan Hall at the Lewiston Public Library on Saturday afternoon. Benoit led a delightful mix of fun and easy dances which included everyone from preschoolers to octogenarians, all happily holding hands, clapping and laughing throughout the afternoon. Fueling the floor action was a homegrown band consisting of Antoine, Jessie, Greg, fiddler Hannah Rodrigue and mandolin player Don Cunningham. Once again, Benoit's snake dance was a big hit. Significantly, two local women, age 84 and 86, who came to watch but ended up on the floor dancing for most of the afternoon, commented about how the event reminded them of the dances at the Acme Snowshoe Club that they used to attend when they were teenagers.
Benoit & Antoine then moved back over to Chase Hall on the Bates campus to present a workshop in step dancing geared towards teens and college students, followed by an evening of quadrilles and other French Canadian social dances. The band for the latter event included all of the above, plus fiddlers Julia Plumb and Becca Grube.
Sunday, May 20 – The weekend ended with a bang on Sunday afternoon at Bates' Schaeffer Theatre with an old-time “Franco Kitchen Party” show which featured a cast of 21, including not only
Benoit, Antoine, Greg and Jessie, but also several talented musicians from Lewiston's Franco-American community, namely New-Brunswick-born fiddler Maurice Pelletier (age 89) & his wife Marie (82) on spoons, pianist Jeannette Gregoire (82), and harmonica player and yodeler (!) Lucienne Roux (87). Antoinette Gagne, age 102, brought the house down with a poignant duet she sang with Benoit. Other singers – ranging in age from 76 to 88 – were Aliette Couturier, Paul Farrell, Irene Mercier and Madeleine LeBlanc. Jacynthe Jacques, who immigrated to Maine from Quebec with her husband Alain 13 years ago, not only led the audience in a chanson à repondre but participated in a boisterous rendition of the French Canadian contra dance Brandy Calveniche with her husband and their 10-year-old daughter, Laura (who was partnered with Benoit), as well as Antoine, Aliette, Becca Grube, Jake Deppmeyer, Don Cunningham and myself, Cindy Larock. Serving as host for the extravaganza was Michael Parent, storyteller, singer, guitarist and all-around bonhomme.
We're pleased to say that this event, as well as the student workshops at Farwell School, was filmed by noted Maine documentary filmmaker Huey Coleman, assisted on Sunday by veteran cameraman Mark Ireland. It is hoped that, by the end of the summer– if we can raise sufficient funds – the eight-plus hours of footage will be artfully edited into a retrospective of these two gifted artists' sojourn in Lewiston, where they not only entertained and educated, but reacquainted us with and reminded us of the value of our community's own unique French heritage.