By IRWIN BLOCK
VICTORIAVILLE, QUE. – A male French bagpipes improviser as the opener and an outrageously gifted pair of female Japanese punk rockers as the closer characterized the eclectic nature of the programming Saturday in this four-day Festival de musique actuelle de Victoriaville, which ends tonight with the last of 19 concerts.
Erwan Keravec brought his instrument, part of the folk tradition of his native Breton region of France, to the century-old St. Christophe church for his afternoon concert, slowly emerging from the rear balcony as he played and ambled his way to the magnificent altar at the front. He laid out drone sounds, alternating with melodic runs and long tones as he experimented with the acoustic possibilities of the space. His richly-coloured conclusion, combining rhythm, texture, and melody was a vivid demonstration of its orchestral potential.
The European content continued with Dálava – American vocalist Julia Ulehla, now living in Vancouver, backed by a quintet, singing Moravian folk songs collected in a book by her great-grandfather and brought to the U.S. when her father fled Czechoslovakia in 1968. In ballads and waltzes, Ulehla used her rich and powerful voice to give new life to these songs in a jazzy musical setting, her vocals beautifully and tastefully supported by her life’s partner, guitarist Aram Bajakian, and cellist Peggy Lee, who echoed and enhanced her melody lines. Though few in the audience understood the Czech language, thanks to her introductions, and explanations of these songs of passion, her dynamic stage presence, and passionate delivery, their themes spoke to all of us, a warm and accessible show.
American vocalist Audrey Chen partnered with Richard Scott and his analogue synthesizer in the next show – an hour-long demonstration of how the human voice and electronica can co-exist as they interact. A veritable sound sculptress, Chen explored the range of vocal possibilities alongside Scott’s electronic creations. After half an hour, we got the point.
Our interest was re-ignited with the Swedish group called Fire! – a progressive-rock and free jazz amalgam featuring Mats Gustafson on saxophones and electronica, electric bassist Johan Berthling, and the fabulous Andreas Werliin on drums and electronica. This is a group that cooks, whether on slower tunes and ballads or in full fury, with Gustafson leading the way thematically on baritone and tenor, concentrating on long tones and repeated motifs, and driven forward with gusto by the well-tempered rhythm section. Even if the encore was a one-chord wonder, intense playing and a rich group sound made it all worthwhile.
The late evening concerts featured three Japanese shows, the first a double-bill that began with Phew, the stage name of the singer and punk artist who performed with her laptop and electronica. We heard her ah’s and other sounds and echoes thereof, other sounds, and electronic textures in various combinations. It was all cleanly presented, orderly, and somewhat conservative – an exploration that failed to stir the imagination.
The group called Saicobab is a fusion trio simulating Indian ragas with Yoshida Daikichi playing the electric sitar, Hamamoto Tomoyuki on percussion, and vocalist Yoshimio, with her sparkling and quirky stage presence and use of electronica to change the texture of her sound. These are all seasoned musicians, and they have fun, but the electric sitar lacks the rich tones of the acoustic model, the miked tambourine fails to reverberate like the tabla, and the ensemble is more a novelty than a re-interpretation of the real thing.
More successful was Afrirampo, the reunited duo of electric guitarist Oni and drummer extraordinaire Pika. They emerged in the Japanese experimental rock scene in 2002 when the musicians were in their late teens. After much success, they split up in 2010, and reunited two years ago. Barefoot and skimpily dressed in matching dresses, they came on stage beaming and bursting with energy, and led the audience in an “I love you (Je t’aime)” call-and-response – as if to show that these young women want to have fun as they perform. Have fun they did, romping through a hard-hitting session of tunes that brought a claque of head-bangers to the edge of the stage, and displaying mastery of their instruments and rock conventions. These women play at the highest level and even as the clock struck 1:30 a.m. the crowd was engaged and happy.
The festival continues today with five final concerts.