University of Washington

The Traditional Music of Acadia

Brief History of the Acadians
The history of the Acadians runs through 400 years of life in a New World, centuries shadowed by the tragedy of genocide and displacement that gives the Acadian people their identity. Acadia, or L’Acadie, was the first French colony in the New World, founded in 1604 by Samuel de Champlain. The colony was founded in what is now known as the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. The Acadians that emigrated to populate this colony were mostly Western French settlers, many from the area of Poitou. Coming from a land of marshes, they were able to tame the swampy land of Nova Scotia, turning it into fertile farmland. Pacifist by nature, Acadians refused to take sides in the growing conflict between England and France over control of the fur trade in North America. The Acadians would ultimately be the losers of this conflict, for in 1755 they were forcibly removed from their lands. Known as Le Grand Dérangement (Great Expulsion), this infamous period scattered the Acadian people across the Western hemisphere, from England to France, New Brunswick to New England and Louisiana to Haiti. Today, Acadians are still living in diaspora, with significant populations in Canada and the United States.

Acadian Musical Traditions
Traditional Acadian music in New Brunswick today is largely characterized by a great love for bluegrass and country-western fiddling. Acadian bluegrass bands are fairly plentiful, and one at least, the Bluegrass Diamonds, produces bilingual French-English recordings. Acadian fiddling is dominated by the “Down East” style, a blend of Celtic and American country fiddle styles that was popularized by Don Messer and many others. Down East fiddling has spread throughout most of Canada and is thought of as “old-time” music by many Canadians. Down East fiddlers from New Brunswick like Ivan Hicks and Ned Landry were well-known outside of the province. In addition, some Acadian fiddlers have been labelled as “Down East” fiddlers despite the fact that they play a more regional style of Acadian fiddle. Gerry Robichaud, for example, is usually called a Down-East fiddler, although his style is not as similar to other Down-East fiddlers. Robichaud, like some other regional Acadian fiddlers, actively blends Scottish (via Cape Breton), Irish, and French-Canadian influences into a more traditional Acadian sound. Acadian music from New Brunswick often features rollicking folk songs in Acadian French accompanied with lively dance tunes. The group La Famille Arseneault presents a cross-generational take on this music.

As many Acadians live outside of New Brunswick, one of the best examples of traditional Acadian fiddle can be found with the Arsenault family of Prince Edward Island (not to be confused with La Famille Arseneault of New Brunswick). Led by partriarch Eddy Arsenault, a lobster fisherman, the music of his family can be heard on recordings by the group Barachois. Like the Robichaud Brothers, the Arsenaults perform a melange of tunes taken from Cape Breton/Ireland/Quebec/France with a powerful lift to the bow that is an aural signature of traditional Acadian fiddling. Some of the tunes on their seminal recording Party Acadien were composed by members of the family, others were borrowed from the repertoire of Cape Breton and there are indeed some tunes that represent an older repertoire. American musician Ken Perlman has done an excellent job summing up and transcribing the instrumental dance tune repertoire of PEI in his book, The Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island and the two accompanying CDs of field recordings.

Though Nova Scotia was the ancestral home of the Acadians, traditional Acadian culture is only represented there in a few places. The island of Cape Breton, best known for its vibrant Scots fiddle traditions, is home to some Acadian communities and the fiddlers of these communities have, for the most part, adopted the Cape Breton style as their own. Joseph Cormier may be the best known Acadian fiddler in New Brunswick, and one of the most recorded. J.P. Cormier (not related) is a well-known Cape Breton fiddler from the Acadian community of Chéticamp who has branched beyond his island home to embrace the bluegrass music that many other Acadians have come to love.

The Magdalen Islands (Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine) are home to the least-known enclave of Acadians. These families, known as Madelinots, have held on to their heritage despite repeated deportations by the British in the 18th century and despite their isolated geography. Recently, the book Tête de Violon: 64 violoneux des Îles-de-la-Madeleine was released featuring photographs of local Magdalen fiddlers, and judging by the number of photos and the clear community support for fiddling, this is an area with an untapped wealth of tunes. The playing style of the Magdalen Islands veers unsurprisingly toward Cape Breton, but local tune repertoires and unique bowing hint at suprising differences. This unique fiddle style can best be heard in the playing of Bertrand Desraspe on the album Vent’Arriere. Desraspe is one of the best-known Madelinot fiddlers, having founded the famous folk group Suroît.

One of the more ironic developments in Acadian music is the return of Cajun music to Canada. Following years of wandering and privation caused by le Grand Dérangement, many Acadians wound up in the French-Catholic colony of Louisiana. They stayed after it became an American state and have retained their language and traditions to the present day, though the title of “Acadian” was shortened to “Cajun.” The music of the Cajuns was strongly influenced by their surrounding neighbors: Caribbean freed slaves, African-Americans, Native Americans, Spanish colonists and Anglo-Americans. It is a totally unique music style that has greatly diverged from the traditional Acadian music that houses its roots. This divergence is such that the only thing to be found in common is the songs. As the Acadians traveled with songs, many of the original songs that had first been brought from France can still be found in Louisiana. As Cajun music was discovered in America (no small thanks to pioneering folklorist Alan Lomax), so too was it discovered in Canada. Acadians in the Maritime Provinces claimed an affinity to the music and began adopting its unique rhythms and style to their own uses. Many folk rock bands in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia employ Cajun stylings, including well-known groups like Blou and Boréal Tordu.

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