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Fans wait in line outside of Evolu-Son before a performance by Harvest Breed. September 1, 2013.
Photo by Nick Kozak

September 10, 2013 

It’s 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning at a dive bar in northern Quebec, and an aging husband and wife local cover band are belting out frenchified versions of pop and disco songs to a crowd of a hundred raging Quebecois indie rock fans. Someone starts crowd surfing, later on, a conga line forms. Around the indie rock kids, men in their 70s pour quilles, (narrow-necked 710 ml bottles) of forgotten O’Keefe beer into tiny glasses while others play video lottery or darts. While not officially licensed or part of the festival, Le Bar Des Chums and the Duo Express are the heart and soul of the Festival De Musique Émergeante (FME).

Welcome to the sleepy copper mining town of Rouyn-Noranda, home to the late-summer festival FME, now in it’s 11th year, presented proudly by pink poodles howling at the moon. The town was founded in the 1920s thanks to the discovery of the massive metal deposits. In the ‘50s, the city’s musical traction reached its peak, becoming a popular destination for bands on the Rockabilly circuit, attracting even more attention than Montreal. But, as it does, the mining boom went bust, and now music lovers are lucky to get a handful of metal bands to play their stages, overlooked by the Horne smelter, a relic of the past, but still the largest processor of copper and electronic scrap metal in the world. Enter the minds behind the FME.

Founded by a group of 20-something musically deprived friends, Sandy Boutin, Jenny Thibault, Claude Fortin, and Matthieu Arcand weren’t satisfied with the almost exclusively abrasive rock bands that came into town, and were frustrated with driving seven hours to Montreal to see bands that actually mattered to them.

“The first year was very small, we had only 22 bands in five venues, but our direction was good so we were able to repeat it and add a few more shows for the next year,” Boutin says.

“Our reasons for creating the festival were very selfish,” say Fortin, another of the co-founders. “We just wanted to bring bands to Rouyn-Noranda and have a great party. Each time, we had to choose based on whether we had the money to do it well, even when it came to making posters. If it wasn’t possible, we’d drop the idea.”

Spectators watch as a band performs in front of a mechanic’s garage in Rouyn-Noranda. August 31, 2013.

Over the 10 years, the festival has become a platform for industry showcases for up-and-coming bands to release new material and to test out audiences of fans and French label reps both Canadian and European. The hospitable organizers keep their VIPs busy with corn shucking harvest parties (just another excuse to drink the sponsored Boreal beer) along with numerous cinq a septs—yes, more drinking. You arrive ready to adjust your eardrums to a throaty Quebecois jouale—I found myself slightly disappointed with the easily understood accent of the region, mild like the soft poutine curds of poutinerie/diner Chez Morasse, a local institution.

Thanks to the FME, Rouyn-Noranda has become a cultural hot spot in the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region. Limited passes for the festival are sold at $125 a pop and this year sold out in six minutes. You won’t see Jay-Z or The White Stripes but if you’re clued into the Quebecois music scene, electro-funk jam bands like Montreal’s Misteur Valaire, instrumental post-rock band Pawa Up First, or the radio-friendly pop artist Alex Nevsky may suffice. Feist even played a free open-air concert last year for their 10th anniversary, as did Patrick Watson.

Headliners this year included 90s alt-shoegazer band Blonde Redhead, and similarly tuned Suuns, but bringing in big name artists isn’t really the point. FME’s focus, and the cultural funding that keeps the fest going, is restricted to the ‘emerging’ aspect—keeping the tone limited and intimate. (Or as intimate as you can get with 23,000 guests and a dozen-odd small-scale venues like the Agora Des Arts, a converted church-turned-steam bath on summer nights, and homey pubs like the Cabaret du Dernier Chance and Le Diable Rond.)

But there’s also the counterpoint that the Quebec government has a vested interest in nurturing its talent but keeping it put. It is indeed rare for French-speaking bands to leave the fray of La Belle Province.

“I would say that that has something to do with the micro-culture that exists in Quebec,” says Max Henry, bassist and keyboardist of Montreal post-rock band Suuns, “and the grant system. There’s a financial incentive for local bands to play small towns. For us [as an Anglo band on a US label] it’s really helpful to play these kinds of gigs and go places we would normally never go to, but I think for some, it’s become a crutch. Some bands get stuck in Quebec or get really, really popular in Quebec but nowhere else.”

As a newcomer to the Quebecois music scene, what I witnessed didn’t reflect any agenda; instead I saw an immense amount of talent and passion emerging from the French-speaking region, and an equal amount of love and adoration from attendees. It’s a shame that the bands showcase at FME largely aren’t taking the initiative to make trips to nearby cities like Toronto, or even the U.S. The language of music is a universal one that all should take advantage of.

Photos by Nick Kozak

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