It's no mystery that Vermont is steeped in French culture. From the pioneering explorations of Samuel de Champlain to the enriching influence of Quebecois immigrants, the Franco framework is solid. Even the state's name comes from the French: vert (green) and monts (mountains).
Yet this once-prominent mark of distinction has faded. A cultural homogeneity has eclipsed the once-proud folk tradition. Some might call this progress. Others, such as St. Albans-based singer-songwriter Michele Choiniere, are making a stand for the preservation of their heritage.
Choiniere's finely detailed, emotionally rich music is a testament to Franco-American creativity. It's also a channel through which tradition meets modernity: Her work combines the rugged vitality of Quebecois folk music with the wistful poetry of cabaret and cafe culture.
The stylistic synthesis is perfectly natural for the songstress, who began publicly performing alongside her father, Fabio, at age 12; she won't reveal her current age. The early experience grounded her in her own history -- Choiniere's work sounds authentic because it is. This led to her inclusion on the 1999 Smithsonian Folkways CD Mademoiselle Voulez-Vous Danser: Franco-American Music From the New England Borderlands.
Choiniere's 2003 solo debut, Coeur Fragile, was well received by both traditional music enthusiasts and world-pop fans. Its elegant simplicity belies a sophisticated compositional style, one that evokes both the passion of French-Canadian folk and Old World romanticism.
In addition to writing and performing, Choiniere teaches French at the Williston Central School. Her classes often include workshops in Quebec music and culture.
Choiniere typically performs with Montreal-based musicians Sabin Jacques and Rachel Aucoin. In her concert this week at Rutland's Paramount Theater in, however, she'll be accompanied by Vermont instrumentalists Will Patton, Dono Schabner and David Gusakov. Choiniere recently spoke to Seven Days about what it means to be a Franco-American artist in Vermont.
SEVEN DAYS: What was it like growing up in a musical family?
MICHELE CHOINIERE: I never questioned it. It was a part of just being. I started taking classical piano at age 5, and I did that for 10 years, until I finally just rebelled. All the while, I was backing my father up on piano, performing traditional music. We still do this, and he's 78. It's a bond that we have; something we know intuitively. My dad's mom was a traditional dance pianist, and my grandfather was a fiddler, so I kind of have it in me.
SD: What kind of places would you perform?
MC: We started out at the Vermont Maple Festival, and we also played at family gatherings -- Sunday afternoons, holidays. There was always lots of music and singing. It was kind of wild! From there, we played other festivals, going out of state as the years progressed. But my first time singing in public was
at age 14.
SD: Were you shy?
MC: No, because I knew I could do it, it was inside of me. I also had been dancing since age 3, so I was always on stage. I'm also a closet fiddler and mandolin player, but I won't perform publicly until I'm very old!
SD: What are the essential qualities of French-Canadian folk music?
MC: It's very energetic, but also kind of raw. It says, "Let's party and have a good time."
SD: But there's a maudlin side to some of your material.
MC: I have created my shows to feature other kinds of things. But as far as the music I grew up with, they were dance tunes. My own compositions are different, because I have another viewpoint of what it's like to be Franco-American. I don't have many people my age with the same background that I can connect with. Most of them are older.
SD: What is the music's place in Vermont culture?
MC: There's a very fine line between the Celtic and the Quebecois, but it's different. I'm not sure how it fits in, but it does still exist in the homes. But many of the Franco-Americans who do play don't do so publicly. And most of them are over 65. The younger generation was not taught the traditional music. I was lucky enough to be taught these things by my relatives. I'm trying to do as much as I can, but sometimes I feel like some kind of dinosaur.
SD: Do the older generations support your music?
MC: It can be frustrating, because it isn't exactly what they're used to hearing. I've kind of created my own sound. It's in French, and there are threads of the older styles in it. They like it, but it's not something familiar to them, like "the good old days." But I continue to do what I'm doing, because this is just me.
SD: A lot of young people seem thirsty for music with roots that are deeper than last year's radio single. Do you see evidence of this?
MC: At my shows, I find that they're often really into it. Some of them might have a connection to Franco-American culture but most probably don't. But they're still enthusiastic.
SD: How does the music of Quebec differ from that of continental France?
MC: Well, many of the traditional songs traveled from France to Quebec when the colonists came over. And there's an exchange that continues to this day. I think it depends on the region of France. If you're in Brittany, there's a different rhythm and dialect. To me, the Quebec music sounds more dance-based. There's lots of passion, and feet. It's about foot percussion and step dancing.
SD: Does the vibrancy of the music reflect the lifestyle of the people?
MC: Yes. You work hard, and you play hard.
SD: Do you think subsequent generations will enjoy similar cultural experiences to your own?
MC: It survives in families that continue to speak French, and at jam sessions and festivals. As far as going to a local butcher that only speaks French, no. There was a lot of pressure for the Quebecois to speak English, and many of them changed their last names. A lot of them refused to teach the traditions to their kids, because they might not assimilate. And they wanted them to fit in. But at one time, around 80 percent of Vermont was Franco. And about a third of the current population shares the lineage.
SD: I don't speak French, so although I like the sound I'm unable to understand the themes. Can you fill me in?
MC: It's romance, nature. I love writing waltzes, and I love dancing, so there's always an expression of that kind of freedom. One of my songs is called "The Waltz of Time." It's about appreciating the present moment, before time takes everything. Seeing the color of a flower before it fades, or the birds before they fly away. A shooting star before it dissipates. I just want to catch time and hold it. It's like I don't want time to take this heritage away, because when it goes, I will become deaf.