June 23, 2005

The Song Box

Yesterday night, I went to a cabaret, in a small cozy café-like pub called "La Butte St-Jacques" in Montreal's beautiful old quarter (textually translated, St-Jack's Hill). La Butte is possibly one of the last remaining "Boites a Chansons" (Song Box), along with "Les 2 pierrots".

"Boîtes à chansons. Name given to the intimate rooms which sprang up in the mid-1950s outside the normal entertainment circuits and in which most young Quebec chansonniers made their start. Usually seating 50 to 100 on uncomfortable chairs, these smoke-filled rooms were casually decorated, often with a fishing net. Coffee - and rarely liquor - was served on rickety tables which were bare or sometimes covered with checkered cloths. The audience generally was made up of students, and despite the surroundings great enthusiasm was generated.


In its original form the phenomenon gradually lost momentum and for all practical purposes petered out by 1967. Once they became stars, the chansonniers needed larger halls and more complex sound equipment. Yet it was towards the end of the boîtes à chansons era that Le Patriote began operating in Montreal's east end. Larger than most, it featured the big names of Quebec song, and several French artists, and welcomed newcomers.

Over the years the repertoire of the boîtes was broadened. Jazz ensembles, folk groups, singer-instrumentalists, and others, as well as the original singer-songwriters, were heard in them. (...) The Bistro d'autrefois, the Butte St-Jacques and La Licorne, all in Montreal, still have something in common with the boîtes of the 1960s, even though their clientele has changed. Most Cegeps and some universities have similar places. The coffeehouse in English Canada is to some extent the counterpart of the boîte à chansons." (Thank you, Canadian Encyclopedia)

The show I went to see, with my now artist mother and her friends, was called "Cabaret : Y parait que..." (Cabaret : I heard that...) and featured 5 ladies, impersonating very distinct characters :
  • Chi Chi : hot-blodded latina drama queen, single lady in desperate search for a love interest ;
  • Charlotte : the M/C and owner of the cabaret, who loses her self-confidence in the middle of the show ;
  • Madam Camé : Darker lady, wanted by the police (we're not sure why), slightly nutty and famous for trying to sing "over the rainbow" a maximum of times per show ;
  • Marie-Neige : means Mary-Snow. Slightly nutty and disconnected, a tender loopy dreamy girl.
  • The pianist : the Cow (wearing a cow costume...) witty and sometimes a little bit bossy.

Overall good entertainment, good singing and showcasing. As I was told later, it is a work in progress, but I do beleive it is to be pursued, and will eventually turn out to a complete new form of art, involving song, music, theater, humor, and exuding with the desire to take the audience elsewhere... A perfect example of what French-Canadian artists can come up with, in all its irreverence, charm, and nuttiness.

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