ACADIANS IN PEI
|Awaiting Vishten. No devices allowed during shows. Yay!|
Not many people south of the Maine/New Brunswick border can tell you much about Prince Edward Island and even that might be a generous assessment. There are, after all, just over 140,000 people in the entire province—about a third as many as live in the New York City borough of Staten Island. If pressed, some in the Lower 48 might know that Prince Edward Island potatoes compete with spuds from Maine and Idaho, but you have to be among the cognoscenti to know that tiny PEI has one of the most vibrant musical traditions in the Western hemisphere. Seriously—it's so rich that I've come to imagine there's a provincial law requiring all residents either to become professional musicians or move to the Yukon.
I'm a folk music geek, so PEI music isn't new to me. I've known about fiddlers Richard Wood and J. J. Chaisson for some time, lamented the dissolution of the band Barachois in 2007, and even knew that Stompin' Tom Connors lived there for a time. But, like I said, that makes me a geek (freak?). For most, PEI music draws blanks, though the secret is slowly getting out and once it does, there's no turning back. At the fore is the trio Vishtèn. For the past three summers they've drawn enthusiastic audiences in the Massachusetts' Berkshires town of Great Barrington and, on September 2, I was lucky enough to catch a show at the Guthrie Center. If that name rings a bell, you're right—the Guthrie Center is named for folksinger Arlo Guthrie, who lives nearby. He now owns the church he made famous in "Alice's Restaurant" and has converted it to a cultural venue and administrative post for the various philanthropic projects with which he's associated. It's a terrific space for music—acoustically sound and sporting café tables to hold cold brews and well-prepared offerings from the small kitchen just off the lobby. Vishtèn added charm and warmth to a near-perfect late summer evening.
Vishtèn is an anomaly within an anomaly. They are Francophone Acadians in a province in which 94% of the residents are English speakers and they are, strictly speaking, only two-thirds of a PEI band. Vishtèn is anchored by twin sisters Emmanuelle (vocals, whistles, mandolin, piano, foot percussion) and Pastelle (vocals, accordion, piano, mandolin) LeBlanc. The third member, Pascal Miousse (vocals, guitar, fiddle) hails from the nearby Magdalen Islands, which technically makes him a Quebeçois. Never mind! Francophone sensibilities infuse most of Vishtèn's music, especially in the planks of wood underneath Emmanuelle's feet, as foot percussion is the rhythmic foundation for most Vishtèn sets. Their opening numbers was both typical, yet unorthodox. It featured rolling accordion note bursts atop a fiddle drone, nonsense syllable vocalizations, and Emmanuelle sitting ramrod straight in her chair to play Jew's harp or penny whistle, but her legs and feet a blur as the tunes gathered pace. There were several false stops, the momentary pause signaling the shift into a higher gear before rushing helter skelter to the actual finish.
Vishtèn performed selections from their back catalogue (5 albums in all), but the bulk of the material came from their most recent release, Terre Rouge, and with good reason—it just won them a 2016 East Coast Music Award as the Traditional Group of the Year. An ECMA nod is a big deal indeed—something akin to a regional Grammy. (In Canada, only a Juno Award carries more prestige and these usually go to more pop-oriented performers.) Vishtèn did several of my favorites from Terre Rouge, including "Trois Blizzards," a moody homage to a one-tow-three punch of winter storms that left PEI without power for five days and necessitated that locals pitch in to aid each other old-fashioned communal style. Pascal remarked that he was oddly saddened when power was restored because it meant everyone retreated to their insular ways. As a result, the tunes within the set are appropriately wistful with a spirit that's somewhere between resilient and melancholy. They also dusted off their pan-Acadian good-time two-step "Joe Fèraille," a Cajun stomper from Louisiana. The sisters joined force at several junctures to show off some duel step dancing, though most of their footwork is akin to (but not the same as) Quèbeçois clogging.
The Louisiana departure notwithstanding, Terre Rouge references PEI's red soil and Vishtèn's songs might be mostly in French, but they are deeply rooted in the island's red earth. To my mind, Ten Strings and a Goatskin is the best exemplar of PEI's Celtic roots and Vishtèn the Acadian heritage. From such a small place—such mighty sounds. Grab any chance you get to see Vishtèn. Their live shows are even better than their CDs.