Why perform traditional French-Canadian folk songs with an ensemble that includes Middle Eastern instruments and even a sitar? "Why not?" is certainly an acceptable answer; musical materials from around the world have been arranged for Western ensembles for centuries, and turnabout is fair play. But there's more going on here with Que le yable les emporte, whose title might have merited translation into English (it means something like The Devil take them!). One of the moving forces behind this project is Bernard Simard, whose "foot percussion" will sound familiar to anyone who has heard the great Quebec traditional-music group Les Bottines Souriantes. His knowledge of Québécois music is deep and broad, and the songs included on this disc are compelling in themselves. Hear track 4, "Su'l carillon," with its tale of a priest who walks by a woman abusing her daughter and tries to intervene, or track 9, "Les corps de métiers" (The Trade Guilds), in which the devil delivers a hilarious blanket indictment of the chicanery of various tradespeople -- but finds that he has to postpone taking them to hell, because "if you all wanted to climb on board, you'd all have to be taken straight away for burning, but my wagon wouldn't budge." These songs are surrounded by instrumental reels and other dances.
The idea of "Easternizing" them sounds strange, but it works well. Partly this is because, as with Anglo-American tunes, many of these (there are a few originals) are of great antiquity; in their outlines they at least hint at a time when Western instruments had immediate ancestors in the Arab world. The oud heard here, for instance, is one step away from the lute to which it lent its name as well as its basic shape. The music's success also comes from practice; Simard and the members of Constantinople performed this material for several years before making this recording, and the comfortable quality of their musical conversation shows through. They have several different modalities of combining Eastern and Western materials: the oud, sitar, tombak, and other instruments chime in on the reels on some numbers, whereas in other cases the vocal tunes are adapted to a more Eastern sound. Constantinople, a French-Canadian group with several members of Armenian background, was founded in 1998 with projects like this in mind; the group's stated aim is to "[propose] musical creations born of a compositional reflection on the transformation and integration of ancient music from the Mediterranean regions into contemporary idioms." The enterprise is speculative, but, in this case at least, musically solid and emotionally affecting.