I can still feel at home in Montreal stamping my foot


During those years, there was a bar where I went on Saint-Laurent where the waiters never carded, where on Tuesday evenings it was difficult to find a place because the place was so full of fiddlers. I have become one of them. I hardly ever spoke to anyone except an older nurse with dyed red hair, who embodied pure joy more than any other adult I had ever met. She didn’t play; she sat nearby and listened, rocked, chatted, drank a pint.

You could tell she loved those tunes. There were common idiots and shredded old weirdos. The more carefully you listened, the easier and more complicated they became. Each contained endless inflections, moods and variations. Trad music can be bombastic and cheesy, but it can also be anything. People often referred to it as heritage, or “heritage”, a solemn word, evoking history, but without the wild immediacy of those Tuesday evenings. Hearing the micro-changes in rhythm from an accordionist was like watching the surface of the ocean, the unexpected glow momentarily at odds with the tide before merging again. With just over six notes, a fiddler could sink into a near flight state.

The tapping of the feet underpinned it all, the constant against which every syncope tugged. It may seem deceptively simple. The way I learned, you start with your right foot, marking the beat with a flam, a heel-toe series that merges into a single homemade bass drum hit. Then you add another tap on the offbeat, with the same foot but just the tip this time, rocking your shoe so that it becomes a metronome. Once it feels like second nature, you sneak in the left foot a second before the pattern begins again. It took me a year or two to get the rhythm – working out under my desk at school or in our hallway in my dad’s dress shoes. Toc-tic-uh, toc-tic-uh, toc-tic-uh.

You can hear the gravity there, being challenged and succumbed, again and again. Much of the violinless music I love seems unconstrained by the laws of physics – the ethereal Bach of Hilary Hahn, the inimitable voice of Burna Boy, each of them possessed by an otherworldly ease . Quebec tunes also float, but differently, their ascent inseparable from the creaking of the parquet floor. It’s the sound of a particular body in a specific place and time, inviting you into someone else’s walk, to feel their idiosyncrasies.

All music is about belonging: grasping the familiar or pushing it away, dealing with what’s inconvenient until it sounds like home. My obsession with these particular pieces probably has something to do with it: an attachment to a city where I am still a stranger but also totally myself, where my molecules feel more comfortable. It’s a strangely pleasant state, and wherever I am, I can summon a version of it by moving my feet – a useful trick for someone who always feels a little out of place.


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