Howling wind, immense sky, unbridled freedom—an unlikely muse, perhaps. While we know geographical roots profoundly influence artists, this seems particularly true of musicians who hail from the prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
“The prairie is like the ocean only upside-down because everything happens in the sky,” says singer-songwriter Daniel Lavoie, born and raised in remote Dunrae, MB, whose albums and starring roles in the musicals “Notre-Dame de Paris” and “Le Petit Prince” propelled him to international celebrity. “But if you look closely, there are small gullies and valleys where you can hide; where there are all sorts of rabbits, hares, plants and birds. That’s what I loved most about the Prairies as a child—disappearing into its ravines.”
Suzanne Campagne, who, with brother Paul and sister Michelle, are country-folk band Hart Rouge, remembers wide-open spaces and sunsets over fields of wheat, barley and mustard. “It’s a space that’s very much alive,” she says. “The sound of the wind is constant and the stars at night—it’s as if there are three times as many stars as anywhere else in the world. We loved the infinity and freedom. But if you’re not born there, it can seem so empty.”
Driving across the Prairies for the first time, you begin to see what they mean. Distances are enormous (on Highway 6 outside Winnipeg, MB, a sign announces: Flin Flon 777 km). The road is arrow-straight and the landscape pancake-flat for hundreds of kilometres. The whole experience can be oddly soothing. There are no trees and few other vehicles. You keep moving toward an imaginary horizon line. Yet sometimes you feel as if you’ve stopped moving altogether, that time itself has come to a halt.
But Manitoba isn’t just prairie. It’s also a land of 100,000 lakes, fur-trading era French voyageurs and the Métis Nation, who made up most of the Prairie population in the 19th century. Gifted musician and storyteller Gérald Laroche, whose ancestors came to Canada with Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, often talks in concert about his Métis roots. The harmonica maestro owns some 60 harmonicas, along with the penny whistle, Indian mouthbow, fiddle bow and jaw harp.
Though he tours the globe, Laroche fascinates the French with the sound-scapes he creates to evoke the Prairies—the whistle of the north wind, the cry of an eagle, the tempo of time marching on. One of Laroche’s Métis tales says: Every secret has a story, Every story has a dance, Every dance has an ending, Every ending has a beginning.
What to see St. Boniface Museum: Housed in Winnipeg's oldest building, dating from 1846. (494 Taché Avenue, 204-237-4500 or www.franco-manitobain.org)
Riel House National Historic Site: Louis Riel's family home. (330 River Road, Winnipeg, 204-257-1783 or www.pc.gc.ca/Ihn-nhs/mb/riel/index_e.asp)
Fort Gibraltar: Fur trade-era fort. (866 St. Joseph. St., 204-237-7692 or www.fortgibraltar.com)
Music Daniel Lavoie, Live au Divan vert, Smac-6244 Gérard Laroche, Rubato-Arrêter le temps, Tis Gars 100 Hart Rouge, J’ai fait un rêve, Universal 8661712092
The CTC produced a version of this story for its GoMedia website.