Where North Winds Blow
Inspired by Le Vent du Nord, Sharon Kivenko shares her thoughts on "what it is to be from a place, but not actually of that place".
In November 2013, my partner Alex and I attended a concert of the Quebecois “trad” music ensemble Le Vent du Nord. We were living in Boston at the time. The venue was the perfect mix of intimate and festive. The group’s harmonies, upbeat polyrhythms and stories of French-Canadian patrimoine were enchanting. I was profoundly moved by the beauty of the artistry and the depth of their connection to and knowledge of the genre and its historical and cultural roots. At the same time, however, I felt a melancholy as I reflected on how it was that although I was born and raised in Montreal with an enduring connection to the Eastern Townships, this music and the vibrant stories they conveyed were so unknown to me. Sitting there in the cozy dimness of that venue in Boston, my own childhood memories of Sutton came rushing in. As the ensemble introduced their songs by way of family stories and Quebecois history, they conjured in me images of my own family stories: of my brothers and me warming by the fire in our chalet on rue Maple after a day of skiing at Mont Sutton; of watching the Habs on Hockey Night in Canada on our black and white TV. At one point, however, I felt my reverie of childhood winters punctuated by the realization that just a few kilometers away from my family’s idyllic scene, there was a parallel universe – very much unknown to me – in which this gorgeously layered and deeply rooted musical tradition was evolving in Quebecois family foyers.
My great grandparents on both sides emigrated to Quebec in the late 19th century, they were Eastern European Jews escaping religious and cultural persecution. Growing up in the Mile End of Montreal, my paternal grandmother spoke French and Yiddish with her siblings and parents, but when she became a mother, she raised her children in English. I remember Sabbath dinners on Friday nights in her small apartment in the West End of Montreal where she would chuchoter en français with her sisters about the best way to finish baking her lemon meringue pie. It wasn’t until into my adulthood that I realized that political, cultural and social circumstances of the time were the determining factors in the languages my grandmother spoke. I can’t help but wonder whether if circumstances had been different, the French-Canadian music of Le Vent du Nord and the cultural milieux from whence it comes would have been more apparent, vibrant and tangible, perhaps even more familiar to me.
As was the case for my grandmother on the plateau of Montreal in the 1920s, French language and Québécois culture were all around us in Sutton and its surrounds. But there remained a growing distance. And yet, oddly enough, during that one concert in Boston so many years into my adulthood and decades into my life in the USA, the music swirling around me in the low light of that space, drew to the surface feelings of nostalgia for something I never really knew. Listening to the Brunet brothers’ harmonizing, I wanted to hum along; hearing the sung stories about their aieux made me want to sing stories of my own; and my feet itched wanting to tap along to the group’s expert podorythmie. All of this brought me to realize a contradiction that I hold inside of myself : what it is to feel rooted in a place (the place where I was born and raised) but to ultimately feel like a stranger. Indeed, I felt in that moment what it is to be from a place, but not actually of that place.
Nevertheless (and possibly as a result), in August 2022, my partner and I packed our belongings and relocated our family to Sutton, realizing a decades’ long dream to land at my family’s home in the woods among the hemlock, maple, and beech trees. And although we’ve been living as Americans for decades, we are drawn here by ever thickening threads of social connection; threads that are gently and gradually weaving us into an inspired social fabric. On the drive north from Boston all those months ago, we felt the threads pulling us as a north-bound wind blew at our backs, the songs of Le Vent du Nord as our soundtrack playing on repeat.