For the next two years, Sisseton is South Dakota’s Arts Midwest World Fest community. The program allows towns in nine Midwestern states to experience new cultures from across the globe. Canadian group Le Vent du Nord recently spent a week in the area, giving residents a taste of Quebec folk music.
Le Vent du Nord is kind of a big deal in the folk music world. The award winning group travels the globe, preserving a piece of Quebec’s past. But the band’s members don’t take themselves too seriously.
“We are superstars of nothing,” says Nicolas Boulerice.
“They say if you are a folk star it’s the equivalent of employee of the month at McDonalds,” says Olivier Demers.
That’s Boulerice and Demers are half of Le Vent du Nord. They say they’re actually more popular outside of their home province, because there are a lot of folk groups in Quebec. On the other hand, there are not so many bands in Sisseton who play music like this.
Quebec folk music is just the first of four international sounds making their way to Sisseton through the Arts Midwest World Fest program. Ken Carlson is the Senior Program Director. He says the idea is to give smaller communities the chance to experience new cultures, people, and music. Carlson says programs like this help people of different backgrounds understand each other better.
“You know we’re certainly aware of what’s going on in the world but we don’t necessarily think that we can connect with those people,” Carlson says. “Oh, we don’t have anything in common with those folks. And I think one of the things that this program helps us understand is that even though these musicians are playing music that we’re not necessarily familiar with and coming from countries where we may never have the chance to travel, we have some things in common.”
Program organizers especially want students to understand that message. Sisseton Arts Council Director Jane Rasmussen says musicians with Arts Midwest spend a week in the community, and much of that time is spent in schools.
“Whatever experiences we can give students to understand the world that they live in and really appreciate diversity instead of being afraid of anything that’s different, I think that’s just critical,” Rasmussen says.
Le Vent du Nord’s first school program is at Sisseton Wahpeton College. A group of Head Start children arrive walking in a straight line, hands on each other’s shoulders, and take up half of the first row. They sit quietly, captivated by the performance. There are no drums in the band. Instead, one of the musicians taps his worn-out shoes on a black pad on the stage. He tries to teach the audience, including the kids. But the chairs are too tall or the kids are too short, so their feet dangle in the air instead.
Nicolas Boulerice plays piano in Le Vent du Nord. He says it’s not important if the kids remember the name of the songs, or even the name of the band.
“We want them to remember that in North America we have different culture,” Boulerice says. “And French culture is really strong. And Quebec is like the country of the French. And it’s not that far, and it’s quite different. It’s not only the language, it’s the way to play the music, to make the food, to do the politics. It’s really another world, and I think everybody should know what it is.”
Boulerice says people should celebrate diversity that exists right in their own neighborhoods.
“The big majority, it’s easy to forget the others, because it’s millions and millions and millions of people who are just like you,” Boulerice says. “It’s not because people aren’t curious, but it’s just people don’t see that culture. So I think if the kids are open to the fact that the world is plural and different, I think it’s what Arts Midwest wants. They want the kids to be open to the difference.”
The men of Le Vent du Nord not only share a bit of their culture, but are open to learning from others as well. It’s something they demonstrate during an afternoon jam session at the college. Award winning traditional Native American flute player Bryan Akipa takes the stage and teaches the group a bit of Dakota culture, using his collection of handmade wooden flutes. Then the musicians join together, blending their traditions to make something new.
Sisseton Arts Council Director Jane Rasmussen says the performance shows the importance of using the arts to conserve a way of life.
“Both the Tribal musicians as these French Canadians, they’re both preserving something in their culture that’s very old and meaningful. And it was just so fun to watch them share that today,” Rasmussen says.
The Sisseton area will have three more chances to learn from different cultures through the Arts Midwest World Fest program. Over the next two years people in the community will also experience music from Israel, Brazil, and China.