Highlighting the area and culture of Rouyn Noranda, Quebec as much as the music itself, FME is a summer festival with an eclectic and unique flare.
There are nine of us stepping onto a propeller plane at Toronto’s island airport. The aircraft seats eleven, including the two pilots, and on a sunny afternoon in late August our luggage is carefully weighed to make sure the vehicle has enough fuel for our trip. In a minute we’ll be taking a two hour trek North to the Quebec city of Rouyn Noranda, a former mining town about eight hours outside of Montreal. For the past fiffteen years Rouyn Noranda has been home to FME, a music festival that plays host to a number of both Francophone and English speaking artists spanning various genres. FME has avoided the typical summerfest set up – a large field adorned with dual stages flanked by hordes of assholes – in favour of a multiple venue/multiple day event across the city’s downtown core. According to the organizers the set up is a better way to engage the 41,000 residents of the town and its surrounding areas, including the county’s Indigenous communities, and offers visitors a better perspective of Rouyn Noranda’s multiple venues. FME is the crown jewel of an ongoing process for the city to redefine itself as a cultural hub after its mine closed. The area is making a concerted effort to prove themselves as a destination worth travelling to for its thriving and unique arts scene.
The flight to Rouyn Noranda is bumpy for the duration. The tiny plane jolts at even the slightest breeze and as we travel over greenery and countless bodies of water I become convinced that this is my Big Bopper moment. I am going to die on this trip and I’m pissed. I’m not famous enough to warrant a dramatic and fiery death in an eleven seat chartered aircraft. As the flight begins its ascent all I can see out the tiny window is miles of dense forest. The idea that a town, let alone an airport, could suddenly manifest itself from the bush seems insane to me. But then again I do tend to feel uncomfortable any time I can’t see the CN Tower. I’m white knuckling and making internal pleas to multiple deities when an airport appears out of nowhere. We touch down, I suavely put on a pair of sunglasses to hide my tears, and our group makes its way into the city.
While we haven’t traveled for too long Rouyn Noranda hardly feels like the same country as Toronto. The city is beautifully picturesque. There is a deep blue lake in the center of the town surrounded by quaint houses and tall pine trees. The largest building is maybe twelve stories tall. I am constantly being greeted in French, a language I thought I had a basic grip on until this trip, by well wishers happy to share information about FME and the other highlights of the location. The whole town is so stoked on the festivities that it’s difficult to know who is working for the festival and who is offering the service out of the goodness of their own hearts. There is a community orientated vibe to FME. It that has had a trickle down from its promoters, to the artists, to the people attending the fest. From the onset it seems like we’re collectively trying to make this the best weekend of the summer. It’s a rare thing to get from a group of friends, let alone a music festival.
This community oriented tone was apparent as we entered into the opening night of the FME. The headliners for that evening were Indigenous producer/DJ crew A Tribe Called Red who took the stage to thousands of onlookers filled with cheap beer and free barbecue. The crowd that night was a far cry from the cynical stoics I’m used to back home. Instead of folded arms and eyes rolls people dance wildly, grooving out to the music, and giving just as much to the performers as they were giving to them. From the corner of the stage I listened as the trio shouted out the other first nations people in the crowd, who in turn responded with the large woo. A day later the festival was also home to a traditional pow-wow consisting of dance and storytelling. While there is always a lot of talk within artistic communities about the need for representation of POC, seeing it in action got to the heart of the matter in a way nothing else could. As I exited the outdoor venue that night, which was adorned with two large wooden crows looking over us, I got the sense that FME was creating something truly their own.
Over the next three days I took in several amazing shows. Duchess Says brought their playfully invasive live show to the poolside of the Bonsound secret show winning over the industry types with their riffing synths and growly vocals. New York’s A place to Bury Strangers played the festivals loudest set. The bass heavy trio had smashed through two guitars before attacking each other on stage as a strobed out light show brought them in and out of focus. Opening the show was Francophone act Zen Bamboo who’s tight guitar driven indie rock was the best surprise find of all the shows. The Decline! Managed to answer the age old question what if the Dropkick Murphys were a french band? Finally Montreal’s Laura Sauvage highlighted songs from her new album The Beautiful with a charmingly self deprecating and soulful set.
On the Sunday morning of the festival’s last day the organizers of FME along with cultural ambassadors for the area had organized a trip to Refuge Pageau, a natural reserve an hour north of Rouyn Noranda dedicated to the rehabilitation of local animals who had been abandoned by their parents or hurt by hunters/cars. As the group walked around taking in moose, bears, foxes, and owls I turned on a playlist I had put together of the French artists I had picked up over my time at FME. It was a beautiful and friendly reminder that this country’s arts scene is a lot bigger than the nation’s urban centres and that if you’re willing to look there is easy opportunities to experience unique takes on a cultures totally different than your own.
Photos Courtesy of Graham Isador