Homegrown Sessiuns and Great Craic in the Quartier

Homegrown Sessiuns and Great Craic in the Quartier

Article and photos by Catherine McKenna

A spin on your heels to the right from rue St-Jean down onto Ste-Geneviève in the Faubourg, and you’ll find Pub Nelligan’s (after the Québécois poet, bien sûr).

A haunt of locals and travellers seeking the former, several things distinguish this very Québécois-Irish institution, not the least of which is their 112 scotches and whiskeys, the largest selection in Quebec City. Where else would you find poutine au canard confit or Guinness onion soup? Apart from the fine tipples (including properly-poured Guinness that allows ample time to chat with friendly bar staff) and a tasty menu that also features fish and chips with homemade tartare sauce, there is something very special happening here every Tuesday evening. Initiated by original owner Peter Farrell in 2005 back in the pub’s original location on rue St-Jean, impromptu sessiuns have continually attracted musicians and an audience of all ages from near and far.

Peter recalls the first evening that opened with the Uilleann (Irish) pipes. Since that first successful venture, the pub has had members of La Bottine Souriante, the Matching Keys, and many other well-known traditional musicians drop in, along with the very talented regulars from the neighbourhood.  The piano – an instrument not always included in sessiuns elsewhere – adds to the richness and flavour of the music.

Given the popularity of the evenings, arrivals after 9:00 p.m. risk not finding a seat close to the set, but not to worry; in light of this, Peter installed two studio microphones above that pick up sound at 180°, which bring quality music to every corner of the venue.

New owners Mélanie Gagné and Raphael Robitaille, while having added new touches of their own – notably the menu – have proved keen to maintain the same unique spirit of the pub, and the sessiuns have not skipped a beat. Tuesday nights, you are compelled to leave your troubles at the door, and join in the craic in a heart-warming atmosphere something akin to a kitchen party. Guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face, no matter how much the working day has put one through the proverbial wringer!

It is about 8:00 p.m., and three musicians ramblingly usher in this particular evening: Christian, the guitarist accompanying someone having fun with Québécois tunes we all know on the piano, and Mario, whose fiddle lies in wait on the long table.

Pints begin to accumulate on the table; there’s comings and goings on the backyard-style patio, the cook, Sio, nods a greeting to me…someone sits down with a bodhrán, which inspires Mario to pick up his fiddle and bring in the podorythmie – old-fashioned Québécois toe-tapping. Other fiddlers and a flutist join the scene after shaking hands with fellow musicians, respecting sessiun etiquette. Everyone sits to play music in the Québécois tradition; it is customarily Irish to stand.

Pub_Nelligans_Sessiuns_Quebec_City_MusiciansThe piano gets a bit of tuning in the background, and the fiddles sound finer by the moment. A couple of tin whistles are added to the mix, as well as another bodhrán. This time it is the flutist that opens the next jam, with the piano back in top form.

Both rooms are filling up, with yet more fiddlers at the table, now a ukulele, another guitar, and we’re really jammin’.

During the short breaks, I chat with Mario (fiddle, recorder, bodhrán), François (fiddle, bodhrán), and Christian (guitar).

Sessiuns by definition are improvised and unstructured, and it is this very spontaneity that delights. “…but what’s different here from say, Montréal and other places around the globe?” I ask, having been a fan of fiddle and traditional music since the early days of Mariposa in Toronto, where I had the good fortune to sit in on jams with the likes of world-class fiddlers such as the great, late Johnny Cunningham (Scotland), Kevin Burke (Ireland), and Christian Lemaître (Brittany).

Those sounds and images blend quite naturally with memories of the bon vieux temps Sunday soirées in a farmhouse on l’Île d’Orléans so many years ago. Yes, all this music fits together. So it is, obviously, the style and character of this Québécois-Irish mix, and the fact that“…the musicians here are not hired, they simply show up for the love of it,” François reminds me. It’s a true jam that is something a bit different every time, with anywhere between four and 17 or so participants any given Tuesday night. And unlike many pubs, where music is often just a deafening (or sleep-inducing) background, people come to Nelligan’s to listen.

François tells me that jigs and reels are Irish influence, podorythmie is Québécois…in terms of musical style, we will sometimes hear what are called “crooked” tunes (also Québécois), wherein beats are removed or added from the natural music phrases (of 16 or 32).

More recently, swing has found its way into traditional music – La Bottine Souriante being a good example. Though sessiuns are happening everywhere in the world, even in Paris, as Mario attests to after a recent visit, Nelligan’s Québécois version is unique, and the more and the closer you listen, the better you will appreciate this interesting fact.

Mario, Christian, and François have been jamming in Québec for as long as 17 years. They nod to the relève present around the table; the younger generation who they expect will keep up the tradition over the years.

By 10 p.m., some 14 musicians are animating the evening; by 11 p.m., the music, the craic, and the pints show no signs of slowing up. But alas, I must be on my way.

Pub Nelligan’s has seen its share of media over the years, from film crews to journalists of all stripes. “…even the BBC came by once…” Christian quips.

Mario asks if I enjoyed my night out, and to my enthusiastic response he adds, not without charm, “…then you’ll just have to come back!”

You bet.

Categories: Arts & Culture, News, Opinion

About Author

Catherine McKenna

Catherine McKenna is a Quebecker of Irish descent who returned to her native city in 2002 to live inside the walls after many years in Toronto and the United States. Following her studies in literature and languages at York University, she rode Thoroughbred racehorses for 22 years, worked for The Pollution Probe Foundation, Canadian Parks and Wilderness, as well as in the arts, among other diverse endeavours. Her book, Jeanie Johnston Journal, was published in 2005, and she continues to write for various publications in Québec, Montréal, and Toronto. She has worked as an ESL teacher for ten years and a translator for five. The Défilé de la St-Patrick is an organisation dear to her heart; she has been a member of the Board of Directors since the revival of the parade in 2010.

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