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monthly report 2010

Zach chillin' - thinking about his monthly reports

October 5 , 2011

Back  at the studio early in the afternoon, Nick and Francis soldering irons in hand repairing wiring connections.  My own connection has been repaired, the connection with a part of my life missing for nearly a year now.   Studio recording is both a trial and a pleasure.  It always begins for me insecurely.  Are the songs good enough?  Do I have the right tempos?  The right keys?  Are the arrangements good?   And most importantly, will I be able to deliver? 

We started the session on a chilly and rainy Sunday afternoon, October 2.  It always takes a long time to get settled.  Searching for the “sweet spot”.  Establishing the right relationships:  between the different players, the engineers, the room, the console,  the universe.   Nicolas Fiszman and I had played the night before in Ottawa, driving back in the wee hours of the morning.  Tired from the road.  The fatigue is harder to overcome when one is trying hard to get something going.

The day was long.  Everybody was happy when suppertime rolled around and we were able to get out of the studio and sit around the long table.  Indian food.  Papadum and curry… and conviviality.   The evening was also long and laborious.  It took a long to get everything in place.  Nothing surprising here.   It’s always better to let things find their natural level rather than trying to force everything.  We stayed well past midnight, trying to get everything right, even though these things take their own sweet time, and it is always better to let them have their own way.

The next morning,  I woke up in a roomful of doubt.  Had we made the right choices?  Tempos?  Keys? Did I know what I was doing?  Etc. etc. 

Arriving at the studio, it was discussion time.  Everybody was worried, frustrated.  Everybody had something to say.  And so we spent an hour turning things around and looking at everything from every possible angle.   But once we started to play, the worries and uncertainly dissipated like clouds leaving a blue sky.   There was a flourish of good vibes, and smiles erupted all around.  At such a time, it is easy to remember why I love this job.

The afternoon of the second day of recording was filled with good feeling and pleasure.  It is a true delight to play music and to make a living at it.  It is a privilege to be able to express oneself via this most noble of the arts. 

Music has a very special place in my life.  It brings me joy and solace in hard times.   To find joy in singing, to celebrate life through music played with musician friends is one of the great treasures of my life.   I am fortunate be surrounded by generous friends with whom I share the love of music and the chance to make it together.  Last night marked a turning point in a long and difficult recovery.   For the first time in a long while, I was singing and dancing……and smiling.

I am anxious to get back to the studio,  anxious to continue this exploration of celebration and humanity.  It’s work, certainty, but it is also a great pleasure and a great good fortune.   There is not much in my life that I love as much and that gives me as much pleasure.    There is one thing: to love and to be loved   When we can have them both, love AND music, then we can truly say that life is good.

September 7 , 2011

              The first time that I toured France was in the summer of 1973.  Thanks to my friend, the guitar builder James Trussart, I played two festivals, Vierzon in Berri and Kertalg in Britanny.  I have a very strong memory of the festival in Vierzon.  It was there that I first encountered the French folk scene and met Gabriel Yacoub and his group Malicorne.  But it was in Kertalg that I got rocked, for it was there that I discovered “la musique bretonne”, the Celtic musical tradition of Britanny.

              I was immediately seduced by the sound and especially by the melodies of Breton music.  Alan Stivell was in his prime and I was profoundly impressed by him and his harp.  That influence is evident in the melody of “Réveille”, a tribute to the Acadian struggle, which I composed shortly after returning to the USA.. I am surprised and pleased to see that it has become an anthem to a new generation of Acadians.  It  was recently covered by a young Anglo band from Nova Scotia, Fused for Tonight, in what I consider to be a very positive sign of reconciliation. 

              What I did not understand in 1973 was that the music of Britanny, la musique bretonne, was undergoing a renaissance, or rather the second phase of its renaissance.  That movement had begun after the Second World War in 1945, and  when I arrived in 1973 was enjoying a surge as a new generation of musicians came on the scene integrating elements of contemporary rock music into the tradition.  That was what I encountered at Kertalg.

              The “bagad” became the vehicle of Britanny musical culture after the war.  The bagad is a formation inspired by the Scottish pipe band.  It is composed of three sections, binou (bagpipe), percussion and bombarde, a wind instrument of the oboe family.   The musical structure of the Scottish pipe bands is relatively formal.  The bagadou, on the other hand, enjoys a greater freedom of expression and a wider diversity of repertoire as well as style.  This diversity is enhanced by the bombarde which has a broader musical scale than the bagpipe allowing for more polyphony.

              Beginning in 1965, a specifically Breton music scene evolved which was militant culturally and politically.  Alain Stivell was the leader of the pack  with Tri Yann and Gilles Servat following his lead.  Traditional themes were melded with a contemporary style through the inclusion of amplified instruments.   Different elements were included in a “cross-over” typical of the time.   Artists did not hesitate to create new compositions such as the Symphonie Celtique of Alan Stivell and this brought Breton music to a wider audience.  This movement was supported by a multitude of groups playing locally in the Fest-Noz, or country dances.  

              This was the music that I discovered at Kertalg in 1973.   Breton music was in full expansion and there was an evident desire to expand the style beyond the strict confines of the tradition.  This was also typical of the period.  English folk bands such as Fairport Convention were pushing the bounds of traditional music, creating a sub-genre of rock.   But the foundation of Breton music, the melodic character and the basic rhythm, remained unchanged.  This was the model that I used for the work I was beginning with Cajun music.  Inspired by what I discovered in Britanny, I sought to combine a contemporary approach, using electric guitar, drums and bass, with a traditional Cajun root.

              My relationship with Cajun music was then and remains today tributary of what I learned from the music of Britanny in the early 70s.  Always with respect for the tradition, I have attempted to modernize the style by using rock instrumentation as well as cross-over rhythms, such as reggae and New Orleans second-line.  It seemed to me then and seems to me still that if traditional music is to remain vital, it must incorporate contemporary elements.  I have often been criticized for having “betrayed” or at least “polluted” the tradition.  I am not sure that my attempts at “métissage” were successful, but I am convinced that they were worth trying.   If there is a fault to be found with the new generation Cajun bands it is that experimentation has given way to conformity, and the richness of the tradition has suffered. What ever happened to the hard rock traditional trio Mamou?  And where are the Cajun rap bands?  The early stages of Cajun music were defined by cross-cultural pollination.  Afro-Caribbean, American, Irish, Spanish, French, Acadian and German ingredients went into the melting pot to create the gumbo known as Cajun music.  It is unfortunate that Cajun music today is strictly defined stylistically and seems to have no place for any thing other than a limited version of itself. 

              On the other hand, it is interesting to see that the Festival Interceltique de Lorent has been including artists in the Acadian tradition over the last few years.  This is not so surprising since the fiddle style of most Acadian (Canada) bands is evolved from the Scots-Irish tradition.  What is surprising is that the festival is now including Louisiana artists as well.  In its 41st edition, the Festival Interceltique included performances by Danny Boudreau, an Acadian (New Brunswick) songwriter and my friend from Opelousas Louisiana, Hadley Castille.   They were only 2 artists among well over  one hundred, but their inclusion indicates that the organizers of the festival consider that Acadian and Cajun music are part of the Celtic tradition of Britanny,  I could not agree more. 



July 6, 2011

     In the last Canadian election, the Bloc Québécois took a shelacking. The Bloc is a national political party whose raison d’être is the separation of Québec from Canada, and whose appeal is limitied solely to that province. Even its leader Gilles Duceppe was not re-elected. In many ridings in Québec, it was the New Democratic Party, left of center, that made considerable gains.
      In the last few weeks, the Parti Québécois, the provincial version of the Bloc, has been rocked by scandal. One after another, figureheads of the partry, Louise Beaudoin and Pierre Curzi to name two, have resigned. The party’s leader, Pauline Marois, is standing on shakey ground.
      Not since the gound swell of support for Québec sovreignty in the mid 1970s has the separatist movement seen darker days. There were the referendums of 1981 and 1995. The first was a very very slim (.5%) defeat of sovreignty. The second was a more convincing defeat, provoking an embittered and tipsy Jacque Parizeau to castigate the « ethnic » meaning immigrant i.e. non-French Canadian vote.
      It seems the idea of Québec sovreignty has now become obsolete. This is a far cry from the heady days when I first arrived in Québec in the mid 70s. At that time, the political atmosphere was electric. On November 15, 1976, I was at a restaurant on Prince Arthur street when the news came that the Parti Québécois had won the provincial election. The supporters of the Parti Québecois could hardly believe that their candidate, a soft spoken ex-journalist from the Gaspé peninsula, René Lévesque, had been elected prime minister. After years of second class economic and political status in their own province, the French speaking Québecois were in the driver’s seat. The entire restaurant erupted. Spilling into the street, we danced and sang and hugged and cried.
      The late 1970s were an amazing time in Québec. There was a real notion that Québec could indeed become an independent political state. That notion was not diminished by the squeeky tight referendum of 1981. Anglophone Quebeckers left the province in droves creating a real estate market crash. The spectre of an independent Québec sent the Canadian dollar spinning, knocking 25% of its value viz-à-viz the U.S. currency. It would take 30 years to recover.
      Those years have not been kind to the separatist movement. In spîte of real social gains, and official linquistic equality, the Québécois themselves no longer seem to care about becoming an indepedant state. The appeal of the Parti Québécois seem to be a thing of the past.
       Québéc will always have a particular status in the Canadian conferderation. It is and will remain the second most populous province. But its demographics have shifted significantly in the last decades. With French Canadian birth rates dropping the population increase in Québec depends largely on immigration.
      I have just taken a trip to NDG, Notre Dame de Grace, a neighborhood in the west of the island of Montreal. In spite of its name, the neighborhood is a multi-ethnic melting pot. In the street one as likely to hear Hindi as French. As Montreal becomes more and more multi-ethnic, the importance of the French Québecois population is diminished and the relative dominance of the English language is enhanced.
      The result is an intriguing mix of culture, although it is clear that there is little crossing of ethnic lines. The traditional contrast between English Quebecker and the French Québécois, is very nuanced by the ethnic diversity. In spite of the language protection laws, arguably the most important legaacy of the Parti Québécois. English is becoming more and more prevalent, as a trip to the airport confirms.
      Will the notion of sovreignty ever enjoy a resurgence? Gone is the notion of second class status. The major impetus for the separatist movement was the notion, amongst its supporters, that they, the French, had been oppressed socially, politically and economically by the English. Until the election of the Parti Québécois and the passage of Bill 101, the official language act, there were no French language signs in downtown Montreal. The city was split in two by the Boulevard St. Laurent (the Main to the Anglos) and there was no real French presence west of the Main. With the success of Céline Dion, Cirque du Soleil, Bombardier and others, the notion that French Québécois are confined to a second class status no longer holds water. And there is no desire to rock the boat. Things are going well for Québec. The standard of living compares with that of any developed country. The quality of life is appreciable.
      Given the indifference of the moment, one must wonder whether the Parti Québécois will ever regain the status it enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s or will it continue to erode, to become an interesting but otherwise unimportant chapter in the history of the province? Will the legacy of the Parti Québécois be linguistic equality rather than political independence?   Likely.
Ever since 1759, the French of Québec have struggled to maintain their linguistic and cultural idenity. Economic power until the 1960s has been in the hands of Anglos. Political power is another story.  Since the 1970s there has been a tug of war in the province between those intent on separation and those, including French Québécois, for whom sovreignty represents a insecurity and the dreadful end of the Canadian federation.
      I will never forget the night of November 15, 1976 when, to everyone’s surprise René Lévesque and the Parti Québcois swept to power. For a decade it seemed possible and even likely that Québec would become an independant state. Today that seems unlikely. But who knows what the future will bring.  Québécois have achieved an economic and linguistic status unimaginable not so long ago.  The notion that only an independent Québec could satisfy the ambitions of its population no longer seems to be true, or at least no longer resonates as it did in the 1970s. 
      These are interesting times. The Arab world is afire with democracy while in Québec, the French Québéois seem content enough of their status not to rock the boat. After all, Céline is playing Vegas.


May 4, 2011

Cinco de mayo

First lightening-bugs of the season,

              their little beams

                            random decoration

For the velvet curtain of night.

Aux Chênes du Marais

Summer arrives at full gallop on the hooves of vapor.  Squadron of clouds swept from the Gulf of Mexico bringing humidity and laziness.  Colaspis beatles have invaded the cypress in their annual festival of ruin.  My father in his apocalype suit spraying the trees in a futile effort to control the damage.  The « love bugs » blacken the walls of the shed and block my nostrils.  In Cajun French they are called « besson » which means « twin ».  They are small, black and spend their short lives connected one to another by the ass.  The pairs are mixed, male and female.  The females are larger and thus able to haul the males, who spend their lives being pulled by the butt by a woman.  Sounds familiar.  (No sexisme intended, y’all, just a little Cajun humor. )


March 2, 2011

For two years now, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, MR. GO, has been closed.  The promised restoration of the marsh, however, has yet to begin.  This canal was built in the 1960s in order to give oceans going vessels access to New Orleans without having to pass in the river.  The canal, which displaced as much earth in its construction as that of the Panama canal, was well suited to this purpose.  Not only was it hardly used for its intended purpose, but it was the most important element in the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.  This canal served as a funnel bringing the tidal surge from Lake Borgne into the heart of the city.  The now infamous London Street and 17th Street canals were ultimately connected to MR. GO and the floodwaters that burst their levees arrived directly from that canal. 


In spite of the repeated protests of the leaders of Saint Bernard Parish (including the cities of Chalmette, Arabi, Mereaux and Violette, all hard hit during Katrina) and the Lake Ponchartrain Basin Foundation and a large proportion of the scientific community, the Louisiana delegation to Congress supported its construction.  In Louisiana, money doesn’t talk, it screams.  MR. GO  is directly responsible for the loss through erosion of more than 20,000 acres in Saint Bernard.  It continues to strangle the ecosystem of Lake Ponchartrain. 


Since the canal’s closing in January 2009, the U.S. Corps of Engineers has been given the responsibility of improving the area along the canal and restoring thousands of acres destroyed vy salt water intrusion.  The actual plan is intended to create additional protection against a storm-serge like that which crossed Lake Borgne and wound up in New Orleans in 2005.  In order to accomplish this, the marshes must be re-opened to the river, allowing fresh water to bring in sediment.  According to the plan, 55,000 acres should be restored.  The plan is a step in the right direction, but should be reinforced with several additional elements:

1. Oyster beds should be used instead of rocks in the restoration. Oyster beds are a cost-effective solution that improve water quality and create habitat for a wide variety of species.

2. Fixi the banks: Remediating and narrowing MRGO's banks would slow down storm surges and would help restore the natural balance of salt and fresh water.

3. Use sediment intelligently: Adding sediment is an important part of restoring marshes, but the Corps should dredge carefully, fully assessing and fully accounting for the impacts on wildlife. Sediment already dredged from the river should be used in the place of that taken from the already over-stressed marshes.

4. Monitor the system: In order to assess the long term effects of the planned modifications, the Corps needs to increase its monitoring in the MRGO ecosystem.  Otherwise it will be impossible to accurately measure the impact of the restoration project over time.


MR. GO is the living symbol of what can go wrong in the marshlands of Southern Louisiana.  Since the 1930s, engineering projects like the Mississippi River levees and the oil exploration canals have altered the landscape beyond recognition.  Together they are responsible for tremendous coastal erosion which continues to destroy the marshes at an alarming rate of 50 square miles a year (down from 80 in the 1980s).  This erosion is the result of the intrusion of salt water in the marshes in combination with the strangle hold on the river which prevents sediments from replenishing the marshes during the spring floods.  One of the major players in the environmental catastrophe is the U.S. Corps of Engineers. During it’s entire history, the Corps has been thinking inside the box, building big things and then bigger thing, higher and wider and farther.  The madness of this approach is revealed by the history of MR. GO and by coastal erosion itself.  The question now is can this traditional and highly politicized institution (consult the monthly reports of August, September & October 2006) actually incorporate the long term interests of the community in its project.  Will the Corps be able to resolve as opposed to create long term problems.  Another question: does anybody care?  As proved the Deepwater Horizon spill, unless directly touched by an environmental catastrophe, does any one give a damn.  But that’s a whole other story. 


Sign the petition


US Corps of Engineers


January 2, 2011

Chers amis, To you all, my very best wishes for a new year filled with love and happiness.  There are times when life poses great challenges. These are times to reflect and renew. As says the IChing (hexagram 3): for those climbing from the pit of adversity, determination to follow the righteous course promises great success. I am faced with perhaps the greatest challenge of my life, and nothing can be taken for granted.   I resolved to stay engaged and to do my best to spread beauty in this world.  In the words of my eleven year old grandson, Émile, sometimes I am deeply touched when I think of life.   All the best in the new year.  Keep moving ahead.