People & Culture

Our Country: Jean-Michel Blais on his hometown of Nicolet, Quebec

The ground-breaking pianist and composer on growing up in Nicolet and seeing the potential for what the town could become

  • Published Sep 26, 2022
  • Updated Sep 30
  • 912 words
  • 4 minutes
Photo: Will Arcand
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Nicolet is located between Montreal and Quebec City, where the Nicolet River meets the St. Lawrence. It’s quite tiny – when I was a kid, there were 3,000 of us, and now there are about 10,000 people.

In the past, Nicolet was a centre for education and religion. It used to be home to the third oldest seminary in Quebec, the Séminaire de Nicolet, as well as a prestigious music school and a plethora of religious congregations. But in 1955, the beautiful old downtown of Nicolet burned and, eight months later, was carried into the river by a landslide. Around the same time, the Silent Revolution was beginning a decline in religion in Quebec. The opening of CÉGEPs outside of Nicolet meant it lost its place as a centre for higher education.

The seminary was eventually shut down, and the building that housed it now belongs to the École Nationale de police du Québec (Quebec National Police Academy). On the land of the old congregations, there are parking lots, a high school and a luxury hotel. The music school has disappeared, leaving behind empty studios and new instruments. In Nicolet, there’s a lot of nostalgia for how things used to be.

Growing up, it was a place for imagination. I spent a lot of time in the town’s archives, which held hundreds of books from the old seminary. As teenagers, walking and biking around, we would make up stories about the town and its old ruins. I remember exploring at night while everyone else was sleeping and the calming sounds of the wind and the woods.

Photo courtesy Jean-Michel Blais
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Nicolet is also surrounded by nature. It’s quite flat, and there’s a lot of agriculture and forest around. Near where my parents live, we see eagles and herons and deer. There are lynxes and foxes, and turtles. From their house, you can go kayaking down the Nicolet River and be immediately enclosed by woods. A lot of my family fish and hunt, but that’s less my thing. 

Although Nicolet has a tragic history, the people there make it feel alive and vibrant. When I was a kid, the town would have these big parties around Christmas. There would be traditional music and dance. One of the dances was called a set-carré, a group dance in which everyone would arrange themselves in a circle and which involved regularly switching partners. There would be children and old people, and everyone would be treated the same – there would be no separate tables for kids. These were occasions for bonding with others and for passing down values such as the importance of family and connectedness.

In more recent years, we’ve had a tradition of hosting similar gatherings at my parents’ house. My dad will cook a big dinner, and we’ll have a night of infinite music and dance, including the set-carré. Each Christmas now, we invite friends from all over the world to Nicolet to celebrate. There are always too many people for our one house, and our sound system inevitably breaks from the heat inside. The gatherings used to last three days, but we had to cut it back a little. I’m really proud to be continuing this local tradition in my family.

I usually do the post-production of my music in Nicolet. My mom has her workshop attached to the house, where she makes furniture and paints and repairs things. My producer and I turn it into a mixing studio. In my album Dans ma main, there are a lot of sounds from Nicolet. In the song “a heartbeat away,” there’s a moment where there’s a beat, ta ta ta ta. That’s the sound of my neighbour’s swimming pool filter that got jammed; I remember hiding behind the bushes to record that sound and later incorporating it into the piece. 

The mom of one of my best friends from Nicolet was my first piano teacher. Without her, I’m not sure I would be a pianist today. “Pour Johanne” is a piece I wrote for a different friend’s mom, also from Nicolet, who passed away. There’s a close bond between the people of Nicolet which means so much.

I just did a show in Nicolet for its 350th birthday. The roof of the venue originally belonged to a church that was swept away in the landslide in 1955, and the base of the building was reconstructed. Lots of things are happening in the town. We have a new mayor, and one of her projects is an electric car-sharing system which all residents can access. There’s a new microbrewery, too. My dream is to start a modern neoclassical festival in Nicolet and to have people go there and support local businesses. In a bigger city, a project like this would be hard – in Nicolet, I would have help from everyone. My uncle would come and help with the electricity. There are so many venues where you could host things. I always see the potential for what Nicolet could become, as well as having an appreciation for what it was.  

 

                                                                                                                         – As told by James Ivison

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