Made up of an assortment of non-conformist, rebellious creators from the Montreal and Quebec City music scenes, Alaclair Ensemble took shape in 2008 when Mash (Les 2 Toms), KenLo (Movèzerbe) and Maybe Watson (K6A) got together for an informal music project. As the collective’s youngest member, Ogden Ridjanovic (a.k.a. Robert Nelson, the band’s manager), explains, “In the beginning, there were no plans to start a group, or any other project for that matter. Guys would just wander into the studio from time to time and start writing songs for others to complete. Then, in the spring of 2010, we realized we had some 15 pieces ready to go and that, looking back, they were all pieces the same guys had been working on. Seeing as it was our casual working method that had allowed us to introduce a festive and comical element to our tunes, we decided to share the results with our audience with the same kind of informality.”
After selling 500 copies of the digital album 4,99 (at $4.99 apiece), the group decided to have 500
Many people see us as the “gentler” side of Quebec rap music
more copies printed and, once this batch was sold out, and the band had been joined by Claude Bégin, Eman and Vlooper, the album was turned into a free download on Bandcamp. The result was instant success.
“This is when we started seeing that there was definitely an interest for our band,” Ridjanovic says. “Basically, it was a playful project, nothing really serious. In the early days, the fact that people actually were listening to our music was enough compensation for us. Having realized the fantastic buzz that can be created by making your music available online for free, we could not turn back. We also knew that this was making it easier for music journalists. It gave them something newsworthy to write about us. I have a feeling that some of them were relieved once they realized that there was no big machine behind our band. The word got out, but we also got a lucky break as a number physical copies had ended up in the right hands.”
Emboldened by this positive public and critical response, the group embarked in 2011 on an ambitious and eclectic three-album project titled Musique bas-canadienne d’aujourd’hui (Lower Canadian Music of Today). The first section of that upcoming trilogy, the fun-packed Les maigres blancs d’Amérique du noir (a zany reference to the iconic Quebec novel White Niggers of America), ended up being the group’s actual second album “simply because we were all together again, which we were not for Musique bas-canadienne d’aujourd’hui,” Ridjanovic explains.
“We were hoping to recapture the devil-may-care, fun-and-games attitude of our first album, but we also wanted to do this over a creative period of a few months instead of two and a half years. What this ambitious project meant to us above everything else was a lot of enjoyment, period. We viewed this as a fun trip from the word go. We retired into a cottage in Coaticook to create the outline of several pieces, and this is definitely the album where the band’s trademark ‘old buddies’ dimension really shines through. You can hear it. The album is a perfect reflection of our mood in that cottage during the album’s creation period.”
Ranging in age from 25 to 31, the six Alaclair Ensemble members are a close-knit bunch in spite of their various backgrounds. This is reflected in their compositional approach, which is meant to be both collective and personal. “We will often get going from a beat contributed by a member of the group, and then someone comes up with a key word that sort of becomes the glue that keeps the song together as we move along.” Says Ridjanovic. “A case in point was “Mammifère” (“Mammal”), a theme on which all musicians worked individually. We ended up with three entirely different approaches and performances. Many of our songs work that way. Generally, the band member doing the rap is performing his own writing.”
Alaclair Ensemble’s creative and unsettling rhythms, festive energy, scorching political comedy and madcap attitude has delighted countless Francophone hip-hop music lovers since the group’s creation, but not everyone is a dedicated fan. “We have disturbed a lot of people, and we ended up being rejected by the Quebec hip-hop community,” says Ridjanovic. “But we don’t mind. We embrace it. Many people see us as the ‘gentler’ side of Quebec rap music, but we laugh it off. We consciously decided to dissociate ourselves from that scene, and our audiences include a very limited number of hardcore rap music fans today.”
Besides preparing for a series of fall appearances, the band is looking forward to going into isolation once again, and coming out fairly soon with new material. Ridjanovic believes that the group’s future is really looking up.
“The reason we keep going is that we are optimistic about finding a way of making a living with our music eventually. We see ourselves as pioneers, and we would like to show that there is more than one way of doing things. For starters, we don’t believe that you have to get signed up by a company to make a living as a musician. The thing I like is that we own our projects. We are not going down the beaten path. My philosophy is to build things up brick by brick. No victory is too small. Alaclair Ensemble is the opposite of a one-hit wonder. A mixture of fun, spontaneous pleasure, and more focused collective creation remains our ultimate goal.”