“Sharing, swapping ideas with artists from different communities, that’s the spirit of music,” enthuses Florent Vollant from the get-go. “I think I get that from the elders: as far as I can remember, I’ve always tried to use music to get close to others. And I can say that I’ve been blessed, because I’ve shared the stage with some incredibly inspiring artists.”
That’s quite an understatement! For 25 years now, Vollant has performed here and abroad, proudly representing the language and culture of Maliotenam’s Innu community all around the world. From the heyday of Kashtin to his very successful solo career, the singer-songwriter has become one of the most familiar faces of the First Nations. With the release of his most recent album, the excellent Puamuna, Vollant makes it clear that he’s not about to stop enchanting us.
“It’s true that I’m a nomad, because I’m basically always on tour.”
Although his music can’t really be called traditional – his folk-rock musings are closer to that of his friend Richard Séguin that they are to aboriginal rhythms – Vollant is well aware of the importance of his people’s ancestral traditions. It’s even thanks to them that he discovered his artistic soul: “It harks back to my earliest years,” he explains. “I would look at the traditional singers beating their drums in ritualistic ways that are millenia old, and I was mesmerized. Stretching the drum’s skin taut before the ceremonies was, for me, a way to access this culture and, above all, a way to reinforce this community feeling.”
Later, in the mid-80s, he founded Kashtin with his friend Claude McKenzie, and the duo’s first eponymous album, led by the single “E Uassiuian,” was a worldwide hit despite being sung in a language that only a handful of people speak. That adventure ended in the mid-90s and both artists went their separate ways. Just like his ancestors who roamed their territory for game, Florent went stage hunting.
“It’s true that I’m a nomad,” says Vollant, “because I’m basically always on tour, so much so that I feel I’ve been on the road for many, many moons. But I can’t help it: I need to be on the move!” Despite this unctrollable urge to move, Vollant still felt the need to settle down and plant his roots solidly in Maliotenam, where his family established itself after being uprooted from his native Labrador by a mining company.
That’s where he built his own recording studio, Makusham, in 1997. Throughout the years, his studio became a cultural epicentre both for the community, and for artists outside the community, such as Richard Séguin, Zachary Richard and Marc Déry. Yet somehow, ironically, Vollant himself never recorded an entire album of his at Makusham until Puamuna. “For each of my previous projects, I worked in part here, but this time around, I truly felt I needed to record the whole thing here,” he says. “I believe it had an impact on my mindset, and feeling of the record. There’s something more peaceful about it that comes from the environment. Before recording, I’d take long walks in the woods, this magnificent scenery, or I’d pay a visit to family and friends. Maybe that’s why the record took me three years to complete!”
One could hardly blame him for taking his time, because Puamuna truly is a great album. It’s built around the same folk and Americana frame as its predecessors, and allows us to glimpse a serene Florent Vollant, feet solidly planted on the ground, but gazing at the heavens. There’s something ethereal about it, starting with its title, which means “dream.” “Dreams are central in our culture,” explains Vollant. “The elders taught me that singing is not a game or mere entertainment. Culture, music: that’s the stuff life is made of, and all inspiration comes from dreams. It is our duty to transmit those dreams to the rest of the world using song and drums.”
And even though this album bears his name, he had a whole team of collaborators to back him up during its creation. Vollant co-produced it with Kim Fontaine and Réjean Bouchard, his brothers in sound. There was Pascale Picard, who sang a duo on one of his songs adapted from Innu. And there was his longtime friend, Richard Séguin, who gave him the only French-language song on the album, the magnificent Tout est lié, a song about the indestructible bond between First Nation peoples and their land.
“I was blown away when I read the words, and I asked Richard where he found the inspiration for all that,” says Vollant. “He simply told me that he only wrote about stuff I had told him before, and my reaction was, ‘I say beautiful stuff like that?’,” he remembers, laughing. “We’re like brothers and share many things, especially the fact that we both had a career in a duo before going solo. But, seriously, we have an obvious musical and social kinship. Richard is not the type of guy to write songs about Indians in his Montréal apartment. He came here and he partook in our rituals and our culture. He definitely is, to me, one of the dream bearers.”
Before letting him get back on the road (when we met for this interview, Vollant was getting ready for a concert in Rouyn-Noranda), we were compelled to ask Vollant’s opinion on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a proceeding that stirred very painful memories for all the Native people of his generation. “It’s difficult but unavoidable if we want to move forward,” says the artist.
“We need to turn towards the future now,” says Vollant. “You know, 50 percent of the Natives in Canada are less than 30 years old, and they’re starting to get involved in band councils, some even becoming chiefs. Those young people didn’t not know [about] the boarding schools, but they still have to deal with the old clichés and die-hard stereotypes natives have always had to deal with. It might sound somber, but I’m very positive about what I see happening all around me, youngsters honouring their roots while doing completely new stuff. Think of artists like Samian, A Tribe Called Red, Shauit… They’re shaking things up and giving our culture a very positive appeal.”
Are you some kind of optimist, Vollant? “I have no choice,” he answers. “I have to be. For my own kids and the future generations, we must believe that things can get better.” And no doubt, Vollant will keep contributing to this movement… one dream at a time.