Raising the bar

We're sitting in a bar in a cellar in Quebec City, keen for a local musician to take to the stage and sing to us in French. For one thing, his arrival would stop the recorded music that has been playing since we entered, a random mix of English-language pop songs that wouldn't be out of place on an iPod's retro-party playlist.

As my wife Narrelle and I sip our beers, singer and guitarist Christian Aubin suddenly appears onstage. He's a confident, energetic presence, and we lean forward for his first number. It's Cat Stevens' Wild World. Sung in English. Quelle surprise.

With Cat disposed of, however, Aubin belts out a Quebecois favourite, then alternates between French and English-language songs for the rest of the evening.

This is good fun, and one of the great Quebec City experiences. Such chanson bars, or boites a chansons, are a feature of the city often missed by tourists, who focus on the marvellous architecture and narrow streets within Old Quebec's historic walls. But these intimate bars keep alive a long tradition.

The distinctive songs performed in these venues derive from the folk songs brought from Europe by the settlers of New France, combined with influences from the Celtic songs of Scottish and Irish migrants. In the 20th century the chansons evolved to reflect the trials of modern life such as war and economic downturn, and they remain an important part of Quebecois culture.

The bar we're in, Les Voutes de Napoleon (680 Grande Allee Est, voutesdenapoleon.com), is an atmospheric space beneath a lively restaurant strip of bustling terraces and coloured lights, amid modern office buildings to the west of the old walls. It certainly looks the part, with uneven stone walls and a low ceiling within an interior dotted with cabaret tables.

In a second room is a pool table, alongside ancient vending machines dispensing sweets, chewing gum and condoms. There's also a bar, where the staff defy the Quebecois stereotype of linguistic defensiveness by happily taking orders in English (not that "Une biere, s'il vous plait" is too much to ask a visiting Aussie to master).

After the first few songs the venue fills with an appreciative audience. To our left are visitors from France, and behind us a group of locals celebrating a birthday by loudly singing along with their favourite tunes. At the conclusion of one rousing number, the birthday boy chugs a beer to general amusement.

We're not above joining the merriment, and we lustily sing the chorus of Sweet Home Alabama at the urging of the chansonnier. The ongoing banter between Aubin and the audience suggests there are regulars in the crowd, creating a friendly vibe that has us all smiling.

That might be something to do with the alcohol, of course. From time to time a staff member breezes through taking drink orders - I have another "red beer" on one pass - as the singer continues weaving his spell. Then, unexpectedly, Aubin announces "une chanson d'Australie", and launches into a vigorous rendition of Midnight Oil's Beds are Burning. There's nothing quite like hearing one of the Oils' greatest hits delivered in a French-Canadian accent in a cellar on the other side of the world. C'est magnifique.

The writer travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

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