Madrigaia, The Bhigg House,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, (May 31, 2003)

I first encountered Madrigaia at the 2002 Winnipeg Folk Festival, where they made my list of the top three discoveries of the festival. So when I heard about this "intimate venue" concert ... well, I'll just quote the text I emailed my boyfriend:

"Okay, I'll keep this dignified.


I saw them at the folk festival. They're glorious."

In short, I was not disappointed.

This review very nearly belongs in the "Cool Venues" section of Green Man, as the Bhigg house might well be the most interesting place I've ever been to for the purpose of watching a formal concert.

The Bhigg House is just that: the large home of a variety of people, many involved in the Winnipeg folk and filk (science fiction and fantasy-based folk) music scenes. It sits in the middle of a street of three-story buildings, blending in with its grand neighbours. The concert took place in a pleasant living room with a piano in place of a TV, and a few neat rows of fold-up chairs instead of love seats. The walls were a lush red, with prints and original paintings, including the cover art for albums by Dandelion Wine and its solo members. As the adjoining room connects through a full double doorway, additional seating was provided there, including the most comfortable seating; the couch wedged in the back. The full seating capacity -- and this was a full house concert -- is 40 paying visitors. The acoustics were quite good; even those who firmly occupied the back couch throughout were quite happy with what they heard. CDs and other accoutrements were sold in the front hall, though the display was quite professional in presentation.

Yes, this was a formally announced, paying concert. It was also the first formal concert (as opposed to jam session) where I've been invited into the kitchen in the intermission for chocolate chip cookies and lemonade, and definitely the first where I got to hang out on the back porch once I had my drink. And the first one where the house cat darted between the chairs, accepting as much petting as 40 people can bear to offer.

The concert started precisely on time, as Ruth Anderson, Bhigg House Dweller and the night's MC, signalled the house lights -- by asking those members of the audience closest to various switches to turn them on, or off. Soon the only light was from a line of ceiling floods, focused on the stage and the piano space. She then introduced the venue rules and directions to the washrooms, after which she called forth Madrigaia, to great applause.

Madrigaia is six women -- Marie-Claude McDonald, Dominique Reynolds, Andrina Turenne, Brigitte Sabourin, Ariane Jean, et Sarah Dugas -- all of whom are deeply involved in the Winnipeg Francophone music scene in solo careers or other group projects. They come together as Madrigaia to perform some of the most stunning a capella and percussion-accompanied music ever heard. They have been described as the Mediaeval Baebes with two-thirds the members and twice the energy, though their musical sources are less historic European and more global.

A large part of their repertoire is based on their French Canadian heritage, but they mix in World music sources, including songs in Hebrew, Hungarian, and Croatian -- and one wordless tune mixing melodies from Yiddish and Madagascaran traditions. They have been called colourful, and if they haven't, they should be called beautiful. Vocally (and visually, yes), each is uniquely lovely, and when they come together, they move and flow fit to entrance.

They opened with "Ritournelle," a seven-part round (Yes, with six people). The parts are even clearer in concert than on the CD, and the group was relaxed and ready, and the applause might have come from a much larger crowd.

After that; however, they switched to something a little different from their standard; each member was given a spotlight, performing one song from other aspects of her career. Other members provided instrumental or vocal accompaniment, but plainly hung back to keep the soloist most obvious. Sarah did a folk-pop style song, penned by Dominique, with Brigitte at the piano. Ariane followed with an a capella version of a Joni Mitchell song. Brigitte followed, seating herself at the piano once more, with an Edith Piaf piece. She stalled on remembering one line, but had she not admitted as much, she could have slipped one over the audience, making the pause appear a stylistic choice; the rest of the song was perfectly executed.

They took a break from the solos, then, to do another French-Canadian number as Madrigaia. Dominique took the stage -- well, the piano -- with a song inspired by a Tom Robbins line, and with a surprise kazoo solo by Andrina, the most outgoing member, who followed with a bluesy number. Her voice began too soft for her piano playing, but picked up as she progressed. They closed this series with Marie-Claude, who seemed the shyest of the six until she sang, and who did have the gentlest sound. She was also pointed out as the woman without whom Madrigaia would never have come together. She sang a light cheery song, penned, she explained, by her brother, with some of the most deliberately silly accompaniment of the evening ... but then again, I did just mention a kazoo solo.

All in all, the solo spotlights were a good experiment, though not one I would want to see in every concert. I love the group as a whole too much. Each musician was indeed a power in her own right. Many choral groups have weaker singers buried in the middle -- there were none here, and that was gratifying.

They closed the first set with two more songs as a group. First, an unfamiliar love story, which they described as a campfire standard in their culture, with a chorus that boiled down to "I won't stop loving you until the stars die" (though it sounds better in French). This was followed by "Vichten," a rapid-fire Mic Mac song, and the first taste, as they said, of the World music side of Madrigaia.

Ruth, the MC, then stood up and invited folk to visit the kitchen and the porch, to give the front rooms a chance to warm up. Elizabeth Clement, one of the Bhigg House crew, seemed to keep touring the kitchen to see if anything was running short; Dave Clement checked on the acoustics and the comfort at the back of the second room, and those who could fit retreated onto the porch for a while, to sip lemonade and be thankful for a cool evening. I spent the time on the porch teasing their pet turtle in his tank, and listening to conversation about the upcoming Folk Festival.

For the second half of the concert the back curtains, which had formerly been left closed as an attractive backdrop, were pulled wide open, along with the windows behind. A sacrifice, Ruth explained, of aesthetics for the sake of some cool air. Madrigaia obviously did not mind, as they promptly used the window ledge as a place to put their drinks.

The second half was pure Madrigaia. They started with "Vuz Vet Zeyn," a Yiddish song. The women paired into twos at the start, and slowly moved, in a bit of seamless choreography, into one line. The song began slowly, picked up pace, and began to run, the singers egging one another on. They got to the speed they reached on their recording -- then leapt on, faster still, yet always in time.

The songs to follow were performed in a variety of harmonic styles and a dizzying mixture of languages. The performers included some small bits of choreography, stepping in time, swaying together, bouncing in place, waving their arms in a Middle Eastern dance style. For "Odi Odi," a Tamil song about seeking, walking, and spending life in search of something never attained, those in the harmony line bounced just a little, while those singing the main musical line strode in place. That little bit of movement, along with the strong pace of the song, called forth an impression of travelling through a long, empty desert. It was a transporting moment, but not the most powerful one.

I thought the favourite of the songs I knew was the opener, "Ritournelle," until they reached the "close second," "Tabortuznel", a Hungarian melody. The second verse was a French translation of the first -- one of the women cheerfully said, "We don't know if it's literal ... does anyone here speak Hungarian?" But the joking was done, and the song itself came out soft and slow, creeping into the veins. I swear the whole Bhigg House vanished, and all that existed in all the world were those six stunning voices. It was like hearing it for the first time.

They pressed onward, however. The harmonies, in every form from madrigal to round to modern, seemed flawless (but for one cough). The songs mixed moods -- cheerful, driving, and thoughtful in turns, each mood powerful and sincere. Yet, though they managed a wide variety of tones, those moods were linked not only by the superb harmonies, but by the performers' own good humour between songs. From the audience's perspective, it looked as if their mood came purely from their own pleasure in singing, and creating beauty.

The teasing to and from the audience was all friendly. As they prepared for one song, Sarah said, "This will be in a language I'm sure most of you are familiar with." At which point Brigitte added, "If you're not, you probably don't understand what we're saying now...." After the laugh died down, they began one of only two songs, not counting some of the solo acts, in English.

Andrina popped up with the kazoo a couple more times, but only between numbers as part of the merriment, until she finally said, "This thing is addictive!" and tried hard to set it aside and keep away from it.

They closed with two fast songs, again French Canadian, and accompanied by what they described as "Kitchen Party" instruments -- the Voyageurs, travelling by canoe and forced to travel light so they could carry their boats between rivers, had to improvise even when they rested in a home. The performers loaded themselves up with washboards, spoons, and shoes -- as well as a bodhran, which one quipped must have come from a bourgeoisie house. The washboard was unfortunately too loud, and there's no volume control on acoustic percussion, but the singers noticed at once, and their voices rose louder still, carrying smoothly over the misstep.

The audience applauded fiercely as Madrigaia bowed and fled, then, no surprise, began a standing ovation. It took a minute, but the group came back to the stage. As the audience settled again, Andrina picked up the dreaded kazoo one last time, and popped out with the opening to the Star Wars theme. They made their encore the second of the two songs in English, a rousing Gospel number probably called "Going to Live with God".

The audience cheered them out once more, at which point Ruth the MC came out for "a Bhigg House tradition" which was to photograph the audience during the applause, the photo to be sent to the performers as a souvenir.

Madrigaia withdrew to their CD sales table, and to mingle and chat with the crowd. Some audience members retreated back to the kitchen, some lounged on the sofas, and some of us slipped gladly into the cool of the evening again, joyous at the experience.

Madrigaia may never again have a concert quite so intimate as this one, and so I find it a particular treat to have experienced this -- on the other hand, they're worth seeing in any venue. They're glorious.

[Lenora Rose]

Learn about upcoming concerts, and purchase CDs by the band and solo members at the Madrigaia Web site.