Angèle Arsenault remembered as pioneer in Acadian music

Eric McCarthy
Published on February 27, 2014

P.E.I. Acadian songbird Angèle Arsenault photo

ABRAM-VILLAGE – Ambassador, pioneer, catalyst and “down-to-earth” are words relatives and friends used Wednesday to describe Acadian singer-songwriter Angèle Arsenault who died Tuesday in Quebec.

Arsenault was born in Abram-Village in 1943, the eighth child in Arthur and Joséphine Arsenault’s family of 14 children. She was born into a home where just about everyone played at least one musical instrument and who often performed together at house parties.

By her early teens Angèle had mastered the guitar and piano. She won a televised singing contest in Charlottetown in 1957 and her musical career soon took off. It was after she moved to Quebec, that her career really started to fly.

She started writing her own material, in English and in French, in 1973, and she also appeared in many television programs, including an educational one she hosted for TVO, “Avec Angèle” which won a Gold Hugo Award.

She would go on to record 13 albums. Her 1977 album, “Libre (Free)” soared to triple platinum for 300,000 copies sold.

“To me, she was an ambassador,” said Jeannita Bernard, who grew up next door to the Arsenault family and had Angèle as a babysitter. “She represented little Abram-Village well. We always talk about the region, but, right down to the core, it’s the little village where she lived.”

Anastasia DesRoches, who played fiddle on Arsenault’s 1999 children’s album, “Amour,” marvels how everyone here was like part of Arsenault’s family and in Montreal she was a celebrity, known by just about everyone she met.

“She was an icon, recognizable to pretty much everyone,” DesRoches said, adding, “She was one of the most down-to-earth people.

“Especially as women we wouldn’t be able to do what we do if it wasn’t for pioneers. She was definitely one of the first women to make a career of music in the francophone community,” DesRoches said, adding that she has helped influence many of the musical groups that the Island’s Acadian region has produced.

Maurice Hashie from the band, Edge, credits Arsenault with giving him the confidence to branch out in his musical career as a singer/songwriter.

Hashie recalls that Arsenault was in the audience one of the first times he stepped out of his comfort zone as a drummer to sing a song at a family show some 15 to 20 years ago.

“I knew she was in the audience, so that made me fairly nervous,” Hashie said, “because the song (‘Jean Batailleur’) was by a friend of hers, Zachary Richard.”

“She was the only one in the crowd who gave me a standing ovation,” he relates.

“She was the only one in the room at that point,” he said of the experience, while admitting there were really about 150 people in attendance.

Hashie, who subsequently played backup for a couple of her shows, described Arsenault as, “just a beautiful person.”

Bernard, who subsequently played in a band, Cajun, with three of Angèle Arsenault’s brothers, said Angèle was authentic. “Her songs are all about real stuff,” she said in pointing to “Moi j’mange (I’m eating)” as one of the Acadian music icon’s biggest hits.

“She was in the province of Quebec where the icons were thin, model-like, and here she was singing about real people,” Bernard said. “She sang about things that affected her and things that were real to a large population.”

She suspects that songs like “Ya une ètoile pour vous (There’s a star for you)” and “Grand Prè” (about the expulsion of the Acadians) will remain classics long after Arsenault’s death. Both, she said, are songs of hope.

Arsenault moved back to P.E.I. in 1996 to care for her mother. Her sister, Marie Anne Arsenault, recalls a song she wrote at that time, “I’m Coming Home to Prince Edward Island.”

While Marie Anne gushed about her sister’s musical skills and her ability to capture the attention of her audience, her admiration goes far beyond that.

“She was such a good person; a heart of gold,” she said.

“She made the industry possible for the rest of us who were living here and thinking, ‘Gee, wouldn’t a singer or musician be nice,’” Bernard said of the pioneer role Angèle played in the growth of Acadian music.

“Her contribution, her legacy was the fact of her making it possible. She was an ambassador.”