Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest
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Quebec’s #casseroles:
on participation, percussion and protest

Every night around 8pm, in neighborhoods across Montreal and Quebec, you can hear the din of clanging pots and pans in manifs casseroles (manif is short for manifestation en cours, a street protest). About a block from our home in Montreal’s Villeray neighborhood, at the intersection of Jarry and St-Denis—one of the major epicenters—our local manif begins with people crossing in the crosswalks, banging loudly and rhythmically. We see neighbors and people from local businesses, families with small children, elderly and retired people, working adults, and many students.

Sometimes a manif casserole sounds like random banging, but most I’ve experienced leave sheer raucous pounding for moments when one march meets up with another, or when someone on a balcony does something particularly cool to cheer on the marchers. A rhythm usually arises from the chaos, encircling the disorder and enveloping everyone. Sometimes the rhythms connect with chants like “la loi spéciale, on s’en câlisse,” which roughly translates to “we don’t give a fuck about your special law.”

Eventually, the numbers grow, and then all of a sudden, as if by magic or intuition, we stand in the middle of the intersection, blocking traffic. The police have taken to simply routing traffic away from the protest. Eventually, we march south on St-Denis toward other neighborhoods (the exact route varies), often swelling into a giant parade of thousands, or as E.P. Thompson might suggest, a parody of a formal state procession, announcing the “total publicity of disgrace” for its subject. ( “Rough Music Reconsidered,” 6, 8).

The numbers are part of the politics. For the last 100-odd days most Quebec students have been on strike against tuition increases of over 70% in five years. Some protests have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Quebec government tried to suppress the student movement by passing Bill 78 on May 18, 2012. Among its many preposterous provisions, any spontaneous gathering of over 50 people is illegal without prior police approval—even a picnic. Protesters not only must disclose their planned route, but also their means of transportation, According to Law 78, people are criminals the minute they join a protest, which is why so many people have taken to the streets.

21st Century Charivari

In a piece I co-authored with Natalie Zemon Davis for the Globe and Mail, we connected the casseroles with a 700-year-old Francophone tradition of charivari. In English, the tradition is called “rough music”; there are also Italian, German and Spanish versions and the practice has spread from Europe throughout its former colonies. Groups of disguised young men would meet up at night and bang on pots and pans and make a grand din outside an offender’s home. Usually the offense was against some heterosexual norm, but they sometimes took on a political character, and older people would join in. As Allan Greer has shown in The Patriots and the People, they played an important role in Lower Canada’s failed rebellion of 1837–8, where charivaris greeted British officials who would not surrender their commissions (252–57).

In the French tradition, charivaris were (usually) an alternative to violence on occasions where community reparation was possible. Charivaris were largely inclusive, as the subjects of harassment were usually allowed to return to good standing after paying some type of fine. This history may well have resounded in Jacques Attali’s ears when he described music is a simulacrum of violence in Noise : “the game of music resembles the game of power: monopolize the right to violence; provoke anxiety and then provide a feeling of security; provoke disorder and then propose order; create a problem in order to solve it” (28).

Of course, the broader multinational traditions of rough music have no guaranteed politics. Pots and pans were sometimes heard before lynchings in the American South, but also as improvised instruments for black musicians in New Orleans’ public squares. John Mowitt has even suggested that rough music is one of the cultural roots of the drummer’s trap kit, that backbone of rock and jazz music...