The most popular francophone group to ever come from Ontario, le Cooperative des Artistes de Nouvel Ontario (CANO) began as an artistic collective in 1971 to promote French culture, and evolved into a musical group as part of the project. Initially there were over 60 members, and the troupe came and went, and over the next few years was streamlined down to eight.
Centred around siblings Andre and Rachel Paiement on vocals and guitars, the other original core members included guitarists Marcel Aymar and David Burt, drummer Michel Dasti, bassist John W Doerr, Michel Kendel on piano, and Wasyl Kohut on violins.
For the first few years they became regulars on stage and in performances in their hometown of Sudbury and around the Ottawa Valley, performing both traditional French folk songs and original material, primarily written by the Paiements and Aymar. As the group evolved, their original songs were influenced not only by their francophone roots and were being written with French lyrics, but also from what was on the English airwaves at the time. Plus, with that many members, it was only natural that individual tastes of the day seeped into their writing.
They signed a deal with A&M Records in ’75 and converted a building on the Paiments’ farm near Sturgeon Falls into a makeshift studio, and recorded their debut there. TOUS DANS L’MEME BATEAU (ALL IN THE SAME BOAT) was released the following year, produced by Luc Cousineau and Jon Mitchell. With la belle language the backbone to progressive rock undertones, it was a critical success around the French community. But as is often the case, a critic’s praise doesn’t necessarily translate well into sales.
Putting eight or members on the road for any length of time was difficult and expensive at best, although they made appearances at various festivals throughout Quebec and Ontario while working on new material. Producer Don Oriolo was brought in for their follow-up album, AU NORD DE NOTRE VIE (OUR NORTHERN LIFE) in the summer of ’77. Still evolving their sound, the record maintained the French theme (including a rock version of the traditional “Frere Jacques”), but also featured their first English tune, “The Spirit Of The North.
The band and community were devestated when founding member Andre Paiment was found dead on the family farm after committing suicide in 1978, and the band’s future was in hiatus. They bounced back now as a seven-piece group that fall with ECLIPSE. Deciding to incorporate more English into their music, they called upon producer Gene Martynec, whose future credits included Rough Trade, QCK, and Bruce Cockburn, among others.
“Rumrunner’s Runaway” “Moon Lament,” and “Earthly Mother” were balanced by their traditional roots, although the music was also taking on more of a pop feel. Although they were making waves in French Canada, and had interest in France and Belgium, wide success at home was still eluding them, as they still had trouble breaking the 5-minute song barrier. The music was maturing, but alternative/progressive fusions weren’t readily radio friendly. They were however beginning to open new markets in Canada, and the album made it on to CFNY Radio Ottawa’s top 100.
In a conscious effort to versitize their sound and make ground in English Canada, they recruited Jim Vallance as the new producer. Vallance was quickly becoming one of the country’s hottest producers, had just finished up with Prism and was also currently working with Bryan Adams on his debut when CANO came calling.
His touch was immediately felt on RENDEZVOUS in the spring of 1979. Starting with the lead-off single “Rebound,” the record had a more diverse flavour than previous offerings, and even included the moody “Sometimes The Blues.” The title track served as the second single, and like its predecessor, found its way onto Canadian charts for the first time. They both cracked RPM’s top 100. The album made it a second in a row to make waves in the Ottawa market, making it to #78.
SPIRIT OF THE NORTH was a compilation issued in 1980, and featured the band’s last original recordings. The record traced CANO’s integration of pop, rock and jazz influences into what was originally a folk-based style, and their English success because of the transformation. It included mostly the English songs, as well as the new single, “Carrie.” The song peaked at #78 on RPM’s chart. Later that year, the Canadian NFB finished up and released a documentary on the band called “CANO – notes sur une expérience collective” (CANO – Notes on a Collective Experience), documenting the recording of the album and highlighting the individual members during its creation. Shortly after its release, Kohut died in an Ottawa hospital of a brain aneurism.
After hype from the record had died down and Ben Mink (FM, KD Lang) was brought in on violins to replace Kohut, Paiment moved to the west coast to marry Valance. But A &M wasn’t letting them off the hook that easily. Suggesting the band change its name to Masque, they shipped them off to the studio to fulfill their obligations. Mary Lu Zalahan was the new lead singer, and the rest of the group, and with Aymar continuing to contribute most of the writing, they released CAMOUFLAGE in the fall of 1981. The record was the only purely English album, a decision that didn’t sit well with the band, who’d politely objected to the label, to no avail.
But following sporadic dates around the Ontario/Quebec circuit, the band was on hiatus for the next couple of years while members did their own things.
In 1984, Aymar revived CANO for a tour, which consisted mostly of friends who’d guested on the records, but were never official members. They recorded the band’s final album, VISIBLE on indie label Ready Records a year later. With the exception of “Invisible,” the record did a 360 and was French. It included “Fond d’une bouteille”, which was the original French version of a song recorded on the CAMOUFLAGE album, and “L’eloueze,” which Aymar wrote in his native Acadian dialect. In addition, “J’ai bien vécu” paid tribute to founding member Andre Paiment who’d committed suicide in 1978. The only single “Mets tes gants” didn’t make much of an impression, but the band still found itself on the road for the next six months playing throughout Ontario and Quebec, as well as a series of Japanese dates.
All the former members either went on to other projects, or got out of the business all together. In particular, Marcel Aymar was responsible for the soundtrack to the Canadian movie ‘le Secret de Jerome’, and David Burt had become a highly in demand session palyer, working with Neil Merryweather among others, and later became a piano instructor.
Along with helping break down the culture barricade for other francophone groups and artists wanting to break into the mainstream, CANO’s influence was unparalleled. During the late 1970s they were involved in the creation of a pair of Sudbury music festivals – the bilingual Northern Lights Festival Boreal and La Nuit sur l’étang, the franco-Ontarian cultural festival. In addition, several art and music galleries around the area were also started up by former CANO members, or had involvement in them, which was basically the whole purpose of the collective’s original idea in the early ’70s.
In 2003, a compilation was released in Universal’s 20th Century Masters series that summed up the group’s career, but contained no new or bonus material. Within a few years selected songs from the band’s catalogue also started to filter on to the Internet as downloads, around the same time the album started getting remastered and released on CD, unfortunately without any bonus material.
The band performed a one-off reunion show at the 2010 La Nuit sur l’étang festival in Ottawa, with André and Rachel’s younger sister Monique, on lead vocals. Monique had actually appeared as a guest artist on a few of the records, but was never an official member. Talks of a full-fledged reunion never materialized.