MONTREAL — It’s difficult to imagine that one of the people who dreamed up a three weekend-long, deep freeze, all-night, electronica dance party en plein air was a former criminal defence lawyer. But that was ten years ago, and Nicolas Cournoyer, co-founder and operations manager of the world’s biggest outdoor winter music festival, Igloofest, has since traded in his sleek business suits for practical one-piece snowsuits.
“Usually I wear flashy colours but tonight it’s too cold,” says Cournoyer, sporting a black, full-body snowsuit that not many people know Canada Goose also produces. “There’s almost a black market for these one-piece suits,” Cournoyer adds, explaining where one can lay hands on these blast-from-the-past winter outfits.
Not everyone who walks around in their grandmother’s retro technicolor ski suits knows about Igloofest’s “One-piece” contest. “Is there a contest? I don’t know. Me, I just went to the Village des Valeurs. It was $8, I bought it, it’s sick. That’s it,” says Phil Mathieu, boasting about his pastel-purple one-piece with green stripes, matching toque and ski goggles, seconds before his friends sneak up from behind and tackle him in the snow. This is the scene post-Buraka Som Sistema’s fiery performance last week: people lingering in minus-20 Celsius degrees, burning off excess energy.
Genevieve Beauchamp, for instance, emerges from Igloofest glowing about Buraka, her favourite act, but thirsty for one particular Quebecois tradition: “What I didn’t like about Igloofest tonight is that they didn’t have warm caribou to comfort us.”
Caribou is a steaming mug of liquid Canadiana. It’s mulled wine sweetened with maple syrup and is popular at Quebec’s Winter Carnival, which starts on January 27.
The drink was originally made of caribou blood and whisky to help Canada’s early settlers get through harsh winters. Now, it keeps winter revellers alive while defying the season meant to calcify Canadians indoors. Red wine now serves as proxy to the gory original ingredient, but the altered caribou cocktail remains the lifeblood of a truly Canadian outdoor winter party like Igloofest.
“We enjoy the music, we enjoy the people, we enjoy the space. The cold, not too much,” says Beauchamp, a four-year Igloofest veteran, as she walks away, tipsy from something not caribou.
Igloofest was a “silly” idea concocted by the four founders of Piknic Electronik, Igloofest’s summer precursor. “We were kind of joking at first, I’m not joking,” says Cournoyer with a laugh. “We said, hey we should do Piknic in the winter. At first it was a silly idea, then hey, why not? That could be a good challenge.”
The challenge was mammoth: bring thousands of people out from in front of their cozy fireplaces, and plop them in the snowy, windswept Quai Jacques-Cartier Old Port in Montreal in frigid temperatures and expect them to dance to electronica.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an idea Montrealers have definitely warmed up to over the years. As local favourites and world-famous DJs spin in the open-air Sapporo stage, a miraculous mosh pit forms. There’s nothing more bizarre (and safer?) than crowd surfing in thick snowsuits that can double as padding.
Now, this “silly joke,” an offshoot from a festival that made perfect sense — an outdoor summer electronic music festival — has come to overshadow its warm-blooded cousin.
“Igloofest is actually even bigger than Piknic. Piknic, in a sunny day, we’ll drag between 3,000 and 6,000 people. We had 7,000 people yesterday at Igloofest,” Cournoyer says.
Igloofest’s first week this year saw 19,000 brave souls dancing in the cold.
The music alone wouldn’t have brought this many people to Igloofest. A lot of it is the spectacle beckoning next to the frozen St. Lawrence River. Igloofest is not merely a stage with sound system and a dance floor. It is an electrifying audio-visual show, with booming electronic music as its pulse.
Igloofest is designed for the overstimulated senses and short-attention spans of today’s younger generation. Walking around, Igloofest works you. Here, even the pixels are in party mode, blasting the stage and the raging river of Igloofest toques with an extraterrestrial glow. And who needs dry ice when the steamy breaths can function as a human smoke machine churning out a dramatic flood of fog against the neon lights. Around the stage is an interactive ice village standing luminous against the bleak black winter. Is there something else like this on the planet?
“Maybe there’s some winter outdoor music and dancing with a stage, but a concept with all these lights, the scenery, the ice village, ice structures that last three weekends, I don’t think so. At least not this big,” boasts Cournoyer, who dreams of an Igloofest tour in the next five years. The founders tried a few years ago to bring Igloofest to Quebec City, but doing so isn’t easy: Igloofest is a massive undertaking. Last year, Igloofest came to Ottawa in a much smaller form. There have been discussions to bring the festival to Toronto, but the Cournoyer says the weather in southern Ontario is too mild for the festival’s ice structures. He adds that there are talks of bringing it to Europe, where it is cold enough to support the event.
“Sometimes you go on the stage and you look at people just jumping and yelling and having a ball and you say, okay, that’s why I’m working so hard,” Cournoyer says.
Three years ago, Cournoyer’s hard work was recognized when he got a call from one of his partners summoning him on stage for an emergency. That night, the festival ended on Cournoyer’s birthday and his partner made the 5,000-plus Igloofest revellers sing him happy birthday.
“That was the most memorable Igloofest moment for me,” he says, beaming.
MORE ABOUT IGLOOFEST
Dates: Igloofest 2012 runs for three consective weekends, beginning January 12 and ending January 29
Tickets: Tickets cost $12 when purchased online or $15 when purchased at the gate. To order tickets, visit the Igloofest website.
Location: The Igloofest entrance is at Quai Jacques-Cartier at the foot of Rue de la Commune Est. (See map below.)
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