chris wong in sync

September 1, 2001  
Pierre Imbert
Cuba on the Creek
Susie Arioli Swing Band
Paul Cram Orchestra



My most vivid memory of Pierre Imbert relates to a rainy day in April. That's when I interviewed Imbert, Vancouver's hurdy-gurdy man, along with diatonic accordionist Riccardo Tesi in the Calabria Bar. It was hard to hear the men through the cacophony of the cappuccino machine in the Commercial Drive café, where Imbert was a daily patron. But Imbert and Tesi clearly conveyed enthusiasm for creating original music inspired by traditional and contemporary influences, dedication to their unique instruments and the strength of their friendship.

About a week after the interview, the virtuoso musicians collaborated with the equally amazing Celso Machado and Imbert's Cordes en Folie bandmates in an extraordinary concert at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. The players came up with affecting sounds and intuitively connected with each other. A spontaneous, mutually respectful and exuberant spirit shaped their music.

After the show, Tesi (who lives in Pistoia, Italy), Imbert and Machado made a pact to perform together, somewhere in the world, once a year. But Aug. 15, almost exactly four months after that magical night at the Cultch, Imbert died of a heart attack. He was 47. Less than a year after Kathy Kidd's death, Vancouver's close-knit world music community has experienced another devastating loss. Members of that community honoured Imbert's life and musical legacy in a memorial celebration at the Van East Cultural Centre on Sept. 1.

Imbert was born in Lyon, France. He played electric guitar, à la Pink Floyd, before he first picked up a hurdy-gurdy (a.k.a. vielle à roue) in 1974. Imbert exhaustively researched the centuries-old instrument with the distinctive drone, which combines strings, a rosined wheel and keyboard. As a member of Le Grand Rouge, a well-known and influential group, he became a key player in the '70s revival of both the hurdy-gurdy and French traditional music.

After Le Grand Rouge disbanded, Imbert was among the ex-members of the group that formed Lo Jai. In the '80s, the band toured extensively, including a trip to Vancouver for Expo 86. Imbert met his future wife at Expo. "For both of us, it was love at first sight," says Diana Stewart-Imbert. They lived in France for nine years before moving to Vancouver in 1995.

Imbert was a world-class master of the hurdy-gurdy, who coaxed incredible melodies, harmonies and rhythms out of his instrument. He also taught many emerging players. But one of his first gigs in Vancouver was busking on Granville Island. Eventually Imbert played live and recorded with artists such as Loreena McKennitt and Montreal's Ad Vielle Que Pourra.

That group ended up jamming with David Lindley and Vancouver's Asza at the Canmore Folk Festival. Multi-instrumentalist André Thibault, a member of Asza, was struck by Imbert's playing and amazed to learn the hurdy-gurdy player lived in Vancouver. Thibault pursued playing opportunities with Imbert and they ultimately formed Cordes en Folie. With percussionist Steve Lazin, the trio crafted an appealing sound that integrated styles such as flamenco and Arabic music but always retained a French essence.

Cordes en Folie's Canadian tour in the summer of 2000 was a highlight. The group was a big hit at the Festival Mémoire et Racines in Joliett, Quebec and at other events, including the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. At the latter festival, Cordes en Folie combined with Oregon and Zubot & Dawson in a particularly hot workshop.

Cordes en Folie was a founding member of the Vancouver World Music Collective, which Diana Stewart-Imbert helped coordinate in a major way. She says Imbert was working on an album with blues guitarist Tim Hearsey. "It's electrifying the hurdy-gurdy," says Stewart-Imbert about the unfinished recording. "Taking it to another planet."

Hearing his friend Louis Sclavis perform at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and playing with musicians like François Houle also led to a revelation for Imbert. "Pierre understood he didn't need to play safe anymore," says Stewart-Imbert. "He knew he could take it [the hurdy-gurdy] way further and it would be right." So Imbert had a lot of adventurous music to express, which he surely would have done with absolute passion.

Go to for information about donating to the Pierre Imbert Legacy Fund, set up for the education of his two sons.

Picture nightclubs like the Tropicana in Havana of the 1950s. That's the atmosphere organizers of Cuba on the Creek will recreate on a barge next to Science World Sept. 7. The benefit for the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival Society will feature the Puentes Brothers and Rumba Calzada. Call (604) 688-2382 for information.



With a name like the Susie Arioli Swing Band, you would expect the Montreal quartet to be part of the shallow swing resurgence. Think again. The ensemble led by Arioli, a vibrant singer and percussionist, does swing music from the '30s and '40s with an authentic and fun approach. The band, which played in Gastown during the jazz festival, will perform Sept. 7-8 at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.

According to Paul Cram's website,, his 10-piece orchestra is an "avant jazz advance band for the new millennium" offering a "film noir spaghetti western spy vs. spy molotov cocktail." I couldn't have described it better. The Paul Cram Orchestra, which has a new CD called Campin Out, will perform Sept. 8 at the Western Front. Cram, a composer and tenor saxophonist/clarinettist who co-founded the New Orchestra Workshop when he lived in Vancouver, is now based in Halifax.

in sync archive

Click here to view a listing of all Chris Wong's columns on

in sync appears biweekly in the Vancouver Courier.