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Need a cure for the winter blahs? Party like a penguin at Igloofest

The crowd keeps warm at Montreal's Igloofest

Summer concert series and sunshiny folk happenings boom annually, but there's a cold front moving in, from Whitehorse and Prince George, B.C., clear to Halifax and Fredericton.

Coldsnap Festival, Frostbite Music Festival, Shivering Songs Festival, In the Dead of Winter, Freezing Man Festival, Winterfolk. Dark-month music gatherings in Canada, they don't know from global warming.

Shiver my timbres, I mean to say.

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Of all the winter get-togethers, though, one stands alone in the snow: Igloofest, which frolics and plays the Eskimo way, is a rarity in that it's held outdoors. And, really, the Montreal affair doesn't so much stand alone as it dances, blips, bops and bloops. While the music of the other festivals lean toward eclectic folk programming held in theatres and clubs, the five-year-running Igloofest goes at it with DJ-driven electronic sounds, keeping blood warm and spirits constellation-high with elevated beats-per-minute.

"We wanted people to rediscover winter," explains Nicolas Cournoyer, one of the four founders of Igloofest. "It was a crazy idea at first, but people eventually jumped on board. They were happy to tame winter."

Yearly attendance figures provided by the festival (held over three weekends in January) reveal steady and substantial growth: 4,000 attendees in 2007, 14,000 in 2008, 28,000 in 2009, and 45,000 a year ago. This year, over three nights last weekend, the winter rave drew 15,000 for its opening session alone.

As one can imagine, making music for the ski-suit set isn't easy. The set-up at the city's Old Port area is slow in the cold. "It's hard," says Cournoyer, the festival's director of operations. "You need some mental toughness to get through it."

Occasionally, temperatures have dropped to as low as -30, a brittle environment for the lights, speakers and other hardware draped onto the steel frames of abandoned industrial warehouses.

Conversely, warm temperatures and rain are also risks. Last year, the mild conditions melted the ice carvings and laid waste to half the igloo village. "Normally it stays cold enough, though," says Cournoyer, expressing a preference for temperature in the zero to -10 range.

Hazards inherent with outdoor winter fests run the gamut, from performers' frostbitten fingers to the culture shock confronting oblivious imported music acts. "Try imagining half a dozen musicians with Shaggy, who are from Jamaica, arriving at the Sun Peaks Resort in B.C.," recalls Neil State, who directed some of MuchMusic's popular annual Snowjob diversions back in the late 1990s. "I'm pretty sure it's the first time they had seen snow. The record label had to go and buy them all boots and coats."

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John Showman, a fiddler who plays with alt-country outfit New Country Rehab at this year's In the Dead of Winter in Halifax, recalls a wind-chilled nightmare at Toronto's Winterfest: "It was cold enough that few could stand to watch us play for more than 10 minutes at a time. The ones that stayed, they looked upon us with a mixture of pity and awe." But on the plus side? "I found out I could play the violin with gloves on."

Igloofest's Cournoyer likens the fans' experience to the cold-weather camaraderie of South Pole penguins, standing in packs for warmth. "It feels awkward at first," being outside, partying with friends," he explains. "But there's a solidarity. It's so cold, everybody has to fight the elements. It's contagious."

Igloofest continues to Jan. 29 in the quays of the Old Port of Montreal (

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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