My Canada, 32/150: Fiddle Stew

Fiddle Stew in Canada is a unique recipe, chock-a-block with ingredients from around the world.

Both Scots and Irish settlers in eastern Canada and French settlers in Quebec brought with them their traditions of fiddle music, from airs to reels. In time these evolved into distinct styles for Newfoundland, Cape Breton, the Maritimes (sometimes called “Down East” style) and French Canada. There even evolved an Ontario style, rooted in traditions of the British Isles, that is most noted for its emphasis on melody.

The fiddle and these tunes were introduced to Canada’s aboriginal people when a distinct culture emerged from the descendants of French and Scottish fur traders who married Aboriginal women. The Métis style is defined as “a mix of Scottish, French and Aboriginal music with a highly spirited character, adjusted to suit traditional Métis dances.”

In the 1970s, the Métis fiddle style was in danger of becoming extinct. The elders played, but the young people weren’t interested; as songs and style were passed down from memory, mentor to student, no students meant the music would not survive. Anne Lederman, a non-Aboriginal violinist and musicologist who had grown up in Manitoba where many Métis live, travelled to their remote communities, learned the music style, recorded it, and transcribed it. Later on, she taught these tunes and style back to young Aboriginal people newly interested in this part of their culture and has even created a play about the experience, Spirit of the Narrows.

The Canadian Fiddle Stew recipe keeps evolving.  Ukrainian settlers have added their fiddle ingredients, as have Ashkenazi Jewish musicians, immigrating from Eastern Europe, with their high-energy klezmer style. And now players from Africa, the Caribbean, China, Persia, Scandinavia and more, coming to this country, are bringing their fiddle and bows with them, adding to the joyful noise.

While World Fiddle Day events started in Ireland in 2011, the Canadian version launched in 2013 is particularly rich in its mix of players from so many traditions and styles. Below is a short video by Anne Lederman’s daughter, Gabrielle, from the 2015 gathering.

This year, Canada’s World Fiddle Day takes place at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on May 20, 2017. This museum, founded in 2014, showcases “unique insights and new perspectives into Islamic civilizations and the cultural threads that weave throughout history, binding us all together.” Among Arabic cultures, a bowed stringed instrument, the rebab, dates back to the 8th century.

Yet another spice for Fiddle Stew.

Top photo courtesy Anne Lederman

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