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Pascal Gemme: Québec's Fiddling Treasure
Kevin Carr and Josie Mendelsohn
Pascal Gemme is a gem of a fiddler, and his personality shines through his buoyant, powerful, lyrical, inventive, and emotional music. One of the most respected fiddlers of his generation, he has been the fiddler, arranger, and one of the main vocalists in the highly acclaimed, multi-award-winning Québécois band Genticorum for over 10 years. In addition, he is a sought-after teacher who has been featured at numerous music camps, including Alasdair Fraser’s Sierra Fiddle Camp, the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in Limerick, Ireland, the Goderich Celtic College in Ontario, Canada, and the Quasitrad Music Camp in Australia. Princes et habitants, his new duo project with Genticorum bandmate Yann Falquet, was released at the beginning of 2016 – and it’s gorgeous.
What is the first traditional fiddling you heard? How did it affect you?
The first was my maternal grandfather’s, and he played everything: American, Scottish, English, quadrilles – everything. Huntington, Québec, his community, was mixed. It’s about 15 minutes from the border of New York State, and people went back and forth.
My grandfather was my godfather as well, and I would spend weeks at a time with my grandparents at their country house, which is about 2 1/2 hours from our home. On those visits, I saw him practicing every day after work for an hour. I very much liked the music and was interested in learning. But it was his thing, and as you know, men of that generation did not partake much in the education of children, so he did not show me anything early on.
How did you decide to play fiddle? What were your early influences?
I kept bugging my mom for a fiddle as early as I can remember. When I turned nine, she finally decided it was time. I wanted to learn the kind of music my grandfather played but did not know how to ask for it, so I got sent to classical lessons. They were okay, just okay. I was happy to be playing the instrument I had been asking about for so many years, but – something was missing.
I eventually dropped out of those lessons but kept playing fiddle at home, lifting melodies from the collection of classical music my parents had on vinyl. At puberty, I exchanged the fiddle for the guitar and played all kinds of music from heavy metal to blues, jazz, classic rock and ended going to school in classical guitar at Cégep in Sherbrooke and later university in Montréal (Université du Québec à Montréal). Traditional music came back into my life during my studies in big band arrangements in Montréal. One of my classmates had arranged a reel for big band in “Bottine Souriante” style, and that alone made me remember the music I loved from the start. I picked up the fiddle again at that point (circa 1997) and have not stopped since.
We’re glad you found your way back to fiddle music! Who are the fiddlers you most admire, from the past and the present, and why?
Jos Bouchard: because of his style and choice of tunes. Jean-Marie Verret: same thing as Jos Bouchard, but even more entertaining. Louis Boudreault: I like his sense of melody and crazy bow arm. Michel Bordeleau and André Brunet: the groove kings! And I really like Michel Bordeleau’s choice of repertoire and compositions. Claude Méthé: because of his great and simple compositions. Antoine Gauthier: because of his crazy style on the fiddle (even more entertaining than Jean-Marie Verret, by whom he is very much influenced).
What are the elements of style that make fiddling Québécois? How are they different from Acadian fiddling? How are they the same?
To me, they are all regional accents of the same expression. Kind of like the French language in Canada. I think Québécois is less syncopated than Acadian-influenced fiddling. To me, it feels like Québécois incorporated more influences from the quadrille music era (the end of the 18th century to the end of the 19th), from English traditional music (big influence there, though nobody wants to hear about it), and of course American music, by which I mean all kinds of late 19th and early 20th century music. For example, ragtime and big band-era jazz were a big influence on the accompaniment style in my opinion. Of course, quadrille music was very important in the development of cakewalk and, to some extent, ragtime­ – some ragtime numbers are even called “quadrilles.”  So all of it is just going back and forth from Europe to the north and south and back to the north of our continent. Acadian music, to my ears, feels like it remained closer to the Irish-Scottish influences, with a whole lot of extra syncopations simplifying the melodies to make room for itself.
What are the essential recordings for a fiddler to seek out who wants to learn to play in the Québécois style?
Jos Bouchard, André Alain, Isidore Soucy, Edouard Richard, Yvon Mimeault, Reel à deux: Eric Favreau and Mario Landry, Raz-de-Marée, Jules and Jean-Marie Verret.
Please talk about “swing” and the difference between various Québécois fiddlers in contrast to fiddlers from other traditions. Is there a typical Québécois swing? Do older or more rural styles have a different feel?
There used to be some fiddlers whose bowing was very square: for example, Jos Bouchard. Long strong bows for every note! Sawing away! Mostly straight with a little bit of swing. Yvon Mimeault is maybe the swingiest fiddler I can think of, when he makes the bow bounce. And Conrad Pelletier played everything with the bouncing bow!
All musicians in every point in music do the same thing – if you hear something that you think is cool, you incorporate it. But now we have the whole world! I think there are now very few fiddlers who play only the music of their terroir, their neighborhood. For me, I’ve decided to limit myself to Québécois music, because I have a strong link from my family, and because there’s so much good stuff. There’s so much I’d like to learn, that if I don’t focus, I get much less done.           

[To read the full text of this article, purchase the Fall 2016 issue.]
[Kevin Carr is a fiddler and piper who has wide-ranging musical tastes and 40 years’ experience performing (The Hillbillies from Mars and Wake the Dead) and teaching. Together with his wife Josie Mendelsohn, a founding member with Laurie Lewis of the bluegrass band The Good Ol’ Persons as well as other seminal  bands, they began visiting Québec in 1980. They recorded two albums with Guy Bouchard and the group Les Têtes de Violon and one with fiddler Yvon Mimeault. Josie toured briefly with Pascal Gemme, accompanying him on keyboard in 2014.]

Photo: Sandra Lynn Bélanger