Alasdair Fraser believes in a deeper sort of musical expression – a primal pulse, the type of music that originates deep inside, a groove. You can hear it in his music, in his collaborations with Natalie Haas, and even in his speaking voice. This connectedness to a deep rhythm informs his whole life and guides his musical path.
When he began playing fiddle in Scotland in the 1960s, he studied classical music. At that time there was a type of a “cultural cringe” about all things Scottish: Speech, aphorisms, music could all mark you as undereducated. Fraser says this cultural dichotomy manifested most in music for him. “I was lucky enough to get fiddle lessons at school and I loved it. I like a challenge and here was this instrument to puzzle out. Another important part of this whole equation is that I was doing classical music at school; it was the respected avenue of approach. Then I would go home and my family would play some old Scottish songs. My dad’s a piper. I led a double life, a secret life of playing Scottish songs in the family house and Mozart in school. … Not only was it not cool for me to play Scottish music in school, it was frowned upon.”
Even at the university level, Fraser played in the orchestra while playing in pubs and at dances in the evenings. As he matured as a musician, his questioning nature led him down another path. “I’m kind of a hybrid. I’ve learned by ear, but I can read (music). I’m awkward, but I’ve got my fiddle. I’ve got this other component; I like to question things. My degree was in physics. I’ve been accused of having a missionary zeal to confront things. If I see someone not being given their full chance/potential, then I’ll speak up, beyond my own shyness. That will bring me out of it, if I see something that is not right, I’ll surprise myself because suddenly I’ll find my own voice. These are the elements that I brought into my music and my life.”
He began to ask louder and deeper questions, observing those around him and himself interacting with traditional music. He discovered what he loved, his strengths, and his own limitations. “The wildness, I love the wildness, just using your energy. Dancing, feeling what it is to be alive. But I see so many ways – physically, emotionally, mentally – that people are not alive. They feel inhibited. …
“It was a shock to me as I came out of my little cocoon and looked around and questioned my own culture. Why were so few Scots playing Scottish music? Why are we afraid to speak in our own accent? Why are we scared to dance – especially the men? So it’s been a long inquiry into each of these avenues and the more I ask, the more I discover about the forces at work and how music can be used as a salve and a provocative agent. To go in and open things up and also as a way to make people feel safe, which is really important to me. I think we have to vibrate healthily. All my teaching has come out of my own journey – searching for ways to unlock my own power, my own hunger for living life fully. The more questions I ask, the wilder and better it gets. There is a general awareness for me of when people are being allowed to be in a mode of celebration of life. I want that. I want that for everyone.”
He observed more than his own journey, though. From his self-awareness, he observed the greater world. “Playing music, the fiddle in particular, you become privy to the most deep human emotions – the struggles and the most soaring celebrations. And there is humanity spread out before you just by looking through the lens of being a fiddle player – witnessing the joys that people can have, and the suppressed joy … People who say, ‘I’d love to do that, but I can’t.’”
Born of this wish to assist others, his desire to speak for those who were disconnected, and his own personal journey came a new role for Fraser. In the 1980s he formed his first fiddle school. Thirty years later, with schools around the globe, his mission is much the same. He begins each fiddle camp with the most important, primal element of the music. “The first thing we actually do is to introduce the idea of rhythm, in its non-trivial way; rhythm that opens up pores and awakens lower chakras. Where you do start to resonate, you can feel a sense of connection with the earth and with your fellow musicians. When people confront that rhythmic heat for the first time, it’s often so scary that they back off. They suddenly see how alive they could be, how present they could be … leaning forward and aware and eyes burning bright.”
Then you yourself begin to question, ‘Why wasn’t I allowed to do this before? What happens if I put that little swingy thing in when I was told not to? Why was I told not to?’ I think questioning is healthy. Having gotten to that sublimation stage, the next challenge is to let people realize that they have something to say. ‘No one can be you better than you can be you.’ I want to hear what you say – that’s very emotional for me. To realize that all of us – little Jean, little Alasdair – have something to say that can be of value. That’s a huge part of my motivation. After that, you decide which languages you want to say it in.”
Helping students find their own voice has a greater value as well. The voice that Fraser is trying to empower goes beyond music, into daily life, culture, and politics as well. “Once we’ve confronted the individual taking permission to be as alive as possible, to live a questioning life, and to live a celebratory life, and to feel like what they have to say has value, no matter where they grew up or how many letters they have after their name, or who your teacher was …
“When I started my fiddle camp in Skye, I asked all sorts of uncomfortable questions in that stone dance hall: Why are we so afraid to dance? Why do pipers in areas that did not go through the Reformation remember more tunes? Why do we have the Highland regiments in order to pipe in unison? Why is that the only way to get your kilt back, and why do you have to play in a standardized way, with the same grace notes? By taming people’s grace notes, you are taking their voice! Some pipers resisted that and would always play their own grace notes. They were rebels.
“So I would question all these things and it wasn’t easy. Some of my students would say, ‘What is he doing? Can’t we just play some tunes?’ But I had to find this, I had to know what was going on in my own culture and why in Cape Breton were there people that had way more fluency in some of the old repertoire than people in my own country. If I went into a house in Cape Breton, I would find all the old collections of Scottish fiddle books, and when I was a student at Edinburgh University, I would go around to all the old bookshops looking for these collections and I couldn’t find them. They were like hens’ teeth. Then I go to Cape Breton and I find mountains of them because they valued the tradition more than we valued it at home. I’m not saying that no one in Scotland valued their own culture, but rather that there were general indicators that pointed to a problem, and confidence and self esteem were missing. The expression that explains that condition is called “the cultural cringe” – when people are ashamed of their own culture. For example, I grew up being taught to not speak in my own accent. Even my mother would tell me not to speak like that.
“Thirty years ago, when I was discovering this first-hand and asking these questions I was a trouble maker; now it’s a known thing. I’ve got tons of people that I can discuss this with. Gradually, I gathered a bunch of kindred spirits and we put on our headlamps and went deep into the psyche and confronted those limiting forces. I never thought we would move on as a country as much as we have in my lifetime. It thrills me. I can see it in the music! We went from (people) being scared to play and to write their own tunes. I’m so thankful we are over that and Scotland has gotten good at this! We are writing things and asking questions and the last referendum got so healthy that there was not a house in the land that wasn’t having political conversations. No one was saying, ‘I don’t really do politics.’ I’ve had similar experiences in other countries – in Spain in Basque country and Galicia, (and) in Australia.”
Natalie Haas and Alasdair Fraser’s latest album follows a similar train of thought. Drawing from their experiences around the world, in countries where musicians have always had a voice, and other countries where they are just rediscovering theirs, Ports of Call
honors many traditions. “The new album is about celebrating the diversity of the music and how important that diversity is, and also about finding the commonality. I am so privileged to travel as a musician. … I walk in and say, ‘Here I am, here’s what I do – what do you do?” And you get a strong, fast, musical handshake. It’s the best kind of handshake, like dancing with an equal partner, working as a team. I love that meeting of cultures. That is what the album is about and that is also what I want for Scotland. Not to simply be strong, but also be vulnerable and exhibit humility. It’s easier to do that and to be a good neighbor when you are strong in who you are. All of that comes out as we travel around to pay our respects and to learn from others, as we know who we are and where we come from. It’s about respect.”
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Fall 2017 issue
of Fiddler Magazine.]
For more information, visit alasdairfraser.com.
[Desiah Melby fiddles, teaches, and writes in rural Wisconsin.]
Top photo by Louis Decarlo.
Bottom photo, Alasdair with Natalie Haas, by Irene Young.