If you take a map and look up Port Orford, Oregon, just up the coast from the California border, and then trace a line directly across the US to the East Coast, you’ll find that Boston is located on almost exactly the same latitude.
Hanneke Cassel started out in Port Orford as a Texas-style fiddler and later became a Scottish-influenced fiddler from Boston, with a couple of detours to the Isle of Skye. The Boston Globe has called her music “savvy and sophisticated,” as well as “exuberant and rhythmic, somehow both wild and innocent.”
I met Hanneke at the renowned Kaustinen Folk Music Festival in Finland, where she had been invited to play after getting to know some Finnish musicians in Germany. She tells us why she loves fiddle camps, what her favorite fiddle camps are, and what she gained from classical lessons at Berklee College of Music. She also talks about Cape Breton cuts, lessons by mail, fiddling cellists, and more.
How did you wind up getting into Scottish music?
I had started with Suzuki violin when I was eight and did that for a couple of years—my teacher moved away when I was about ten. Then my mom saw an ad on TV for this fiddle contest just an hour south of us. We went down to Crescent City, California, and I learned a couple tunes from this old time fiddler in town. I came in second to last, but I saw all these kids playing, and I hadn’t really been into the violin. I was actually becoming anti-violin, even though I’d wanted to play it in the first place. We saw Carol Ann Wheeler there competing and she was telling me she had this fiddle camp in Oregon. So we went to the camp; it was just Texas-style fiddle.
After the course was over my mom asked her if she’d take me on as a student. She lived in Portland, which is six hours north. From age eleven till about sixteen or seventeen, I took lessons from her three or four times a year. She’d give me a three-hour lesson and I’d tape it all. Sometimes I’d call her and she’d give me advice on the phone. We did a lesson by mail one time—I taped it and sent it to her and she sent it back with all her critiques. Three or four times a year wasn’t a lot, but I think it was actually better for me at that point. I just fell in love with fiddle music and it was all learning by ear.
Carol Ann had been a long-time Texas fiddle champion at Weiser. About the time I met her, though, she had somehow met Alasdair Fraser and started going to the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School. She kept trying to get me to play Scottish music and I kept saying, “No, that’s hokey.”
After three years taking lessons from her, when I was about fourteen, she convinced me to enter a Scottish contest. I didn’t know anything about Scottish music but she taught me four tunes. There were two other competitors—it was much less competitive than Texas-style contests. So I won, and I got invited to go to the nationals at the New Hampshire Highland Games at Loon Mountain, and won the national junior contest.
Alasdair was performing there, and so were Natalie and Buddy MacMaster. I went to Alasdair’s workshop and I remember walking away saying, This is the most amazing fiddle player I’ve ever seen. Also I was just mesmerized by Natalie and Buddy’s concert. With that contest I got a scholarship for the tuition to Alasdair’s course on the Isle of Skye. Going to Scotland and seeing people play just because they wanted to play and it didn’t have anything to do with competition and people stayed up all night dancing and partying—I just had this amazing time.
The next summer I went to Skye again, and to Mark O’Connor’s camp—his first camp. I started playing tons more Scottish music and less and less Texas-style. When I was about sixteen, I started going to Valley of the Moon and I’ve been going every year since then—I started teaching beginners there in 1998. So Alasdair Fraser is the huge influence, and his vibe and how he teaches and his sense of community.
You told a concert audience that you’re doing eight different fiddle camps this summer. What’s so important about fiddle camps?
Historically, you look at fiddle players and a lot of them learn from their grandfather in the kitchen. You come up here to Kaustinen and look at the Järvelä family and you can see it being passed down. I saw Esko Järvelä’s son, who is under two years old, playing the fiddle the other day—so just this family thing.
If you’re in the US and you’re not from Texas or West Virginia or something, where you might have the possibility of having that kind of family-passing-down thing, I think that fiddle camps provide that same kind of atmosphere. In contrast to competitions, the fiddle camp provided the kind of vibe of playing in the kitchen and hanging out and feeling like you’re related to everybody that you’re playing with. I’ve been going to Valley of the Moon since 1994 and those people that I met there that year are my best friends, like Laura Cortese and Laura Risk. So I think you kind of build this community that wasn’t even just about the music—it was about staying up all night and playing games and stuff.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as Hanneke’s tune “Boston Urban Ceilidh” and her arrangement of “Dogs Bite Chapman,” purchase the Fall 2012 issue.]
Check out an online lesson entitled "Hanneke Cassel: playing strathspeys and a newly composed reel," at www.youtube.com/watch?v=VH9Z1SEhqmI.
[Peter Marten is a journalist and translator based in Helsinki, Finland.]
Photo: Ulla Nikula, Kaustinen Folk Music Festival