Along with his groups Entourloupe and Raz de Marée (“Tidal Wave”), fiddler Éric Favreau has been spreading the joy of traditional Québécois music to folks both north and south of the Canadian border for nearly two decades. Preferring the highly individualistic styles of his grandfather’s generation to the more square-dance oriented tunes of the ’40s and ’50s, Éric has amassed a vast repertoire of fascinating tunes – “crooked” tunes with missing or extra measures, tunes accompanied solely by foot tapping, tunes that require an extremely deft bowing arm to execute all the nuances that breathe life into them. Fortunately, Éric devotes some of his time on the road to teaching. Last November, he joined the staff of “Fiddle Hell,” a weekend of fiddle workshops and concerts held each fall in Westford, Massachusetts. His good-humored teaching style and infectious repertoire attracted a growing number of students throughout the weekend, so much so that a few of his sessions left standing room only. After studying his schedule carefully, we managed to find one free slot over the weekend in which to do an interview. Fellow fiddler Véronique St-Louis was kind enough to join us to help out with any translation issues.
You mentioned in your last class about learning from your father. Are you from many generations of fiddle players?
Yes, but I think the music begins the generation before my parents. My grand-uncle was a fiddler, too. My grandfather was a harmonica player and caller for the dance. My grandmother played the accordion and did a lot of traditional singing. My father, like a lot of fiddlers, was a player when he was a teenager and stopped after his marriage.
Is that pretty typical?
Oh yes! In Québec, it’s very typical. My father started a family, worked, so he stopped playing. But my uncle never stopped.
Was he a professional?
No, like a lot of fiddlers, just for fun, to play for family, the community. My father, one day he came back home with a violin. He had worked in a house that had flooding and in the basement found a violin floating. He asked, “What are you doing with this violin?” “Nothing, the violin is finished!” My father took the violin home and tried to restore it. And he started to play. For me, it was a completely new thing. For six months the violin was in the basement and one day he picked it up and started to play a tune. It was a surprise for me!
How old were you when you found out he played? Were you already playing at that point?
I was fifteen. I was not interested in French music at that time. But the music was at family parties because my uncle was there, and another person in the family played the piano, the people did the square dance… but I was not interested in the traditional music.
What generated your interest, finally?
You want the long story? [laughs] My first instrument was the piano. I began at nine, classical piano, between nine to twelve. But after this I was not interested in classical music. More about pop music. One of my cousins played guitar and we played together. Around seventeen, my cousin was at my house and we had two violins at home. At seventeen [when] you don’t know what to do, you try to have a challenge: “Oh, do you think we can play a tune on the fiddle?” And we would take three hours to learn together, to try to find the notes for “Westphalia Waltz.” It was fun – what notes, which finger you use? It was a very interesting moment with my cousin! [laughs] Anyway, my father said to my cousin, “Take the violin. Take your time to try to learn more.” And one week after, my cousin called me. “Éric, do you remember the waltz we learned? Listen to this!” And he played the waltz. It wasn’t good but he played the melody. And he said, “You know what? I learned another one.” And he started a tune, a very easy one, a polka that my father played. One week after, I called my cousin: “Hey, you know your (new) tune? I know your tune!”
Oh, so you’re competing with him now!
Yes. “And you know what? I learned another one. Listen to this!” It was like a funny competition. And at some point, I don’t know why, I was very fascinated. You are proud to find a note to make a melody. You are happy. [Because of this], I just decided to continue to play the violin. It was a good thing because I began to learn the tunes from my father. He was close and it was easy for me to listen to him. I began to record the tunes.
You had to listen to him and pick it up on your own?
Yes. Just sometimes [he’d say], “Oh, listen again [to] the tune! I’m not sure you have the good notes.”
So you started picking up tunes to compete with your cousin. How soon till you started getting serious about learning traditional styles of playing?
For two years, I learned tunes from my father and my uncle, or from a record. I went with my father to a jamboree, a “gala.” It’s not a competition. You give your name and “Okay, you are number thirty-two.” And everybody goes on stage and plays two tunes. It was the first time for me. In my generation at school, nobody was very interested in this kind of music. It was a little bit strange for my friends when I began to play this kind of music. When I went to this place, because there were lots and lots and lots of fiddlers, it was the first time I saw a lot of fiddlers at the same time. And other fiddlers of the same age. At this point, it was a boost for me. I met a few and I got addresses and phone numbers and I began to play with people close to my same age. And other people close to my parents’ home who did regular house parties. It was a réseau,
a network of fiddlers meeting every month.
When did you start really understanding the different styles of traditional fiddling?
I think later. Because when you begin, it is not necessarily easy to see the difference between this, this, and this, to understand if the sound is like this, why is it like this? Later, during three or four years, I just decided to imitate [a particular] fiddler. Now I know how I can recreate the sound, create the swing. Now that I know something about this one, [I’d learn about] another one. And I did this for a lot of fiddlers! I come from the Sherbrooke area. Around twenty-two, twenty-three, I began to make field recordings, but I didn’t know I was doing that. I was just interested by the story of the fiddler. When I went to the gala in an area – for it was popular everywhere in the province – and just listened to the fiddlers: “Oh! I like this one!” And go to see the guy after. “Where do you live? Can I go to your home? I would like to learn more.”
In Québec, like many places in Canada, people had been influenced by musicians like Don Messer. It’s a very clean style. Many fiddlers played Don Messer style but among the two hundred tunes they play, they have maybe ten tunes that come from the family, from another generation or have an interesting version. My interest was for this kind of tune.
You’d listen for a tune with a non-standard way of playing and that would appeal to you. Were they good at showing you things? Could they explain their bowings?
It depends. They have one in the Gaspé area, Yvon Mimeault. I played a long time with him. I visited him many times. You know, when you play a lot with one person, you don’t need to stop the playing and say “How you do this?” At the same time you watch and try. But sometimes, it’s “What did you do there?” A lot of fiddlers can’t explain what they do. Some can explain for a specific ornamentation, how they do this. But when it’s inside a phrase and how to do this kind of bouncing, they have no idea. You need to decode them.
Were you still competing with your cousin at that point?
I am the winner [laughs]. I began to study history at the University. I moved to Québec City because they have a program about ethnology, about traditional song, about the French Canadian culture. At the university, they had a wonderful thing – an archive! They have lots of fiddle recordings. I began to listen to everything, make a compilation of the best tunes I would like to learn. I have a big compilation of versions of “Chicken Reel.” Interesting versions. Some fiddlers can imitate the rooster very well with the bow. I’m just fascinated by the version, or the swing, or the sound the guy had. It’s like a plate collector or a spoon collector. Every time, it’s a spoon, but this one has a little thing different from that one.
[For the rest of this interview, as well as a transcription of “
La suite à Gustave – III” from Eric’s Reel à 2
CD, purchase the Fall 2015 issue, or subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]
[Éric has released several albums with Entourloupe and Raz de Marée. Last year, his 1998 recording with fiddler Mario Landry (Reel à 2)
was re-released, along with a book of transcriptions by Jean Duval. Most of these items can be ordered online at www.trentesouszero.com
(“thirty-below”). And if you are in New England this fall, you will have another chance to catch Éric’s classes at Fiddle Hell. See www.reinerfamilyband.com/introduction.html
for the latest information.]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” teaches fiddle and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass group Wide Open Spaces. (www.wideospaces.com).]
Photo: Peter Anick