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Native and Métis Fiddling: Portrait of a People
Anne Lederman

Note: The following is an excerpt. To download a free pdf of the entire article, visit our Articles from sold-out issues page.

In 1984, I was fortunate enough to meet an elderly fiddler, Carl Grexton, from Grandview, Manitoba, on a trip he made to Ontario. Later he sent me a tape, which had, scribbled on the label on one side, "Grandy Fagnan, MB [Manitoba] Métis Fiddler." The music I heard on this recording is somewhat indescribable, a bit rough and out of tune, and frequently accompanied by loud, steady, two-foot rhythms which have the precision of a military drum, much like those often heard in Québec and Acadia. But that is not what caught my attention the most. Although the tunes seemed to be, basically, jigs and reels and sounded vaguely Scots-Irish, they were so unpredictable and so lacking in any perceivable structure (by me, at the time) that I wondered at first if they weren't improvised. I was hooked. Within the year, I had gone back to school, got a grant from the National Museum, borrowed a Uher, and landed in Dauphin, Manitoba.

When I arrived, fiddling was a well regarded, but fading cultural expression, as it was in much of rural Canada. In the dominant Euro-Canadian farming community of the area, it was pretty much restricted to the over-sixty set and consisted mainly of jigs, reels, polkas, waltzes, some schottisches and foxtrots, and Ukrainian tunes. But there was another culture here, an older, often almost invisible world of Native and Métis peoples ("Métis" is a French word meaning "mixed"). It is hard to describe the relationship between these two cultures -- English Euro-Canadian and Native/Métis. With the French in the middle, they intertwine, they permeate each other, and, in this mingling, determine much of the character of the rural Canadian prairies. But it is not an equal partnership, and each regards the other with a certain amount of distrust.

Carl was the key. When younger, Carl had worked in the bush further north cutting timber, and had met Grandy, the man on my tape. Grandy came from Camperville, Manitoba, a largely Métis settlement about seventy miles north of Dauphin. Over subsequent years, Carl played and socialized with many fiddlers of Native and Métis heritage, which, I learned, was an extremely unusual thing for a "white" prairie farmer. He, alone amongst his Euro-Canadian peers, seemed to admire their way of playing, their quirky repertoire, their driving rhythm. He lost touch with Grandy for many years, but, a couple of years before I arrived, he and Bill Henry, a musician and reporter for the local paper (and whose photos you see on these pages) decided to take a drive to Camperville. They found Grandy, brought him back to Carl's house for a couple of weeks, made the tapes, sent one to Ontario, and here I was. Only later did I come to appreciate how easy it would have been to never learn of the existence of this music, to never even suspect the extent of this 200-year-old, indigenous tradition, born of a blending of cultures that could only have happened in Canada. It was all because Carl was the sort of person who could see past the odd timing and rough sound to the powerful soul of the music.

Over the next couple of years, Carl and Bill were frequent companions on my visits to fiddlers. Through them, I found myself in the bosom of a culture. I met players of many backgrounds and recorded dozens of hours of music in people's living rooms, at community halls, weddings, dances, house parties, and just sitting around the kitchen. We went to see Grandy in Usherville, Saskatchewan. Further explorations on my own led me to the Ebb and Flow area east of Dauphin where I met and recorded Emile Spence, Albert Beaulieau, Lawrence Flett and Frank Desjarlais, and up to Camperville to Fred and Hyacinth Mckay and Rene Ferland. Bill gave me tapes of Willie Mousseau, a wonderful player of about Grandy's age who had passed on before I got there. Eventually, I met Lawrence "Teddy Boy" Houle who now resided in Winnipeg (about 150 miles southeast of Dauphin), and heard tapes of his father, Walter Flett. Later, Lawrence accompanied me on another recording expedition which resulted in more recordings, and eventually, a four-record set -- Old Native and Métis Fiddling in Manitoba.

In the intervening years, I have come to further understand both the roots and the extent of what we can generally call "Métis fiddling," comparing it to what we know of other Métis communities, as well as to old Native, French-Canadian, and Scottish music. This is an on ongoing endeavor, but we do know now that elements of the old style and repertoire are common to French, Native and Métis communities throughout the Northwest into Alaska, across Québec into Acadia, and down into the U.S. We know that not only Scottish, French-Canadian, Anglo-Irish and American influences are at work in the older repertoire, but that this music also owes a great deal to the traditional music of Native peoples.

Let's go back. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Scots, mainly from the Orkneys, and French-Canadian voyagers from Québec and Acadia came to the prairies in search of furs. They intermarried with Cree and Ojibwa women, creating a mixed culture which is commonly called "Métis." Métis peoples came to dominate the prairies in many ways for over 100 years, as traders, trappers, interpreters, and general go-betweens for the French, Scots and First Nations peoples. Today Native and Métis peoples in Manitoba still speak several languages -- English, French, Cree, Ojibwa, Swampy Cree, Saulteaux (a dialect of Ojibwa), and a mixed language which eventually became known as Metchif. Surnames are French, Scottish (usually Orkney), and Native. Within the same families, some may identify themselves as French, some as Ojibwa, Cree or Saulteaux, and some as Métis.

By the 1880s, the buffalo were gone and Native and Métis peoples who had depended on them were starving. Reserves were created for those who could claim substantial Native blood -- parcels of land set aside for their exclusive use, usually near water and not much good for farming. But those who did not qualify for Reserve status, or who lost it over the years were left pretty much to fend for themselves in whatever way they could. Today, people survive by fishing, trapping, farm and casual labor, running small local businesses or working for the government and social service network. Some head for the cities and higher education.

Until recently, fiddle was the musical center of Métis culture, having been passed on by both French and Scots traders to their mixed offspring. Fiddles were played for dancing, for listening, for celebration, and sheerly for personal enjoyment. Over the years, the fiddle took on the status of a cultural icon, a symbol of the Métis people. It was said, in the communities I visited, that every male at one time picked up a fiddle. (Why not the women? Not a respectable female pursuit, I suspect, although no one said so in so many words.) The banning of Native ceremonial practice in the late 1800s, no doubt, further strengthened fiddling as the main musical expression; in fact, outside of hymn-singing in church, it became the only form of music-making in some areas for quite some time.


[This article appeared in the Winter 01/02 issue of Fiddler Magazine, which is now sold out.]

[Anne Lederman is a performer, teacher and Adjunct Professor at York University, currently living in T oronto. A former member of bands Muddy York and The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, she currently performs with her own group, Fiddlesong, and with Njacko Backo and Kalimba Kalimba. For information on her recordings, including her recent fiddle recording called 7 Cats, see her website at www.annelederman.com.]

Photo: Grandy Fagnan by William Henry