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I like to look up violinists/fiddlers from remote areas, and one day while in the throngs of a full-out web surfing frenzy, I discovered a page of Alaskan folk music. From that, I uncovered a music form I'd never heard of Athabascan music.
Most of what I have listened to has been of the Gwich'in Athabascan variety. It has a sound like a cross between old-timey fiddling, sprinkled with guitar, a strong beat and sometimes an accordion. Almost Cajun, almost Scottish and at times thoroughly native. It is mostly played at dances, or potlatches, and most afternoons you can catch some Athabascan music on the Yukon radio station, CHON. The locals are very partial to the fiddling as an imported part of their culture. After 150 years, the caribou probably dance to it too!
"Lively tunes...were introduced to the Indians of Alaska in the late 1840's. Brought to the Interior by traders of the Hudson's Bay Company. Since coming from their homelands in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, Ireland and French-Canada the music they brought with them influenced the music that remains near and dear to the very heart of what traditional Athabascan music embodies. Later during the gold rush, popular waltzes, jigs and two steps were quickly adopted and played at dances. All these old tunes have been modified to produce a music style that is unique and appropriately called Athabascan Old-Time Fiddling.
first Athabascan Fiddling Festival was held in Fairbanks, Alaska in
1983. The event was so successful that it is now one of the most important
Alaska Native cultural events of the year. Musicians are brought in
from throughout Alaska and Canada to perform during the four-day festival
that occurs in November."
may simply look at Athapaskan fiddlers as Indians playing the white
man's music, but they couldn't be further from the mark. Although initially
learned from whites, Athapaskan fiddle music has been cultivated in
relative isolation from mainstream American country music. Playing strictly
by ear and within a strong conservative tradition that is over 140 years
old, Athapaskan men have developed a powerful, beautiful sound and a
repertoire that is different from any other style of fiddle music."
The word "Athabascan" represents one language group of a larger "First Nations", or aboriginal, people of Alaska and Northern Canada, and all the way down into North America. The Gwich'in Athabascans are mostly in Northern Alaska, Yukon, and parts of NW Territories. It was in this area, where roads are scarce and the temperatures get very cold, they were exposed to the Scots from Orkney Island in the 1800s. They worked together during the days of the Hudson Bay Company and as the two cultures collided, the aboriginal natives integrated the Scottish music and dance culture into their own. To this day, the tradition of jigs and square-dancing to old-time fiddle music still exists and is frequently a part of holidays and special events.
Soon after I discovered Bill Stevens, I discovered the town of Old Crow, through their website. Old Crow is a Vuntut Gwitchin community in the Arctic Circle and they do not have roads going in or out. Rather, they're accessible only by plane, boat, or dogs. This fact makes it especially interesting that they've had a fiddle culture since the mid-1800s. It also probably explains why the culture hasn't changed much. I was told that most of the Vuntut Gwitchin fiddlers, including Bill Stevens, can trace their fiddle tradition back to the late Paul Ben Kassi of Old Crow. Old Crow is also very interested in preserving the fiddling tradition, as well as their native music tradition, so they're organizing a new music program for their school.
While researching this music style, I felt an enormous desire to go to Old Crow so I did! I paid Old Crow a visit, and was joined by Bill Stevens. We played the Red River Jig, which is a Gwich'in favorite and I got to show the young girls in Old Crow that chicks can fiddle too. (Their fiddlers have traditionally all been men). It was great to share that with them. I even did some (ahem) home-brewed clogging to Irish Washerwoman. They must have been really surprised at this white, female dancing fiddler from the states. I also had a meeting with the school board to discuss plans for a future music program.