Music student compares old time and Métis fiddling

Music graduate student Monique Giroux has ventured back to her native home of Manitoba to study Métis and old time fiddling.

Monique GirouxHaving played on the fiddle circuit since the age of five, Giroux has an intimate relationship with these two performance styles and the private and public spaces they intersect.

Old time fiddling in Canada can be traced back to Don Messer, an east coast fiddle player and host of the popular long-running CBC TV show “Don Messer’s Jubilee”. Messer’s fiddling, a synthesis of Anglo-European styles, is associated with the “true” or “authentic” style of Canadian fiddling.

Right: Monique Giroux

However, this view overlooks another, equally important Canadian fiddle style originated by the Métis, who merged European influences with Aboriginal musical structures. Recent scholarship on Métis fiddling resists strict definitions, however, because of the numerous stylistic variations that exist in the different communities.

The relationship between old time and Métis fiddling can be observed at local and national fiddle competitions. Giroux remembers from her childhood how the tension between the two communities was often palpable; Métis players were often unacknowledged. Having witnessed this silencing first hand, Giroux is keenly interested in a recent shift in the Manitoba circuit, which is now beginning to recognize its Métis players. She wonders whether these changes are structural, in terms of provincial attitudes towards Aboriginal people, or if they are superficial, occurring only amongst the fiddlers.

She also notes that a strong revival of fiddle competitions has occurred since the acknowledgment of Métis players. Manitoba has become the only province to incorporate both styles at its old time competitions. Though this is a positive change, Giroux also notes the problem with having the Métis fiddle style defined at predominantly white spaces of old time fiddling competitions.

To further deconstruct the political and racial discourses enacted on these public stages, Giroux is relying on indigenous research methodologies. Inspired by the works of scholars such as Linda Smith and Sean Wilson, Giroux is using critical race theory as a means of further reflecting on the distinct voices found within the Manitoba fiddling community.

Within academic circles, Giroux is one of roughly 20 scholars who specialize in analyzing old time and Métis fiddling. She is hopeful that with the renewed popularity of the competitions more scholars will turn their attention towards these two fiddling styles.

Giroux has presented her findings at a variety of conferences, including last July at the International Council for Traditional Music’s annual conference at Memorial University.

For toe-tapping tunes see Sierra Noble and Donny Parenteau’s performance online and listen to Don Messer’s famous Maple Sugar.

By Dan Vena, York theatre student, and Suzanne Jaeger, Fine Arts research officer, reprinted from the March 2011 issue of Fine Arts Research Newsletter