Finding the Fiddle in the Yukon

Strains of lively, lilting fiddle melodies filter through classrooms up and down the Klondike Highway, played by children of all ages.

This music has a long history in the territory: the jigs and reels of the fiddle have been documented in the North since 1847. In Old Crow, fiddles have been popular since Archie Linklater, a Scot from Manitoba, came to the Yukon and married a Gwitch’in woman named Catherine Netro more than 100 years ago.

Since then, the fiddle’s role in the Yukon has been firmly established.

“Especially in rural communities, the fiddle has a really special place, because it’s been part of their history and tradition,” says Whitehorse fiddler and educator Keitha Clark.

Clark has spent the last five years travelling the territory, teaching fiddle workshops in nearly every community in the Yukon through the Artist in the School program.

“There is a very strong folk community here, so the fiddle is definitely respected, she says. “Kids think it’s cool to play fiddle up here, so it has a trickle-down effect.”

But bringing the fiddle to remote communities has its challenges.

“The kids have a great time, we go in and do a three-day workshop and they are pumped to keep playing and there isn’t the resources to continue,” says Clark. “And it’s a pretty big challenge to go to Old Crow every week to teach violin lessons.”

The key, she explains, is to develop a network of local instructors, an idea being implemented in a pilot project currently underway in Teslin.

Another fiddle educator, Dawson resident Peter Menzies has helped run classes and workshops in and around Dawson City for the past six years. Under the umbrella of the North Klondyke Highway Music Society, the fiddle has been the central force behind burgeoning events like square dances, instructor residencies, coffee houses and even long-distance lessons on Skype.

“We want to help everyone understand that the fiddle and dance traditions for Yukon native people are as distinct and important as any in the country,” says Menzies.

For Clark, being a fiddle educator is as simple as paying it forward. In 2007, she was the recipient of a grant that allowed her to travel to many communities in the Yukon and to study the instrument with traditional fiddlers. She was very moved by this experience, particularly in Old Crow.

“The Old Crow fiddle tradition is so cool,” she says, “it’s still so isolated… you can trace tunes back to the original players. There are not very many places in Canada where you can trace a fiddle tune back like that. They also have many types of dances that go back a really long way.”

With the renowned Celtic fiddler Ashley MacIsaac coming to the Yukon Arts Centre on December 15, comparisons between the Celtic and Yukon styles are inevitable.

“It’s not like Cape Breton, where there is a long line of family fiddlers,” says Clark of the Yukon fiddle scene. “I have a pretty strong connection to the east coast music scene and I grew up being influenced by fiddlers like Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster. Most of the kids in Whitehorse have adopted a west coast style and play a broad range of tunes in no specific genre. But people here enjoy Celtic music… there is a big contingent in Whitehorse from Antigonish.”

Clark thinks community is key for the future of the fiddle.

“The fiddle has social roots – you don’t fiddle just for yourself, you fiddle so people can dance… that’s been an important part of the tradition. The most important thing is that fiddle tradition continues – that it builds community and brings people together.”

A night with fiddle virtuoso Ashley MacIsaac at the Yukon Arts Centre sounds like the perfect opportunity to bring people together during these cold dark hours. But, if you don’t have tickets yet for Saturday’s performance, you’ll have to find your own fiddler to dance to because the show is sold out.

Ashley MacIsaac’s plays the Yukon Arts Centre’s Main Stage on Dec. 15 at 8 p.m.

More information about the Artist in the School program on their website

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