Musical Traditions: Award Winning Métis Fiddler John Arcand

By Morgan O’Neal

Old style Métis fiddling is not unlike the Mitchif language, which has been described as having a largely French vocabulary with an Algonkian/Ojibwe/Cree grammatical structure. The foundation of Métis musical culture, both past and present, is the fiddle and dance tradition which is closely identified with the lifestyle—so closely, in fact, that fiddlers have been heard to say, “There’s no Mitchif without no fiddle. The dancin’ and the fiddle and the Mitchif, they’re all the same.” (Leary, James P., editor. Medicine Fiddle: A Humanities Discussion Guide; p. 27)

Most Métis fiddle tunes are based on a European musical vocabulary, though musical structures are altered according to rigorous Aboriginal musical aesthetics. The music has been studied by “musicologists” who archive it and attempt to classify its historical influences (where it came in terms of older traditions of instrumental and dance music). Scholarship reveals what the players and dancers already know, of course. The music contains strong influences from three major founding cultures: Scottish, French, and Aboriginal. The Aboriginal influence is evident in attitudes about fiddling. For example, some people feel that the tunes should not even be recorded, and there are stories of tapes being erased after a player dies (Conversations With the Author, Kinesota and Ebb and Flow, Manitoba, 1985). However, not long ago, the tradition of Métis fiddle and dance was on the verge of extinction. Since the danger became clear, the last generation of real Métis players stepped up to make certain the tradition would flourish into the future.

The figure at the forefront of the resurgence was and is Jean-Baptiste (John) Arcand (profiled in The Star Phoenix by Doug Cuthand July 20, 2007). “When we think of leadership,” writes Cuthand, “we tend to think of politicians and elders. But leadership comes in many forms. John Arcand is a leader and role model in the world of culture and music. He is [an] undisputed master of the Métis fiddle. Whether he is participating in a music camp, conducting a music class, writing music, or simply playing at a dance, he is a tireless promoter of the music he loves.” As Arcand put it to Cuthand, “It is music of the heart.”

In the Encyclopedie Du Patrimoine Culturel De L’Amerique Francaise, Anne Lederman investigates the historical influences that made old-style Métis fiddling such an important element of the indigenous lifestyle. For instance, Scottish influence includes the use of altered tunings, a tendency to “double-string” (to play with extra drone notes along with the melody), a particular way of holding the fiddle (practically vertical, resting on the forearm) and the bow (gripped a few inches up from the frog), and a repertoire of Scottish marches and reels. Scottish dances have also been influential in Métis tradition including Reels of Four, Reels of Eight, Drops of Brandy, the Duck Dance and a rich tradition of solo step-dancing (called La gigue de la Rivière Rouge or The Red River Jig).

While it is possible to identify aspects relating to old Scottish tradition, it is much more difficult to separate old French-Canadian (Québécois and Acadian) and old Métis styles of fiddling. Their traditions all share characteristics which set them apart from most (but not all) of their Scottish ancestors. In the music, varying phrase lengths and asymmetric structures are also common to both French-Canadian and Aboriginal song traditions, whereas the descending contours and extended intros and endings are especially associated with Plains Aboriginal singing traditions.

The practice of clogging with both feet is widespread in French-Canadian, First Nations, and Métis communities, and is largely confined to them and their spheres of influence. This aspect of traditional dance seems to have no European antecedent, developing in Canada in the 18th or 19th century and spreading along fur trade routes throughout Quebec, Acadia, and the Northwest along with other aspects of repertoire and style. In the Northwest, the Red River Jig is considered a cornerstone of traditional Métis culture, and at one time it was a point of pride for a fiddler to have interpreted and developed their own version of the Red River Jig. However, the version recorded by Andy de Jarlis in the 1950s is still the most commonly heard today.

Influenced by the “down-east” sounds of Don Messer and others, a smoother sound widely disseminated on radio and recordings became very popular. It became known as “Red River Style” and it was this style that many people mistakenly associated with Métis culture, although much of what had made it distinctively Métis had been abandoned (for example, the irregular phrasing, the altered tunings, much of the double-stringing, and some of the rhythmic intensity). Fortunately, recordings of the older Métis style have again become available and fiddling is still iconic in Métis culture.

Largely as a result of the energetic intervention of John Arcand and those around him, a resurgence of interest in both fiddling and the old dance forms has developed in Métis communities of the Northwest, and a movement is underway to revive fiddling in Aboriginal and Métis communities on the Canadian prairies and in the North by teaching as many young people as possible. Arcand himself began to play the fiddle at age five, and by age 12 he was playing at dances. Over the years, he refined his style and became known as the “dancers’ choice.” As an adult, he had to make a living as a logger to support his family, so his fiddle temporarily went silent until later in life he was able to devote himself full-time to the music he loved. So as not to squander the gift he had been given, he learned the traditional Red River Métis tunes from his father Victor and his grandfather Jean-Baptiste. A ninth-generation Métis fiddler, Arcand has ensured the Métis tunes of his grandfather and father remain a part of his people and still flourish today.

Arcand helped establish the Emma Lake Fiddle Camp, dedicated to teaching the art of fiddling. He also started the renowned John Arcand Fiddle Fest in 1998. Along the way, he worked at the Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research in the area of fiddle music research and compilation eventually producing Drops of Brandy: a four-CD set that brought together the best Métis fiddlers in Canada. He has produced 14 albums and composed more than 300 original tunes, including “Saskatchewan Reel” written for the province’s Centennial celebrations. Arcand has devoted a lifetime to reviving the old tunes and holding workshops to promote Métis culture. Last August, the 10th annual Fiddle Fest was held on his acreage southwest of Saskatoon.

Arcand is also an accomplished violinmaker or “luthier” During his interview with Cuthand, he brought out a violin that he had recently completed. Cuthand wrote, “Its body is made from maple but the top is spruce—a piece [Arcand] retrieved from his woodpile. The scroll or top of the violin is carved with the head of Chief Big Bear and the other side reveals a bear. This is a special piece of artwork and will be raffled off at the Fiddle Fest . . . proceeds will be put in a fund to build a permanent facility [for the festival].” Cuthand spoke with Arcand between gigs after he had just returned from music camp at Barrows, Man., and was getting ready for the Back to Batoche Days. “As soon as he’s done there, it’s off to another fiddle camp at St. Paul, Alta. This is a pretty heavy schedule for a guy who turned 65 in August. But for him,” says Cuthand, “it is a labour of love. It is what he loves to do and these days it takes up most of his time.”

It is no surprise that since devoting his life to rebuilding the strength of the Métis fiddle and dance tradition, Arcand has been showered with one award after the other in recognition of his work. In 1999, he was selected as one of 27 artists worldwide to represent Western Canada at the Fiddles of the World Conference in Halifax. In 2001, he was part of a Métis/Irish cultural exchange where he met and played for the President of Ireland. In 2003, he was presented with the Blue Lantern Award for Arts, Culture, and Heritage. Arcand also received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award and has twice received lifetime achievement awards (from the grand masters in 2003 for “outstanding contribution to old time fiddling” and in 2004 a Lieutenant Governor’s Saskatchewan Arts Award). He also received a Centennial medal in 2005 and the City of Saskatoon honored him in 2006 with a cultural diversity and race relations “Living in Harmony” award. Recently, in 2008, John became a Member the Order of Canada. “But after all is said and done, and the accolades and limelight fade,” writes Cuthand, “he’s happiest playing the good old tunes at home with his family and friends.

John Arcand is a master of traditional Métis fiddling, a musical ambassador for his culture. He has long been a driving force behind the preservation of unrecorded Métis tunes, applying his skills as a performer and educator to promoting and popularizing this unique musical heritage. John’s important contribution to the preservation of Métis music and dance has finally and deservedly led to the creation of a video documentary titled John Arcand and His Métis Fiddle. It explores John’s life and music and the history of Métis fiddling and dancing. The video documents the true meaning of Métis-style fiddling and shows how to dance the signature dance of the Métis: the Red River Jig. From playing for the Governor General to jamming with regular folk, John is seems most at home with a fiddle in his hand. As Doug Cuthand puts it, “to see John Arcand perform is to see a man serious about his music and in harmony with all that is good.”