November 4, 2005
Scottish culture was hardly the rage a few decades ago, least of all in Scotland itself. The British crown did such a fine job of stamping out Scottish icons – bagpipes, kilts, step dancing – that the Scots themselves turned their backs on their heritage.Alasdair Fraser knows all about what he calls the “Scottish cultural cringe.” Fraser, now 50 and a renowned fiddler in the traditional Scottish style, grew up in Stirling, a town halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, smack in the middle of the country, “so I had always felt I had a good vantage point for all these styles being put down,” he said.The Fraser household was an odd one for mid-20th-century Scotland. Fraser’s father played pipes, his mother sang in the kitchen – and what they played and sang were the Scottish songs that dated usually to the 18th and 19th centuries.”There was value placed on traditional music. And that was unusual,” said Fraser. “The British empire tried to subdue Scottish culture. They banned bagpipes, kilts, even the Gaelic language. We were being taught to speak proper Queen’s English, BBC English. So a lot of the music didn’t get played, and not for reasons of merit.”The repression of things Scottish was hammered home for Fraser when he began taking violin lessons, at age 8. His teacher, Willy Fernie, focused the lad’s attention on classical music. When Fraser asked to learn the songs his parents and grandparents played at home, Fernie turned him down.”He was worried he’d lose his job as a violin teacher if it got out that we were playing Scottish music together,” said Fraser. Eventually, Fraser learned the songs on his own, and started teaching them to his teacher. The two would give concerts, but only in the old folks’ homes, where the music was appreciated and word wasn’t likely to leak out. “I had to do it on the quiet, almost underground,” said Fraser.Fraser, who has lived in the United States, in the foothills of northern California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, since 1981, has lived long enough to see a turn in Scottish fortunes. Over the last 15 years, he estimates, Scottish culture has emerged from underground. Fraser heard the pipers in British military bands adding their own distinctive Scottish twist to the music. In Scotland, which he visits about five times a year, he heard more traditional fiddle music and saw more step dancing. His country was taking pride in its heritage and reviving it, rather than renouncing it and letting it wither.”It was a renaissance, a catharsis,” said Fraser, whose performances are now often sponsored by the British Council. “It all goes hand in hand with a Scottish search for autonomy, a feeling that we could express ourselves. It’s been amazing to witness that and to help fan the flames of that, allowing people to speak in their mother tongue, in the way they know best.”
Follow the fiddleFraser seems fairly modest, so he barely hints at his own contributions to the Scottish renaissance. But it is probably no coincidence that Scottish culture began to re-establish itself soon after Fraser founded his two institutions: the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School near the Santa Cruz mountains, and a school on the Isle of Skye, off the northwestern coast of Scotland, both of which date to the early 1980s. “He is one of the foremost musicians to bring the real traditional Scottish culture back to Scotland,” said Aspenite Steve Johnson, a banjoist and lover of Scottish and Celtic culture (and copy editor at The Aspen Times). “Which was really dying out for a number of reasons over the last century. The church didn’t like music and dance, the idea of having fun. The English wanted to assimilate the Scots. And there were sects of the Scottish themselves who looked down on the traditions.”
Both of Fraser’s camps are nominally “fiddling” schools, though both offer a variety of vocal, dance and string instrument courses. The idea is not only to teach technical music skills, but to foster an appreciation of the entire culture.”I use them to debunk myths about the way things can be done,” said Fraser. “There are all kinds of myths that arise around Scottish music, from when the British tried to subdue Scottish culture. There was the myth that there had never been step dancing. But now we have waiting lists of people, older people giving testimony that they remember their grandparents step dancing.
“It’s sociological as well as fun-seeking,” Fraser said of his camps. “There are many ways to seek a musical goal.”Fraser has advanced the cause on a number of fronts. Away from his camps, he performs as a soloist, in combinations with pianist Paul Machlis and guitarist Tony McManus, and as leader of his band Skyedance. He often accompanies Scottish dancers, and he is director of the 100-member San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers orchestra. Fraser’s 1996 album “Dawn Dance” earned the Best Celtic Album Indie Award. Among his more high-profile appearances have been as featured soloist, alongside Itzhak Perlman, at New York’s Lincoln Center, on the soundtracks of “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Titanic,” and on the televised “Kennedy Center Honors,” where Fraser played a solo tribute to his fellow Scotsman, Sean Connery.The project that has been getting the lion’s share of his attention of late is his duo with cellist Natalie Haas. The two recorded last year’s “Fire & Grace,” winner of the Scots Trad Album of the Year award, and Fraser will perform this week at the Wheeler Opera House in a duo with Haas. (Haas’ sister, fiddler Brittney Haas, appeared last year at the Wheeler, as part of Darol Anger’s American Fiddle Ensemble.)Fraser and Haas met when the latter was an 11-year-old cello student at Valley of the Moon. Within four years, the two were performing concerts together. The 22-year-old is now an instructor at Fraser’s camps, and his most frequent collaborator; she also is a member of fiddler Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian Waltz Trio. And where Fraser was once the instructor, instilling in his student a love of Scottish music, she is now an influence on her mentor.
“She’s not there just to accompany me,” said Fraser. “She’s a strong dance partner who pushes and pulls. We have a great musical conversation. We’re kindred spirits.”With Scottish music safe to play, Fraser can now focus his energy on taking the music new places. A recent crop of cellists, Haas among them, has been emphasizing the rhythmic element of the music, which Fraser finds exciting.”It’s got an edge to it,” he said of the music he makes with Haas. “It allows me to go back to the well, the 18th century, when the fiddle was real prominent. But it also allows us to lean forward and do new songs. She loves to groove, loves the rhythmic spirit.”Fraser points to Haas as one of the many converts to a culture that, not long ago, was nearly stamped out.”Fiddle gets under the skin of the society,” he said. “I always say follow the fiddle, because it will lead you to interesting places. It teaches me about history, about dance, about people. It allows me to share the music, and the power of music.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org