Folk music: Reels and jigs matured over 150 years developed a native flavour

A CLOSE look at the busy programme for the largest event of its kind in Britain, the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention, hosted by Aberdeen University's Elphinstone institute from 14-18 July, reveals, amid such celebrated players as Alasdair Fraser, Bruce Molsky, Liz Doherty and Paul Anderson, the rather less familiar Oméigwessi Ensemble and Lawrence "Teddy Boy" Houle.

Making their first visits to Scotland, Houle and the Omigwessi players are exponents of the neglected but still vigorous fiddle style of the Mtis people, whose origins lie in the liaisons between Cree, Ojibwa, Salteaux and other native Canadian women and French and Scottish trappers and fur traders in the early days of European incursions into Canada's Northwest territories.

It is perhaps appropriate that the Canadians should be playing to Scottish audiences this year, as 2010 is being celebrated in their home territories as The Year of the Mtis, the 125th anniversary of the Northwest Rebellion in Saskatchewan and subsequent execution of the Mtis leader, Louis Riel, by the Canadian authorities. This was a turbulent episode in a history that saw the mixed-race Mtis becoming a distinct entity in their own right, outwith the native Indian and European communities, to play a significant part in the development of Canada. Today regarded as a distinct aboriginal nation, there are between 350,000 and 400,000 Mtis citizens, largely in western Canada.

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Mtis culture reflects elements of the French-Canadian voyageur and Scottish - particularly Orcadian and Shetland - fur traders, as well as their native Indian maternal forebears. Intriguingly, a traditional Mtis flat bread is known as bannock while, of course, the incoming white men brought their fiddles. Mtis fiddling is an intriguing collision between these cultures, with snatches of familiar-sounding melody emerging amid what to many listeners will seem utterly maverick phrasing - "crooked tunes", as they are known - all propelled by the kind of insistent rhythmic "clogging" associated with Qubcois players.

"I enjoy the things that make it so different from most contemporary fiddle music, the fact that it's very organic and asymmetrical in terms of phrasing," says Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, whose family band, the Mtis Fiddler Quartet, is the core of the Omigwessi Ensemble. A classically-trained violinist from a Mtis family, Delbaere-Sawchuk, now 23, first became interested in her musical heritage when her family moved from Winnipeg to Toronto. A seminal influence was the Canadian fiddler Anne Lederman - also appearing at the Aberdeen event, while a later mentor was Lawrence "Teddy Boy" Houle, a Mtis elder and highly respected fiddler, who has worked with Lederman to record old players. Delbaere-Sawchuk recorded an album, Omigwessi Reel Mtis, which is a tribute to Houle's step-father, Walter Flett (good Orcadian name, that).

At Aberdeen, Houle will swell the ranks of the Omigwessi Ensemble, as will Lederman, who recalls first hearing Mtis fiddling: "Although the tunes seemed to be, basically, jigs and reels and sounded vaguely Scots-Irish, they were so unpredictable and so lacking in any perceivable structure by me at the time, that I wondered if they weren't improvised. I was hooked."

"Stylistically, a lot of it goes back to Scottish playing," says Lederman, who also points to "sometimes uncanny" echoes of Shetland tunes, in phrases rather than in whole melodies. As well as clear Scots and French-Canadian influences, however, Lederman attributes the music's irregular forms over a steady, rhythmic pulse to native traditions of singing and drumming.

If the Canadians incite their Aberdeen listeners up to dance, a degree of stamina may be required. Another aspect of the Mtis' Scots inheritance is a Strip-the-Willow-style dance called Drops of Brandy, reduced to the essentials of just two very long lines of dancers which means it can take half an hour or more to complete the whole dance - and they tend to step-dance their way through the figures.

l For further details, on the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention see The Mtis Fiddler Quartet's site is at and Anne Alderman's is