Celtic Fiddle Festival to perform October 18, 2013 in Harrisburg, PA

  1. Celtic Fiddle Festival
  2. The group Celtic Fiddle Festival, who has performed together for 20 years, is not really a “festival” in its traditional sense, but rather a coming together of three suburb fiddlers from distinct Celtic traditions to celebrate the violin in all its glob trotting variations.

The group features world-renowned Irish fiddler Kevin Burke, Quebec’s André Brunet, Breton fiddler Christian Lemaître and guitarist Nicolas Quemener.

They will appear October 18, 2013 in a concert sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society at 7:30 p.m. at the Appalachian Brewing Company, 50 N. Cameron Street, Harrisburg. Tickets and information at www.sfmsfolk.org.

Kevin Burke, one of the most accomplished Irish fiddlers in the world today, has a résumé that includes stints with iconic Irish groups The Bothy Band and Patrick Street. He plays the fluid, highly-ornamented style of County Sligo. Now living in the United States, Burke is a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award, the highest honor awarded to a traditional musician in the United States. . Christian Lemaître honed his skills on the hypnotic Breton melodies at festou-noz (night dances) throughout Brittany, France’s Celtic region. He is a founding member of Kornog.  André Brunet is a young French-Canadian fiddler who plays the infectiously rhythmic tunes of Quebec. He is a member of De Temps Antan and was featured in the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Nicolas Quemener is a master open-tuning guitarist who grew up in Angers, France, and studied percussion in the National School of Music. He has been part of many superb Celtic bands, including Arcady and Kornog.


This interview with Kevin Burke was conducted and edited for Susquehanna Folk Music Society by Lesley Ham on October 5, 2013.

SFMS: We last saw you here three years ago. What’s new with the Celtic Fiddle Festival?

Kevin: Our new guitar player, Nicholas Quémener, a great Breton guitarist. He used to live in Ireland and played with a band called Arcady. He’s got a great fix on the Irish music and since he lives in Brittany, he has a great feel for the Breton music as well. And through lots of coaching and playing with André, he’s learning a lot about Quebec music too, like we all are.

SFMS: How are you doing with that Quebec music?

It’s great. It doesn’t take long to see the similarities with Irish and Scottish music, while there is an obvious French connection. But it is different enough that you have to pay attention. After a while it becomes natural. I’ve been playing with André for several years now.

SFMS: What about those crooked tunes? (Popular in Quebec, crooked tunes deviate from a standard number of beats.)

Kevin: That’s what I mean by paying attention. They catch you on the hop if you’re not ready for them, but if you know what’s coming, it’s easy to be prepared.

SFMS: How does the Breton music fit in?

Kevin: I’ve been listening to Breton music since the early ‘70s. The rhythms are quite tricky too, but I’ve been listening to that music for much longer. When I was living in Ireland I used to go to Brittany quite a lot with Micheál Ố Domhnnaill and the Bothy Band. I knew a lot of great Breton musicians, and they would come to Ireland. That’s when I met Christian, back then.

SFMS: Whose idea was it to put together Celtic Fiddle Festival?

Kevin: I can’t remember. Johnny (Cunningham) and I thought we should go on the road together. It was  suggested that a third fiddle with a different style would really flesh out this idea of having a Scottish fiddler and an Irish fiddler. It would have a much broader scope if we had a third fiddler playing yet a different style. We immediately thought of Breton music, because Johnny was a big fan as well, and the best fiddler I knew from there was Christian. We hit the road thinking it would last for a couple of weeks.

SFMS: Luckily that wasn’t the case!

Kevin: here we are with our 20th anniversary CD….That was a big blow loosing Johnny. (Johnny Cunningham died in December 15, 2003) Our first reaction was that this was the end of the group. We were talked into continuing. We thought it would be better to continue. Johnny wouldn’t have been comfortable knowing that his demise was the demise of the band too. So  we kept going, but we decided that having another Scottish fiddler would look and feel like a replacement, so we looked for something else. We came up with the idea of some Quebec music because of the French, Irish and Scottish connection. And one of the best fiddlers that we knew playing that kind of music was André.

SFMS: Had you played with André before?

Kevin: A little, yes. I knew him through his work with La Bottine Souriante. His happy demeanor and his upbeat energy were just what we needed because we were all feeling kind of low. Johnny died in December and our tour was in February.

SFMS: I was just listening to your new album; it’s a really great combination of Irish standards like The Maid behind the Bar, slow waltzes and original tunes.

Kevin: The Maid behind the Bar in some circles is called The Green Mountain, which in French is vert mont. We thought this was kind of funny. And it’s a well-known tune in Quebec as well. It was recorded live so we wanted to include a lot of standard tunes that the audience could recognize. There are a few originals, one of Nicolas’, and two slower tunes from André: Quand Scofflent Les Anges (When Angles Breath), and Valse du Chef de Gare (The Station Master’s Waltz).

SFMS: Do you still use the same format of playing individual sets and group sets as well?

Kevin: We’ve changed the balance slightly. We’ve made the individual sets shorter. We’ve been playing together for such a long time that we have a lot of strong repertoire now. We’ve changed it now so that the solo sets only cover the first half and the second half is all the group. There were so many group pieces that we enjoyed playing, we had to struggle with what we had to leave out. We thought that if we extend the group section that we don’t have to leave out so much.

SFMS: That’s good for us! What are the similarities between the different styles of music?

Kevin: That’s the point of the individual sets. You realize how different everyone’s approach is. At the same time, it doesn’t take too much to accommodate the other styles, though you do have to alter it slightly. If I play a typical Sligo styles on a Breton or Quebec tune it would probably sound awkward because the tunes are structured differently to accommodate each styles. You’d have that feeling of a square peg in a round hole. The music takes precedence. Whatever we feel is the better way to play that piece of music, that’s what we try to approach. We push our personal styles to one side.

SFMS: So with the group, do you try to play in the style of the origin of the tune?

Kevin: I try to get closer to it. In a Quebec piece I’m not trying to convince people that I’m a Quebec fiddler, but I am trying to show how the way I play can accommodate the music of Quebec, or of anywhere else.

SFMS: So you negotiate what to include?

Kevin: It’s pretty democratic. The whole point of the group is to show how we can all play each other’s music and make it sound acceptable. We try to get a balance. On the record, there are two Breton pieces, two Irish piece, and two Quebec pieces, and there’s one solo guitar piece. And we all do two solos each in our own style. The concert is much the same. We try to make sure that all the slow pieces don’t come from one area and all the fast pieces from another. We play Quebec reels and Irish reels and Breton polkas and slower tunes. We try to make sure everything get represented.

SFMS: I can see why you have a problem of what to leave out!

Kevin: We could simply play a night of all Irish, or all Quebec, or all Breton music, but the point is to show how they are all connected. We also make a point of playing something that belongs to none of us, for example a Venezuelan Waltz, Romanian music—André sometimes plays a bit of swing jazz. We like to leave a bit of room for a little surprise for the audience.


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