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Stakeholder Spotlight: Wild Rose Old Tyme Fiddlers Association

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Written by: Gaylene Manuel

I had the pleasure of talking with Val Nathansan, Director-Gig and Performances, with the Wild Rose Old Tyme Fiddlers Association (WROTFA).

G: Tell me about yourself and your role in the organization?

V: I grew up as a classical violinist and that was my world, classical violin. I was a schoolteacher, school and music, for 38 years. When I retired, my husband had passed away and my kids were grown, and I thought now what am I going to do? So, I pulled out the violin, started playing, and thought, “hang this, I’m retired and I want to have fun, so I’m going to learn how to fiddle!”

My father was a farmer. He’d come in from milking the cows with his hired men and they’d say, “Val, play us a tune!” And I’d play them Bach’s Partita #6. They were very polite and clapped, but finally someone said, “Can you play Turkey in the Straw?” And I said, “Actually, no, I can’t.”

During COVID, I got to go to workshops and camps led by some of the best fiddlers in the world because their performing careers stopped. I studied with Alistair Fraser, who is probably the best Scottish fiddler in the world. Kevin Burke, the best Irish Fiddler the world, Jay Ungar at the Ashokan Center in New York, and Calvin Vollrath, Canada’s prime fiddler. And I could do that all in my pajamas.

I have learned and studied, and I finally got to a point where I thought, “I think I can fiddle.” I just entered a competition, our competition the GNA (Grand North American Old-Time Fiddle Championship), and I won my category, the Golden category, at 70 years old! I didn’t expect it because I was competing with a 91-year-old and a 93-year-old who’ve been fiddling since they were 13; now those are the real fiddlers! It was quite a surprise, but I thought, “Okay, I’ve arrived. I can fiddle now.”

It’s not just playing Turkey in the Straw; it’s playing Turkey in the Straw correctly!

G: What is your role in the organization?

V: I joined Wild Rose Old Tyme Fiddlers in 2019. I joined their board in 2021 as the Gig Director. In my role, I'm responsible for coordinating our musicians to go and entertain wherever the request might come from. I coordinate the gigs in and around the Edmonton area.

Our gigs were born out of a mutual desire for us to play in senior residences. We started with a small group, but the more we played in assisted living facilities and senior residences, the more we wanted to continue to do that. We have played at other community events, like Silver Skate, but our absolute favourite place to play is the senior residences, senior homes and assisted living facilities. We just love playing for seniors. That’s where our heart lies, so, really, it's just a wonderful experience of meeting people and going places.

G: Please share some background and history about the organization.

V: WROTFA came into existence in 1989 as a not-for-profit organization and our mandate is to encourage, foster and develop an appreciation of Old Tyme Fiddle Music in a spirit of friendship, and to preserve this musical heritage for our generation and for future generations to enjoy (membership costs $20 per year). We like to foster young musicians, so we have seniors helping the little ones.

Wild Rose Old Tyme Fiddlers at the Seniors' Week Kick-Off Event at City Hall, June 2023

G: What is the difference between classical violin and fiddle?

V: Some people think it's a different instrument, but it’s not, it’s the same instrument. It's a completely different genre, like how classical and jazz are completely different.

I thought when I took up fiddle that I would just be able to have fun and play. Little did I know that while I played beautiful music, fiddlers would say, “Yeah, okay to drop the classical stuff.” And I thought, “Well, I don't know how to do that.” It's a whole completely different style.

Let me put it this way, fiddlers want people to dance. If we're playing and the audience isn’t tapping their toes or feeling the groove, then we're really not playing fiddle music. We have to put a groove in it. When I get a piece of fiddle music that's just the blueprint. I have to enhance it and make it my own. I might change the rhythm a little bit; I might add some extra notes. Whereas, in classical music if I play Bach, I need to interpret those notes exactly as written, according to the way Bach wanted it to be played.

It also goes down to the style of bowing. In classical, you want to use the whole bow and make long strokes. In fiddle, you want to use maybe an inch or two at the higher end of the bow.

G: Do you know the origins of fiddle music?

V: I know roughly. Back at the beginning of colonization when settlers were moving here, people worked hard. They worked really hard and so they liked to occasionally have some fun recreation and they liked to dance. The most compact instrument in the world is a violin/fiddle; you just need to pick up a case and you can go anywhere with it. And so, a lot of the settlers had one fiddler who would play till the wee hours in the morning and people would dance to that one little fiddle.

The Metis fiddlers are actually the first fiddlers in Alberta. Their style of fiddling is amazing, but difficult to play and different from Old Tyme. So, it just grew from there. When you’re moving your whole life, you can’t bring the whole band.

G: Do you hold events?

V: Everyone is invited to come play or just listen and have a cup of tea/coffee at our weekly jams on Monday evenings from 7:00 to 10:00 at Pleasantview Community Hall, 10860-57 Avenue in Edmonton. Fiddlers, guitars, banjos, keyboards, accordions, mandolins...all are welcome, as well as anyone who just wants to come and listen. $5 admission (to help cover the cost of the coffee break treats).

If you want to dance...come out to Kingsway Legion every second Thursday from 6:30 to 10:00. Each time we are there, approximately 115 to 135 dancers, mostly seniors, fill the floor to dance to waltzes, foxtrots, two-steps, polkas and more!  So much fun. The calendar is on our website and Facebook page.

We host fiddle festivals with fiddle workshops, step dancing workshops and it always ends in a dance.

Our main event is the Grand North American Old Time Fiddle Championship that takes place every year, the third week of July, and 2024 will be our 40th anniversary. There are jams, workshops, and barn dances. It’s a wonderful weekend for everyone.

G: Is your organization open to collaborating with other organizations in the seniors-sector? Is so, which organizations are interested in collaborating with?

V: We would love to be a part of anything to do with seniors. In April, WROTFA was thrilled to play at the opening ceremonies of ASCHA's "Home for Housing Convention and Trade Show" at the Shaw Convention Center. We would love to work with them again.

A real highlight for us was playing at the "Seniors Kick Off Week" at City Hall the first week of June. We met so many wonderful people who give their all to the betterment of seniors' lives. And we would love to be a part of that movement for sure!

GEF Senior’s Housing for a senior friendly Edmonton....what could be better than that? We have played at senior activity centers and are always interested in more. Playing for seniors is at the heart of our gigs.  And I know there are many other organizations that I am unaware of which could be a perfect match for some collaboration.

Our website: www.wildrosefiddlers.org

Our email: wildrosefiddlers@gmail.com

For gig inquiries: Val at wrotfagigs@gmail.com       Phone:(780)243-7046

Nothing makes a fiddler happier than when people are dancing!