Cult of Celt
The many colors of fiddler Alasdair Fraser
It's a colorful life I lead, says fiddler Alasdair Fraser, with a brogue suggesting the colors should be arranged in a tartan. "I can be wearing a kilt, jumping around like a madman in a field in Atlanta, and maybe the previous week I will have played a recital at a university. And that's one of the greatest things about the music: its resiliency. You can take it to the dance hall, you can take it to the concert hall, you can take it to the outdoor games, and you can put a spin on it. It kind of catches fire each time, but it's a different kind of fire, I think."
Fraser wields his fiddle in six thrilling sets Oct. 20-21 at the Stone Mountain Highland Games & Scottish Festival, combining spirits with Glasgow singer Alex Beaton and possibly summoning other collaborations. "One of the things I love to do is scan the audience for musicians," he says. "It might be a 6-year-old kid with a fiddle, or a brilliant guitar player who happens to be there for some other reason. Jamming is where it's at."
Soon to be added to the catalog of Fraser's Culburnie Records is one of his more surprising jams, Skyedance Live in Spain (available in a few weeks from www.culburnie.com). The recording site makes more sense when you realize that Spain's Celtic region of Galicia is represented on the album, as is the neighboring Basque region. Based near his current home in the California foothills, Fraser's label is named for his father's birthplace in the northern Highlands of Scotland. The grandson of a Gaelic-speaking fiddler and the son of a bagpiper, Fraser was raised in central Scotland with little encouragement to pursue music, and little help from his peers in exploring his traditions.
"Over the centuries, there's been a gradual wearing down of the culture of Scotland by the British Empire," Fraser says. "And this leaves a scar on the psyche of a nation. I was a typical tongue-tied young Scot who wanted to speak in my own accent, my own brogue, the one I used on the playground. But I would go into the classroom, and the teacher would say, 'Speak properly!' What that does is, it crushes you. You try not to speak. Add into that the role of the church. Presbyterianism had a devastating effect on music and song. The fiddle itself was considered 'the devil's box.' So between the church and the British Empire, Scotland was left in a very insecure state."
After secondary school, Fraser obtained what seemed like a more workable degree in physics while studying classical violin and playing in the university orchestra. He found himself wanting to tune his instrument to the strathspeys and other traditional Scottish melodies on which he'd been raised. But the '70s pub crowds seemed far more interested in Irish sounds. "I'd go in and play Scottish tunes, and the places would go silent because no one knew those pipe marches and airs," he recalls.
Post-graduate work for oil companies brought Fraser to San Francisco in 1981, but his unabated musical curiosity inspired a side trip to Canadian Celtic stronghold Cape Breton. So powerful and pure was the survival of antique Scottish fiddle styles there that Fraser was inspired to quit his day job and found his own record label and group, the 60-plus member San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers, as wel as open fiddle schools in California and Scotland.
Fraser can be heard on the Culburnie imprint alone and in duo settings with pianist Paul Machlis or guitarist Tony McManus, where, he says, "I get to use my classical chops." The label is also continuing Fraser's historically vital and critically acclaimed "Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle" series, with a soon-to-come album showcasing "the dance music of the 18th century, as Robert Burns might have come across it in Edinburgh."
In Burns' time, there was a greater abundance of the sort of "jewel-like village atmosphere," which Fraser sees as one the treasures of Stone Mountain. "Many festivals are not like that, they have kind of an urban sprawl thing happening," he notes. "But Stone Mountain has that Southern thing going, where people have time for each other."
They also have more time to "find themselves affected in some way by the sound of the bagpipe, or of some old, plaintive air on the fiddle, and to suddenly find that they can move to the dance."
And therein lies the fiddler's fulfillment.
Alasdair Fraser performs Sat.-Sun., Oct. 20-21, at the Stone Mountain Highland Games & Scottish Festival, Stone Mountain Park. $4-$18. www.smhg.org.??