Hommage Quebecois- I could go on about the Syracuse Contradance and maybe some other time I will expand that chapter but since this is ostensibly about my musical history, let's get back to that. After my "on the job" training with Paul, I decided it was time to put together a real band for Contradances. We're now in the late 1980's. I heard about a woman by the name of Margaret Matthews who had started to learn contradance piano but didn't currently have anyone to play with. As I had fallen in love with the piano-fiddle duet sound popular at New England dances, I approached her with the idea of becoming a duet. After a few test sessions, we agreed to make a go of it and Hommage Quebecois was born. Why the French name, you might ask?
I had been attending Northern Week at Ashokan fiddle and dance camp during the past couple of years and become quite enamored of the French Canadian repertoire. Many years before that I had been at a late night jam session after one of the CLJB gigs and someone had said that I played like a French Canadian fiddler. I had no idea what they were talking about but took it as a compliment. I later had the great fortune of receiving my first formal instructions in that music from Lisa Ornstein, a teacher of said music at Ashokan. By this time, I had heard the music and decided that I wanted to learn it. Lisa had also originally been an Old Timey fiddler who had fallen in love with both the French Canadian repertoire and a player of the same. In fact, she did a musical doctoral dissertation on the music and so was quite knowledgeable in the background, the different styles and many of the players. And she had even learned how to speak French just for learning the music! Now that's what I call dedication. Lisa taught her Ashokan students some tunes and the bowing styles and techniques and as part of the camp, each of the instructors of the various fiddle styles would get their students to learn at least one tune set to play at the last Saturday night dance. So we had to play a few simple tunes in style and up to dance speed. It was great fun. She also had produced a couple of cassette tapes of her playing with some of the popular Quebecois musicians. The first tape was called Les Danseries De Quebec and featured Robert Legault on harmonica, Lisa on violin, Denis Pepin on accordeon, Yvan Brault on piano, Guy Bouchard on guitar and pieds, Daniel Roy on bones and Nicholas Hawes on pieds. Of course, I purchased both tapes and after camp was over, I spent the next year memorizing all the tunes on them. As far as I know, these tapes are now out of print. That first year, Lisa had also brought an accordion player by the name of Stephan Landry and a guitarist/accordeonist and step dancer by the name of Norman Legault. I also took Norman's French Candian step dancing class. So I was getting quite the Quebecois musical immersion experience. All this just to explain why I decided to name the duo Hommage Quebecois! I later learned that Hommage with 2 "m"s is not really a French word but that was ok. People knew what we meant.
Since I had started playing a lot of FC tunes we decided to focus the duo's repertoire on that style of music. I did this for 2 main reasons. First, there were a lot of bands at that time playing New England, Southern and Irish tunes but not many playing a significant amount of FC at contradances. This was for a good reason. Many of the FC tunes are what is known as "crooked" and contradances require tunes that are not "crooked" or what is commonly called square. That is, they must have equal first and second parts and each part has to be 16 bars long for a total of 32 bars. One time through a contradance figure requires 32 bars of music. If a tune is crooked, that means that either the first or second parts are not equal or that once through the tune is not 32 bars. This can screw up the callers and the dancers and the dance gets "off the music". When that happens, the dancers and the callers are not happy campers. Since I really loved the music and a lot of it was crooked, what I decided to do was take the tunes I love and if possible, "straighten them out". If a part was too short (rare), I would add a couple of notes and if it was too long (very common) I would take out a few notes. Since I wasn't rooted in the tradition, I didn't feel that I had to adhere to it and that it was more important to expose the contradancers to this wonderful dance music than it was to not play the tunes because they wouldn't fit. And I figured that it was just part of the "folk process". People have always altered music to fit their tastes or styles. Which is again, a long way of saying that I wanted something that would make our duo sound different than everyone else. Give us a slight edge over a lot of the competition. What we lacked in experience and technique, we made up for in uniqueness. It was a good move. The dancers loved it! Even if sometimes, I did let the tempo get a bit out of hand (always been a problem for me, he said sheepishly). The second reason, as already mentioned above is that I loved this music! And I loved playing for dancers and wanted to share it with them. Margaret and I built up a nice little circuit of dances that enjoyed our music and were able to play several times a month if we wanted to. Since I was back in graduate school at this point with an income of less than 10K a year, it was a nice to have the little infusions of cash to help pay the bills and enable me to go out to dinner now and then.
After about 4 years of playing as a duo, Peter Blue, a musician and caller that we had worked with asked if we'd be interested in having him join us. Peter played accordion and Dumbeck. And he was a darn nice person. How could we refuse. We tried a couple of gigs and Peter fit in like he was meant to be there. He couldn't make a lot of the longer distance road gigs but anything fairly local he was usually good for so we still got to play as a duo and more often than not, as a trio. Plus we had the added bonus of having our own caller with us. Once the dancers were off and running, he'd pick up his accordion or drum and add to the music until the end of the dance. It was great fun and the dancers really liked it too. Not only that but since he also loved the FC repertoire and was a caller, he was collecting dances that could be danced to crooked tunes. That was great fun because it meant we could play the tunes the way they were written when he called one of those dances. Only problem was that it was a bit challenging for the dancers as they were so ingrained with square tunes and dances. But the dancers put up with us and we didn't foist too many of those sets on them. HQ was together for a total of about 8 years and only disbanded because I finished graduate school and left to take a postdoctoral position at the University of British Columbia in the fall of 1995. Margaret has gone on to become quite a well known caller and contradance piano player, performing in another local band caller Near Ms. and often is asked to accompany fiddlers on the spur of the moment. I have been fortunate and lucky to have so many talented people to play music with.
At some point during that time period, I also played in another band with Margaret called "The Other Right Hand". This band had myself on fiddle, Margaret on piano and David Smuckler and Laurel Smuckler on fiddle and recorders, respectively. David also played guitar and was a seasoned caller and Laurel was also an accomplished whistle player. We never played out of town as David and Laurel were raising a family of very interesting children. Occasionally, their son Zeke would join us on banjo as he was learning banjo at that time. It was quite a lot of fun and the repertoire centered mostly on the New England and Irish contradance "chestnuts". David also loved to call singing squares so we did a fair number of those tunes, as well. And again, we had the bonus of having the caller in the band. That is such a good thing because it means they can really have input into what tunes work with what dances.
I also played in another trio consisting of myself on fiddle, Henry Jankiewicz from the Cranberry Lake Jug Band (remember them?) on fiddle and Tom Hodgson on guitar. I think we played about 3 gigs but we had fun practicing and trying to use tunes for dances that noone else was playing. We searched high and wide for a good name and finally came up with Contrasuarus. I still like that name. Has a certain ring to it. Especially as I get older and more outdated, myself.
The next chapter will describe my Vancouver, BC band adventures so stay tuned, I should get to it in the next few months. TO BE CONTINUED
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