Cree Fiddler James Cheechoo at 2009 Fiddle Tunes

James Cheechoo
We are deeply honored that James Cheechoo
has accepted an invitation to share his music at Fiddle Tunes this
summer. Mr. Cheechoo is a member of the Moose Cree First Nation, a
Native reserve community located on the old island settlement of Moose
Factory, Ontario, on the southern shore of James Bay. The first English
settlement in Ontario, Moose Factory dates back to the 1670s when it
was established as a major fur trade outpost for the Hudson's Bay
Company. In fact, Mr. Cheechoo essentially traded two fox pelts for his
first fiddle.

From the late 1600s, the island was a
destination point for Hudson Bay Company ships. With the ships came the
Irish and Scots, especially Orkneymen, and their fiddle music slowly
but surely became a part of life on James Bay. Mr. Cheechoo grew up
hearing his father and older brothers play, and he naturally took up
the instrument at age 12.

He’s self-taught, and one of the few
remaining traditional James Bay Cree fiddlers, with a repertoire of
approximately 60 traditional tunes. He says, “I like the old songs more
because the new songs mix it up with the other songs when you play the
new songs. The old songs are pure; that is just the way it is…… I like
it better that way.

His music is generally accompanied by a
handmade skin drum played with two sticks, and sometimes the bones. Mr.
Cheechoo’s wife and son will accompany him to Port Townsend as his
“rhythm section.”

A strong social dance tradition evolved in
James Bay along with the fiddle music. Generally, each tune is
associated with a specific dance -  the Rabbit Dance, the Scratching
Dance, the Kissing Dance or the Elbow Swing are a few. Mr. Cheechoo
describes a typical gathering:

somebody’s house they would make room in the evening. That was where we
would have a dance.  And we got the candles from the store. We would
ask the manager for candles and he would give perhaps 20 candles. That
was what we used. That would make the light good in somebody’s home. He
is making a dance and my father would be playing fiddle. Lots of people
inside – ladies came with their children, and the men. Through the
window on the outside they would look in to see what was happening
inside. We would have many different square dances. Kissing Dance too.
That was good. The Kissing Dance was not used in the beginning. That is
the last one they play before they close off to say good-bye to
everybody. Kissing Dance – I kiss a woman and then she kisses the man.
And they make a big circle. First, two people make a small circle, and
then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger until that’s it. The last lady had to kiss the fiddler.”

Workshop participants take note – this is
a single fiddle tradition, that is, only one fiddler plays at a time.
Our guess is that Mr. Cheechoo will not be leading a band lab!

We’ll post more information on James Cheechoo and the Cree fiddle tradition very soon.

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