The Red River contribution to great music

John Einarson
Local Music Spotlight

The fiddle is at the centre of traditional Métis culture in Western Canada, heard at weddings, New Year’s celebrations and other social gatherings where dancing, including the Red River Jig, is a natural with fiddle music. Not to be confused with the classical violin, fiddling is a distinctly Canadian approach to bowing the strings. Fiddlers were generally self-taught with fiddle songs drawn from Acadian music (from French settlements along the Atlantic coast) and Scottish jigs and reels passed down from generation to generation by ear. Often hand-made fiddles were used.

“Fiddling is extremely important to Manitoba culture in that we have such long running fiddle and dance traditions,” notes renowned local fiddle champion Patti Kusturok, known as “Canada’s old-time fiddling sweetheart.” A member of the North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame, Patti is a six-time Manitoba Champion and three-time Grand North American Champion. “Here on the prairies, fiddling and old-time square-dancing go hand in hand,” she notes, “and the style of the music is always played with dancing in mind. It all started with the house parties, usually in the kitchen, and the music was accompanied by just the feet. 

Two of the best-known Métis fiddlers from Manitoba were Andy Dejarlis and Reg Bouvette. Together they account for close to 100 fiddling albums and toured across Canada. Accompanied by the Red River Mates, Andy Dejarlis began performing on radio in Winnipeg in 1937, graduating to television in the 1950s. After stints in Vancouver and Montreal, he returned to Winnipeg where he continued to play festivals and dances. In his lifetime, Andy published over 200 fiddling songs under his name. After an appearance on CBC TV’s Don Messer’s Jubilee, Messer, no slouch on the fiddle himself, is said to have declared Andy Dejarlis the greatest exponent of old-time fiddling in Canada.

Reg Bouvette cut a dashing figure with his distinctive blue fiddle. Little is known about his early years but there is no doubting his influence on young fiddlers. “I first met Reg Bouvette in 1977 at the Garden City Mall fiddling contest,” Patti remembers. “I was just a kid. My mom put me on her shoulders so I could see and I was hooked. I spent hours listening to his records. To me he was huge star.” In 1986, Patti recorded an album of fiddling numbers with Reg Bouvette entitled The King and the Princess on Sunshine Records. “Of course, it goes without saying that it was a huge honour for me,” she smiles.

Hailing from Selkirk, Manitoba, fiddler Mel Bedard was the first to use the term “Métis” on a record sleeve. A close friend to Andy Dejarlis, Bedard mentored young Patti who also cites Métis fiddler Marcel Meilleur who played second fiddle or harmony on all of Andy Dejarlis’s recordings and at live shows. Raised in the tiny rural community of Vogar, Manitoba, Cliff Maytwayashing is another talented fiddler in the Métis tradition. “If you didn’t tap your foot to his playing, you’d better check your pulse,” laughs Patti. 

Winnipeg-born fiddler Wally Diduck cut a wide swath through the music world in his lengthy career, not only appearing on local television productions like Red River Jamboree, Sesame Street (portions of the Canadian content were produced out of Winnipeg) and My Kind of Country starring Ray St. Germain. Unlike many of his self-taught contemporaries, Wally was a graduate of the Royal Conservatory School of Music at the University of Toronto. Besides playing alongside the likes of Rod Stewart, Anne Murray, Buck Owens and Kenny Rogers, Diduck also performed at Rainbow Stage and the Manitoba Theatre Center in productions of Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Chicago. His colourful fiddling can be heard on singer, songwriter Ray St. Germain’s signature song “The Métis”.

One of our province’s top fiddlers, Stan Winistock from Portage La Prairie, added fiddle to the 1973 Guess Who hit single “Orly”. Fiddlers like Oliver Boulette from Manigotogan, Tayler Fleming from Minitonas, and Portage La Prairie’s Melissa St. Goddard are carrying on the Métis fiddling tradition.