Saturday, June 23, 2007

voices: hanneke cassel

Kangaroos, the Red Sox, Perthsire in Scotland, a club in Shanghai, a fiddle camp in Tennessee , friends leaving a Boston neighborhood -- all those things and a dozen others are part of the music on Hanneke Cassel's third album Silver, and when you hear her play, it all makes perfect sense. "I'm pretty seriously grounded in Scottish music," the Boston based fiddler and composer said, "but a lot of my friends play bluegrass, newgrass music. My music is not Americana at all, it's Celtic, but it's influenced by being around those people, seeing how they think musically."

The strong grounding in Scottish and Cape Breton style fiddling, along with her imaginative and passionate playing, are what anchor Cassel's style and approach, whether she's composing tunes, putting songs from U2 over to the fiddle ("listening to U2 is my guilty pleasure," she said, "I love to create the sounds they make with electric instruments but using only acoustic ones"), or creating a medley of traditional Scots pieces. There are other influences in her background too.

Growing up in Port Orford, Oregon, Cassel did classical violin with Suzuki method books for two years, but after her teacher moved away, Cassel's mother saw announcement about a fiddle contest. The young girl learned a few tunes, and they went."I came in next to last, or something, but I saw all these great kids playing fiddle, and they were having so much fun!" she said, and she met up with fiddle teacher Carol Ann Wheeler there, and decided to take lessons with her. "This was Texas style fiddle, that was the stuff that was in the contest," Cassel explained,"but my teacher that year had just been to Valley of the Moon fiddle camp and met Alasdair Fraser and gotten really interested in Scottish style fiddling. She kept trying to get me interested, but I thought it was dumb," she recalled, laughing. She was interested in contests, though, and learned several Scottish tunes, enough to enter, and win, the national Scottish junior fiddle championships. A few years later, she went on to win the US National Scottish Fiddle championship.

"With that first championship came a scholarship to study in Scotland, in Skye, with Buddy MacMaster and Alasdair Fraser, and once I heard them, that was it," she said. "And there couldn't have been two better teachers." Cassel returned to that camp in Skye for several summers, and also began going to camps in America, especially Fraser's Valley of the Moon camp in California and Mark O'Connor's camps near Nashville, Tennessee. "Fiddle camps are just the best life,"she said. It's the community as much as the classes. I grew up in a small town, and while I got along with everyone, I didn't always feel I fit in. I think a lot of kids, and adults, feel that way -- and at fiddle camps it's just this community of people playing music." After several years as a student, Cassel began teaching at the camps, which she still does. "To be able to encourage people to play, to just go crazy and fiddle all, night, that's great!" she said.

But what is Scottish style fiddling, anyway? "With Scottish music you have Cape Breton, which is kind of rhythmic and percussive and in your face, which is the style of the Western highlands in Scotland too," Cassel said. "and then there is the east coast style of music, which is what you play for Scottish country dancing -- that's actually heavily influenced by classical music, and it's very grand and schmaltzy, and then there's the new kind of Scottish music these days which is I would say heavily influenced by Irish music. Irish music, I think, I'd call it a little more swirly or something like that, it has more ornamentation. I think of Irish music like someone sitting in a pub, bending over, really getting deep into the music, and Scottish music I think of as people standing on the tables!" Cassel said, laughing.

Her own musical journey brought Cassel to Boston, where she earned a degree in violin performance from Berklee, studying classical music. "I think I've been paid to play classical music once in my life," Cassel said, "but I learned a lot at Berklee, and I love Boston and the whole music scene here."
Cassel has played in castles in France at Scottish country dances, fronted her own band at the Boston Celtic Music Festival, and toured Europe and North America for several years with top Irish American singer and songwriter Cathie Ryan. The last few years have seen her on the road more than at home, and one of her plans for 2007 is to stay a bit closer to her Boston base for a while. "I probably won't!" says the woman whose musical travels in recent years have taken her to New Zealand, China, Austria, Cape Breton, and the UK, as well as across America, "But that's in the plan right now." That, and writing more tunes out of where that experience takes her.

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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