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Old-time fiddling alive and well

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Carol Jenson smiles as she plays her fiddle on one of more than 30 tunes played at a Thursday night jam.
Old Time fiddle music was once a staple of Canadian airwaves on radio and famously, on television's Don Messer's Jubilee, where for the dozen years it ran, it was eclipsed in popularity only by Hockey Night in Canada.
But while it may no longer be regularly heard or seen on commercial radio or TV, that doesn't mean it has disappeared. Several times a week in Kelowna, dedicated individuals, most with a fiddle tucked under their chin, are keeping alive a cherished musical tradition.
Every Thursday night, the members of Branch 7 of the B.C. Old Time Fiddlers Association get together at the Rutland Seniors Centre to play the jigs, reels, waltzes, foxtrots, pattern dances and other tunes that make up the upbeat repertoire they clearly love.
What makes them so devoted to the music though, some of it conceived many years ago?
"Fiddle was king in the '50s," said Branch 7 vice-president and provincial president John Tribe, who started fiddling when he joined the group 18 years ago. "So he (Don Messer) was an outgrowth of that.
"A lot our members come from the Prairies and that's where they know the dances from," said his wife, Lynn, who has been a member for around 15 years, though she only started fiddling five years ago.
Formed in 1979, the Kelowna Old Time Fiddlers, as they're informally known, are part of the provincial association that has branches all around B.C. and encourages players of all abilities who love this kind of music.
"We have a membership of around 75," said Lynn Tribe. "And of those, about half are musicians and half of those are fiddle players."
They arrange their seats in a circle so each can see the others. The group of a dozen fiddlers, a couple of guitarists, and assorted others playing everything from piano, accordion and electric bass to harmonica, snare drum, ukulele and even a washtub bass, took a few minutes to tune up and in some cases, get their sheet music organized or set up an iPad loaded with their favourite numbers in musical notation.
Originally from the Prairies, chapter president Wayne Angman has been playing for about eight years.
The story of how he came to be an Old Time fiddler is not that unlike several others in the group. Raised in an environment where live music in the home was perhaps more common than it is now, he got his instrument from a relative.
"I've had this fiddle since 1957," he said. "I got it from my uncle, but I didn't do anything with it until I moved here."
Branch 7 will host its 18th annual fiddling contest this summer, featuring seven different categories for "all ages and skill levels" and more than $3,000 in prizes. The Thursday night practice/jam sessions, however, are strictly for fun and anyone that has an interest in playing, dancing, or even just listening along is welcome.
"Mostly here, you learn by doing," Angman said, looking around the room as the others readied themselves to play. "Other people help you and you help other people."
With that, the musicians launch into a spirited rendition of a tune called Cock of the North, also known as Chase Me Charlie, and the evening is under way. Each of the musicians gets to pick up to three tunes, some more challenging than others, but no matter the level of ability, all are welcome and there are smiles all around to prove it.
On the third Friday of each month, the group also hosts a popular dance starting at 7:30 p.m. at the Rutland Seniors Centre on Dodd Road. As well, members regularly play at area care centres and retirement homes and enthusiastically participate in community events like Rutland May Days, where they play on a float in the annual parade.
In an effort to keep the tradition of old-time fiddling alive, they also put on the Fiddling For Fun program each Tuesday at the seniors centre, along with a learning session for adults, both geared towards those just getting into this style of music.
This particular night, for two hours, the group ran through at least 30 different tunes, ranging from fiddle staples such as Red Wing and Don Messer's signature tune, Smile the While ('Till We Meet Again), to some country and western songs - and even classics such as Harbour Lights, made famous by The Platters and others.
While 90-year-old ex-RCMP member Andy Jones was holding up his end on the harmonica this Thursday, a couple of seats away around the circle, Heather Ellett was adding to the fiddle melodies.
A nurse in the operating room at Kelowna General Hospital, she is one of the newer members of the group. Although she took some Suzuki Method violin lessons earlier in life, she was encouraged to explore old-time fiddle music through a colleague.
"The Joys of Quebec was the first fiddle tune I picked up," she said afterwards. "It took me about a half-hour."
Now she has "at least 100" tunes in her repertoire and growing.
"I've been hanging around a year or two," she added. "But I think my favourite is Sheguiandah Bay, it has such a pretty melody."
With that, Ellett and the rest of the members of Branch 7 of the fiddlers association pack up their instruments and safely put them back into their cases until their next jam session or dance.
Judging by the satisfied looks on the many faces, it appears the future of a Canadian musical tradition is in safe hands for some time yet.
For more information on the Kelowna Old Time Fiddlers and other chapters around the province go to bcfiddlers.org.

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