Celtic Colours

Quick Q and A with Hanneke Cassel

Take one fiddle and add a bit of ole Scotland and a bit of Cape Breton and then mix it all up with one of the most effervescent performers you’ll ever witness and you’ll get Hanneke Cassel.  Watching Hanneke play is a joy.  Listening to Hanneke play is a delight. Watching the audience smile and sway and dance is more fun than the proverbial barrel full of monkeys.  At its core, Hanneke’s music is satisfying.  It fills you with joy and it also fills you with wonder.  It’ll make you want to dance and it also makes you want to let your mind wander as the notes float in the air all around you.  What can I say?  A fan.  I think you’ll be too if you check out her music.

To learn more about Hanneke, check out her website.

To get a small taste of Hanneke’s music, watch this video.

The Hanneke Cassel Trio will be playing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, March 16.

Why the fiddle?  😉

I started out with classical violin when I was 8, but from the beginning I had a super hard time reading music and spent endless hours in frustration. When I was 11, my classical teacher moved away and we saw a commercial on TV for a fiddle contest in Crescent City, CA (about an hour and a half south of my hometown on the Oregon coast.) I learned 3 tunes for the contest, competed, and came in 2nd to last.  That part was DEVASTATING 🙂 but seeing so many other kids playing fiddle tunes was really inspiring. My future teacher, Carol Ann Wheeler, was performing and competing in the open division and she announced a fiddle camp from stage. We signed up immediately.  I started taking private lessons with Carol Ann and in addition to old-time and Texas style fiddle, she introduced me to Scottish and Cape Breton music… and the rest is HISTORY.

What is it about the music of Scotland and Cape Breton that moves you so much?

alaI was pulled strongly to the Scottish style when I met and heard Alasdair Fraser at the New Hampshire Highland Games. He encouraged me to go to his camp on the Isle of Skye, where I met Cape Bretoner Buddy MacMaster. The combo of spending a week with these two great fiddlers and ceilidh dancing to tunes all night gave me my love for the Scottish/Cape Breton scene.  I love that Scottish music can make you move and groove to a reel or jig and in the very next moment can leave you totally heartbroken with a slow air.  🙂

When you play traditional music, do stories about the people of those countries run through your mind as the notes come through your instrument?

I wouldn’t say I think about the stories of other people, but I definitely think of my own experiences in Scotland when I’m playing some trad tunes. When I play certain jigs — like Atholl Highlanders, Jig of Slurs, or the Curlew — I imagine doing Strip the Willow (a ceilidh dance) at 2 am at the Gaelic college on Skye, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, and almost getting thrown into the side of the wall. The dance was so crazy and fast… and amazing. I also think of some really fun square sets at Glencoe Hall in Cape Breton when I play certain Cape Breton tunes… especially this set of A-ish reels that Buddy would always play.

What are the main elements of a fiddle camp?  Do you teach people of all ages and level of ability?

The main elements of fiddle camp are 1) partying/jamming all night, 2) forming great friendships with people you hang out with 24/7 for a week, and 3) learning tunes… in that order. 🙂

Most camps I go to DO have people of all ages and ability… and this is one of the things I love about them.

I see that you also teach online.  Tell me about how that works.

A longtime Oregon friend from the Texas fiddle scene, Casey Willis, started a company a few years ago called Fiddle Video. It is an online fiddle lesson website that breaks down tunes into a basic lesson (with minimal grace notes, bowings, etc) and an advanced lesson.  Students can subscribe monthly or yearly and they get full access to all the teachers on the site. Some of my favorites — André Brunet and Kevin Burke — also teach there. I learned a lot of tunes from VIDEOS (remember those???) when I was a teenager… so I think this online teaching scene is really great. It gives people a chance to work on repertoire on their own and spend more time absorbing style and vibe when they are in person with the teachers (at camps, etc.) .

You recently taught at Youth Music Culture in Guangzhou, China.  Was there a language barrier or did the fiddle do all the explaining you needed? 

Directed by Yo-Yo Ma and in collaboration with Guangdong Provincial Department of Culture and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra (GSO), YMCG was a PRETTY exciting 10 days. 🙂  English was the main language used by the teachers and students, so there wasn’t a huge barrier there… and it is true that music is the ‘universal language’ and can break through any walls when they arise.  That being said, it was very exciting for me to practice my VERY VERY VERY basic Mandarin that I picked up when I lived in Shanghai for 3 months (2011) with the students. I was able to teach them about Scottish grace notes and how to CHOP (!) and they helped me with my tones!

Tell us about your most recent album, Trip to Walden Pond. As a big fan of the little piece of heaven on earth and of the man who made it famous, I’d like to know how you connected Scottish tunes with one of the most well-known ponds in American history.  😉

Walden Pond has been my favorite place to swim since I moved to Massachusetts in 1996. I actually have a tune on my FIRST album, My Joy, called “Kelly’s Itsakadoozie” that commemorates a swimming day to Walden and a messy popsicle on the ride home.  (FYI… the “Kelly” in the title there is a MARBLEHEAD resident and a wicked good photographer if anyone is looking… http://www.klimagery.com/) “Trip to Walden Pond” was written the summer of 2013 —  when Mike Block and I got engaged — and although it was not the spot for the engagement, the feeling and vibe of Walden —  and swimming and summer —  kind of encompasses all the joy we felt that month … and it is relayed in the tune. 🙂

You must have many terrific memories of great shows you’ve performed during your career.  Is there one that stands out the most?

There are a few.  We had the chance to play the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton this fall. There’s something about being on the island, surrounded by fiddle music, and people who love fiddle music, that is just really great. I also would say a concert I played in Beijing, China at about 11 pm one night for a bunch of former street kids stands out as one of the best nights in my life. After the show, they all shared their life stories with me. It was kind of unbelievable that these glowing, joyful faces listening and dancing to the music had faced some of the most horrendous tragedies and hardships in their lives. The home I played at was started by Christians and you could really tell that these kids had been transformed by grace and unconditional love. My album For Reasons Unseen and the tunes “Jungle Java” and “Jig for Christina” all came out of that night.