This is another one of those posts that unrigorously traces the connections between traditional songs. In this case, some French songs about the wolf, the fox, and either the hare or the weasel.
First, I encountered “La jument de Michao” by the Breton folk rock band Tri Yann, whom I’ve gone on about before. It’s a countdown song (“It’s in ten years… It’s in nine years…”) featuring Michao’s mare, who succumbs to instant gratification and, with her colt, eats all the hay in the field, a fit of gluttony she will regret come winter. It also features the refrain (translated): “I hear the wolf, the fox, and the weasel / I hear the wolf and the fox singing”.
Then I discovered the song “J’ai vu le loup” in a Christmas context, though there’s nothing Christmas-y about it, as far as I know. In the song, the characters are the wolf, the fox, and the hare, as in: “I saw the wolf, the fox, the hare / I saw the wolf, the fox dancing”. Though the words are similar to parts of “La jument de Michao”, the tune is entirely different.
But then I stumbled upon this recording, also entitled “J’ai vu le loup”, which smashes together the tunes and texts of the Tri Yann song and the other “J’ai vu le loup” with lovely results! So are the songs actually related?
It seems that the first “J’ai vu le loup” is a Burgundian song and that Tri Yann’s “La jument de Michao” actually melds two songs, a Breton version of “J’ai vu le loup” and the unrelated “La jument de Michao”. This Wikipedia page is somewhat informative, but more so in the French version than the English version (interesting that the only other two languages this page is available in are Swedish and Basque).
Finally, if you want a modern update that takes things in a different direction, try French Celtic rap group Manau’s “Mais qui est la belette?”.
Yesterday was the inaugural celebration for the new Center for World Music at UCLA. When I heard the festivities would include a performance by an ensemble including nyckelharpa, I decided I had to go. I had no intention, however, of staying for the lecture to follow, and I did not RSVP, even though attendees were supposed to.
I arrived at the Faculty Center and had to ask directions to the Sequoia Room. As I had feared, there was a greeter/doorkeeper matching names to a guest list, but when I admitted I hadn’t RSVPed, she said it was no problem and gave me a program. So I guess I didn’t really crash the event.
The first part of the concert, which began just after I arrived, featured a duo playing Thai classical music, about which I know nothing. One woman played khim (a hammered dulcimer that didn’t look so different from a Western one), and the other played jakhee (a three-stringed zither) and sau uu (described as a two-stringed fiddle with coconut shell–it looked kind of like an erhu). The khim and the jakhee both had a bright, resonant sound, and I enjoyed the music.
The second part of the concert featured Skin and Strings, a “bluegrass fusion trio” made up of ethnomusicology grad students who debuted as an ensemble in Shanghai a few years ago. For their first piece, one guy played banjo, another played tabla, and the third played the much-anticipated nyckelharpa.
The nyckelharpa is a Swedish fiddle-like instrument. It’s halfway between a hurdy-gurdy and a violin; it has keys like a hurdy-gurdy, but it’s bowed like a violin. It also has sympathetic strings. The first time I ever saw a nyckelharpa was at NEFFA (the New England Folk Festival) when I was a sophomore in college. Walking through the crowded hallways of Mansfield High School, I saw someone playing an unfamiliar and utterly beguiling instrument and immediately thought, What is that? I must know!
Coming back to last night, Skin and Strings’ second piece was a sort of mash-up of Indian classical music and bluegrass. The tabla player switched to sitar (I think?) and jingle sticks, and the whole trio sang. For their last piece, the banjo player switched to fiddle. While he played, the tabla player struck the violin’s strings and body with two bamboo skewers. Meanwhile, the nyckelharpa player had traded his nyckelharpa for a plywood platform, on which he started out doing Québécois podorythmie. This morphed into tapping/clogging.
And that was it! I ducked out as the distinguished speaker was being introduced. (I had had the chance to partake of the Faculty Center-grade hors d’oeuvres–think miniature quiches and crab cakes). In total I heard less than 30 minutes of music, but it was worth it.
If you want to hear what a solo nyckelharpa sounds like, here is a video from a Swarthmore Student and Alumni Composers concert I attended on my twentieth birthday. The first tune is a waltz played on nyckelharpa. (If you watch the whole thing, you’ll hear a bit about the Folk Dance Club I was in in college. Also, I’m very fond of the last tune, A Nice Touch.)
I spent the first half of last week at Camp Kiya, a traditional music camp in Tehachapi, CA. My friend Chase, a fellow student in my department, had heard about the camp, decided to go, and invited me to come too.
All packed and ready to go
We left on a Sunday morning in a rental car with one cello, one fiddle, one hammered dulcimer, a collection of Irish whistles, and camping gear and drove north across scrubby desert, through a forest of windmills in the mountains, and past a Norbertine monastery to Tehachapi Mountain Park. The park itself was not scrubby but wooded, with tall pines and live oaks full of mistletoe. We pitched our tent at a campsite on the other side of the hill from the cabins of the main camp, near some other campers’ RV.
The three and a half days of camp were filled with classes in fiddle, cello, bass, guitar, harp, mandolin, accordion, mountain dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, harmonica, Irish whistle, ukulele, and bodhran, not to mention hula, Irish, and Cape Breton dancing. Styles and genres ranged from blues to classical, old-time to Scandinavian. There were lots of opportunities to pick up a brand new instrument, but I stuck to Intermediate/Advanced Cello and Celtic and Welsh fiddle. In each class, we’d learn a tune or two by ear, plus ornamentation or, in cello class, chords. There were certain tunes that recurred across classes. For instance, both the cellos and the Welsh fiddles learned a tune called Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper), and the cellos, mountain dulcimers, and accordions all learned the tune Crested Hens (Les Poules Huppées).
Part of what I hoped to do at camp was get better at accompanying on cello, because a folk cellist isn’t really expected to play melody much of the time. Well, I’m still pretty bad at chopping, but I did learn some stuff. I was also pleasantly surprised to find I could hold my own in a fiddle class despite having no formal training. The Scottish Fiddlers of LA tried to recruit me (although they may have been trying to recruit everybody…).
Me tuning my cello by our tent
One of the cool things about camp was that it was totally normal to be a multi-instrumentalist. In classical music circles, this is less common; you have your instrument, and that’s it (or maybe you also play the piano). At Camp Kiya, most people played two or more instruments: guitar and harmonica; bouzouki, whistle, and bodhran; harp and accordion; cello and mountain dulcimer. Another cool thing was how intergenerational camp was. There were cellists of all ages in my class. My Celtic fiddle teacher was in his eighties. There were young children doing fiddle and cello from scratch while their parents attended other classes. There aren’t that many settings in which unrelated people of all ages mix like this.
The camp’s name comes from the Nuwa (Kawaiisu) word kiya, meaning ‘laughter’ or ‘play’. Nuwa is the language spoken by the indigenous people of Tehachapi; it belongs to the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family. I learned about Nuwa from Jon Hammond, a camp instructor who owns a ranch in Tehachapi and is one of three fluent speakers of the language. We all heard him introduce his seven-year-old daughter, Kiya, in Nuwa on the first night of camp and also give a blessing in Nuwa at the ceilidh.
The ceilidh was not a dance party but a camper talent show. It was held on Tuesday night at the fire circle. People sang and played and told stories and jokes. Chase and I sang a two-voiced version of Okro Mch’edelo, which, like all Georgian songs, is actually in three-part harmony. After the ceilidh, we joined the Celtic jam session in Cabin 1, wedging ourselves with cello and Irish whistle in a lower bunk in the corner.
Chase playing hammered dulcimer at our campsite
On Wednesday afternoon, after my cello class and Chase’s hammered dulcimer rehearsal, we sat in a nook on the footbridge between the mess hall and the fire circle and went through Chase’s Datvebis Gundi folder, singing more Georgian songs. As we sang, a fire crew tromped through camp, inspecting a dead pine and who knows what else. When we’d exhausted our Georgian repertoire, we also sang the tenor and alto parts of a few Sacred Harp tunes: Wondrous Love, Idumea, New Britain.
Wednesday evening was the campers’ concert. Chase performed Ode to Joy in a hammered dulcimer trio and also played with the fiddle from scratch class. I played a set with the Welsh fiddlers (with my cello class backing up), then switched to cello for our two tunes, a bourrée and the amazing Raivlin Reel. We also backed up the Scandinavian/Nordic fiddlers on the Danish (?) tune Kingo P. Here is a video (by fellow camper Alan) of me with the Welsh fiddlers. The set is Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper) – Tri a Chwech (Three and Six) – Ymdaith Gwyr Dyfnaint (March of the Men of Devon) – Y Lili (The Lily). I’m not sure you can hear me, which is probably a good thing, but hey, my bow seems to be moving in the right direction most of the time!
So, I hate shopping. My whole family is allergic. Consequently, it is an unusual day that sees me entering a store to buy anything other than groceries or perhaps books. However, I also covet musical instruments. And so a week or so ago, when a couple of violin cases appeared in the window of one of the National Council of Jewish Women thrift shops in my neighborhood, I noticed.
I’ve kind of wanted a violin for a long time. In orchestra class, I’d always ask my violinist and violist friends to let me play their instruments. Toward the end of high school, a friend of mine lent me her violin for a summer so I could really figure out how to play. And then at the end of my senior year of college, a friend from Folk Dance Club lent me her violin for that strange in between period after classes had ended but before graduation, and another folk dance friend and I wandered the dormitory playing “The Wren” on penny whistle and fiddle, respectively.
In fact, it was because of Folk Dance Club that my interest in acquiring a violin intensified. I discovered oodles of jigs and reels I wanted to play, and though I could play some of them on the cello, there’s less scope for fiddling on the cello than there is on the violin (Natalie Haas notwithstanding). But I knew I wasn’t going to pursue the violin seriously enough to make it worth going out and buying an actual good instrument, so I just waited and learned to play lots of tunes on cello.
Fast forward to those violin cases in the Council thrift shop window. It immediately occurred to me this might be my chance to get hold of a violin cheaply. On the other hand, I barely had enough time to practice cello anymore, so why was I considering picking up another musical instrument? In the end, I couldn’t resist stopping in the thrift store. I tried not to get my hopes up, telling myself the cases might be just that, empty cases. Who donated violins to thrift shops? (On the other hand, there was also a grand piano in this thrift shop, and last fall I saw a Mason & Hamlin pump organ in the Goodwill down the street.)
I squeezed into the space between the jewelry case and a belt rack and picked up the violin cases. They felt too light to have anything inside, but when I unzipped them, there they were, the violins. One was missing the G string, and the other was missing both the D and A strings, but neither was broken. I tightened and loosened the bows, twisted the fine tuners, examined the pegs, plucked the strings, and peered through the F-holes. I’m decidedly lacking in expertise, but the instruments didn’t strike me as pieces of junk. So I decided to buy the three-stringed violin. As I was discussing the price with a clerk, a small group gathered, apparently impressed that I was buying a violin in a thrift shop. A woman even started to ask me for advice as she considered buying the two-stringed violin for her fifteen-year-old daughter.
I took my new violin home. The next day, I carefully tuned its three strings, applied some Magic rosinto the bow, and gave it a whirl. Turns out I’m kind of rusty. The neighbors are probably thinking, Oh, no, the resident of #8 has another stringed instrument now? And this one she can’t even play? I sawed out “Wachet auf” and “Finlandia,” but it’ll probably take some time (and a new string) before I work my way up to “Curvy Road to Corinth.”
My new three-stringed fiddle
If I am an amateur cellist, I am a dilettante violinist. I don’t aspire to play Bach partitas. In Sparkers, though, Marah plays the violin, not the cello. Why? I’m not really sure. I think I pictured her tromping all over the city with her instrument, and I couldn’t really see her lugging a cello around. But in Book 2, which I’m currently revising, the main character is exactly like me. She’s a cellist by training, but she likes to mess around on her brother’s violin too. So putting myself in her shoes can be my excuse for spending time playing my new violin. Now, how many years will it take me to acquire a nyckelharpa?