This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Winter 2009/2010 issue
Six issues back, I mused in this column about how traditional Celtic tunes mutate over time. I followed a century’s worth of transcriptions of “The Maid Behind the Bar”, noting how the settings changed in detail while maintaining the essential shape of the tune. Sure, one would expect a tune to change in a hundred years, but how about overnight? And how about if I’m the one responsible?
I’ve long held that we mando players have the right and responsibility to alter traditional Celtic tunes to suit the structural limitations of our instruments, since mostly we learn from players playing instruments common in the tradition long before the first mando player wandered into a pub session. Mandos cannot bow skip or do ornamental turns like fiddles. Mandos cannot slide between notes like uilleann pipes. Some arpeggios or melodic leaps that box players can pull off without batting an eye give mandos fits. We’re late to the party and must devise our own unique take on things both to please ourselves and to enrich the tradition.
With this attitude, I have unapologetically learned tunes from box players and fiddlers and whistlers and mando-ized my settings, always trying to maintain the essential tune shape and to find ways for the mando to jive nicely with what the other instruments were doing.
But recently I noticed something about how I learn some Celtic tunes from the farther fringes of the tradition, notably from Québec (I get plenty of input since bandmate Kevin Carr is thoroughly marinated in Québecois music and style and keeps playing me these wonderful tunes). Québec is a self-identified member of the extended Celtic family, but offers subtleties of melody, ornament, and emphasis that I, the player raised on 30 years of Irish and Scottish tunes, find strangely hard to learn or retain. It seems that after all this time playing jigs and reels in various British Isles regional styles, my fingers and brain recognize shapes very quickly, but then fill the shapes in with well-worn Irish and Scottish phrases and comfortable arpeggios which, while they vaguely resemble the Québecois reality, alter the details substantially. And what’s more troubling: I don’t actually realize I’m doing it until weeks or months later when I try to teach a self-transcribed tune to somebody else and my careful transcription has become an unfamiliar minefield.
This is a shame, since any Irish or Scottish mando enthusiast will find great joy in the Québecois tradition and vast repertoire and heck, it’s worth learning right at least for starters, before launching off and taking artistic liberties.
So let’s see what befell “Ronde de Voyageur” at my hands. “Ronde de Voyageur” is a cool Québec dance called a ronde, which is in straight 4/4 time and could sit happily in a Celtic session medley with any number of swingy reels. It’s like a reel, but it’s not a reel. Even without the requisite clogging accompaniment so popular up north of the border, this tune likes to swing, so approach it accordingly.
I’m giving two transcribed versions of the tune, first the way Kevin Carr played it for me on fiddle, and the second as my unconscious alteration delivered it up several months later. I like both, and if you cleave closely to each version you will find enjoyable aspects and quickly perceive the differences. So let’s run down the most important differences here.
Right out of the starting gate, the first bar rhythmic emphasis of Kevin’s setting anticipates the third beat with a strong accent, while other rhythmic or chordal instruments in the ensemble stay rock steady on the three beat. My setting straightens this out and adds another passing low note, to boot.
The last two bars of the A part are perhaps the most different, though they both serve the purpose of bouncing down the melodic stairs to the low A, two full octaves from the top of the melody. I can only surmise that my fingers are thinking “Farewell to Ireland” in here, since that tune long ago established itself in my mind as a two-octave roller-coaster ride. Kevin’s setting is solidly Québecois, while mine is all Irish and a yard wide.
The B part is less altered, though I’ve added some short emphasis notes within Kevin’s longer ones in the third and sixth bars. My busy right wrist just wants to keep propelling the swing and can’t leave well enough alone, either on fiddle or mando.
So try both settings out and either pick one or come up with a third to call your own. The chording I hear in my head is mostly Scottish-sounding modal, with minor 1 (Am), flatted 7 (G), and 5 (E) being pretty much all you’ll need. And if you like the sound of this, start hunting up more of the abundant Québecois music available. I’ll be showing you a particularly weird Québec dance form in an upcoming column.