Living in the mountains of Appalachia, the old time banjo holds a special place in my heart.
Watching friends frail away on those five strings is always a source of wonder to me, as I can’t – regardless of the intensity of the focus I offer the player’s frailing hand – figure out exactly what is happening. The dissonance between my ears and my eyes is certainly caused by the fact that I am hearing more sounds than my eyes are allowing for.
Perhaps I need to spend some tine with Daniel Koulack. This Canadian old time picker is a master banjoist, having picked up the five string as a kid. Koulack has recently released Frailing To Succeed, a masterful blending of his old time roots with his more progressive jazz leanings. This month, we are featuring “The Glenn Gould Piece,” an homage to legendary Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould, on Trail Mix.
I recently chatted with Daniel about discovering the old time banjo, Christmas tunes, and growing a generation of fiddlers in the wilds of Manitoba.
BRO – Who was the artist that brought you to playing old time banjo?
DK – When I was eleven years old, I was playing ping pong in my friend Tery Karasovitch’s basement, and she said, “I’m going to learn to play the banjo. Why don’t you learn too and we can play together?” When I got home, I went straight upstairs and put on some 78s – for the young folks, some very old records – of early Pete Seeger and I got really excited about this idea. By 5 o’clock that night, I was sitting in the dining room with a rented banjo and Pete’s How To Play The Five String Banjo. Terry never ended up trying to learn!
BRO – What was the inspiration behind the Frontier Fiddle program?
DK – The fiddle has been a part of the culture of Northern Manitoba for over 350 years, since the early days of the fur trade. A wonderful teacher, Blaine Klippenstein, kept hearing stories in different communities about the fiddle music and dances, but there was a missing generation of old time fiddlers. He decided to buy some fiddles and started each day with his class sitting in a circle, learning to play the fiddle. In this school, the latent fiddle culture sprang to life with huge positive offshoots for the students and the whole community. Blaine enlisted the help of an amazing and insane fiddle teacher, Cameron Baggins, who has the fortitude of at least ten ordinary mortals, and he grew the program. Now there are over two thousand children fiddling all over Northern Manitoba, which covers a huge geographic area. Many of these communities are accessible only by plane year round or via winter roads over frozen lakes for a few months. Every year in May there is a jamboree and 500 kids from over thirty predominantly Metis and First Nations communities come together to play and learn new tunes from some of the best fiddle players in the country. I have been involved in this program for about fifteen years. It is an amazing program to be a part of.
BRO – We are featuring “The Glenn Gould Piece” on this month’s Trail Mix. I usually ask artists to explain the story behind the song, but here it might be better to just ask about Glenn Gould. Is this one of his compositions?
DK – This is actually written for Glenn Gould, but not by him. In 2003, on what would have been Gould’s 75th birthday, the CBC commissioned me, and others, to write a piece for a broadcast in his honor. When I sat down to write the music, I had two things in mind – the aria from Gould’s first recording of Bach’s Goldberg variations and a video clip I had seen of him fooling around and being silly in the woods in Algonquin Park, which apparently was his favourite place to be. I instinctively structure tunes like an old time banjo player, with four or eight bar phrases which are repeated, but for this one I tried intentionally tried to write longer lines with a more varied structure and this is how it turned out.
BRO – Any outside projects you are working on that have you excited?
DK – The first really serious group that I worked with, Finjan – a klezmer group founded in 1983 – just came out of retirement to do a show with the Winnipeg Symphony, which was really fun and musically great. Now we are thinking about doing some more! A project I have with the fiddler Karrnnel that goes under the name Fiddle & Banjo will be touring in the spring and we are beginning to workshop new material, which I am looking forward to.
BRO – Tis the holiday season. Favorite Christmas song for banjo?
DK – It’s not exactly a Christmas song, but I recorded it once as a part of a Christmas compilation. The Shaker song “Simple Gifts” is beautiful on clawhammer banjo. Does that count?
Daniel Koulack’s touring calendar is pretty quiet right now. For more information on Daniel Koulack and the new record, plus where you might eventually catch him in any one of his many projects and ensembles, please check out his website.
And, of course, make sure to listen to “The Glenn Gould Piece” on this month’s Trail Mix.
Photo by Cory Aronec.