Rosalyn Dennett: Canadian Fiddler Profiled
Fiddle music has shaped Rosalyn Dennett for most of her life. Both of her parents played traditional Irish music and her mother’s fiddling was especially influential for Rosalyn. Her fiddle teacher started the Frontier Fiddlers program that sends fiddle teachers to First Nations communities throughout Manitoba. He taught her some of the traditional Canadian fiddle repertoire. These different strands coalesced into a passion for folk music in Rosalyn.
She adds, “I was about 14 or 15 when I caught the Irish traditional music bug. I ended up moving to Ireland pretty much as soon as I was able to strike out on my own at 18. I had the good fortune to study with some great people including Jesse Smith who’s a fantastic fiddler that was living in Galway at the time.”
She continues, “When I moved back to Winnipeg, I met up with some folks who played Appalachian old time music. The style was incubated in isolation. It was made to be played by sometimes just a single fiddler for a whole dance. Winnipeg is pretty isolated so to play that music that has a lot of drones and sound that fills up the melodies really spoke to me at that time.”
As she explores different genres of music for which she has a passion, those explorations seem to take a particular arc. Rosalyn says, “I look up every resource, study it as much as I can and then travel to the region that I’m studying. At first it was going to Ireland, then it was making regular trips down to West Virginia and I’m going to Louisiana for the sixth time now. I think that understanding the culture and engaging in it is an integral part of playing a traditional genre of music.”
Rosalyn says that she falls somewhere in between folk musicians who strive for total authenticity to the original music and those who use the traditions as a base for innovation. She points out, “I start out approaching it from a traditionalist viewpoint by listening to and playing along with the fiddlers whose tunes I admire. I’ll approximate is as much as I can and at some point it will morph into whatever I can eke out of it.”
Some of the most intense musical experiences that she’s ever had have come by playing friends and family of influential folk musicians. She says, “In a few weeks, I’m going down to to Louisiana for Mardi Gras at Joel Savoy’s house. His parents Marc and Anne are people I listen to on record all the time. It’s pretty fun to go down and engage in the culture with these people who are so ingrained in it and so integral to it.”
The first introduction that Rosalyn had to music business was working with Oh My Darling. She spent six years touring with the quartet of women and also recorded many albums with them. She explains, “It was a pretty high bar to set right off the hop. We were very lucky and we worked very hard, but we got a couple of great opportunities and it was a wonderful place to be introduced to the music business.”
This positive experience still had its challenges. Rosalyn says, “We woulde hear from artistic directors that they’d already booked another all female band. We’d go look at their line up and they’d be an all vocal group or somebody in a different genre. That kind of stuff was very frustrating.”
She adds, “I hope that things are changing now and that there are festival directors who are realizing that gender parity is an important thing that they need to be held accountable for."
Another challenge for Rosalyn (and many other musicians) has been finding ways to sustain herself playing live music. She says, “A lot of venues don’t pay artists. You have world class musicians that are passing around the hat. I feel like that’s unsustainable. There’s room for improvement and there’s ways we can foster our community of musicians to be able to have a sustainable living.”
She compares her experiences in Winnipeg and Toronto’s folk music scenes and says, “When I was based in Winnipeg, the pressure was to tour because there weren’t quite enough venues that you could make a living being a folk band just playing in Winnipeg. The pressure was to become “export ready” in order to be touring. In Toronto, there’s less pressure to be touring. You can make a living playing in the city. It’s more about cultivating the community that you’re in.”
In Rosalyn’s opinion, Toronto is doing a good job of cultivating the folk/roots music scene in the city. She says, “Pick any folk or roots genre that you can think of and I can name you at least five different bands that are playing in that unique genre in Toronto. When I first moved here, I was playing a lot of the old time Appalachian stuff. There was a community of people from Toronto when I was down in West Virginia. There must have been about 30 folks who were down there from Toronto.”
In the immediate future, she’s got a variety of different projects on the go. Rosalyn says, “I’m working with a new Cajun band called Bon Fer. That’s just getting going and that’s exciting. I’m going down to Folk Alliance International and doing a showcase for my solo project. Oh My Darling. is getting back together again. We’re going to be performing at the Festival Du Voyageurs which is actually the first festival we played as a band. I’m really looking forward to playing with those women again. I perform a lot with the artist Ken Whiteley. He’s a Canadian folk icon and just a ton of fun to perform with."
When it comes to Rosalyn recharging her creative batteries, she has several ways to do that. She explains, “Sometimes it’s going down and sitting in a muddy, dusty campground playing old time tunes for 17 hours straight in West Virginia, Sometimes it’s going to Louisiana, putting on a capuchon, wearing rags and chasing chickens. A lot of my creative recharge comes from travel and being around traditional music. I find that I need to do it once every six months or I get drained of that fire in the belly.”