Alex Monaghan chats with Arthur Coates about being a Quebec fiddler in Aberdeen.
Aberdeenshire is full of fiddlers, always has been since before anyone can remember - but how many of them specialise in Québécois music? Only one, as far as I'm aware. Arthur Coates is a powerful young fiddler - multi-instrumentalist actually - who's been making a name for himself at home and abroad with his impressive command of a tradition from thousands of miles away. I asked him how this came about.
"Well I'm not really from Aberdeenshire. I was born in Aberdeen shortly after my parents moved down from Shetland, but they aren't from there either. Our family is from all over. We are a musical family though, and I was given a choice at the age of seven - play guitar like my Dad, or play fiddle like my Mum. I chose the fiddle, and I got lessons for years, did all the normal Scottish fiddle things, attended The Gaitherin' every year, and was awarded a residential place at Aberdeen Music School. The emphasis there was strongly classical, but they found me a great teacher - Sharon Hassan - and when Sharon took some time away they brought in Jonny Hardie. I enjoyed Scottish music, but I always liked the more modern and rhythmic styles of bands like Old Blind Dogs and Treacherous Orchestra."
Then came Arthur's epiphany - not on the road to Damascus, but in deepest Devon. "My family would go to Sidmouth every year, and when I was about ten or eleven the festival had booked LeVent du Nord. I'd never really heard Québécois music before, and certainly never seen the foot percussion. It was just the most exciting show, and we went back stage afterwards and chatted with fiddler Olivier Demers and the rest of the band. They probably don't remember this, but that was the life-changer for me. I went home, learned the foot thing, and started my quest to play Quebec fiddle music." The rest, as they say, is history: Aberdeenshire has resounded to the sound of the Coates podorhythmie ever since.
The young Arthur's life began to revolve around this fascinating fiddle tradition. As he says himself, "I was hooked. Every CD I could get, every YouTube video, I listened endlessly. There was one concert video of De Temps Antan that I put on every morning at school while I was getting ready for the day - I'd be out of the shower when one track finished, clean my teeth to another, I knew the show insideout. Whenever a French Canadian band was touring, I'd go and see them - I flew to Dublin for a concert once, followed Le Vent Du Nord round three concerts on their English tour, took trains to London and elsewhere. One time Le Vent were playing in Milton Keynes the day we got back from a family holiday, and I persuaded my dad to drop me at the station - I left Aberdeen about midday, and arrived at The Stables at 8.30pm, missed the first half hour but caught the rest of the gig and the guys were really surprised to see me!"
By this stage, Arthur was well known at concerts and online to many of the top Québécois musicians. "I've never actually been to Canada, never been outside Europe yet, but I've met many of my musical heroes and been backstage, joined them at sessions, and got to know some of them pretty well. One of the things I like about the French Canadian scene - which is different from a lot of people's experience of the Scottish traditional scene - is that the musicians are friendly, welcoming, generous, happy to share their knowledge and play a tune with you." This has increased if anything during COVID - as musicians have gone online, the world has become a smaller place, and new communities have built up with a very supportive and sharing ethos. In Quebec, for example, Le Vent Du Nord have done several free performances via streamed video for Francophone festivals forced online, Genticorum have set up a weekly session on Facebook with a huge range of French Canadian tunes, La Chasse-Balcon has provided a succession of seasonal remote events, and many individuals have contributed performances either on their own or through cultural organisations such as Maréemusique.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For a teenager leaving school, starting out as a musician, and then seeing all bookings and festivals cancelled because of the pandemic, it must have been quite a blow. Arthur is surprisingly calm about it. "I was playing in a couple of bands, doing regular pub gigs, and we had some bigger gigs booked, but that all stopped. Luckily I've got a home studio so I could continue with my own projects - starting on my second solo album, and working on some bigger collaborations." One of those collaborations, the very eclectic fiddlers' collective Across, was launched in April at the Festival International de Louisiane - it includes French, Anglo-Irish, Canadian and of course Scottish fiddlers,and Irish guitarist Niall Hughes. All the planning and rehearsing has been remote so far, as was the performance at the festival, but I asked Arthur if COVID restrictions were lifting enough now to make rehearsals easier, and even allow some live gigs.
"We started to have enquiries for live gigs at the start of May, and with the easing of restrictions from the 17th I was finally back to gigging, which is great - my last live show before that was at MacGregors in Inverness during the first relaxation of lockdown a year ago - but the problem is that venues and festivals have been very hard hit, they have no money to spend and not much revenue at the moment, so if you have a big band or have to travel they can't even cover expenses. On the positive side, we are getting Inverness pub gigs again - that's with a more Celtic or Scottish folk line-up, but I do fit some Québécois tunes in when I can! We've also been working on a lot of new Across material, a set reflecting the character of each member of the band, and that should be out soon - but Across performances and rehearsals will still be remote for now. We really hope we can be on stage in Louisiana next year!"
With all those plans, the release of a new single "Johnny o' Braidislee", and continuing work on his own album, Arthur's future looks pretty busy. I wondered what might be missing - if he had his dream future gig or opportunity, what would it be? The answer was instant. "I've always wanted to be the fiddler in one of the big Québécois bands - to be a David Boulanger, Pascal Gemme, an André Brunet even. I know all their sets! I'd love to be able to sit in with them for a festival, maybe open for them on a tour, and be part of the sessions afterwards! That's my dream." There's a good chance it will come true - or something like it - for this hugely talented, obsessed, hard-working Aberdeenshire French Canadian fiddler.
Photo Credits: Arthur Coates: (1) by Stuart Jack, (2) by Julian Maunder, (3) by Tony Devenish, (4) by Tom Morbey; (5) Le Vent du Nord & De Temps Antan @ Rudolstadt Festival 2018 (by Karsten Rube).