Jocelyn Pettit is barely old enough to order a pint in a pub, but she’s already a seasoned Celtic-music artist. At age 15 the precociously talented Squamish fiddler played at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and in that year released a self-titled debut album, which included some of her own compositions. Since then she’s toured in France, Scotland, Ireland, and the U.S. But though she’s performed on both sides of the Atlantic, Pettit is never far from home in one sense—both her parents are members of her band.
“My mom, Siew, plays piano and fiddle—sometimes we play fiddles together on-stage,” says Pettit, interviewed at a café on Commercial Drive. “And Joel, my father, plays cajón and bodhran, so he covers the percussion. They’ve been very supportive of my music from the beginning. On guitar we have Bob Collins, a close friend of ours, so it’s a well-rounded and rhythmic sound.”
Pettit’s passion for the violin goes back to early childhood and hearing the Scottish-based music of Cape Breton ace Natalie McMaster at a B.C. festival. “I picked up the violin as an eight-year-old inspired by her playing,” she says. “I love the liveliness and the drive of that music, the step dancing as well, also the haunting quality of the slower tunes and airs. And the ornamentation of Scottish music and all the different bowing styles is quite fascinating.”
Her skills—as both fiddler and step dancer—were honed at special camps around the province for young musicians. “Going to the Sunshine Coast Summer School of Celtic Music, in particular, became a part of my life. I went every year—and it was a fantastic opportunity to meet other young musicians. The wheel’s already come full circle, and I’ve been teaching there myself for the past few years.”
To help her acquire experience as a performer, Pettit’s dad started a regular music-showcase series in Squamish. “It was held in an ice-cream parlour owned by family friends—and it grew to involve people from the whole community around where I live. When CBC Radio’s Early Edition produced a pre-Olympics show—‘The Road to the Games’—they broadcast it live from the Gelato Carina. I put together a set of Scottish tunes written by some of my favourite composers to play for the show. It’s on my album as ‘The Early Edition’.”
With encouragement from mentors such as multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lapp, Pettit began to write her own material in the Celtic vein, like the series of West Coast–flavoured tunes from her album’s opening set—“Sunset and Mangoes”, “Visions of Thai Spring Rolls”, and “Just in Time”. Her musical appetite quickly spread beyond Cape Breton and Scottish music. After joining the North Shore Celtic Ensemble she was introduced to French-Canadian fiddle music, which has strong Irish roots.
“That really spoke to me because I have French and Irish heritage on my father’s side,” says Pettit. “I’ve started to explore this increasingly, and learned the foot-percussion style in Québécois music that accompanies fiddle there. I like to play some of the newer tunes from Quebec, like ‘Reel Beatrice’ and ‘Fleur de Mandragore’, which were recorded by La Bottine Souriante—they were a big inspiration for me.”
The French and Québécois material, as well as Cape Breton tunes and step dancing, will be featured in the set Pettit will play at the upcoming Festival du Bois in Coquitlam, where she’s part of an eclectic cornucopia of leading francophone Canadian artists that includes Quebec seven-piece band Le Bal à l’Huile, country-folk quintet Les Chercheurs d’Or, and trad-based trio Bardefou, as well as singer-songwriters Geneviève Toupin from Manitoba and Lennie Gallant from P.E.I.
As inspiration for her forthcoming new album Pettit is reaching to new areas of the Celtic diaspora— Galicia in northwest Spain, and Brittany, which she visited last summer. “I’m playing a ridée—a dance I did when we went to a fest-noz [a Breton music and dance festival]. I had the opportunity to learn it from an amazing violinist there.”
While in France Pettit was able to bring together history and her French and Canadian roots in a unique way. “We were invited to perform for La Semaine Acadienne in Normandy, which is held close to Juno Beach, one of the battlegrounds of the D-Day landings. The festival celebrates the Canadian contribution to World War II, and playing for veterans as part of the 70th anniversary was really moving. It was a great honour—and something I’ll never forget.”
The Jocelyn Pettit Band performs on Saturday (February 28) at the 26th edition of the Festival du Bois, which runs February 26 to March 1 in Mackin Park, Maillardville, Coquitlam.