Jocelyn Pettit's world-class fiddle lights up Festival du Bois
When the time came to interview fiddle specialist Jocelyn Pettit, I started thinking back to my earliest memories of the instrument, and realized that I didn't have many. My older brother actually played one as a kid, but back then we called it a violin. The only time I really heard somebody play the heck out of a fiddle was when "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" came on the radio.
There's a lot more to fiddle music than redneck country tunes, though. As Pettit explains on the line from her Squamish home, the world offers a multitude of fiddle styles.
"So many!," she declares. "Oh my goodness. Within quote-unquote 'Celtic' music there's the styles of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall in England. Also Brittany in France, and Galicia, Spain--those regions have their own Celtic music styles. And then within Canada you have Cape Breton, you have French-Canadian--which I love--and you have old-time, bluegrass, Métis."
The 26-year-old Pettit has been making a name for herself with the fiddle since she was a teenager. She's traveled the world, shared the stage with legendary Irish folk band the Chieftains, and played for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles in Scotland. She's recorded two albums--her self-titled debut in 2010 and Caravan in 2015--and expects to release her third, Wind Rose, this year.
And she's currently taking part in the 2021 Festival du Bois, which runs online until April 30 and also features the likes of Florent Vollant, Sirène et Matelot, Genticorum, Le Winston Band, Jocelyne Baribeau, Loig Morin, and Andy Hillhouse and Pierre Schryer.
Pettit has fiddle music in her blood, you could say. Her great-grandfather was a dance caller who would team up with a fiddler for community events. The first time she heard fiddle music live was when she saw Cape Breton's Natalie MacMaster in concert.
"She was my first inspiration," recalls Pettit, "and I was drawn to the lively energy and fun spirit of East Coast music."
She started playing fiddle when she was eight years old, which eventually led to her getting a Master of Music Degree from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. It was there that she met American cellist Ellen Gira, a specialist in old-time music, who she performs with as a duo. Pettit and Gira often transform into a trio with the addition of Scottish guitarist Ali Hutton.
And Pettit also leads the Jocelyn Pettit Band, which includes her father Joel Pettit on bodhrán, her mother Siew Wan Khoo on piano and fiddle, and friends Erik Musseau on whistles/pipes and Adam Dobres on guitar.
Pettit performs a 45-minute bilingual concert with her full band at Festival du Bois, which also showcases another of her talents. Less than four minutes into the recorded concert she rises from her chair to prepare for some stepdancing, a skill she's been working on since first discovering the fiddle.
"I love to dance," she says, "and the music is for dancing--they go hand in hand. It's hard to keep still sometimes. And I love the percussive element of stepdancing."
Pettit will also appear (virtually) at the New England Folk Festival this weekend, at the Kelowna Maplefest on May 2, and with Gira at the Northwest Folklife Festival on May 28. She really enjoys playing festivals, counting Festival du Bois among her faves.
"It celebrates French-Canadian culture--music, dance, food, crafts--and brings the community together. There's such a fun energy and friendliness to the festival; it's always been such a positive experience being there. And they did a great job this year with the online events."
COVID-19 has obviously made it extremely difficult for artists like Pettit to survive financially these days. Not that it was easy making a living as a fiddle player even before the pandemic hit.
"It's all about doing a combination of teaching and performing and recording," Pettit relates. "I try to do as much as possible of all of those, 'cause I love them all. COVID has definitely put a halt to the live performance, but I've been busy doing a lot of online performances, live streaming, and quite a bit of teaching, fiddle and dance workshops. I just love connecting with people, and it's harder these days, that's for sure."
A prime example of Pettit connecting with folks was her performance with Ellen Gira and Ali Hutton at the 2020 Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, Scotland. That was one of the last shows she did before the pandemic devastated the concert scene.
"The Celtic Connections festival is such a huge festival," she raves, "and it's incredible. There's so much music happening, and the city is buzzing with excitement. It's so special to be able to connect with the audience and experience that shared energy and all come together through music. It's one of the things I love most, and I can't wait till it's back."