Interview - Ken McMaster
February 2006: Ken McMaster (Vol.2 No.2)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 19/01/06
Yarra Junction Fiddler's Convention has been running for 23 years on a
bush block about an hour's drive from Melbourne. Fiddle enthusiasts camp
for the weekend to drag horsehair over wire to produce the unique form
of music that only bowed instruments can create. Last year at the 2005
Convention I witnessed 4 double basses clustered in a tight circle
thumping out a faced paced bluegrass beat. Lachlan Dear was conducting a
double bass workshop. Music was coming from all directions, a fiddle
workshop was being held in a nearby shack and string band music wafted
through the trees. But this was a soft sound, one that only comes from
un-amplified music. And this is where the fiddle is at home, being
played outside, perhaps next to a fire, the music raw, and unfiltered.
No sound system or electronics to get in the way. Small pockets of
musicians teamed up and swapped tunes at informal sessions. The fiddling
rolled on all day and carried on into the night. The Fiddler's
Convention is hidden from the public because the site can cope with only
a limited number of campers. I recently asked Ken a few questions about
Q. How long has the Fiddler's Convention been running?
McMaster It started in 1983 as soon as I discovered Camp Eureka. Just
before Xmas Mike O'Rourke and I decided this was the place for the
festival we had always wanted to run. There also were historical links
between the early folk scene and Camp Eureka. We found a Camp Eureka
Songbook, which was completely full of Australian traditional songs.
Stuff like Joe Hill's songs, a lot of American Left-wing songs, like
Woody Guthrie, stuff like that.
Q. What was Camp Eureka?
talk about it as being an organisation of the Left but the reality is
it was a Communist Party front. They would have anything up to a
thousand young teenagers up there in the 1940's and early 1950's and it
started to unravel after the Hungarian Uprising (1956) of course when
people deserted the Communist Party in droves. Certainly the people who
associated with Camp Eureka were the first people who went up to Nariel
Creek. They met with Con Klippal, Ian Simpson and others and organised
the first National Folk Festival. This was in the early 1960's.
was a band, the core of which was Mike O'Rourke on fiddle, myself on
banjo. I was given a week to learn banjo but it actually took 10 days. I
haven't improved much since then. I play 5 string frailing style. John
Caldwell was on guitar and pretty soon Norm Adams (fiddle) joined us and
we are still going after all these years. We have got a gig doing a
dance next month at Flowerdale. What we were after then was basically
organising a band and hopefully a festival. We wanted to get Old Time
American music into the fiddle session. It was being dominated back then
by the Irish and Scottish scene. But within three or four years I would
pull out a banjo and people would start playing along with American
There was only Kevin O'Connor (former Privacy
Commissioner) playing this fiddle style back then and not much of it.
Then there was Ian Simpson on Old Time banjo and Rod (fiddle) and Judy
(banjo) Jones up in Sydney. Back in 1999 Craig Woodward and I together
with Andrew Scott the double bass player, he played guitar back then,
went over to the Galax Old Timey Music Festival over in America. Craig
won eighth prize in fiddle and he had only been playing for about four
years. That was just absolutely astounding. We got disqualified in the
band competition at Galax because we had a didgeridoo player instead of a
double bass player. We knew we would be disqualified but we were
determined to do it. I won fourth prize in autoharp out of about 100
Q. How many people turned up to the first Fiddler's Convention back in 1983?
and Judy Jones were guests and about 130 people came. We have barely
changed anything since it began. We had an outline which was to have
just have sessions Friday night, workshops Saturday morning and a
concert Saturday afternoon and an Old Time dance on Saturday night. This
was resisted pretty firmly especially by the bluegrass people who were
most upset we weren't having a headliners concert. Not many people
danced at the first one but we persevered because what we play is dance
music. We wanted people to dance to it. There would be probably 8 or 10
fiddler's getting up and playing on the Saturday night. The music we
play is pretty much what is called twin fiddle music. The only thing we
have changed since then is putting on a Bluegrass Concert on the
Saturday night, after the dance. We generally try to start the dance
about 8.30pm and the Bluegrass Concert about 9.30pm.
Q. Who are the guests who have featured at previous Fiddle Conventions?
only one we have funded to come down have been Eileen McCoy. Eileen is
down in Gippsland and into her seventies and she is a fantastic fiddler.
She played a bit with her husband who was a country singer and she also
played for local dances but she also lived for many years next door to a
French Canadian fiddler. She is quite influenced by the French Canadian
style. While she is considered very much a traditional Australian
fiddler you see that style coming through. Two years ago she was one of
the main headliners at the National Folk Festival. We were the ones that
probably brought her to prominence a bit. We also paid for Mike
O'Rourke to come down from Queensland every year until he died otherwise
he would never have been able to afford to come down. We have had Ian
and Di Simpson last year and they held a workshop on the Nariel dances.
Here is one of the ironies, we banned accordian players and Ian is a
very good accordian player.
Q. Who are some of the players who have conducted workshops at the Fiddler's Convention.
Claremont has flown back from Spain to be at the Fiddler's Convention.
He is working all over the world with different bands but always makes
sure he will get to the Convention. He has done the sound for the last
few years which definitely helps. Two years ago he had a gig in Adelaide
on a Saturday night. He left the Fiddler's at about five o'clock, flew
to Adelaide and was back by eleven o'clock the next morning.
Q. What about the food?
McMasterWe have two people doing food up there. Originally we had a
kitchen going and we could feed 200 people at a time. It was fantastic
and a Fiddler's Convention cookbook came out and sold in excess of 100
copies. All this finished about 8 years ago when the new health
restrictions came in. The kitchen there had wood stoves and mud brick
walls that no longer met requirements. So there are two food vans up
there this year. Richard Klein who is a fantastic Cajun fiddler living
in New Zealand now, he will be over for the festival and he will be
giving a workshop in Cajun fiddle, he is threatening to cook up a Gumbo
on the Saturday night. One of the stalls up there is doing pancakes
Gumbo is a traditional Cajun spicy dish with usually sausages, chicken
and all sorts of other stuff in there. Quite spicy.
Q. How many people attend the Fiddler's Convention?
about 300 people camp every year and about one or two hundred others.
We don't publicise it and people complain that they can't find out about
us, that we haven't got a web site. If we had more people we couldn't
cope. People will find out through word of mouth, through the community.