Interview - Richard Klein

April 2006: Richard Klein(Vol.2 No.4)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 18/02/06

"I was nineteen years old when I set off for what was intended as a three year trip around the world with my fiddle and back pack. …first the Eastern seaboard of Canada, rich in it's Scottish, Irish and French musical traditions, then over to England, Ireland, Scotland and all of the Scottish isles in search of fiddlers, fiddle tunes and adventure."

Richard Klein had just cooked up a delicious 'Gumbo' at the 2006 Fiddler's Convention. The Camp Eureka kitchen wood fired stoves were put to good use stewing up huge pots of the traditional stew, a spicy chicken and rice stew of the Cajun community in southern America. As well as being a Cajun style fiddle player Richard also is a chef back in New Zealand where he and his wife Maria run the Italian winebar and retsaurant 'Maria Pia's Trattoria'. Richard had earlier on that day run a Cajun fiddle workshop and that evening had led the Cajun dance, singing, playing the fiddle and leading the band, all at the same time. Later on in the evening, after everyone had eaten, I sat down with Richard to record this interview for the Fiddle News.

Q. Do you need to eat Gumbo in order to become a good Cajun fiddler?

I reckon it helps. Its like maybe you know, do you have to be a good dancer in order to be a good fiddler? It helps you enter into the spirit of the music and the culture above all and the links between music and food are many and ancient. Food is very intimate, like music and language. You are curious and you are interested and somehow music and food are those things, that even as a complete outsider, you can embrace and be completely be captivated by very quickly, even if its not your culture. You may have grown up eating or listening to things that were very different but you discover these tastes and sounds and its like 'Wow, a new world'. The Cajuns are fiercely proud of their unique culture which is expressed through their language, their music and their dancing and food.

Q. What area of America are you talking about?

Cajuns are from south west Louisiana. The story of the Acadian people is a long and sad tale of exodus and forced emigration.

Q. From France?

No. From France they chose to immigtate to Canada to what is now Nova Scotia and were settlers there. In the mid eighteenth century, after the French and Indian wars, the English took possession of those lands and they were presented with an ultimatum basically which was to pledge allegiance to the Church of England or not. They chose not, they were devout Catholics. They called themselves the Acadians and from that word came Cajun. They were forcibly taken from their homes with many horrific stories of wells being poisoned. They were shipped down to the Caribbean where died like flies. They were basically decimated and almost made extinct.

The Governor of Louisiana then offered them land and that how they ended up in that part of Louisiana. Being a very resilient people, they were fishermen and farmers, they created their corner of the world and flourished. I'm not a Cajun, I just have a lot of love for their culture and discovered it when I was pretty young. To get back to your original question, music and food and language are the keys, personally anyway, the keys to discovering cultures and that's how I got into Cajun music but I play other kinds of fiddle music as well. I got into fiddle music quite young, about fifteen.


Q. Were you trained in Classical violin?

I wasn't. Like a lot of American kids I was obliged to learn a musical instrument and they got me playing the string bass in the school orchestra because they needed one. I detested it after a while because I just had to count the whole time and at a certain point, I think I was about sixteen, I just did not like it and I wanted to just learn the fiddle and I don't know how because I didn't come from a musical family, so I didn't hear fiddle music.

The whole folk revolution was happening and Woodstock which had its little element of folk in it of traditional music. That's the first time I heard fiddle music and I said "That's it. That's what I want to play." The first time I really heard a fiddle that just made me feel like this is really what I want to do was from a 'New Lost City Ramblers' album with Mike Seeger on fiddle. This was the first time I heard Cajun music and I was only about seventeen. I had been experimenting with singing with the fiddle. It was not too successful an experiment but I was mesmerised and I heard Mike Seeger with Tracy Schwartz I think, The 'New Lost City Ramblers' anyway and they played a couple of Cajun numbers where they played on two fiddles and they sung in harmonies. Mike Seeger played the fiddle and the harmonica in harmony and when he wasn't playing the harmonica he would sing, and I heard him sing some Cajun songs and he sang 'Don't let your Deal go Down' and that was a life altering experience. That was it, I wanted to become a singing fiddler.

I then met a man who was from my same home town of South Orange, Maplewood New Jersey and his name's Andy Arleo, he moved to France but he was a phenomenal musician and folklorist actually. Now he was the first person I met who could play a fiddle tune from start to finish. I tried learning from some recordings, I had nobody you know. Sheet music yes but it didn't work. I took some lessons with a guy but he was a classically trained violinist and his approach' typical of many classical musicians was, well that's fine but you need to learn how to play it 'right' and then you can learn how to play it 'wrong.'

He tried to impose on me learning Bach and things. I was fifteen, I didn't want to know about it, I wanted to learn to play the fiddle so it didn't last that relationship. Then I kind of mucked around on my own and I found musician friends and people who were playing Old Timey tunes when I was about sixteen, seventeen. We had a good time but I didn't have any fiddler I could look up to and then there was this guy Andy. He came back on a visit from France and he really inspired me. Inspired me not only to play fiddle but take off and travel with my fiddle so that became my goal in life and I made that happen by the time I was twenty years of age. I had worked for three years and saved up a lot of money so I left home and quit my job.

In 1977 I took off. At that time I was really attracted to the whole Celtic world. I had heard the 'Boys of the Lough' play and I really got into Irish music, like most people I guess. You have your relationship with Irish music, in this case it lasted a few years, I won't say it was a fling but I never really quite embraced it. I don't know if its because I was too young or musically immature. I went and lived in Ireland and I worked in Ireland and travelled and stuff and recorded amazing players. I tried learning the tunes but I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I left in 1977 I went to the East Coast of Canada to Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia. I busked around the streets and met all these amazing fiddlers and started learning the Cape Breton fiddle music. From there after about six months I went across the Atlantic and went to the U.K. and through England to Ireland. From Christmas 1977 till about the Autumn 1978 I travelled all around Ireland and the British Isles, Shetland. I was finding sessions and finding people and recording them and getting into their kitchens, getting back to the link with food.

When I was in Shetland I heard this group of Swedish musicians and that was another awesome experience. I don't know whether you listen to Swedish fiddle music but it is really amazing because you get big numbers of fiddles playing together and they are all playing these different harmonies and they are improvising. They use different kind of chord structures, they go a lot from major to minor.

The first time I heard Swedish fiddle music it completely blew me away. I ended up going there and living there a long time, I learned to speak Swedish, I was convinced I was going to live there the rest of my life. In Sweden I discovered some of the best fiddlers were amazing dancers. That is one thing I have to say, is that the Scandinavian tradition really ingrained into me the fact that it is such a dance culture.

Q. What is your favourite instrument?

My favourite instrument is the fiddle in harmonies. There is something that touches deep in the soul for me when I hear fiddles playing in harmony. Particularly the harmonies and that is why I kind of drifted away from Irish music, there are no harmonies, they are only incidental. I have been to these places in Scandinavia where its their tradition and the tunes are very local and they are named after the villages and you will have hundreds of fiddles together and they will all play the same tune as part of a ceremony to open or close the event. You will have three hundred fiddles, hundreds of fiddles playing this tune. It even happens when you have three or five fiddles playing together and that to me is the greatest, fiddles in harmony.
I will confess, if its not fiddles then it's the soprano sax.