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ALASDAIR FRASER & TOMMIE DELL SMITH - The Groove Is Not Trivial (Limited Release Movie - DVD available in 2019)

ALASDAIR FRASER & TOMMIE DELL SMITH - The Groove Is Not Trivial (Limited Release Movie - DVD available in 2019)
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This is a film which every Scottish fiddler should see, and maybe even every Scottish person with an interest in their culture, and every musician whose culture is undervalued in today's world. It is being shown at numerous festivals and special events, so look out for one near you, or check the website. Film maker Tommie Dell Smith was inspired by Alasdair Fraser's music and his pioneering fiddle camps which have influenced almost an entire generation of fiddlers, cellists and others. When you see the film, you will understand just how inspiring these events can be: I would never have considered attending one beforehand, but now I am determined to be a part of this amazing experience.

Alasdair Fraser was born in Clackmannanshire, and moved to California as a young engineer. This documentary tells his story from a personal perspective, using archive footage to illustrate Alasdair's childhood in the sixties and seventies, when he was already establishing a reputation as a fine fiddler. It follows his move to San Francisco, his pursuit of Scottish fiddle music with Paul Machlis and others, and his decision to quit the oil industry and become a full-time musician. The film's title is unenlightening, but perhaps makes sense at the end. Alasdair established the now famous Valley Of The Moon fiddle camps in the mid eighties, and currently runs camps in four countries around the world: almost everyone who is anyone in Scottish fiddle music has been involved in this project and, of course, Alasdair's collaboration with cellist Natalie Haas has extended the scope to hundreds of cellos, basses, and even violas.

As well as some great music, The Groove Is Not Trivial contains fascinating insights into Alasdair's philosophy of music, of teaching, and of cultural identity. The idea of the groove is relatively new to me - Jeremy Kittel discussed it in a workshop I attended recently - but essentially I think of it as feeling the tune, getting inside it, expressing yourself through it, and being free to innovate within the shape of the music. You have to trust your instincts, let go of your inhibitions, and be prepared to take risks. You also have to understand the limits of the groove, how it is defined by the tradition (the limits of the usual Scottish fiddle range, the bagpipe scale, the rhythms of traditional dance and other factors), and of course how far you can depart from the groove and still return. Alasdair has a remarkably simple and effective approach to developing an appreciation of the groove, which is illustrated perfectly by scenes from his fiddle camps.

Tommie Dell Smith is a young film maker, and this was not a big budget production, so there are a few imperfections, but the sound quality is remarkable whether in a Californian forest or a Skye school hall, and the visuals are clear and engaging. Many people tell their stories here, all of them inspired by Alasdair. There is a section on the 2014 independence referendum which does not fit easily into the narrative but could not be sidestepped either: this was a big cultural decision for Scots, and similar questions affect many other cultures today. The main message of this film is that culture and tradition is important, a sense of place and history is important, and understanding the origins of a tradition can help you get inside it and become a part of it, as well as allowing you to add to the tradition, extend the groove, and move the tradition forward in the manner of great musicians like Scott Skinner, Tom Anderson, Fergie MacDonald, Buddy MacMaster, Gordon Duncan and Alasdair Fraser. 

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 123 of The Living Tradition magazine.