The San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers. Credit: Caroline Testard

They look just like you or me. They’re our friends, neighbors, and colleagues, though these fellow Berkleyans harbor a hidden passion that bursts into public once or twice a year, revealing a community of true-believers. Yes, the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers are returning to Freight & Salvage Friday

San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers, May 19, 8 p.m., Freight & Salvage

A multi-generational throng led by maestro Alasdair Fraser, the pied-piper of traditional Scottish music, the SFSF concert features some six dozen fiddlers and sundry other instrumentalists performing a program centered on Scotland’s rich trove of airs, jigs, reels, and hornpipes, as well as tunes borrowed from kindred Celtic traditions, Quebec and Sweden. 

Representing about a quarter of the group’s total membership, the Fiddlers also perform Saturday at Palo Alto’s Spangenberg Theater and Sunday afternoon at the Carmel Center for the Performing Arts. While the players come from all over the region, many of the SFSF’s stalwart fiddlers hail from Berkeley, like Dr. Pate Thomson, who was born at Alta Bates, graduated from Cal and went on to help found the Berkeley Cardiovascular Medical Group at Alta Bates.

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While he played violin as a child, Pate didn’t start thinking about the instrument seriously again until middle age when a relative recommend he get in touch with Fraser, who had recently launched the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle Camp, now held at Camp Campbell in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Attending a workshop at the Scottish Games in Santa Rosa with Fraser and Valley of the Moon faculty, he was “wowed” and ended up attending the camp for the first time in the summer of 1986. Pate was hooked. 

Judy and Pate Thomson with Caroline McCaskey and other members of the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers at their annual winter retreat. Credit: Deb McCaskey

Fraser had recently given up his day job with British Petroleum to focus on music full time. He’d played with dance bands as a teenager while expanding the traditional repertoire by collecting tunes by legendary fiddlers of past generations. Though he twice won the Scottish National Fiddle Championship, traditional Scottish music didn’t offer much in the way of a livelihood, and his work as a petrophysicist brought him to California in 1981.

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Valley of the Moon was taking off when Pate first attended, and the camp provided “wonderful exposure to Alasdair’s stimulating and joyful approach to music,” said Pate, who went on to study privately with Fraser for two years. “I would go with my wife, Judy, who plays the piano until his career really took off and he got out of one-on-one teaching. I found a joy in living I had not discovered before. It was a liberating experience.”

More than a fiddler and educator, Fraser has been a cultural force who’s provided an ebullient soundtrack for the reemergence of Scottish nationalism over the past three decades, particularly via his Valley of the Moon School on the Isle of Skye. Rather than reflecting rigid boundaries, his music represents a cosmopolitan ethos in which the Scottish tradition is cross-pollenated with music from Galicia, Cape Breton, Ireland, Sweden and even English tunes. 

When he first set up his tent on the Isle of Skye “people were ignorant and a little scared of their own tradition. They were made to feel inferior. We breathed life into these old tunes and dances,” Fraser recalled, noting that there’s now an official Scottish music course at the Royal Conservatory in Glasgow. 

On this side of the Atlantic, Valley of the Moon’s influence extends across the continent. The VOM faculty also casts a wide net, with string music luminaries representing a wide array of styles and traditions, including Bruce Molsky, Laura Cortese, Darol Anger, Liz Carol, Martin Hayes and Hanneke Cassel. In some cases, the instructors started at the camp as students, most importantly fiddler Brittney Haas and her older sister, cellist Natalie Haas (whose long-running duo with Fraser is one of Celtic music’s crown jewels). 

Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. Courtesy of the artists

Indeed, the top ranks of the acoustic music world are filled with Fraser’s former charges, including Alex Hargreaves, Laura Cortese, and the siblings Tashina and Tristan Clarridge, who launched their own string conclave, the Mt. Shasta Music Summit. At Friday’s concert, San Francisco-reared Cullen Luper, who spent several years as a teenager playing fiddle in Hot Club of San Francisco guitarist Paul Mehling’s Gypsy swing combo Le Jazz Hot Trio, is playing piano with the SFSF. Mehling was on the VOM faculty when he connected with teenage Luper, who’s now studying in the San Francisco Conservatory’s Roots, Jazz and American Music program. 

Fraser doesn’t actually need to lure people to the Santa Cruz Mountains to make converts. Robin Somerville was walking outside his College Avenue antique rug shop, the long-shuttered Armen Gallery, when he heard piping coming from the Julia Morgan-designed St. John’s Presbyterian Church a few doors down. Curious, he closed up shop and ended up watching a soundcheck for a SFSF performance. He’d been playing violin for several years, “trying to find my music,” he said, and it didn’t take long before he realized his search was over. 

Attending Valley of the Moon every summer since, he’s ready to testify to Scottish fiddling’s transformative power. “The music excites my soul,” he said. “It  covers all the emotions I experience. What’s so crazy is that it was so happenstance. If I hadn’t left my shop and heard the bagpipes I don’t think I wouldn’t have found this.”

Members of the SFSF continued to get together in small groups through the pandemic, playing in people’s backyards and parks (until COVID regulations made that too difficult.) They started performing regularly at farmers’ markets around the region, including Saturdays at Berkeley’s downtown Civic Center. Not everyone hears the siren call of the fiddlers, but those who do encounter a scene shaped by Fraser’s “approach to music,” Pate said. 

“He discourages approaching it competitively. He makes room for people to follow their own musical voyage. Many people have gone on to professional musical careers, but there’s also a large body of people who just love the music and want to keep learning more and getting better.”

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....