Oliver Boulette

November 17, 2022

Oliver Boulette helps keep the Métis fiddle alive

Oliver Boulette plays the fiddle during a graduation ceremony in Richer.

Red River Métis Citizen Oliver Boulette has spent many years cementing his legacy of being an elite fiddler.

Boulette grew up in Manigotagan well versed on the guitar. It wasn't until later in life that his grandfather gifted him a fiddle while he was in the late stages of his life.

"I was 22 at the time. I had tried to play before but didn't get anything out of the fiddle," said Boulette. "I picked it up a few times before, but when my grandfather left it for me, I was able to get a tune out, and I remembered some of the tunes he played. So, I try to replay those from memory."

As the Métis fiddler continued to learn and practice his craft, he realized that music is a powerful tool, which helped him get through university.

"I played music while I was going to school. It kept me fed," said Boulette. "After I finished my professional life of working, I started playing, and I was able to educate people on the Métis style of fiddling and Métis culture. That's what I'm doing now, and that's what I'm enjoying."

Boulette plays a traditional Red River Métis fiddle style and has performed at many dances, events, and celebrations across the province. Some people have said Boulette plays a crooked fiddle, which he elaborated on.

Boulette takes the podium to play the fiddle during a Remembrance Day service.

"When I played with other musicians, they would say, 'man, you've got terrible time. You have to get in time with us.' So, that started to change my style of fiddling. I later learned that it took me away from the Métis style of fiddling, which is a unique-sounding piece of fiddle music in itself," he said. "(Métis) fiddlers from time to time would drop off a note or add one or two bridge notes, so it always sounded like they were playing out of time. But that was okay because the dancers would pick up that missing (note) with their heels with a scuff when they danced, and nobody ever knew. That was our style, so we had a unique style (of playing) here in the Red River."

Growing up with no electricity, radio, or recordings of fiddlers playing, Boulette relied heavily on hearing musicians playing live. He credits his grandfather coming by his house to play the fiddle and hearing him play at house dances as a source of inspiration. He referenced a few other musicians that influenced him.

"There was a gentleman by the name of Elmer Seymour, whom I heard, and his dad, Wilfred Seymour, was another one I had heard play fiddle, so they kind of influenced me," Boulette said. "There was another guy named James Cowley that had a unique style. He didn't know a lot of tunes, but he could sure make people dance. I was influenced by him as well. I thought he was a deep player."

Boulette has performed at many dances, Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) events, and more, but he said a few notable performances have stood out, including a Métis delegate trip to Juno Beach in 2009.

"I got to play my fiddle over in Juno Beach, so I got to play the Red River Jig over there," he said. "Another couple of times is when I went to New York with Minister (Carolyn) Bennett of the federal government, and I played three different times at the United Nations playing the Red River Jig there. They liked my unique way of playing, so they asked me to join them, so I went over."

The Red River Métis Citizen claims he doesn't have a favourite song to perform, but he is well-versed in all the crowd favourites.

"When you're a fiddle player, you have to play what we call the money songs when you're somewhere (performing); people shout out these tunes, and they say you've got to play these things," Boulette chuckled. "So, some of the tunes that I always have to play, no matter if I want to or not: "Big John McNeil", the "Red River Jig", "Maple Sugar", and "Bully of the Town", just to name a few."

The Métis fiddler serves as an emcee during an MMF event.

In August of this year, Boulette participated in the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Competition. He had the honour of performing a Métis fiddle medley with renowned fiddlers Patti Kusturok and Shawn Mousseau. He noted it was a unique opportunity to take the stage with such high-calibre players.

"We all come from different parts of the province, and we can all play the same tune, but we sound different when we play it, and that's what makes it so wonderful. I always say it's not what you put into the music. Sometimes it's what you leave out. (There are) lots of times you have to put your heart into it, and that's what makes the music," said Boulette. "I've heard musicians that were well rehearsed and very good, but weren't putting their heart into it. They said to me, 'well, what do you think,' and I said, 'well, you're very good, but you're not putting your heart into your music, and it's not coming out.' With these fiddlers that performed, you heard them putting their hearts into the music. So, you'll feel the music when you hear it."

Boulette is grateful to the MMF for all the support and opportunities to perform throughout the years.

During a trip to New York City with the MMF, Boulette toured the National Museum of the American Indian. While taking in the displays, he found an exhibit that resonated with him. It explained Indigenous Peoples are given a musical instrument by the creator to celebrate, honour, socialize, mourn, and pray.

"I've been lucky enough to use my fiddle in all those things. I've celebrated (and) I've honoured," he said. "I had an opportunity to go to the University of Winnipeg and play for 2,500 graduates getting their degrees and doctor's degrees, and I was able to play the Red River Jig as they came in to get their degrees. So that was honouring them. Of course, socializing, lots of community dances and weddings."

The celebrated fiddler has also played at funerals and in prayer.

"People ask me to play because they have grandparents, uncles, and family that play the fiddle, and they come to ask me to play the fiddle when they are laying (family) to rest," Boulette said. "Of course, the other part was when I went to New York and got to play it in prayer. I used my fiddle very much the same as the First Nations used the drum in their prayer; I got to use the fiddle in prayer. So, I've used it in all five things. That was one of the wonderful things the MMF was able to do for me. They asked me to represent them, and I was able to do that."

 


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