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Benjamin takes fiddle classics on a solo spin

Boyd Benjamin may be flying solo with his latest recording, but that doesn't mean the Gwitch'in fiddler has forgotten his roots. "It's sort of like a favourites-type of album," he said of the 11 songs on Flying Gwitch'in Fiddler.

Boyd Benjamin may be flying solo with his latest recording, but that doesn’t mean the Gwitch’in fiddler has forgotten his roots.

“It’s sort of like a favourites-type of album,” he said of the 11 songs on Flying Gwitch’in Fiddler. The songs, many Canadian fiddle standards in the public domain, were chosen based on how he’s seen audiences respond to them.

He’s had plenty of time to test the music. He plays with guitarist Kevin Barr across the country, and Benjamin regularly performs throughout Whitehorse. People have been encouraging him to record a solo album for years, he said.

“I didn’t want to record songs that nobody knew about and nobody had heard before. I wanted familiar songs that people could enjoy, and for ease of listening, and for the fun of it,” he said.

But recording was fairly stressful at times. The first challenge was finding time to make the album. Benjamin, 29, works full time as a pilot for Alkan Air Ltd. Between music and flying, he’s managing two very different careers, he said.

“I don’t know,” he laughed when asked how he found the time to record. “I’d like to know that myself.”

“You just put one foot in front of the other,” he said.

And recording presented specific challenges.

This wasn’t Benjamin’s first trip to the studio. In 2011, he released Home Sweet Home with Kate Weekes and Keitha Clark. Playing alone made him a little nervous, he said. In a group, members gain confidence by feeding off each other, but this time, all the responsibility was now on him, said Benjamin.

After the band recorded its parts, Benjamin would return to Bob Hamilton’s Whitehorse studio to record the fiddle portions. There, it was just him and the engineer. His only audience was a microphone.

“It’s hard to stay motivated in that instance. Because what you’re trying to do is capture the right moment in the studio, and to get those moments, you need that motivation, you need that drive inside you to allow that to flow through to your instrument, and then out. And that’s what we’re looking for in the studio, and you have to force yourself to feel that inside and somehow let that out,” he said.

To find that motivation, Benjamin relied on his formal music training and he’d picture people dancing to give the emotional inspiration he needed for the performances.

More than with any other instrument he plays, he has the strongest connection to the fiddle, he said. He’s been dreaming of making a solo album since his childhood, and he wanted to make sure he made a fiddle album before venturing on any other musical projects.

Benjamin began playing music in Grade 5 with band instruments: the trombone, horn and baritone. He didn’t pick up a fiddle until he was 14. But the instrument has always been very personal to him. He associates it with his home: Old Crow.

Born in Whitehorse, Benjamin grew up in British Columbia and Alberta, but returned to the Yukon for high school. He spent his summers in Old Crow, and he’s always considered the fly-in community his home, he said. His dad lives there, and it was on a summer trip back from British Columbia to visit his father that Benjamin first began playing the fiddle.

“I really just took a big, big interest in it,” he said.

He kept practising throughout the summer, aided by his uncle, fiddler Allan Benjamin.

When he returned to British Columbia, he took the fiddle with him.

“That was sort of my connection to my home, you know, in Old Crow,” he said. “And having left, it gave me hope. Not only, ‘Soon I’ll go back home,’ but that was a bit of my home that I brought with me when I was away.”

Old Crow has a unique fiddling culture, he said. “When you hear an Old Crow fiddler, you can almost tell it’s an Old Crow fiddler. It’s just unique.”

Fur traders introduced the instrument to the village, and brought Celtic-inspired songs with it, but the Old Crow musicians didn’t have any formal training, he said. They hadn’t learned proper tuning techniques, or even the correct way to hold the instrument. “You just sort of did it any old way and you made the melody sound, just a makeshift self-taught sort of thing.”

As a result, the music has a “crooked timing.” The number of beats in a bar can vary often throughout a song.

As a pilot, Benjamin has travelled to various northern communities, and he brings his fiddle with him. Finding a fiddler for dances in some locations in Alaska and the Northwest Territories can be difficult, but that’s not true in Old Crow, he said. “It’s an active part of the way of life up there,” said Benjamin, who has taught the fiddle to students in the fly-in community.

He doesn’t know when he’ll be heading back to teach, but this new project will keep him busy. Besides playing at Rendezvous in February, he’s also travelling to Ontario in April, British Columbia in July and Saskatchewan in August.

What will happen next with his music is still a mystery to him.

“I’m on a journey with my music as well, and my life and career. I’m just sort of taking it as it comes,” he said. “And I’m just here doing it. I’m living it. I’m actively pursuing it. It’s something I really want. Whatever comes of it, however it may be, I’ll be open to whatever. As long as I still get to play music and enjoy it and play for the people, I think that’s what it’s about for me.”

Flying Gwitch’in Fiddler will be released on Jan. 11. There will be a release party at the Yukon Arts Centre at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at