Fiddle-L Anthology 1999

A Tour 'Round The World Of Fiddling

Performer Bio



Philippe Varlet, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S. (

Philippe was born January 9, 1956, in Paris, France. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration; a Master's in Music (Catholic University, Washington DC); a.b.d. Ph.D. in ethnomusicology (University of Maryland, College Park, MD). Philippe is a full-time musician, music teacher, and music consultant. He runs a private archive of recordings and documents pertaining to Irish traditional music, and provides research services to individuals and organizations (including recent research for the PBS series "Long Journey Home"). Philippe also works as part-time book buyer for the House of Musical Traditions, a music store located in Takoma Park, MD, and specializing in folk and traditional music from around the world. He is a member of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (Irish Musicians' Association) and of the Society for Ethnomusicology.


Philippe is of French heritage; both parents were born in France. His father is a classically trained pianist and his grandmother was an opera singer, but there were no violinists or fiddlers in the family before him. "I started playing the fiddle after arriving in the U.S. (Washington, DC) in 1977. At the time, there was an explosion of activity in the local Irish music scene, thanks in part, as I was told, to the Bicentennial festivities of 1976 which had brought lots of Irish and Irish-American musicians to town and inspired a whole bunch of people to start playing. After [playing] for about three years, I took some lessons with the first violin of the student orchestra at Catholic University while I was a student there. The lessons helped with my control of the bow in particular, but my teacher finally gave up on me because I accented everything like Irish tunes. I also drove her nuts improvising on the melodies and learning by heart rather than reading..." Philippe notes that he also learned by playing, watching, and listening at jam sessions and dances. "In 1979, I went to Ireland and enrolled in a fiddle class at the Willie Clancy Summer School, an annual event which attracts musicians (most of whom don't actually take classes) from all over the world to the little town of Miltown Malbay, in West County Clare. I am told there were 900 musicians enrolled last summer, including 400 fiddle players. There were only two fiddle classes in 1979, beginners and advanced. I had played some, so I took advanced, but I often felt left behind. Most of the other students were Irish kids who could repeat a whole tune after hearing it once. I also had trouble because the teachers, John Kelly Sr. and Bobby Casey, both "national treasures" as traditional fiddlers, could not explain verbally any of what they did, [and just showed it to us] again and again."

The first tune Philippe learned was Morrison's Jig; he had previously played it on the mandolin, and had probably learned it from a Bothy Band recording. "It's an interesting tune for the apprentice Irish fiddler because of all the rolls (Irish ornaments) in the first part. When I started playing fiddle, I had been at sessions with fiddlers in Washington and, for the first time, had been able to observe closely what they were doing with their fingers. I thought to myself: I can do that, and I went and rented a fiddle to try it. Three months later, I bought my own." Philippe says he likes quite a few fiddle tunes and would rather not name one favorite. "I like the playing of a lot of different fiddlers. But I'd have to say that the one that influenced me most when I learned to play is Frankie Gavin, from Galway, better known perhaps as the fiddler in De Danaan. I like what he does with the tunes, how he "sets" them, and how he improvises. And it turns out we have similar tastes in terms of sources. Just like me, Gavin loves the recordings of Irish music made in the 1920s and 1930s."


Philippe enjoys playing all the kinds of tunes Irish fiddle players usually play: reels, jigs, hornpipes, as well as some more regional types like polkas and slides (Cork and Kerry), strathspeys, barn dances, germans, mazurkas (Donegal). "Although I find it very challenging, I also love to play slow airs derived from the sean-nos singing tradition. I've tried [playing tunes in cross tuning], and I like it, but I usually don't have occasions to tune and retune, so I don't do it often. This is not a very common technique in Irish fiddling, but there are a few examples of it, for instance a reel called "The Foxhunter's" played in GDGD or AEAE." Philippe learned the guitar before he started playing fiddle. He used to fingerpick in the style of John Renbourn and Pierre Bensusan, and played Irish traditional music on the guitar as well as whistle, bodhran (Irish drum), mandolin, and bouzouki. He learned the viola after the fiddle, and on occasion plays a five-course cittern and the mandocello. He enjoys bouzouki, guitar, or piano for backup: "For me, it has a whole more to do with how the instrument is played than which instrument it is. I think I prefer having a piano when I play at dances." His ceili band, the Blackthorn Ceili Band (fiddle, accordion, banjo, piano, drums), in Silver Spring, plays a monthly ceili, and he plays with other bands also. He also plays for contras (still Irish music) with another group called Celtic Naught (used to be "Not" because none of them are Irish). Philippe plays for the occasional wedding, funeral, or recording session in churches; he notes that fortunately, he has not played too many funerals for people he knew. Most often he plays for dances, or sessions in pubs or parties.


"I play Irish traditional fiddle. Like probably for a majority of players nowadays, my style is a combination of various elements picked up over the years, a hybrid. In earlier times, people traveled less and learned to play more or less in the style which was predominant in their area. The "hybrid style," for want of a better term, is not based on that of an individual in the past, but is the product of a natural evolution spurred by the increasing exchange of musical information through travel, emigration, and the diffusion of commercial and private recordings. Some of the older Irish regional styles remain fairly strong; I'd say they are even enjoying a revival of interest right now. The most prominent would have to be: Donegal, Sligo, Galway/Clare, Cork/Kerry." Philippe feels the hybrid style dominates in his region, which is to be expected in an urban area with little Irish population and mostly "revival" players."


Philippe's violin is a German Mittenwald, probably ca. 1900. He describes it as "no big deal", with a nice and fairly loud tone. He uses a Kun shoulder rest, and used to play with Dominant strings. However, when he purchased this fiddle, it came with a set of Corelli Alliance strings. "I've been a convert ever since." He plays a student model bow, and has been considering an upgrade.


"Sometimes, I ask myself that question. I'm not sure I have a profound answer yet. I just like it, and sometimes it likes me too."


Philippe chose to record two reels, The Coalminer and The Steeplechase. "The Coalminer I got from a 78 by the Flanagan Brothers, a well-known group of musicians who recorded in New York during the 1920s and 1930s. Joe Flanagan played melodeon and Mike played tenor banjo; they both sang and did all sorts of skits, fun stuff. Mike Flanagan lived in Albany, NY, until not too long ago; he died in the late 1980s. Their version of the tune is not the one commonly played today, it's simpler in a way, more straightforward dance music with a lot of repetition in the melody. The Steeplechase, which is not the tune most Irish musicians know by that name, came from a 78 by Eddie Herborn, also a melodeon player and the first Irish-American musician to have been recorded in New York back in 1916. It's the only recording I have ever heard of this tune. The two tunes start in a similar way -- they seemed made for each other. I have been playing this set for maybe 8-10 years now, perhaps longer.

"Playing with me on this recording is my wife Mary Duke Smith on tenor banjo. She is American, born in Miami and raised in Chicago. She moved to the DC area in the mid 1980s and started playing Irish music (she used to play guitar) on a beautiful Vega tenor banjo her mother found in a music store. Also playing with us on piano is Marc Glickman, longtime DC area resident, instrument repairman, and member of many groups over the years. Marc now lives near Frederick, MD, about an hour away, he plays with me in Celtic Naught and with several other bands on the local contra scene.

"This is from a demo tape I made with my wife in 1992. I know it may seem a bit old but I think it reflects exactly the kind of music I like to play and do play most of the time, dance music. It is a studio recording, but it was made "live" (everybody playing at the same time) in a couple of takes. The [fiddle] heard on the recording is (obviously) [different than the one I play now] -- a nondescript large "red" fiddle (possibly German?), with the inscription "Jack Balfe, 1909" in script on the top half of the back (possibly not German...). I am told there was an American composer named Jack Balfe, but I haven't made any research on the subject. I used Dominant [strings] on that fiddle."