James Cheechoo, a Cree from Moose Factory, has just released his first music CD at 68. Cheechoo is of the old school, a self-taught fiddler who’s has been performing for the last 55 years, longer than most people have been married though he’s certainly played more than one wedding. He is one of the last fiddlers to remember the “old style” playing before guitars were introduced as back up for the fiddle.

Cheechoo said his father remembered going about 40 miles out in the “Bay” to Charleton Island. “There was a depot for the HBC there,” said Cheechoo. He said his father told him a lot of Crees would go there during the summer to watch the “three-masters” coming in. According to Cheechoo, it took about 14 days to unload the three-mast ships. “Scotsmen and Irishmen would come in the ships and they would be playing music all the way in to the warehouse,” said Cheechoo, remembering his father’s stories.

“They had a lot of fun dancing and playing the music. Some of these songs on this CD are from this time,” said Cheechoo. Indeed, the name of the CD, Shay Chee Man, refers to those who came in on the ships to Canada “to bring those tunes to us,” said Cheechoo.

The Nation: So you’ve just put out your first album and you’re 68, what took you so long?

James Cheechoo: Sometimes I was thinking to do that but I didn’t have the money. That’s what it was. I began to think I could get a grant from the government. I did that. It came through. That was a great help. I used some of my money too. I got some money from SOCAM (Canada Council) and FACTOR (Heritage Canada).

You’re from the Moose Factory people?

Yes, but when I speak Cree I speak the Cree language of Eastmain. That’s where I was born. My father worked over there until he got his old age pension and moved back to Moose Factory. I moved back with him in 1960.

I see you’re a self-taught fiddler. Do you read music?

I don’t read the notes of music. I just learned where I heard the music. I hear music and I can play it.

This album has 10 songs. These are all traditional dances?

Yes, I do these things. These are history songs, very old songs. Nobody plays them now. They only want to play the new music. Everybody wants to play the new music.

I brought these up because I heard some Indian people saying they want to bring up something that’s old so young people can see and hear it.

The Indians, what they were using a long time ago, they were dancing. I remember back in 1944, the first time that I was playing the fiddle in square dancing, it would start at 8 in the evening and finish at 5:30 or 6 in the morning. That’s how long they used to dance. Of course they used to rest for about 15 minutes and they dance again. Other people used to play fiddle like I did.

So you’re looking at this album as away of preserving Cree history for the youth and future generations?


Are you teaching anyone the fiddle?

No, I never taught anyone. I just want to pass on the fiddle so people can hear it. The new fiddlers can give it a try if they want to carry on the old-time fiddle music. I know some places they have never heard this type of fiddle music. Especially at Chisasibi, I went in there last summer and they said there’s some rabbit dancing in that music. They didn’t know how the rabbit dance went.

The rabbit dance has two lines. One’s a ladies line and the other is the men’s line. One partner has to chase his partner around these lines until he catches her. That’s how the rabbit dance goes. Then it’s the next couple and the next after that until all is finished. Sometimes the ladies take a little while to be caught. They run around the people who are sitting watching. It’s a lot of fun.

Also there’s a kissing dance. The kissing dance used to be the very last dance they would have at these dances. It was to say goodbye to people. They use a kerchief. It can be a lady or a man who starts first. If it’s a man he dances around in a circle, he may have an eye on somebody. He goes and kisses the lady wherever they are sitting. He gives her the kerchief. She dances around and kisses a man. They dance around in a circle following each other until the last lady. She goes up and kisses the fiddler. He goes with his fiddle into the center of the circle. Everyone’s still going around and they all join hands now because the fiddler has been kissed. The fiddler’s in the center of the ring. He chooses what lady he’s going to kiss. He goes outside the circle and the lady goes to the middle. She kisses someone else and leaves the circle to sit down. The circle gets smaller as this goes on until there’s only two left. That’s
the kissing dance. That’s how that works. It finishes up the party.

All the songs on the CD have their own dances. That’s how it was a long time ago. Not like today, today the people are dancing around. Some of them dance like they don’t know what they are doing. That’s how it is today. A long time ago they were not doing that.

On the CD there’s Kwisiekan #1 and #2. Those are step dances in order. This summer I was in Mistissini. We had a wedding dance there. I was playing the fiddle and I played Kwisiekan #1. Some old men and women came and they were dressed like the old days. There were six of them. They had partners too and they danced both #1 and #2 in order. Three on one side of the floor and three on the other side of the floor. They were step-dancing and the women went around the circle again. The men were going in a figure 8 inside the circle. The step dance was like a long time ago. A long time ago I never saw anyone dancing by themselves like today they do that.

All the songs had their own dances. I put the names of the songs on the CD like they used to call them in Cree a long time ago. I’m thinking of making another CD sometime in the new year. Maybe another one.

You’re thinking of another CD?

Yes, I can put in another five old traditional and five modern songs. I’d like to have people hear them. To hear what was going on a long time ago. This is so they cannot forget this music. That’s very old. I can bring the skin drum too.

A long time ago there was no guitar. There was only the skin drum that was used. It was good. It was like a guitar sound with almost bass. It sounds real good. I remember hearing the sound from my house a long time ago when I would go outside and I could hear the dance going even though it was quite a ways away. That’s how loud it was and it was good.

I noticed you have you’re wife playing on this CD too.

Yeah, my wife is playing the spoons. She has played with me a long time when she feels like it. She plays very good. She’s got some wooden spoons from her sister. They’re attached together. That’s how they are, those spoons.

If people want to pick up CD, how do they get it?

I sent them to different places. I sent them to the small stores. I phoned them and asked if they want those CD’s. I’m planning to make cassettes. I know people have cassettes in their cars and they want cassettes. Many people just have cassette machines. They’ve asked for cassettes so I’m ordering them now. I will let them know once we have cassettes.

CD: Shay Chee Man
Artist: James Cheechoo
Music Style: Traditional James Bay Fiddle
Kwishiekan Productions, 1998