Fiddle & Banjo
Karrnnel Sawitsky & Daniel Koulack
Tunes from the North, Songs from the South
The name that Canadian roots duo Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack chose for themselves is simple and straightforward: Fiddle & Banjo. That’s because they delight in the deeply subtle interplay between their two chosen instruments, and they recognize that this interplay is at the heart of American roots music. On their new album, Tunes from the North, Songs from the South, their goal is to unite the instrumental dance music of the Canadian North that they’ve known all their lives with the songs and tunes of the American South from which they’ve drawn so much inspiration. The music of Appalachian stringbands and blazing bluegrass bands has taken deep root in Canadian cities, and a new generation of artists like April Verch and The Duhks have long been fusing this American roots music with the old-time dance tunes of Canada. Fiddler Karrnnel Sawitsky is in a perfect spot to do this, having grown up immersed in Canadian old-time fiddling, particularly the barndance tunes of the Ukrainian communities he grew up a part of in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Sawitsky toured as part of a family band of fiddlers growing up, but is better known now for his boundary-pushing fiddling and compositions, as featured in his acclaimed Canadian fiddle ensemble The Fretless.
Banjo player Daniel Koulack came to Winnipeg at 3 years old in 1968, and over the years has come to be known as one of the best clawhammer banjo players in Canada, also with a reputation for pushing boundaries. The two met at a late-night jam session at a Canadian folk music camp and found a likeness in how they approached the roots music they loved. This is their second album together and it showcases not only the instrumental virtuosity they bring to the music, but also their careful taste. They’re not afraid to focus on the silence between the notes, to craft a song that leaves space to breath. In this they’re ably helped by star Canadian folk singer Joey Landreth of The Bros. Landreth. Landreth, who used to play in a Saskatchewan-based country band with Sawitsky some years back, threw himself into the album’s songs, creating thoughtful and beautifully meditative versions of classic Appalachian folk songs like “Red Rocking Chair,” “Little Birdie,” Skip James’ “Killin’ Floor,” or the seemingly-always-topical “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.” Under Landreth’s vocals, Sawitsky and Koulack lay a bed of interlocking fiddle and banjo lines like finely crafted latticework, but it’s on the album’s many instrumentals that their duets truly shine. It’s no small feat for a clawhammer banjo player to be able to match a fiddler on instrumental tunes, and Koulack’s up for anything here, picking furiously on French-Canadian or Métis dance tunes, known for their tricky rhythms and rapid switchbacks. It’s a tour-de-force that sounds as natural as a front-porch picking session, for neither artist here is interested in showy virtuosity for its own sake. This commitment to artistry shows as well in the album’s compositions, which range from meditative waltzes to free-wheeling reels.
Tunes from the North, Songs from the South is an album based on the interplay between two master musicians. There’s a playfulness to this music that comes from the ease with which each artist approaches their instrument, but also from the joy of making music with a like-minded visionary. The goal is to make something that sounds both effortless and timeless. Doing all this and uniting the old-time traditions of two countries is no small task, but Karrnnel Sawitsky & Daniel Koulack –Fiddle & Banjo– are clearly up to the challenge.