OAK VIEW : Fiddlers Play to Beat the Band

Sequestered in an enclosed listening booth to avoid being swayed by many contestants' colorful Western garb, judges at Oak View's Fourth Annual Old-Time Amateur Fiddle Contest had their work cut out for them Sunday.

For nine hours, they concentrated as the 56 contestants played polkas, hoe-downs and rags with varying degrees of skill. The fiddlers ranged in age from elementary schoolchildren, who nervously clutched their pint-size violins, to senior citizens, who have been playing for decades.

As one contestant after another sawed away at his or her fiddle, judge Rae Huffman of Oxnard, a fiddler herself, said this year's talent was "absolutely outstanding." Another judge, obviously overwhelmed after the first hour, demanded that coffee be prepared "right away."

The free contest, sponsored by the Ventura County chapter of the California Old-Time Fiddlers Assn., was created four years ago after officials stopped letting fiddlers play at the annual county fair, Huffman said.

"They didn't want the fair audience to just sit there and listen to the fiddling; they wanted people to get up and spend money," Huffman said. "So we decided to do our own thing, and I think it's worked out just fine."

Another reason for the contest is to encourage youngsters to learn fiddle music and prevent it from dying out, said Sam Hackett, 65, a retired high school teacher who lives in Ventura and is a member of the Old-Time Fiddlers group.

"It's our heritage--it goes back to the pioneers," said Hackett, who wore a cowboy hat and Western tie, like many of the people, numbering about 100, who attended the contest at the Oak View Community Center. "Besides, it's happy, wholesome music. Of course, we all drink beer, but you don't see the rest of the junk that goes on in other places."

Much of the music was imported from Ireland and Scotland by Western pioneers who didn't have room to carry pianos in their covered wagons, said Adrian Bush, chairman of the association.

One contestant, Sameer Sharma, 7, of Camarillo, whose grandmother wore a sari to the event, said that playing Western music is easier than playing classical music from India. His family enjoys listening to Sameer's fiddling because it is "more human" than traditional Indian music, said his mother, Surekha Sharma, a physician who emigrated to the United States 15 years ago.

Sharma took first place in the "pee wee" category of contestants up to age 8. His sister Saanka came in first among youngsters up to 12 years old.

In the junior category, which included fiddlers ages 13 to 17, Rocio Marron of Camarillo took first place. Susan Thielmann of Santa Barbara took first place in the women's division. In the men's division, Roy Lancaster of Atwater won first place. Burt Lewis of Los Angeles came in first among seniors.

The winners were awarded gold trophies.

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