Festival and Foliage in Cape Breton

By Earle Hitchner – Irish Echo

Celtic Colours offered 44 concerts in 33 communities over 9 picturesque October days

Just how popular was the sixth annual Celtic Colours International Festival, held Oct. 11-19 on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia?

Consider the case of Danú. The Waterford-based septet, who had played at the festival in 2000 and 2001, drove four hours from New Brunswick to give an unannounced, impromptu, free performance on Oct. 14 at the late-night festival club inside the Gaelic College at St. Ann’s. Hungry for more, Danú later joined Clare-born button accordionist Sharon Shannon in a session. Then the band packed off the next day for Pictou, a scheduled stop on their North American tour.

For Boston button accordionist Joe Derrane, who previously performed at Celtic Colours in 1999, the attraction was irresistible. “The hospitality and reception I got from the people in the communities were incredible the first time around,” he said, “and this time it was even more so.”

Like Danú and Derrane, Scots piano accordionist Phil Cunningham was smitten by the festival’s high level of music and the island’s breathtaking scenery. Last year, he composed “The Colours of Cape Breton,” an air inspired by a spectacular early morning view of St. Ann’s Bay.

With fiddler Duncan Chisholm and Boys of the Lough guitarist Malcolm Stitt, Cunningham played that air at the gala opening concert in Centre 200, the hockey home of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in Sydney.

Though sound reproduction this night was less than optimal, Cunningham was in good form and wit. He played another air he wrote, “The Gentle Light That Woke Me,” and caught fire on J. Scott Skinner’s challenging strathspey “Laird O’Drumblair” and his own propulsive “Hogties Reel.”

Jokes flowed from Cunningham as well. “Did you hear about the Scotsman who loved his wife so much that he almost told her?” Cunningham deadpanned. Another he told: “A penguin walks into a pub and asks the bartender, ‘Was my dad in here earlier?’ The bartender thinks for a moment, then says, ‘I don’t know. What does he look like?'”

Accompanied by Marion Bridge pianist Tracey Dares MacNeil, whose syncopated touch provided an extra lift, Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll snapped off some lively reels, “Sevens/Michael Kennedy’s/Cup of Tea,” and skillfully executed a five-part hornpipe, “Drunken Sailor,” hitched to the “Bag of Spuds” reel. Carroll’s playing of an air she composed, “A Day and an Age,” paid homage to the pub ballad singers in Chicago whose sentimental songs she scorned at a younger age but now finds more understandable in her middle years.

An artist in residence at this year’s Celtic Colours, fiddler Jerry Holland, born in Brockton, Mass., but a longtime resident of Cape Breton, also delivered a memorable performance, to which Jillian Head stepdanced Cape Breton-style at one point.

The Sharon Shannon Band is really a stripped-down version of the Woodchoppers group she led a couple years ago, with fiddlers Liz and Yvonne Kane gone from a lineup now comprising Shannon on box and fiddle, her sister Mary on mandolin and banjo, and Jim Murray on guitar, plus Kerry’s Pauline Scanlon guesting on vocals. They gave a solid performance, especially in a march and three reels medley.

Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist J.P. Cormier and his wife, Cheticamp keyboardist Hilda Chiasson-Cormier, as well as singer Raylene Rankin of Mabou’s famed Rankin Family, further fueled the excitement of the opening concert.


With an unemployment rate of 15.5 percent in a nation averaging 7.5 percent, Cape Breton Island gets a welcome shot in the arm from the money generated by Celtic Colours. Last year, more than $5.4 million flowed into the island’s economy during the festival, which sold 15,389 tickets to patrons not just from Canada but from 14 other countries. Off-island visitors, in fact, made up 51 percent of all who attended Celtic Colours last year.

This year, the figure is expected to top $6 million on the strength of so many sold-out shows during the so-called “fall shoulder season,” when tourism drops off sharply throughout the island. Inns, motels, restaurants, and shops that otherwise would have closed by early October remained open in order to cater to the influx of Celtic Colours visitors. The main lodge of the Inverary Inn in Baddeck, where I stayed, was packed with musicians, media, and other festival visitors. A goal of Celtic Colours at its inception was “to put world-class artists from outside Cape Breton on stage with our own artists to demonstrate, especially to Cape Bretoners, that our artists were world-class as well,” explained Max MacDonald, who shared festival director duties with Joella Foulds. They are two of only six staff members for Celtic Colours. The other 600 workers are all volunteers. “Music is a part of everyone’s family here, of what we do, and in the past we sometimes took our musicians for granted. Celtic Colours has helped to change that.”

During the 10 days leading up to the festival, the Celtic Colours in the Schools Program brought such young, high-energy Cape Breton acts as Sláinte Mhath and Beólach into junior and senior high schools to perform. This year, more than 13,000 students attended 21 concerts by these groups, hoping to stoke further pride in the island’s musical culture and pass it along to even younger generations.

The program is a cooperative venture between the island’s three school boards and the nonprofit Celtic Colours Festival Society, whose founding mission is “to promote and maintain the Celtic cultures of Cape Breton, the Gaelic language, music, arts, and crafts, and to heighten national and international awareness” of the island.

For information about next year’s festival, contact Celtic Colours Festival Society, 363 Charlotte St., Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada B1P 1E1, 902-562-6700,


The logistical challenge of Celtic Colours is considerable. Most of
the venues are far-flung, and some require a drive of two hours to get
there. Those who own or rent cars and vans often provide rides for
others, and though I shared a rental with two others, they decided to
attend one concert while I wanted to attend another. So I got a ride
from Steve and Nancy Wennberg of York Springs, Pa., to a church in
Inverness, where an afternoon concert of “pastoral airs” was slated.
Coisir an Eilein, a choir led by Fr. Allan MacMillan, opened the
concert with five songs in Scots Gaelic.

Fiddler Jerry Holland came on next and performed the air “Hector the
Hero,” some jigs composed by Liz Carroll, and a couple of tunes learned
off a recent recording of house sessions by Sydney fiddler Bill Lamey
(1914-1991). Holland’s tight note clusters and low-register bowing put
a fresh sheen on the tunes he selected.

Another Cape Breton fiddler, Winnie Chafe, played waltzes, a lament,
and Jerry Holland’s slow air “My Cape Breton Home” with a stately
grace. In keeping with the setting, U.S. fiddler Liz Carroll also
played some slow airs: “The Crow in the Sun,” written by Altan
guitarist Dáithí Sproule, and her own “Lament of the First Generation.”
But taking her cue from Holland’s earlier insertion of uptempo dance
tunes, she finished with a flurry of three reels, including “Golden
Legs,” which she named for New York Irish stepdancers Donny and Eileen
Golden. Performing with his trio for the second time in two days in
front of Nova Scotia’s Lieutenant Governor Myra Freeman, piano
accordionist Phil Cunningham glanced at his playing partner, Duncolm
Chisholm, before asking the lieutenant governor, “Which one of us are
you stalking?” When the laughter faded, Cunningham launched into a
medley that began slowly and ended with the brisk-paced “Wing Commander
Donald MacKenzie’s Reel.” From Inverness I traveled straight-away to
Bras d’Or for an evening concert aptly labeled “Raising the Roof” that
had to be moved from a brand-new community hall (town electrician
wouldn’t sign off on it) to a school gym. Acoustically, it was a
hurdle, but the performers handled it well.

Point Aconi fiddler Brenda Stubbert, for whom Jerry Holland wrote a
popular reel that has been recorded by Altan and many other Irish
artists, joined her father, Robert, for some tunes that drew whoops of
appreciation from the audience.

Tenor banjoist Éamonn Coyne’s set showcased his intricate plectrum
work on “The Fairy Jig/The Drink of Water/An Phís Fluich” and a few
barndances. Then, with Brenda Stubbert sitting in on piano, he played a
rousing medley consisting of two tunes learned from Donegal fiddler
Tommy Peoples and two learned from Jerry Holland.

Capping the concert was button accordionist Joe Derrane, who
performed without any accompaniment. At age 72, he is still the “best
of the box,” claimed the Cape Breton Post in a lengthy article on him,
and his performance this night did nothing to dispel that notion. His
nimbly fingered triplets on two hornpipes, “The Mathematician/The
Eclipse,” were stunning, and his concluding reels of “Farewell to
London/The Pullet and the Cock/The Contradiction” brought the crowd to
its feet.


On Sunday afternoon at Gaelic College, I attended a showing of “The
Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler,” a documentary produced by Ron MacInnis
that originally aired on CBC television in 1971. It sparked a lot of
controversy among Cape Bretoners, especially Fr. John Angus Rankin, who
took strong exception to the film’s thesis that traditional fiddling on
the island was waning among the young and in danger of dying out.

MacInnis was there to introduce the film, and though he said he
could find only two young fiddlers (one was John Morris Rankin) playing
Cape Breton music in 1971, he conceded that the now deceased Fr. Rankin
was right about the future of Cape Breton fiddling. Its vitality was
obvious from the vigorous, post-film playing of 30 members, aged 9 to
89, from the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association, formed in 1973 as a
response to MacInnis’s documentary. Among the performers were fiddler
Howie MacDonald, pianists Doug MacPhee and Troy MacGillivray, and a
trio of boys on fiddle, electric bass, and keyboards who called
themselves All Fired Up.

The best concert I saw at Celtic Colours was on the evening of Oct.
13 at a school theater in Port Hawkesbury. The performances, sound, and
pacing were impeccable from the four female acts.

Accompanied by Wendy MacIsaac on keyboards, Cape Breton Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond set the concert’s tone with a quick jest:

“What do you call a woman who takes a man’s job? Lazy.”

She sang puirt-a-beul (mouth music) and waulking, or milling, songs
with enviable passion. Scotland’s Shine, comprising vocalist Alyth
McCormack, electro-harper/vocalist Mary MacMaster, and
electro-harper/vocalist Corrina Hewat, also sang puirt-a-beul, layering
their vocals to produce a fuller, richer sound. Traditional songs such
as “Seinn” and “Alasdair Og,” along with Robert Burns’s “Tocher” and
Rick Taylor’s “Small Wars,” were painted in deft, delicate strokes
creating a near confessional intimacy.

Dublin-born singer-songwriter Eleanor McEvoy, playing acoustic
guitar and violin with backing from keyboardist Brian Connor, delivered
original songs of love often blighted, unrequited, or lost. One song
was etched in regret, “Did I Hurt You?” Another, “The Rain Falls,”
captured the embitterment and disconsolation of getting dumped by a
lover via e-mail. It was a brave, bravura performance by McEvoy, whose
songs rarely mediate the raw pain inspiring them.

This night, however, belonged to Raylene Rankin. Accompanied by
guitarist Clarence Deveau, she was in magnificent voice. Rankin sang
“Gillis Mountain,” her own composition, with a countryish lilt, and her
rendition of “Land in Spring,” a song written by her late brother, John
Morris, was spellbinding, abetted by her sister Heather’s guest harmony

The high point of Raylene Rankin’s performance came with Leon
Dubinsky’s “Rise Again.” Her bell-like soprano effortlessly climbed
into the upper scale of this life-affirming song, which took on special
meaning for her audience, knowing she had just spent the past year
recovering from breast cancer.


Among the other standout Celtic Colours performances I caught during
my six-day stay on Cape Breton was a purely acoustic, candlelit concert
in the chapel at the Fortress of Louisbourg, a military site founded by
the French in 1713 and now restored. Of special note here was the
Québecois trio of guitarist André Marchand, button accordion and
harmonica player Normand Miron, and fiddler Lisa Ornstein, who
performed songs in French about immigration and missed opportunity, and
played dance tunes that had the crowd tapping heel-to-toe.

On Oct. 15 in Cheticamp, the Marchand-Ornstein-Miron trio shared the
stage with Joe Derrane and De Dannan members Frankie Gavin on fiddle
and Brian McGrath on keyboards, and with J.P. and Hilda Cormier. Each
of these acts gave excellent performances, with J.P Cormier, who lives
nearby, showing his versatility as singer, songwriter (“The Fisherman’s
Daughter” especially), and guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle player.
Much later that night, at the festival club, Derrane, Gavin, and
McGrath performed again. Derrane silenced the socializing throng with a
brilliant solo on “Nancy,” a French-styled waltz he wrote, and Gavin
gave the best single solo I’ve ever heard from him on “Wonder
Hornpipe/The Foxhunter’s Reel.”

Oct. 16 was my last day at the festival. My mid-afternoon drive up
the winding Cabot Trail was straight out of a postcard: deep-blue
lakes, streams, and inlets, plus pounding gray ocean surf, and hills
aglow with the gold, crimson, green, and purple hues of autumn foliage.
I spent part of my evening in Strathspey Place, Mabou, where I saw the
Cape Breton sextet Beólach galvanize the crowd. The rest of that night
and much of the following morning were spent at a house ceilidh in
Belle Côte, overlooking Margaree Harbour.

The catered party could not have been a better way to bid a
reluctant goodbye to Celtic Colours and Cape Breton Island. Fiddler
Kinnon Beaton and his wife, Betty Lou, a pianist, drove the dancing on
the living room hardwood floor. Their daughter, Andrea, also sat in on
fiddle, as did J.P. Cormier and Howie MacDonald, who enticed Molly
Rankin, John Morris’s teenage daughter, to get up and do some Cape
Breton-style stepdancing with him.

Prince Edward Island singer-songwriter Lennie Gallant stopped by
and, with acoustic guitar in hand and a harmonica rack around his neck,
sang to party-goers now sitting hushed around him and watching intently
from the balcony above. He is a gifted performer, who earlier in his
career played in Irish bands, and his ability to connect with an
audience is extraordinary.

At one point, the caterers stopped serving and sidled over for a
closer listen to his singing of “Which Way Does the River Run” and
“Pieces of You,” and everyone joined in on the chorus of “Peter’s
Dream,” Gallant’s powerful song about the plight of fishermen in
Atlantic Canada. I left just before sunrise, my memories as vivid as
the landscape brightening around me during my drive back to Baddeck. A
return to Cape Breton cannot happen soon enough.

(Reprinted from Earle Hitchner’s “Ceol” column, published in the IRISH ECHO newspaper in New York City on October 23, 2002. Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.)

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