By Laurel Munroe – Cape Breton Post
ST. ANN’S – Just over a decade ago, Liz Doherty knew next to nothing about the traditional music of Cape Breton Island.
Now, the 31-year-old native of County Donegal, Ireland, is a leading authority on the subject – and she has the degree to prove it. Doherty posesses a Doctorate in Music from Ireland’s University College Cork; her thesis is on Cape Breton music.
Doherty, in Cape Breton this week for the fifth annual Celtic Colours International Festival, was raised on the traditional music of her homeland. She learned to dance, play fiddle, piano and tin whistle as a child and went on to study music at Cork after leaving high school. There, she became interested in the connections between Donegal and Scottish music and began travelling to Scotland to see and hear musicians perform.
On one of those trips, in the late 1980s, she heard noted Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser perform a blistering set of Cape Breton tunes.
“When I got back to college I was telling my professor about this guy who was playing these tunes from this place called Cape Breton,” she recalls.
“My professor was going through his mail while I was saying this and he opened a package. It was Natalie MacMaster’s first tape. John Morris Rankin was playing piano and I was just blown away.”
Doherty says it was Rankin’s piano style, more than anything, that drew her to the music.
“The piano style to me was so amazing; I had never heard anything like it. How the piano and the fiddle worked together as a unit … what the piano did for the fiddle was incredible.”
After completing her undergraduate degree in 1992, Doherty decided to “go to this Cape Breton place and learn some music.”
A friend who had been to the island gave her a list of names of traditional musicians to look up – but she knew no one here and still didn’t have a place to stay.
“My professor said he had an old neighbour from home who was now living in Canada and he said he’d give him a call for me. It turned out he was in Halifax and his name was Denis Ryan. All I knew was a man with a grey beard was going to meet me at the Halifax airport,” Doherty laughs.
She couldn’t have made a better contact. Ryan, a native of Ireland who has lived in Canada for years, is a well-known singer and former frontman of the legendary group Ryan’s Fancy.
Doherty spent her first week in Canada hanging out with guitarist Dave MacIsaac, whose Cape Breton music archive is said to be unparalelled.
Then, on Good Friday, Ryan drove her to Sydney to stay with his friends Tic and Emily Butler, who were well known for opening their home and their hearts to musicians over the years.
On Saturday, Doherty went to the Old Sydney Pub. Rankin was playing there with Howie MacDonald – and the Barra MacNeils, Brenda Stubbert and several other Cape Breton traditional musicians were in the crowd.
“Almost my whole list was there – I couldn’t believe it!”
On that first trip, Doherty spent most of her time going to dances and parties and meeting dozens of musicians. Over the next couple of years, she returned to Cape Breton for long stretches of time, conducting interviews and documenting different players for her thesis.
By the time it was completed, Doherty had made many close friends here, including Lucy MacNeil of the Barra MacNeils. This summer, she was a bridesmaid in MacNeil’s wedding.
Doherty recently quit her full-time job as lecturer in traditional music at University College Cork and plans to refocus her considerable energy on playing and performing.
She spent a day at Fred Lavery and Gordie Sampson’s Lakewind Sound studio in Point Aconi this week recording two tracks for her upcoming third CD, which she will complete in Ireland next month. Two Cape Bretoners joined her in the studio: pianist Ryan MacNeil, of Slainte Mhath, and drummer Matt Foulds, of Beolach.
When Doherty began studying Cape Breton music, it was virtually unknown in Irish music circles. But since the ‘Celtic revival’ of the early 1990s, “it’s amazing now because you can mention Cape Breton to anyone and they can tell you lots about it and play lots of tunes.
It’s got a huge profile over there now.”
Despite her expertise in Cape Breton music, Doherty does not play in the Cape Breton style.
“I decided early on I wasn’t going to do that,” she says. “I have taken elements from it though. My own style is kind of a mixture,” of Donegal, Cape Breton and Scottish styles.
Doherty will perform tonight at the Judique Community Centre. The show, called Tony’s Twist, will be hosted by Scottish guitar wizard Tony McManus, who will also welcome master Celtic guitarist Dave MacIsaac and Scottish singer-songwriter Archie Fisher. Some of the students McManus worked with in a three-day advanced guitar workshop this week will also perform.
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