Music ablaze at Celtic Colours

By Earle Hitchner – The Irish Echo

The autumn festival featured 300 performers in 44 concerts throughout Cape Breton Island

CAPE BRETON ISLAND — The tourist brochures describe this island as
“Nova Scotia’s masterpiece,” but those words hardly do it justice. I
prefer the words of a young girl standing next to me as we peered down
from a mountain road shoulder at a valley in full fall foliage.
“Someone spilled Trix all over the place,” she said.

Her analogy was apt. Even in cloudy weather, it did look like the
cereal had tumbled into the valleys and onto the mountains of Cape
Breton, which is one-eighth the size of Ireland. Maples were orange,
yellow, red, and purple, aspens and birches were yellow or
orange-yellow, and Virginia creeper was orange-red amid mist-speckled

The scenery was matched by the scene. The eighth annual Celtic Colours
International Festival, held here from Oct. 8-16, showcased equally
vibrant music in dozens of island communities benefiting from both the
cultural and the economic boost.

“This year we’ll bring about 7,000 people who don’t live here for all
or parts of the festival’s nine days,” said Celtic Colours co-director
Max MacDonald, “and we think that’s pretty good for an island of just
160,000 residents. Last year the festival generated $5.94 million in
revenue, and this year we anticipate it will be $6.1 or $6.2 million.
On the opening day of this year’s festival, 19 of 44 concerts were
already sold out. Last year at the same time, we had eight sellouts.
Our budget, which is a little over $800,000, has not grown in
proportion to the festival, and that pleases us.”

“Passing the Bow”

I attended Celtic Colours from Monday through Friday, Oct. 11-15, and
all the evening concerts I saw, as well as the more informal
performances held each night (11 p.m. to 3 a.m.) in the festival club
at St. Ann’s Gaelic College on the Cabot Trail, were memorable.

I arrived early at the Community Centre in Judique, but already a long
line trailed out the front door for an Oct. 11 concert entitled
“Passing the Bow.” Scheduled to perform was Buddy MacMaster, a fiddling
icon raised and still residing in this small village along Cape
Breton’s southwestern coast. It was just a week before MacMaster would
officially turn 80, and the community came out in droves on a night
when tropical storm Nicole merged with a low pressure system off the
Nova Scotian coast to pound Cape Breton with gale winds and torrential

With his sister, Betty Lou Beaton, accompanying him on piano, Buddy
MacMaster played beautifully, at one point shifting from a haunting
melody into a strathspey and then a reel. There was a deceptive ease to
his bowing, executed with cuts (three or four notes in quick succession
in a single beat), drones, and a melodic ripeness. When fiddler Robbie
Fraser, age 18, joined MacMaster and Beaton on stage, it crystallized
the concert’s theme of musical sharing between generations.

The same theme was also percolating in the playing of fiddler Kinnon
Beaton and his wife, pianist Betty Lou Beaton, with their daughter,
fiddler Andrea Beaton. All three reveled in their familial bond of
music, as did Robbie Fraser and his brother, pianist Isaac Fraser, when
they did a short set together.

Born in Brockton, Mass., and now living in Sydney, N.S., fiddler Jerry
Holland revealed an Irish influence from his early exposure to the
recordings of Coleman, Morrison, Killoran, and Cape Breton’s
Irish-style fiddler Johnny Wilmot.

Holland was also influenced by Irish-style musicians living in and
around Boston. One of them was Jimmy Kelly, an Irish American who used
to play at dances in Roxbury, Mass., during the 1950s with the Joe
Joyce Band and with a group led by Cape Breton fiddler Bill Lamey, who
immigrated to Boston in 1953.

“Jimmy and Bill each had a big impact on me,” Holland told me. “Jimmy
played banjo and piano, and was also an incredible fiddler, though
almost nobody knew of it. And Bill gave me all sorts of opportunities
to display my musical wares around Boston.”

In Judique’s Community Centre on Oct. 11, with the able keyboard
backing of Marion Dewar, Holland again displayed those wares,
culminating in a rarity: he stepdanced.

Two other fiddlers, Wendy MacIsaac and Mairi Rankin, along with pianist
Mac Morin also stepdanced Cape Breton-style this night to a medley of
“An Drochaid Chiiuiteach/Scottsville Reel/Foxhunter/Walkin’ the Floor.”
All three musicians are part of Beòlach, a gifted, exciting band based
in Cape Breton whose other members are Patrick Gillis on guitar and
Ryan MacNeil on highland and small pipes. The quintet sizzled in
medleys they dubbed the “Hot Lunch Set,” “Corporal AB,” and “Watchmaker
Set,” while their rendition of Donald Angus Beaton’s “Norman’s Reel”
showed a more contemplative side.

“We’ve been together for five years and basically came out of Celtic
Colours,” MasIsaac told me, adding that the band is “doing really well
in the United States.” She cited Boston, Washington, Maine, and the
West Coast among the places Beòlach often plays below the border. Their
new album, “Variations,” also shows traces of Irish cross-pollination
in repertoire, such as the traditional tune “Gallagher’s Frolics” and
“Toss the Fiddles,” composed by former Cherish the Ladies’ fiddler Liz

“Bards and Ballads”

Located beside Bras d’Or Lakes, Wagmatcook Culture & Heritage
Centre is devoted to preserving the history and traditions of the
Mi’kmaq in this First Nation community. Hanging from the rafters were
Canadian and U.S. flags with a Mi’kmaq portrait on each, and a sign on
the wall read: “When the wisdom keepers speak, all should listen.”

That sign could also apply to the five singer-songwriters who gave a
“Bards and Ballads” concert there on Oct. 12: Dougie MacLean, Gordie
Sampson, David Francey, Rita MacNeil, and James Keelaghan.

Perthshire’s Dougie MacLean sang “Pabby Mór,” a song he wrote at a
previous Celtic Colours festival about Rev. Norman MacLeod’s
parishioners, who immigrated from Scotland to St. Ann’s Bay, Cape
Breton, and then to New Zealand. Other songs MacLean sang included
“Ready for the Storm,” “This Love Will Carry,” and “Not Lie Down,” the
last of which included this call-to-action political refrain: “You can
fall but you must not lie down.”

The songs of Celtic Colours artist in residence Gordie Sampson often
exhibited an engaging, quirky humor, such as “Paris” and “Grandpa’s
Remedy,” or more serious introspection, such as “Waves.”

He also introduced a surprise guest, Bruce Guthro, a singer-songwriter
whose golfing skill Sampson chided. But Guthro was game about his game
and got a huge laugh by slagging Sampson as a golfer: “The best two
balls you hit were when you stepped on a rake in a sand trap.”

David Francey also displayed a nimble wit in his stage patter and in
his song “Morning Train,” where the narrator meets Jesus on a train
platform, Buddha on the subway, Allah on the El, and finally the devil,
clucking about all three. Accompanying Francey was Terry Tufts, an
acoustic guitar player of exceptional ability whose blues licks on
“Morning Train” were mesmerizing.

Backed by guitarist Chris Corrigan, Rita MacNeil from Big Pond, Cape
Breton, sang a gospel song, “Choirs of Angels,” with stirring fervor.

But by far the most spellbinding song of the night was “Cold Missouri
Waters” from James Keelaghan. Inspired by Norman MacLean’s book “Young
Men and Fire,” it’s about the disastrous Mann Gulch inferno of August
1949 in western Montana, where flames 150 feet high soon overtook a
crew of Smokejumpers who parachuted in. “In that world reduced to ashes
there were none but two survived,” Keelaghan sang to a hushed crowd.

“Celtic Connections”

The close cultural link between Scotland and Cape Breton Island, to
which a number of Scots immigrated over 300 years ago, took tangible
form in the duo of Scottish guitarist-fiddler Anna Massie and
Antigonish fiddler-keyboardist Troy MacGillivray. At the “Celtic
Connections” concert on Oct. 13 in Mabou’s Strathspey Place, they
opened on twin fiddles for a medley that included Ed Reavy’s “Maudabawn
Chapel” reel and immediately set the bar high for performances that

Equal to the challenge was Dòchas. They’re a young, upcoming, Scottish
highlands-and-islands band comprising Kathleen Boyle on piano
accordion, keyboards, and guitar, Julie Fowlis on lead vocals,
whistles, highland pipes, and oboe, Carol-Anne Mackay on highland,
border, and small pipes, piano accordion, and whistles, Eilidh MacLeod
on harp and piano, Jenna Reid on fiddle and piano, and new member
Martin O’Neill, an All-Ireland bodhrán champion in 2002.

A sheer joy in playing bolstered the sextet’s music, which ranged from
MacLeod’s exquisite clàrsach tune for her mother, “Miss Elizabeth
Garland,” to a rousing medley of “Neilidh O’Boyle’s Highland/Duloman na
Binnt Bui/Sean Sa Cheo.” That highland and pair of reels link back to
Neilidh O’Boyle (1889-1961), born in Easton, Pa., to Irish parents and
raised in Cronashallog, a townland outside Dungloe, Donegal, where he
became a fiddling legend. What made the playing of these tunes all the
more intriguing was the fact that they came to Dòchas through band
member Kathleen Boyle, the granddaughter of Neilidh O’Boyle.

“I gave guitar lessons to Kathleen,” said Tony McManus, another
festival performer from Scotland and now a resident of Toronto. “She,
like me, essentially grew up in an Irish-flavored household in
west-central Scotland.”

Also performing at Strathspey Place were U.S. resident flute and
Scottish small pipes player Chris Norman, who has Nova Scotian roots,
and guitarist-mandolinist Andy Thurston, as well as Cape Breton’s
trad-rock quintet Slainte Mhath, whose muscular sound had the audience
on their feet and clapping along by the end.

“Songs for the Soul”

Before a candlelit altar inside 104-year-old Holy Redeemer Church in
Whitney Pier, the well-blended voices of the 51-member Cape Breton
Chorale filled the high-ceilinged nave on Oct. 14 with such songs as
the “Berceuse Acadienne” lullaby, Marta Keen’s “Homeward Bound,” and
Leon Dubinsky’s “Rise Again,” previously popularized by the Rankin

Founded in 1973, the chorale was still feeling the afterglow of their
tour of Ireland this past July when they gave benefit concerts for such
charities as Peace and Reconciliation and Brothers of Charity.

“Someone told us in Waterford, ‘You’re so much like us, you could be
us,'” Melissa MacNeil, a soprano with the chorale for the last six
years, said to me.

“The Irish were just wonderful to us,” agreed Sr. Rita Clare, a
Congregation of Notre Dame nun who is the chorale’s founding director.
She mentioned “The Lark in the Clear Air” and “Tell My Ma” as two of
the songs they sung in Ireland. “I have a tremendous belief in singing
and what it can do for the soul,” Sr. Clare added. “I think when you
let singing touch you, you’re never the same.”

Keady, Co. Armagh’s Tommy Makem, who resides in Dover, N.H., certainly
touched the throng in the pews with his singing. Now in his 70s, Makem
still possesses a strong voice that can ring out in a church like this.

With the help of Halifax duo Kevin Evans and Brian Doherty, Makem got a
loud, positive cheer from the audience when he said, “I’d like to
dedicate this song to Dick Cheney,” and then launched into “The Liar.”
He then wedded Gordon Bok’s “Sabin the Wood Fitter” with “Fiddler’s
Green,” sang “The Moonshiner” and “Lord of the Dance,” beginning and
ending the latter with a snippet from “Carolan’s Concerto” on tin
whistle, and encored with his trademark “Four Green Fields.”

Makem told me afterward that he had last performed at Celtic Colours
four years ago. “It’s grown tremendously since then,” he said. “Cape
Breton has been a favorite of mine for many years. The Clancy Brothers
and I often performed in Sydney. I think Ireland could learn a thing or
two from Cape Breton about supporting culture.”

“Unusual Suspects”

One of the premier performance venues on Cape Breton Island is the
Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay. It was an ideal setting on Oct. 15 for the
island premiere of a Celtic traditional-style big band, or “folkestra,”
assembled and led by Celtic Colours artists in residence Gordie Sampson
on guitar, Corrina Hewat on harp and vocals, and David Milligan on

In many ways a capstone to the entire festival, this “Unusual Suspects”
concert featured 26 musicians on strings (seven fiddlers), horns (two
trumpeters, a trombonist, and a saxophonist), pipes, flutes, whistles,
accordions, guitars, piano, harp, percussion, bass, and vocals.

Described by festival director Max MacDonald as “the most ambitious
musical project we’ve ever done,” the well-threaded performance
included Scottish, Irish, and Cape Breton traditional tunes,
traditional songs in Gaelic and English, lilting, original material
from Sampson, Hewat, Milligan, Ryan MacNeil, Chris Norman, and Eilidh
Shaw, and Cape Breton stepdancing from Wendy MacIsaac and Mairi Rankin
that was in foot-sync with the rhythm of the ensemble.

When Tony McManus saw an earlier performance of “Unusual Suspects” at
Glasgow’s Celtic Connections, the sister festival of Celtic Colours, he
was nearly brought to tears at the progress represented by this
adventurous presentation of traditional music and musicians on stage.
“I had teachers in school who ridiculed me for being in traditional
music and looked down their talentless noses at this music,” he told me.

Lasting impressions

Rounding out Celtic Colours were workshops in music, dance, and the
Gaelic language, children’s programs, a video series, visual arts
exhibits (paintings, quilts, hooked rugs, wood and stone carvings,
photography, jewelry, pottery, leatherwork, stained glass), and a
reception at North America’s only single-malt whiskey maker, the
Glenora Distillery in Glenville.

In addition, lectures were held at the University College of Cape
Breton in Sydney. One that I attended was given by Susan Gedutis, who
drew on research from her book, “See You at the Hall,” for her topic,
“Dancing at the Crossroads: Cape Breton/Irish Connections in the Boston
Dance Halls.”

She spoke about the five huge ballrooms during the 1940s and ’50s on
Dudley Street in Roxbury, Mass., and how Cape Bretoners, other
Canadians, and Maine “Downeasters” flocked mainly to the Rose Croix
dance hall. In the audience were Doug MacPhee and members of the Lamey
family, who knew that scene firsthand and contributed to the lively
question-and-answer period that followed.

Like Gedutis, American old-timey musician Bruce Molsky is a first-time
Celtic Colours participant. For him, the breadth and depth of the
festival exceeded all expectations.

“It has a lot of the things I think a festival should have,” he told
me. “It gives the local people a reason to be proud of the things that
make them who they are, and it brings people together. We have a common
language, music, with many different styles and dialects, and it’s
great to see so many artists from different backgrounds collaborating.”

My own impressions of the festival mirrored Molsky’s. The good times
and feelings of the evening concerts carried over into the camaraderie
and craic of the late-hours festival club. There I saw Molsky and
McManus successfully bridge Scots-Irish and old-timey styles, Bruce
Guthro sing a moving tribute to Antigonish music instructor Stan
Chapman, fiddler Jerry Holland and pianist Doug MacPhee mesh
effortlessly for several Cape Breton dance tunes, Tommy Makem, Patrick
Evans, and Brian Doherty boom out “Nancy Whiskey,” Dòchas’ Julie

Fowlis dim the din of audience chatter with a lovely traditional song
in Gaelic, and singer Mary Jane Lamond electrify the crowd with her own
slice of Gaelic in “Sleepy Maggie,” her 1995 hit with fiddler Ashley

“I measure the success of this festival in terms of artistic results
and how excited we are about them and how excited the audience is about
them,” Celtic Colours co-director Joella Foulds told me on my last
night at the festival. “A few people on Cape Breton would like to bring
in busloads of tourists to see something like the Rockettes in kilts,
and we would never be involved in that. If we can’t support, protect,
and promote our own culture at this festival, it would end fast. But
right now my biggest concern is, how do we top this?”

This story appeared in the issue of October 27-November 2, 2004

Copyright © 2004 Irish Echo Newspaper Corp.
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