Simona Rabinovitch –
Special to The Globe and Mail
Exploring tuneful Cape Breton Island, from its festivals to its
intimate kitchen parties, will give you a deeper understanding of this
Nova Scotian gem, SIMONA RABINOVITCH finds
Music and travel mesh like treble and bass.
For voyagers bored with the blasé detachment of guidebooks and tours,
exploring a destination through its musical legacy creates an
unpredictable, visceral journey that plugs you right into the emotion
and pathos of the people you’re visiting.
Experiencing music can bring you into the guts of someone else’s world,
lending you an intimate understanding of culture, feeling, and history
that wagging tongues could never provide. What would Argentina be
without its tango? New Orleans without the blues? Spain sans flamenco?
Manchester without punk? And Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island without
Celtic music and the culture that surrounds it?
Despite the relevance of Nova Scotia’s contemporary music scene (which
includes popular indie rock bands the Joel Plaskett Emergency, Matt
Mays and El Torpedo; and Wintersleep as well as events like the East
Coast Music Awards and Halifax Music Week) traditional Celtic music
remains as braided into the Maritimes’ energy, beauty, and personality
as tartan is to kilts.
Before you groan, consider the tartan-print bags filled with salt water
taffy distributed to red-carpet prancers at the 2006 Juno Awards, held
in Halifax this past February. (To add insult to injury, eTalk Daily
host Ben Mulroney donned a tartan foulard for the occasion.)
“Celtic is big business,” says Tara Thorne, arts editor of Halifax
alternative weekly The Coast. “The tourism industry trips over itself
pushing it; that’s our shtick. You know, Cape Breton is beautiful, it’s
surrounded by water, and there’s the Celtic thing. . . . It can be
frustrating. Two years ago, the logo for Nova Scotia Music Week was a
lobster playing a guitar. And I believe the lobster was wearing
It’s no wonder hip locals want to move beyond old clichés.
Yet, while Celtic music has inevitably rolled with the punches of our
times, the secret behind its continued relevance and vigour lies in how
little it has been modified.
“The music hasn’t really changed much in this area,” says Gaelic and
pop singer Mary Jane Lamond, who lives in Port Hawkesbury on Cape
Breton Island. “What I did on tour with the band always felt separate
from what I do at home, where I sing in traditional venues and halls.
Today, there’s a music industry, but there’s also that other aspect;
that 8-year-old kid getting up on stage for the first time with his
Ms. Lamond’s latest album is Storas, and she hit the big time in 1995
while collaborating with enigmatic bad-boy fiddler Ashley MacIsaac on
the pair’s hit single Sleepy Maggie.
In terms of well-known venues that can be relied upon to consistently
deliver quality shows, superstar songstress Rita MacNeil recommends The
Red Shoe Pub in Mabou, owned by the legendary musical Rankin Family.
close to her heart is The Savoy Theatre, located in Glace Bay. Built in
the 1920s, this spectacular Victorian show house reopened in 1993 after
a fire two or.
“I mustn’t forget the Savoy, one of our premier
venues,” she says. “It brings in all sorts of talent, as well as
celebrates our own talent. I’ve had the honour of performing on the
stage myself a few times.”
Cape Breton has certainly produced its share of international stars,
yet the stars themselves concur that it’s its other, lesser-known
aspect that makes a musical pilgrimage to Cape Breton so enthralling.
While impossible to define, this elusive characteristic has something
to do with the constant interaction, through music, of local culture
with Gaelic history; and, of course, with the sense of community and
family that livens up each of the island’s four counties: Cape Breton,
Inverness, Richmond, and Victoria.
Musically speaking, every destination from big-city Sydney to the town
of Christmas Island offers much to discover. Besides song, Celtic
musical tradition includes fiddling and step dancing and square
dancing, all of which are readily available seven nights a week at
neighbourhood halls, church dinners, small festivals, and kitchen
ceilidhs (pronounced kay-lees).
“It’s a Gaelic word that means ‘gathering together,’ ” says Ms. Lamond
of the term that has become synonymous with a good old-fashioned
But it means much more. When 25,000 Gaelic-speaking Scots immigrated to
eastern Nova Scotia between the years 1775 and 1850, little did they
know that seven or so generations later, Cape Breton would be the only
place in the world apart from Scotland where their language and culture
Today, the number of Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton is estimated at
just 800, but the music keeps the language alive. Reliance upon oral
literature and storytelling gave birth to songs, which remain the
culture’s renewable resource and very foundation. Ceilidhs still
provide the gathering places where folks pass that legacy along.
“It’s only the past two generations of Celtic artists who could read
and write,” points out Max MacDonald of Cape Breton’s annual Celtic
Colours International Festival, which celebrates its tenth birthday
this October. (Mr. MacDonald and company purposely throw their party in
autumn, Cape Breton’s most beautiful and colourful season, so as not to
compete with the myriad of small local summer festivals.)
“The music is very much reflective of the Gaelic language — you actually hear the rhythms of the music in the language.”
That’s why when programming the festival, Mr. MacDonald focuses on
tradition. “We have 250 years of deep-rooted culture. That is the
experience we’re trying to create,” he explains.
“When we started the festival, local people said, ‘Well, why would
anybody want to come here for THAT?’ When you grow up here, even though
Rita MacNeil and Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac and the Rankins
are famous, they’re still your neighbours and you see them at church
and the grocery store.”
Last year, Celtic Colours drew 6,000 tourists. “As the world gets
crazier and more urbanized, people have a need to touch something that
touches them,” says Mr. MacDonald, pointing out that many forms of
roots music, like jazz, blues, and bluegrass, are experiencing revivals.
Big festivals aside, how does an adventurous pilgrim looking for local
action find out about the lobster suppers, church fundraisers, and
ceilidhs taking place in various towns?
In yet another homage to Cape Breton’s oral literary legacy, it’s all about word of mouth.
“Because they’re such small communities, most events don’t get into
tour books as people don’t know far enough in advance what they’re
going to be up to,” says Ms. Lamond, with the reassurance that visitors
need not be shy to ask.
Mr. MacDonald also suggests consulting individual county websites for leads.
MacNeil adds: “During the week you’ll find all kinds of little venues
and performances in local halls. You’ll find lots of young musicians
and wonderful fiddle players. It’s certainly come a long way. It
started out in our kitchens and now it’s come full circle, with the
youth taking it to the world.
Copyright 2006 The Globe and Mail All Rights Reserved.