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On Cape Breton, a Feast of Fiddling

By Dirk Van Susteren – New York Times

THIRTY years ago the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation televised a documentary, “The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler,” that struck a jarring note on that island off the Nova Scotia mainland. It warned that Cape Breton’s beloved music tradition was in trouble: the younger generation seemed to prefer the hard beat of modern rock to the sophisticated melodies of its Scottish forebears. Like all art forms, Celtic music needed young blood to survive.

Fortunately, the program was heard more as a bugle call than a dirge by Cape Bretoners who cared most about the music. In kitchen rackets (house parties) and at ceilidhs (Gaelic for gatherings) in community halls across the island, residents began promoting fiddle-playing as never before. Music lessons were offered and festivals were held.

And two years later, in an event now considered a benchmark in the Cape Breton music tradition, 100 fiddlers took to an outdoor stage at St. Mary of the Angels Church in the small town of Glendale to prove that island fiddling was alive and well. As thousands cheered, the Rev. John Angus Rankin, an organizer of the event and a hero in the revival, declared triumphantly that the documentary had been dead wrong.

Echoes of that grand Glendale event are now heard at the Celtic Colors International Festival, an annual October series of concerts that presents the music in a most varied and concentrated form. The nine-day festival is a celebration of the music that Scottish immigrants brought to the island — now connected by a causeway to the mainland — two centuries ago. The festival, which will be held Oct. 5 to 13 this year, coincides with the foliage season, when the red maple, birch and cherry trees that dot the fir-covered hillsides are at their fiery best. As many as five concerts are held in different communities across the island each night; the festival also offers daytime lectures and workshops on such subjects as Gaelic folklore, weaving and the Highland pipes.

Traditional Cape Breton fiddle tunes, lively and melodious, and often played with keyboard accompaniment, are the festival’s mainstay. But there are also plenty of accordions, pipes and drums — not to mention electronic amplification — that add rock flavors to the Celtic mix. Many performers come from Scotland, Ireland and Brittany, and about half of the 8,000 visitors come from off the island, drawn to the music by international performances of such renowned Cape Breton musicians as the Rankins, Natalie MacMaster, Buddy MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac. These musicians grew up in the Mabou region, heart of Cape Breton fiddling, where I began a five-day immersion in Celtic music last fall.

Over the course of the visit, I heard foreign artists, including Dougie MacLean of Scotland, a songwriter, guitarist and singer; Ishbel MacAskill of Scotland, a Gaelic vocalist; Filska, a red-hot band from the Shetlands; and Daimh, a band of young men from Ireland, California, Scotland and Cape Breton, whose varied national origins demonstrate how Celtic music is cross-pollinating. Among the island’s own performers I heard J. P. Cormier and Dave MacIsaac, guitarists and fiddlers; Howie MacDonald, Sandy MacIntyre and Buddy MacMaster, all fiddlers; Paul MacNeil, a bagpiper; and Tracey Dares MacNeil, a pianist. Members of the Barra MacNeils, a spirited family group and one of Cape Breton’s favorites, seemed to be everywhere during the festival.

Visitors can join the fun on any day in any town for a per-concert cost ranging from $8 to $50 in United States currency, at $1.55 (Canadian) to the U.S. dollar (many of the workshops and lectures, however, are free). The venues can be 40, 70 or 100 miles apart, so a good set of wheels and a plan for overnight accommodations are needed. But there are plenty of inns and bed-and-breakfasts, and camping also is an option. The miles pile up, but the tedium is diminished by the ocean, mountain and farmland views along winding country roads.

The festival’s unofficial headquarters is the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts on St. Anns Bay, about an hour northeast of Mabou. It is worth a stop. The tiny, rustic college offers instruction during the year in music, literature and language of the Gael. But the college’s lure for Celtic Colors visitors are the concerts and all-night ceilidhs (pronounced KAY-lees) on its campus and a gift shop with musical instruments, tartan blankets, kilts, Gaelic books, and, of course, tapes and CD’s.

After a daytime stop at the college, I drove on a cool and blustery evening to the new Dalbrae Academy in Mabou, near the western coast, for a concert that proved a showcase of home-grown talent. Among the performers were the local teenage fiddlers and step dancers Dawn and Margie Beaton, sisters who come from a long line of Cape Breton musicians. Another face familiar to locals was that of the piper Angus MacKenzie, a Mabou native and a member of the band Daimh. MacKenzie, a tall redhead, received good wishes and a kiss before stepping to the stage with the three other members in his band. With fiddles, bodhran (an Irish drum) and mandola (somewhat like a mandolin), the young men played a few plaintive tunes. Then they began the jigs, strathspeys and reels that set hundreds of feet tapping.

There were a few glitches. Because the auditorium was still under construction, the concert was in the gym. Unfortunately, that meant fiddle and piano notes were bouncing off walls meant for errant basketballs, creating some auditory confusion. And twice during performances, a balky fire alarm sounded, interrupting the music. The blaring noise prompted a Daimh member to joke: “Can we smoke now?” But the audience remained unfazed; on with the music, it seemed to say.

Two nights later, at the Gaelic College, young musicians were again featured. They were the youth members of the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association, an organization formed shortly after the broadcast of “The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler.” In the college’s main hall, a stone building with clan tartans draping walls, dozens of youngsters from the 500-member association played traditional fiddle music together; others then played solos, or step danced as Sheumas MacNeil of the Barra MacNeils played keyboard.

But it wasn’t entirely kids’ night. Gerry Deveau, 66, of Chéticamp, a town settled by French immigrants, wowed the audience with his spoon playing as Kyle MacNeil, brother of Sheumas, performed furiously on the fiddle. Deveau — spoons clicking on knees, thighs, shoulders — was a study in motion.

The regular concert ended at 10:30, when the night owls in the audience stepped outside for fresh air, only to line up again at 11 for the ceilidh. Four dollars and they were back in. A few more bucks bought beer and pizza.

With backs to a large, blazing fireplace, they listened, feet tapping, as musicians cut loose on stage. These after-hours bashes, lasting past sunup, seemed to draw a younger, hipper and more international crowd. No one looked as if he had to work that very morning. Twenty-somethings traded e-mail addresses. A San Diego woman asked Deveau to consider trading his set of spoons for her set of “bones” — clappers used for keeping time to the music.

The ceilidh began with the Barra MacNeils; joining Kyle and Sheumas were their sister, Lucy, playing bodhran, and their brother Stewart, on the flute and the accordion. Around 1 a.m. the band Slàinte Mhath (pronounced Slawn-cha-VAH), a group with two more MacNeil siblings, took the stage. They apologized for what was expected to be an abbreviated performance — they were leaving for Ontario later that day — then went on to play until nearly 3 a.m. The fiddling virtuoso Kendra MacGillivray was stepping to the stage when, exhausted, I called it a morning.

Nights blend too quickly into days, and newcomers to Cape Breton must exert some personal discipline if touring is to be done. Among the most popular daytime attractions are the Miners’ Museum in Glace Bay; the Fortress of Louisbourg, a reconstruction of the French 18th- century outpost; and the famous 190- mile Cabot Trail. This mountainous road winds around the island’s northeastern corner, affording views of crashing surf and, in autumn, dazzling forest colors. Determined tourists may want to take the road to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, but exploring this remote coastal preserve, where one might see both whales and moose, will cut deeply into music time.

A less time-consuming side trip more in keeping with the festival’s theme would be a visit to the Highland Village Museum in Iona. Set on 40 acres, it features various buildings — homes, a barn, a general store and a blacksmith shop — used by Scottish immigrants and moved to the site. On a cool day, with the scent of wood smoke and lanolin in the air, visitors walked the paths between the structures and learned about island life in the 19th century from docents in period costumes. Members of the staff weaved and did farm chores — reminders that immigrant life was hard in the New World despite the fiddles.

I attended a festival workshop on immigration patterns and island architecture at the library in Sydney and heard a talk on Celtic storytelling there at the University College of Cape Breton. And at the St. Mary parish center in Glendale, near the site of Father Rankin’s original concert, I attended a step-dancing workshop and eavesdropped on bag-piping lessons.

The workshop attracted some two dozen people, but about half of them were young Cape Bretoners who wanted to hone existing skills. An adult parishioner said that step-dancing and fiddling traditions are again becoming ingrained in the younger generation. Among teenagers, he said, fiddle cases now carry the cachet of hockey bags.

The festival ended with a bang in Baddeck, the popular tourist town on Bras d’Or Lake. Music fans had two choices on the final night: The “Kitchen Ceilidh” at the high school, featuring the Barra MacNeils and other festival favorites; and “The World’s Biggest Square Dance” at the civic center. I picked the latter, because Buddy MacMaster, 75, was performing. He is one of the island’s most beloved and talented fiddlers and has done as much, or more, as anyone to keep the tradition alive. More than 1,000 people attended. Tables were arranged for beer drinkers, bleachers for wallflowers, and the floor for serious dancers.

The fingers of Tracey Dares MacNeil (not of the Barra MacNeils) flashed across the keyboard as her husband, Paul, took charge with the bagpipes; and Jenna Reid of Filska, lithe and leather-skirted, rocked the house with her electric fiddling.

There was square dancing, to be sure, but as always, just as much vigorous foot tapping to the lovely, speedy melodies. And in the wee hours, during the finale, things became most frenetic. With keyboards, guitars and pipes playing, eight fiddlers, taking cues from MacMaster and Sandy MacIntyre, another old- time Cape Breton fiddler, played a medley of familiar island tunes. A few members of the audience climbed the stage to step dance. There was jitterbugging and improvisational dance — even a version of the hora.

It was impossible to stand still, or believe for a moment the future of this music was ever in doubt.

DIRK VAN SUSTEREN, an editor and freelance writer, lives in Vermont.

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