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Reeling in Nova Scotia

Jim Gilchrist – The Scotsman

IN THE LOUNGE OF A SMALL
DISTILLERY a fling is in progress. As the visiting Lord Provost looks
on, fiddlers and pipers are letting rip as a man in a kilt leaps into a
frenetic step dance. Outside, the autumnal blaze of the wooded glen
recedes into an all-permeating smirr. Welcome to Canada.

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, has long nurtured vigorous fiddle,
pipe and dance traditions which have attracted keen and sometimes
astonished interest from musicians back in Scotland. Last week singers
and players from both sides of the Atlantic gathered for the island’s
eighth Celtic Colours festival, an annual celebration of Cape Breton,
and related music and culture which has become something of a twin
fling to Glasgow’s mammoth January spree, Celtic Connections.

Which is why Glasgow’s Lord provost, Liz Cameron, was at Glenora, North
America’s only single malt distillery, at a reception to celebrate the
relationship between the two festivals. As members of the high-energy
band Slainte Mhath gave an impromptu set around the piano – and pianos
have an idiosyncratic life of their own in Cape Breton – Celtic
Connections director Colin Hynd hinted at what next January’s Glasgow
event will bring – a strong Cape Breton contingent, a “Cape Bretonised”
version of Unusual Suspects … and a tractor.

The culture nurtured by descendents of Scottish immigrants to Cape
Breton has prompted debate as to how we played before the great waves
of 18th and 19th-century emigration. Cape Breton’s fiddling and piping,
vigorous step dance tradition and school of piano accompaniment that
comes as near Celtic boogie as you’ll get, all offer intriguing musical
signposts.

Debate or not, visitors from the home of the highland reel are warmly
welcomed and at this year’s Celtic Colours festival Unusual Suspects -
the “folk big band” project commissioned two years ago by Celtic
Connections from harpist and singer Corinna Hewat and her musical and
domestic partner, pianist Dave Milligan – had an enthusiastic
reception. The plan was to transplant the Unusual Suspects to Cape
Breton, hybridising it with local players. Milligan and Hewat were duly
appointed artists in residence for 2004.

The night before last Friday’s premiere, I met them in the Festival
Club, hosted by the Gaelic College at St Anne’s. Was transplantation
changing the nature of their creation? “A lot,” agreed Milligan, fresh
from rehearsals, as inexorable Cape Breton-style strathspeys whumped
from the club’s main hall. “But we knew it would take a while to get
our heads round it.”

“All the musicians are getting on brilliantly,” Hewat agreed, “although
at the beginning we couldn’t rely on everyone to be playing the tunes
the same way.”

Integration was assisted by the third artist in residence,
award-winning Cape Breton singer-songwriter-producer, Gordy Sampson,
whose contemporary songs have had Canadian chart success, but who is
also heavily involved in the traditional music scene.

The Celtic Colours festival is rooted in scattered communities,
sometimes as far as 100 miles apart. So Unusual Suspects premiered amid
the 1920s rococo splendour of the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, a former
mining town that has declined in a manner all too familiar to towns in
central Scotland. The Savoy has hosted many things, including boxing,
but it never experienced anything quite like the Unusual Suspects.

There was the old strathspey Tullochgorum, played with characteristic
Cape Breton vigour by Kyle MacNeil, its brisk variations punctuated by
blasts from the Suspects’ horn section. There was a wonderfully
elephantine strathspey on double bass, a pair of frontliners laying
down their fiddles to break into a step dance, or give a brazen yell of
syncopated exultation. “It’s been totally awesome,” MacNeil, a seasoned
traditional fiddler, said. “The majority of people weren’t sure what to
expect, but there’s a real buzz about it now.”

SCOTTISH AUDIENCES CAN JUDGE these latest Suspects for themselves in
January. But it won’t just be ebullient transatlantic fusion at the
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. There’ll be the chugging of agricultural
machinery – singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean will incorporate one of
his collection of veteran tractors into the folk-multimedia
extravaganza he is creating for Connections’ closing event.

Rural Image, the Dunkeld-based singer told me, is aimed at reconciling
town and country, a counterblast to some of the current polarising
rhetoric. A “farmhouse” set is currently under construction, and, in
addition to the tractor, MacLean will deploy a folk ensemble, rock
band, choir and chamber strings.

With a big following on Cape Breton, MacLean featured in several Colours concerts,

alongside the likes of iconic Cape Bretoner Rita MacNeil and
Toronto-based James Keelaghan, and the much revered Ayrshire-born,
Quebec-domiciled David Francey. Elsewhere, it was the turn of the
original Nova Scotians, the Mi’kmaq, to celebrate the fiddle – one of
the more positive things we colonists passed on to them – at the
cultural centre at Eskasoni, where they commemorated the late Lee
Cremo, champion fiddler, showbiz star and the community’s most famous
son. The evening ended with crowds doing a very Indian- looking dance
as assembled fiddles hammered out The Flowers of Edinburgh. Other Scots
performers who received a delighted reception on Cape Breton included
the spirited Edinburgh sisters’ group Give Way, while another largely
women’s band, Dochas, were in cracking form. The Gaelic songs of
Christine Primrose and Highland-based Irishman Brian O’hEadhra were
given additional poignancy in a Diaspora which is now down to its last
500 first-language Gaelic speakers.

“We always thought Celtic colours would be a success,” said Max
MacDonald, who launched the cultural festival seven years ago with
co-director Joella Foulds, “but we never comprehended the friendships
that would develop.” Anxious to create a celebration of their island’s
music, their research took them to other international folk festivals -
including Celtic Connections, establishing a relationship that has
flourished.

Not that the music needed “rescuing”. Back in the 1970s, a CBC
documentary, The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, so infuriated island
musicians that they organised themselves and started educating. The
documentary acted as a wake-up call, added Foulds, and some of the
emerging generation – the likes of Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster,
the Rankins and the up-and-coming Kimberley Fraser – helped project
Cape Breton music on to a world stage.

But it never forgets its roots. Take fiddler Sandy McIntyre, 69,
Toronto-based but raised in Inverness, Cape Breton, who returns to
teach fiddle at the Gaelic College. He has played with Cape Breton
fiddle statesmen such as Buddy MacMaster and Angus Chisholm, and is
convinced their approach reflects Scottish playing two centuries back.
“One of the great Niel Gow’s strong points was his strong, updriven
bow. That’s the style I play and teach. It was the music that had been
brought over and handed down, generation to generation, and we just
played what we were taught.”

And those rumbustious, driving strathspeys? “In Cape Breton we round
out our dotted notes in strathspeys to make them more danceable.
Scottish fiddlers put a strong emphasis on the dotted note but to try
step-dance that would be difficult. When I play a strathspey I’m
thinking of someone step-dancing. Cape Breton music still has that dirt
and roughage in it,” he laughs. “Like the roughage in whole-grain
bread, it’s that extra that makes you want to get up and dance.”

And dance they did, at “the World’s Biggest Square Dance” in Baddeck’s
Victoria Highland Centre. A hangar-like building normally hosting
ice-hockey saw 11,000 people dancing or watching as the island’s finest
took the stage to churn out no-holds-barred music that didn’t so much
put a skip in your step as grab you by the scruff of the neck and skelp
you round the hall.

“Let’s kill the floor!” hollered the MC, and off they went again. Cape
Breton music was alive and kicking, but the floor looked in mortal
danger.

• For further details, visit www.celtic-colours.com and www.www.celticconnections.com

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