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The story of the Fiddle Tree will come to life

By Laura Jean Grant -The Cape Breton Post

otisworkGOOSE COVE — Luthier Otis Tomas has a very “special stash” of wood.

What makes it so special?

Well, for one, the wood all comes from one grand old maple tree that for hundreds of years stood in woods along the Meadow Road in Goose Cove. And for another, the wood has become the tie that binds a unique family of stringed instruments he’s crafted.

Tomas said he admired the impressive tree for some time and hesitated to do anything to disturb it. But, the instrument-maker in him saw something special in the maple.

“So finally I went up there and …. cut the thing down,” he recalled.

But just before he did, Tomas took out his fiddle and played a tune for the tree.

“We’re going to be play that tune at the concert, so it’s kinda come full circle since then,” said Tomas, referring to The Fiddle Tree show, taking place Monday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Sydney Mines, as part of the Celtic Colours International Festival, which begins Friday.

The show will feature Tomas on fiddle, fellow Cape Bretoners and friends Paul MacDonald, a guitarist, and Paul Cranford, a fiddler and composer, as well as musicians Laoise Kelly from Ireland, Abby Newton from the United States, and Mairi Campbell and Sarah McFadyen from Scotland. Each instrument that will be used during the show has been made by Tomas and is made of wood from that towering tree he cut down 15 years ago. The Fiddle Tree family of instruments includes the violin, viola, cello, arch-top guitar, tenor guitar, mandolin and a harp.

“I’ve made 15 or so instruments from that tree and there will be seven or eight of them in the show,” said Tomas, who has been crafting instruments for more than 30 years for customers around the globe. His stringed instruments have been sent as far away as the United States, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark and Japan.

Tomas said an instrument takes about two months to make from start to finish, but many of his projects overlap and he makes approximately 10 instruments per year.

“Every one is different. There is no two alike. That’s one of the interesting things about it. There’s a little mystery to it. The finished product is always a bit of surprise,” he said, adding, “Hopefully a pleasant surprise.”

That element of individuality drew McFadyen, a fiddler, to Tomas’ workshop, located next to his home on the Meadow Road. She’s been apprenticing under Tomas for the last several weeks and has taken on an ambitious project.

“I wanted to make a fiddle,” said McFadyen, who first came to Cape Breton in 1995 as an 18-year-old musician eager to learn at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts. It was then that she first met many of the musicians she’ll be sharing the stage with Monday, including Cranford, MacDonald and Tomas. She has since had Tomas create a fiddle for her.

But now, she’s working to make one of her own and Tomas said she’s been an excellent student.

“Sarah’s got a very good sense of restraint,” he observed, noting that she takes her time, asks questions, and demonstrates the “care and caution” required to craft a quality instrument. “She’s doing a great job.”

And while the fiddle-making continues in earnest, so too do the preparations for the The Fiddle Tree show, which Celtic Colours officials have highlighted as one of the most unique events of the 2009 festival.

MacDonald said the music, the instruments and Tomas’ workshop — where he and many local and visiting musicians often gather for informal sessions — are all interconnected and the show is a way to bring it all together.

“It’s all about the tree. We’re paying tribute to the tree. It’s so exciting. I’m really having trouble sleeping. It’s probably the biggest thing in my life, musically,” said MacDonald. “For 20 years we’ve played hundreds of sessions in this workshop but this is really kind of different for us with a formal concert setting.”

For tickets to The Fiddle Tree show, go online to www.celtic-colours.com, or phone 567-3000, or 1-888-355-7744.

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