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Think outside the box

By Laurel Munroe – The Cape Breton Post

Celtic Colours brings the world’s top accordion players together for the first time

For one night only, Sunday, Oct. 13, Glace Bay will become the accordion capital of the world when three of the planet’s best players take to the stage of the venerable Savoy Theatre in a show that promises to be as entertaining as its title.

Outside the Box will feature the considerable talents of Ireland’s Sharon Shannon, Scotland’s Phil Cunningham, Joe Derrane, from the U.S., and fiddler Frankie Gavin, from Ireland.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Celtic Colours festival manager Joella Foulds. “We don’t have a lot of accordion in the Cape Breton tradition but there’s a lot in the other Celtic traditions, especially the Irish and Scottish – and those who love it, love it a lot.”

Surprisingly, Derrane, Cunningham and Shannon have never shared billing. Derrane, for one, says he feels privileged to be included in the show.

“I have great respect and admiration for both of these artists,” he says of Cunningham and Shannon. “We are all products of our environments so I suspect there will be very significant style differences, starting with the instruments themselves, since we all play a different format.

“One thing I am quite sure of is that it will be one outstanding evening.”

As a young Irish-American growing up in Boston in the 1930s and ’40s, Derrane developed a love for the accordion and traditional Irish music at a tender age. By the time he was 17, he was a fixture on the Roxbury ballroom scene and was a regular on live radio shows on Saturday nights. During that period, he produced eight 78 rpm recordings.

The late 1950s ushered in the demise of the ballroom scene, and a major loss of income for Derrane, now married with family responsibilities. With fewer venues in which to play, he turned to the only acceptable avenue open to him. He sold his beloved button box, bought a new piano accordion, and embarked on a new adventure in the pop field. Although he had tried, unsuccessfully, to present traditional Irish music on his new instrument, he was pushed deeperand deeper into pop and he virtually disappeared from the Irish scene. In the late 1980s he retired from music altogether.

But in 1993, Rego Records reissued his 78 rpm recordings in album form on CD and cassette. A huge wave of interest was generated all over again, and he was asked to perform at the prestigious Wolftrap Festival in Vienna, West Virginia, in May 1994.

Using an old accordion borrowed from a friend, he got ready for what he viewed as “just once more, for old times’ sake” – a final performance to cap his career the way he started it, with Irish music and a box. The response to that performance was astonishing. Some 1,200 people applauding, cheering, and many crying, welcomed him back.

His return to the box and the music has been termed as the greatest comeback in the history of Irish music and is the stuff of legend.

“It’s true enough, I suppose, that the terms ‘legend’ and ‘star’ have been used in reference to me but I certainly don’t take it seriously,” Derrane says modestly. “The man above saw fit to give me certain talents and skills and I’ve worked very hard at honing those skills. Simply put, I’m just a box player who loves to play the music.”

Derrane, who performed at the 1999 Celtic Colours festival, has been a fan of Cape Breton music for many years and is thrilled to be returning this year.

“When I first attended, I was bowled over by the format,” he says. “The performers are taken out into the various communities to play for the people. I love the concept. As one of the performers I get to see some of Cape Breton, which, after all, is rightly regarded as
being one of the most beautiful and scenic areas in all of North America. But more importantly it gives me a chance to meet a lot of the people. The hospitality is just outstanding. This is not always the case in other places.”

Derrane is especially looking forward to renewing ties with friends like J.P. Cormier and Hilda Chiasson-Cormier, Jerry Holland, Brenda Stubbert, Paul MacDonald and Doug MacPhee.

Cunningham, a fan favourite at last year’s Celtic Colours festival, is a former member of the legendary Scottish band Silly Wizard and an acclaimed composer. Earlier this year, he was designated a Member of the British Empire for his ‘services to Scottish traditional music.’ Cunningham will be accompanied at this year’s festival by Duncan Chisholm and Malcolm Stritt.

Shannon, one of the best-known Celtic performers in the world, wowed audiences at the inaugural Celtic Colours festival in 1997. Her last album, Sharon Shannon & Friends: The Diamond Mountain Sessions, features guest performances by the likes of Jackson Browne, John Prine and Steve Earle.

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