By Stephen Cooke – Halifax Herald
MacIsaac, MacGillivray, Rankin, Dunn among students honouring musician
Old adages die hard. But if there’s one thing that the Celtic Colours
tribute to fiddle teacher Stan Chapman proves, it’s that whoever wrote
“those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” was an idiot.
One of the hottest tickets at this year’s annual Cape Breton music
festival, Teacher’s Pets: A Tribute to Stan Chapman, brought out the
big guns to salute the Antigonish-based instructor at the Judique
Community Centre on Monday night.
To call the lineup “all-star” would be something of an understatement,
with Jackie Dunn, Stephanie Wills, Wendy MacIsaac, Kendra MacGillivray,
Mairi Rankin and Natalie MacMaster all turning out for the class
reunion, while pianist Troy MacGillivray and guitarist Dave MacIsaac
added their own unique rhythm. A school desk piled high with textbooks
and polished apples graced the stage as a bit of tongue-in-cheek
“Stan Chapman, this is your life!” joked Dave MacIsaac, a longtime
friend who’s been trading tapes with the educator since the mid-’70s,
when they met at a Gaelic gathering in Glendale. MacIsaac co-hosted
with Dunn; perhaps ringleading is a more appropriate verb, considering
the bit of clowning that opened the show, with the assembled
ex-students tuning up torturously and mocking their earliest days with
an assault of off-key sawing. MacIsaac poked fun at his co-host, whose
married name is also MacIsaac, asking “Which MacIsaac did you Dunn?”
while Dunn remarked that she was the oldest of Chapman’s students
there, but not the oldest musician, thanks to the presence of a certain
grey-haired guitarist . . .
But the assembled multitude were in all seriousness when it came to
sharing their experiences with Chapman and playing sets which
demonstrated how he shaped their talents without constricting
individual styles. You didn’t have to be a fiddle expert to notice that
no two musicians sounded the same, each bringing their own sense of
heritage and identity to their playing.
Dunn kicked things off with the help of guitarist MacIsaac and Wills on
keyboards, with a set that included strathspeys by John Morris Rankin
and her great uncle Dan Hughie MacEachern. Kendra MacGillivray popped
out from backstage for a spirited bit of stepdancing, while Dunn tore
through the tunes like a sports car hugging the twisty curves of the
“Where was the fire at?” Dunn quizzed herself afterwards, practically
pulling herself over for speeding, but no one seemed to mind the
Creignish native Wills took her turn next, shy about speaking but
visibly moved by Chapman’s contribution to her life. “He brought music
alive in my life, he’s more than a teacher,” she said. “Thank you for
believing in me,” she said to Chapman, beaming in the front row with
his wife Gert. As for Wills’s playing, her seasoned skills deliver a
high sweet tone, but with a tough edge that mirrors life in a hillside
village on Cape Breton’s windswept western shore.
“How about a round of applause for girl power?” roared Wendy MacIsaac,
noting the bill’s feminine bent. (Although to be fair, Chapman’s
students also included MacIsaac’s cousin Ashley, Glenn Graham and
“Maybe we should have called the show 36C or something.”
“Then some of us would have to leave,” laughed Dunn.
Wendy MacIsaac recalled driving to lessons in Antigonish with Ashley in
the back of uncle Angus’s truck – “like the Clampetts” – before playing
a mixed set that displayed her poetic approach to slow airs and sharp
attack on strathspeys and reels. This time it was MacMaster’s turn to
dance, in a black cocktail dress with an artfully shredded hemline, no
Lt. Governor Myra Freeman handled the door prize draw at intermission –
or recess, as Chapman called it – noting that as an educator herself,
there is no greater satisfaction than seeing your students become
successful at what you’ve taught them.
Case in point, Antigonish’s Kendra MacGillivray, both a player and a
teacher, whose buoyant sound has lit up rooms from Tokyo to Barbados.
She remarked that Chapman encouraged her to discover the music of her
own grandfather, noted fiddler Hugh A. MacDonald, while playing with a
touch that’s genteel, but lacking nothing in momentum.
Mabou’s Mairi Rankin played a mix of Scottish and Cape Breton tunes
with a keen, yearning sound marked by sly sliding notes and a gentle
vibrato. Achingly dirty on a slow air learned from Cameron Chisholm or
down and dirty on a John Campbell Strathspey, Rankin showed how her
time spent touring with Beolach has honed her crowd-pleasing style.
The closing slot belonged to Troy fiddler MacMaster, arguably the
brightest light among Chapman’s angels, starting with a dramatic air
that spoke of folk music traditions beyond Cape Breton island, then
morphing into a strathspey that was pure Ceilidh Trail with no two
passages alike. Building in speed and intensity over Dave MacIsaac’s
arpeggios, MacMaster’s notes began flying even more freely off the neck
of her violin, until she felt the need to stand up and make it a
full-body experience. So lost in the music was she, she forgot to
mention that one of the reels she’d played was one she’d written for
Chapman. “Play it again!” came from the audience, so the jaunty tune
got a second airing.
Things really got emotional during a presentation to Chapman by the
Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association in honour of his contribution to the
music. “I told Buddy MacMaster that my head was going to swell up
something awful with all this attention,” said the unassuming teacher.
“But Buddy told me, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be back to normal in the morning.’
“I’ve learned as much or more from them as I’ve taught them,” he said, indicating towards his former students.
Later that night, back in St. Ann’s, Wendy MacIsaac, Mairi Rankin and
Natalie MacMaster closed down the Festival Club at the Gaelic College
with a no-holds-barred set that saw the trio playfully bounce
variations off each other while pianist Mac Morin and guitarist Fred
Lavery held down the rhythm, grinning madly at the manic interplay.
It’s clear they worked very hard at their lessons, but they didn’t
forget how to play after school.
Copyright © 2003 The Halifax Herald