Margaret Tice founded Tayberry Music, a Celtic and folk recordings internet and mail order service specializing in hard to find recordings. She fulfilled an ambition to travel to Cape Breton in search of music and shared impressions of her adventure. (For current information on Tayberry Music, go to: www.tayberry.com)
I had planned that my next trip out of the States would be to Nova Scotia but the occasion had not presented itself until I read of The Celtic Colours Festival in Living Tradition Magazine last spring. There, I thought, was the trip I had been looking for, one that would combine travel to Nova Scotia with a festival of Celtic music.
When I began to plan the trip I was aided by the web site and very good tourism information from Nova Scotia. My family couldn't believe that I was truly going for after all I am a grandmother (great-grandmother) and previous other travel had been with "senior" tour groups.
I went alone because I knew of no one of my friends who would go solely for the music and I was determined to learn what Cape Breton music was all about. I'm afraid I didn't visit the usual historic sites. Perhaps I saved them for another trip. When I returned, I wrote to Living Tradition Magazine about my impressions and now Fiona has asked me to share them with you.
What makes the music of Cape Breton unique? Surely it is the piano. We hear fiddle music from Ireland and from Scotland but the piano and the "chording" method of playing seem essential to Cape Breton music.
Also, the foot is not just patted on the floor to the beat, there is an entire leg stomp that provides the percussion. I understand that the bowing of the fiddle is unique but as a non-fiddle player this is over my head. There are excellent guitar players who also adapt the fiddle tunes to finger-picking guitar.
The influence of families among the musicians is apparent. You had the feeling that everyone was connected either as aunts, uncles, sisters, fathers, etc. Consider the names MacIsaac, MacMaster, Beaton. If not related, they probably grew up in the same community.
At one of the earlier concerts during the week eighteen fiddlers from the community came on stage and played together. At the beginning of the group was the Catholic priest of the area and Natalie MacMaster was at the end. Someone seated next to me pointed out Natalie's aunt, sisters and uncle all playing either piano or fiddle.
Most of the musicians can play more than one instrument and all can step-dance. They don't hesitate when playing with a group to switch from fiddle to piano and all will stop playing to take their turn at step-dancing.
Many Cape Breton musicians took part in the festival and the older ones, who have done much to influence the ones now being recorded, were honored. Those who stood out for me were: Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac (subdued in his native surroundings), Buddy MacMaster, Wendy MacIsaac, Brenda Stubbert, Paul Cranford and newcomer Jennifer Roland on fiddle, J.P. Cormier, Dave MacIsaac, Gordie Sampson (watch out for him), and Paul MacDonald who was backing up any and everyone on guitar, the groups Leahy (seven family members from Ontario who were the talk of the festival), The Barra MacNeils - another family group, and Barachois from Prince Edward Island, Gaelic singing by Mary Jane Lamond, and Tracey Dares and Maybelle Chisholm on piano.
The pipers represented were: Hamish Moore and his sons on small pipes, Fred Morrison, Paul MacNeil and Jamie MacInnes. Big names such as The Chieftains, Capercaillie, Sharon Shannon, Eliza Carthy (mom and dad never made it out of the States) and The Bumblebees were there as well.
Some of the artists listed above were leading various workshops, Fitting it all in was a challenge. Since I don't play an instrument, step dance, or think it possible to learn to speak Gaelic, I used the daytime hours to drive around and explore the beautiful island at the peak of fall color (color!).
The venues for the events were scattered over the island making a car a necessity. There is no public transportation. Bed & breakfasts are numerous and the hostesses are gracious and friendly. You can almost be sure that anyone seated at the breakfast table with you also attended a concert the previous night.
I arrived in Mabou on a Sunday for a concert that night and found a community Thanksgiving dinner being held in the hall where the concert was to be later that evening. So naturally I was invited to join for turkey and the trimmings.
Headquarters for the festival was at a hotel in Sydney. If you were around there after 11 p.m. you could sit in on a "session." The opening and closing nights' concerts were held in Sydney at an arena with all the lights and glitz of big concerts. The smaller events held in school gymnasiums and community halls were more intimate and for me more memorable.