Celtic Colours Festival Review
Guest Blog by Llyn De Danaan
The Celtic Colours Festival, named for the adornment of brilliant fall foliage that cloaks the hills on Cape Breton in October, recently finished its 16th year. Its mission, as Joella Foulds, founder and artistic director told us at one evening session, is to “promote, celebrate and develop Cape Breton’s living Celtic culture.” However, it has also become an acclaimed international festival and most assuredly extends tourist dollars and fattens Cape Breton pockets well into the autumn. Still, it is a festival of music that, for the most part, represents Cape Breton and the Maritime Provinces, and it is the lusciously fall-flavored Cape Breton hills and highlands that welcome us the moment we reach the island. In fact, the reds, oranges, and yellows (that become more intense during our more than a week in our Belle Côte residence) are almost as delicious as are the butterscotch pies, biscuits, baked beans, and fish cakes at the Cedar House in Boularderie. Just cross the causeway and you too will feel something magical on the other side of the Strait of Canso.
I attended this fulsome festival with a few friends, but the notes and opinions that follow are solely mine.
Rita MacNeil, a native of Big Pond, Cape Breton, has had a stellar career with songs that have soared to the top of the charts in the UK, Canada, and Australia. I saw her for the first time during the Island Women concert, an event featured as part of the 16th annual Celtic Colours, 2012. She appeared with Madison Violet, The Once, Cathy Ann MacPhee and Kathleen MacInnes, Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac, Nuala Kennedy, and Sylvie LeLievre. Though she was compelled by a malady to sit for her performance, her voice did not suffer. “I’ve got one bad leg and soon to have another,” she says, explaining her need to stay seated. She tells us a story. (We learn throughout the week of the festival that we are in a story-telling culture and come to expect lots of humor and bantering from musicians on stage.) She says that she was about to perform at a concert recently, but as she strode toward front and center, her dress tangled with the stage curtain and the curtain entered with her. We all “get” the scene. The large Rita, the massive curtain, and her green dress, all rolling out into view of the audience. “It took ten minutes to get me up,” she tells us. The show continued that night and so did her performance at the Savoy.
And can she sing! Rita MacNeil commands an incredible vocal instrument with which she produces sounds that rise with seeming ease from the bounty of her whole body. The audience members were delighted and entranced. The Savoy is a restored vaudeville theatre in Sydney, Cape Breton Island. It was a perfect, regal setting for Rita and the parade of Island Women that followed.
From Rita we heard her song, what seems to be an almost anthem for the Islanders, “Home I’ll Be.” We’ve heard it at other concerts, but never with the power and authority with which Rita sings it:
“You’re as soulful as a choir
You’re as ancient as the hills
I caress you oh Cape Breton in my dreams.”
This song must have special resonance for those who’ve had to leave this Maritime Province to find work as mines and fisheries faltered.
Members of the audience know the song well, and as Rita’s voice rings out, I have a feeling I’m surrounded, indeed, by the soul of the place, finding its expression through the diva on stage. This is more than music. It is a telling of a people’s attachment to the history and culture of Cape Breton. Rita’s voice is not the younger, lilting voice I’ve heard on recordings, but carries still the passion of a Piaf. She sweeps up to notes as if she is riding a wave or flying on the wings of a gull floating above the sea wind. She keeps us on the edge of our seats wondering where she’ll sail to next. Frank MacDonald said earlier in the week at a reading that Cape Bretoners love their music not because it is beautiful but because it is perfect. This voice, this song must be what he meant.
What is the source of this soul, this love of place, this celebration of the island home? It is rooted in respect for the struggles of immigration and tragedies of loss of lands and livelihoods in Scotland and Ireland. It is etched with the terrors of the sea and with the risks of fishing and mining cultures that have sustained the people here. It carries the imprimatur of authentic connection to the Gaelic language and Scottish rhythms and movements that came with the people and sustains them still. There are other islanders in the world who celebrate their place in song but perhaps these too have common culture and language and perhaps, maybe even more importantly, a history of a struggle with colonial powers and losses to imperious land owners and political authorities. After all, the islanders of Cape Breton did not leave the highlands of Scotland (or villages and farms of Ireland) because they wanted to. They have, perhaps because of this, yearned for and maintained a connection with their beloved ancestral lands and forebearers whose names they are still called and whose histories most can recount.
Whole families here are musicians or dancers or weavers. When a fiddler gets on stage, the islanders know his or her story, and personally know their parents and grandparents, and their mentors. They know who has been “away” and who has returned. Culture is localized (Chéticamp is not Baddeck) but Celtic Colours celebrates the whole of the island and the connections with Scotland and Ireland, and announces that this is all here to stay—-the torch will most assuredly be passed, as a late week concert proclaimed.
During our short visit, we learned about step dancing, piping, milling frolics, and the Gaelic College. We learned about the Cape Breton Highlands and hiked the Cabot Trail to embankments that afford a view of the vast ocean below and beyond. We walked the beaches, pocketed polished bits of sea glass, and studied soft outcroppings of white gypsum. We were nearly blown over when the winds came in and snatched car doors and screen doors out of our hands. We ate oatcakes and attended fundraisers to raise money to replace flooded church basements floors. (The program, at Calvin United, was called Bach to Broadway and provided a sometimes-surprising departure from the Celtic theme of the Festival. One audience participation number led a jolly gentleman to exclaim, “I ooohed when I should have aaaahed. It was all good fun.”) We were served refreshments by ladies who told us, “You can’t rush a good cup of tea.” We ate long spider-legged snow crab from Newfoundland. We shopped in co-ops and bought colorful knitted mittens and glass jewelry and more teacakes in Saturday markets by the sea. We drove from venue to venue along long colorful miles with views of sweeping headlands and deep, wet valleys. We traveled from Sydney and Glace Bay to Glencoe Station and Mabou. We traveled from Belle Côte and Scotsville up to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and walked lovely trails that led to grand views. (We could see to the Magdalen Islands in the distance.) We were compelled to do all of this if we were to take in the vastness of this small island and to suck up all we could of this festival and Cape Breton life. And we were grandly nourished by it all.
Our first event took place at the 100-year-old St. Matthew’s United Church in Inverness on Saturday afternoon October 6.
It was a sunny brisk fall afternoon and a long line was waiting to pass through the door of the welcoming white steepled church which is set on a hill overlooking town and sea. Our pew was located near stained glass windows dedicated to those who died in World War II.
This afternoon session is called Fiddles and Prose. This is a fine concept, this celebration of writers who have captured the spirit of the culture of music in Cape Breton. The authors read and the musicians answer them. It makes for a rich layered Cape Breton cake. Today we are introduced to the taste of the place by the authors Alistair MacLeod and Frank Macdonald. Although the writers read in English, it is Gaelic that is often a topic, especially in MacDonald’s work. It is, he tells us, “the language spoken in Heaven.” and by the end of the week, I believe this. MacDonald writes a column for the Inverness newspaper called “Assuming I’m Right.” He is a wit and reads two stories from his book A Possible Madness.
The fiddlers play as he concludes a story and we understand better the piece he has read about a young bride and her duel with the fiddler at her wedding dance. In the story, it is clearly the fiddler who is her lover and his tune and increasingly frenetic playing that makes love to her. We all feel the energy of the story and then see fiddler and dancer in a sort of reenactment on stage. As the fiddler’s tempo increases, the legs of people in the pews around us start to bounce up and down…until soon the whole church is filled with the sound of feet slapping the floor. No hands and no heads are moving. Only feet. We wonder if everyone will get up and make squares!
During the rest of the afternoon, we hear stories about the Gaelic alphabet: 18 letters each named for a tree or plant. Alistair MacLeod reads selections from his work. (He is the author of Letters to the World: The Writing of Alistair MacLeod and No Great Mischief among others) A desk lamp is hastily plugged in and held behind him as it is clear that he is struggling to see his pages in the dim late afternoon church. His last story is a reflection on the multicultural draw of the fiddle music of the island and incorporates the Scots, the French, and the aboriginals in a tale of fiddling. MacLeod’s own son and daughter, Marion MacLeod and Kenneth MacLeod, are on stage to play fiddle and keyboard.
MacLeod is thoughtful about the goals of his work. He is interested in point of view, about where we are in time when big things happen to us and how our lives are changed by trauma. His story of icy death and the subsequent recollection of the young boy who survives the rest of his family is beautifully crafted and evocative.
During the afternoon, we have our first experience of Cathy Ann MacPhee’s lovely voice. Her first language is Gaelic and she sings beautifully. She immigrated to Ottawa from Barra Island and has been teaching, but announces this afternoon, to a delighted audience, that she feels at home in Nova Scotia and is moving to Halifax.
This afternoon was a lovely introduction to Cape Breton and to the music of the place. As we file out, we feel the truth of MacLeod’s earlier comment that, “all of us are better when we’re loved” and we sense that the love in this community and this church on this fall afternoon is really what we must count on to make this a decent world.
After the readings, we make a dash into Inverness to find The Bear Paw, a bookstore, to buy MacLeod and Macdonald’s books. There we meet, for not the last time, the proprietor Alice Freeman. She and others in the store are chatty jokesters who tease and play as they help us find what we are looking for (even though it is past closing time). Before we leave, we make donations to Alice’s fund for stray cats.
On Sunday afternoon, we traveled up the road from Belle Côte to Chéticamp and the Doryman Pub and Grill. Ashley MacIsaac, a fabulous fiddler, was to play, one of my friends, a Nova Scotian who has been my host on previous trips, told me. It was a must, though not part of the official Celtic Colours program. We were told to get there early and did. Ashley wasn’t playing until 3 in the afternoon, but we arrived around 1 and the place was filled shortly after. I ordered Alexander Keith’s Honey Brown Ale and deep fried haddock with mashed potatoes and cole slaw. Everyone around me ordered some version of the same: pan fried haddock was popular at my table. The food came quickly and was delicious. I sipped my ale to make it last.
“He was a bad boy,” someone tells me of Ashley. And I hear the story of his “kilt flash” on the Conan O’Brien show. They tell me he has settled down.
The buzz in the Doryman gets louder and finally Ashley walks through the door, past the big signs for Molson and LaBlatts and Alexander Keith’s IPA. Loud cheers. His keyboard artist arrives and there is another round of cheers and applause as she makes her way to the stage. She is Maybelle Chisholm MacQueen, called by some the best Celtic piano player in Cape Breton. She is one of the Chisholms of Margaree, a well-known and respected musical family. She was classically trained but began playing for square dances at ten according to her biography. I love Maybelle’s vigorous style and the pleasure she seems to take from playing. Her hands move so fast I can’t get a good clear photograph of her, though a helpful fellow at the bar tries fruitlessly to give me a lesson in ISO settings. I take his suggestions with good humor.
When Ashley and Maybelle begin, every leg in the pub, including those holding the tables up, begins to move. People shout approval as the tempos of the tunes increase. Finally, Ashley invites a square set to form. Dancers move to the music for a while. Then a gentleman who seems to have trouble walking takes the floor and begins to step dance. Whatever ails him does not get in the way of his spirited movements. Others join him. The tempo of the fiddle and piano increases. One woman is left standing and dancing by the end. The effort to stay standing and keep dancing, increasing in speed and vying with the ferocious energy of the fiddler, and the flirtation between fiddler and dancer are recurring themes and they are present in the traditional Scottish Gaelic song, Sleepy Maggie. (Recorded by MacIssac and Mary Jane Lamond.) Poor Maggie fears she is too untidy to continue to dance because she’s lost a pin but then, oh well…..
“Oh I won’t be sad When the fiddler, the fiddler comes tonight
I won’t be sad
When the fiddler comes tonight.”
The Doryman audience was pleased by all and whoops to show appreciation. Nobody was sad when this fiddler came.
The biggest disappointments of the week were the John Allen Cameron Song Session at Glencoe Station Community Center and the Brakin’ Tradition (with Cyril McPhee) performance at Chéticamp’s La Place des arts Père.
The John Allan Cameron session was to be led by Dave Gunning and was advertised as a sing along. Gunning’s latest album has been getting good reviews and he is busy touring. But though it would have been good to hear his new work, it was his recent tribute album to John Allen Cameron, himself from Inverness County, Glencoe Station and the chance to sing the beloved Cameron’s work with someone who knew him that drew the crowd.
To get to Glencoe Station’s Community Center we traveled a gravel road. People said the last time they’d been there, there had been two feet of snow on the road. We wonder how active people are in the dead of winter! The hall itself: Round tables are set up all about the large, functional room and each is covered with a plastic tablecloth covered with a measure of silky, colorful cloth and seasonal gourds. There are song sheets on each table. Tea and coffee is prepared and it is followed at intermission by teacakes and sandwiches, including lobster! It is a predominantly older crowd.
But alas, no Dave Gunning! Without explanation, Wally MacAuley takes the stage. The former member of The Men of the Deeps allows for a couple of sing alongs, but plays his own music for the rest of the program. Not what we came to hear. People were gracious but not enthusiastic.
I have to bless Wally, however, for introducing me to the haunting song, “The Piper and The Maker,” by Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis. The last lines are particularly compelling:
The maker says to the piper who has played unearthly, previously unknown music on his new pipes and is greatly troubled:
“I understand your fear.
But the wood and leather’s of this Earth – no magic is there here.
I will admit these pipes could be the finest ever made.
But that would count for not one thing if they were never played. For there’s music in them right enough and there’s music in you too,
And the one requires the other if that music’s to come through.
The pipes unlocked the music that was waiting in your soul.
And you unlocked the instrument and made the circle whole.”
Brakin’ Tradition was a popular band in the early 1990s and no doubt had and still has a following. After 18 years hiatus, they came together last spring and played and we heard them at Chéticamp in the Acadian Reunion session. (This is one of the few sessions that incorporates Acadian music or even alludes to the strong Acadian tradition on the island.) Cyril MacPhee, a member of the band, was one of two artists in residence for the festival and was a delight on his own. But Brakin’ Tradition’s set was uninspiring. The group needs to update its material and work on a new or better ensemble sound. The lead singer, Louanne Baker, was insistently loud. Her vocals lacked nuance or interesting dynamics. (Though pure Celtic music does not call for such it is true.) Her body language on stage was distracting.
One of the highlights of our week was the more didactic, participatory milling frolic at the Scottsville School of Crafts. Geoffrey May and Rebecca-Lynne MacDonald-May who are dedicated students of the local culture and its roots led the session. They have a radio show called “Aiseirigh Nan Gaidheal” (The awakening of the Gaels) available to stream from CKJM Cooperative Radio Chéticamp. It is broadcast in Gaelic with English translation. Geoffrey and Rebecca-Lynne taught us milling songs in Gaelic and demonstrated the moves used in felting cloth. (Alice Freeman says the mantra is push, pull, crash, pass.) Then we had at it! It was great fun. The session was full of history and the couple’s research has been thorough enough to supply many corrections to misconceptions regarding Scottish history and to suggest references for further study. We learn from Geoffrey and Rebecca-Lynne that the owner of the Bear Paw in Inverness, Alice Freeman, is a valuable source of milling songs. She stood on the milling table and step danced while she learned the songs when she was a small girl we are told. We are pleased we have met her and to have recorded a couple her songs as she sang them to us!
We saw The Once twice. The Once is a collaboration of Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill, and Andrew Dale. In Cape Breton for the festival, they come from Newfoundland. They did a fine afternoon session at the fabulous Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck. Then Geraldine was featured in the Island Women session in Glace Bay later that night. The songs of The Once are sometimes plaintive, sometimes funny, but always interesting. Geraldine has a powerful, but nuanced instrument and a memorable stage presence. We loved them so much that we ran down the street after their van hoping to stop them in time to buy a cd. We got one later that night at the Savoy.
Another surprise at the Island Women session was Sylvia LeLièvre, an Acadian from Chéticamp and called by some an Acadian super star and “Chéticamp’s best kept secret.” She owns a guest house and has been singing for 30 years and more, often with her brothers.
Sylvia has a beautiful, heartfelt voice, wonderful phrasing, and a deep connection with the lyrics she sings. I’d love to hear her in a smaller venue. Every recording I’ve found of her online is better than the last but I find no albums.
Also featured at Island Women was Mary Jane Lamond and Kathleen MacInnes. Mary Jane has a record of working with terrific artists and making the charts with her singles. (Notably her vocal on “Sleepy Maggie” recorded with Ashley MacIsaac.) She is a mover in the effort to support the continuing vitality of Gaelic culture. She, like many others, respects the songs and conventions of performance from her tradition and her roots. And she, again like many others, has worked to increase her Gaelic language skills. There are many academies on Cape Breton, including the Gaelic College on the Cabot Trail, St. Ann’s that make studying language possible.
So many others deserve a mention. But this is a quick review of most of the shows we attended. There were many others. Celtic Colours is packed with rich performances and other events every day for over a week. Lest you think I’ve forgotten about Natalie MacMaster, I didn’t. She was featured at Celtic Colours. However, she is playing in my town this coming Sunday night and I knew I’d get a chance to catch her there.
Still, I had to see Vishtèn from Prince Edward Island for fear I wouldn’t have another chance. Vishtèn is a collaboration of twins Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc and Pascal Miousse (actually from the more northern Magdalen Islands). Vishtèn quite simply entertains and delights. There is fiery fiddle music, rhapsodic accordion harmonies, dancing, insistent percussion, and even a jaw harp and whistle make appearances. The audience can’t help but be swept up in the charm and rhythm of this high-energy group. See their joyful Upper Hillsborough video and you’ll want more:
Will I return to Celtic Colours next year? If there is anyway possible, I’ll be there.
-Llyn De Danaan
Thank you to Llyn De Danaan for this wonderful review of the 2012 Celtic Colours Festival on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. Lynn is a Northwest writer and anthropologist based out of Olympia, WA. Her books include Koans for the Inner Dog: A Guide to Canine Enlightenment, collections of poems, and her latest work, Big Adventure in Moa Nui: The Very Mysterious Events on a South Pacific Island and Their Resolution, a work of fiction based on her travels in Tahiti. Her recent Mountain of Shell project focuses on the life and work of the Japanese and Japanese American community on Oyster Bay, Washington. Her nonfiction book, Katie Gale’s Tombstone: Landscape, Power, and Justice on 19th Century Oyster Bay will be published by University of Nebraska Press.
NOTE: Hearth Music is currently working as US-based publicists for Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac, but this had no bearing on Llyn’s trip to Celtic Colours or her review.
NOTE: All photos in this post are by Llyn De Danaan.
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to presenting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.