A style as distinct as a person's signature
Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling Aug. 18&19 Colaisde na Gàidhlig / The Gaelic College 902-849-8476. www.capebretonfiddlers.com
Intonation. Articulation. Drive. Lift. And as the late great Cape Breton fiddler Buddy Macmaster once put it, a style as distinct as a person's signature. There is no mistaking the playing of a Duane Côte for a Kimberly Fraser, a Brenda Stubbert for a Kyle Macneil. Yet each creates and performs brilliantly within the tradition.
When visitors first take in a concert or a dance on the island, if they put down their ipads and their smart phones, they are soon immersed in a musical experience that goes back hundreds of years. Fiddlers flourish here, like wildflowers, and the summer and fall is the time to tap into venues throughout the island, each with its own Gaelic-infused flavour and many with their own dance sets. This is music, after all, that is deeply rooted in dance -- and when the fiddler and accompanist jump into sets of jigs, strathspeys, and reels, the audience is in for a spirited ride.
There are literally thousands of tunes in the repertoire, and because this is a live art form, there are many more tunes in the making. While we are left breathless by Natalie Macmaster's blistering version of Tullochgorum, chances are fairly good that we aren't consciously considering thousands of hours of playing that got her to this stratospheric performance level. No question about it; this is an art form that requires intense listening and observation. Traditional music has withstood outside influences of radio, television, video, and yes, in its time, even the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. But standard bearers have long recognized that ongoing mentoring programs would be needed to keep this distinct part of Cape Breton's identity alive and flourishing. One need only go back to the now legendary 1973 Glendale concert, which kicked off what has become a 45-year history of the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association. One-hundred and thirty fiddlers of all ages took to the concert stage, as if in response to "The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler", a documentary making the rounds at the time. While many still contend - much as Mark Twain once proclaimed, that "reports of its death were "greatly exaggerated," the film in its way served as a wake-up call.
Since then, the association has played a significant nurturing role -- hosting workshops, an annual fiddle festival and publishing tunes written by members. Many of Cape Breton's leading musicians began as young members and have given back to succeeding generations. For Come-from-awayers, one of the most touching aspects of this side of Cape Breton culture is this generosity of spirit. Once a musician or dancer is seen as having both interest and ability, there are community venues by which to hone and master one's art form. Dances, concerts and life events, be they weddings or funerals, keep the young musician practicing, and Cape Breton dance sets test the player's acuity and stamina.
Of particular note at this year's 45th annual Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling at The Gaelic College of Celtic Arts will be its focus on the compositions of Dan R. Macdonald (1911-1976) of Judique South and Dan Hughie Maceachern (1914-1996) of Queensville; two celebrated musicians believed to have composed about 3,000 tunes between them. Other works not only from Gordon Macquarrie's “The Cape Breton Collection of Scottish Melodies” as well as by renowned composers Jerry Holland, Brenda Stubbert, Carl Mackenzie, and Kinnon Beaton, can be anticipated.
A special tune-sharing session will follow workshops in fiddle, piano, and stepdancing on Saturday, Aug. 18 as a prelude to a concert and dance on Saturday night. On Sunday, Aug. 19 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m, The Gaelic College's outdoor stage will feature a full roster of leading fiddlers, stepdancers and pianists. Guest fiddlers from kindred associations in Glengarry, Ontario, and from Prince Edward Island, will also enliven what should be a special gathering. When that many fiddlers of all ages begin to play together, it's hard not to revisit the chills of that long-ago Glendale concert. This is life-affirming, toe-tapping stuff.
For further information, contact the association, at www.capebretonfiddlers.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 902-849-8476.
Fiddlers perform in the now famous 1973 Glendale Fiddle Festival. Photo 97-650-28498 courtesy of Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.