I recently returned from the greatest musical festival you’ve never heard of. Most everyone has heard of Newport Jazz Festival, which I attended for a couple of days in early August, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, on the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May. But Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia have a fest, too.
They hosted Celtic Colours International Festival for nine days in early- to mid- October. The festival began in 1997 and has quickly become an annual tradition for many, performers and attendees alike. It is intentionally set in early October to take advantage of autumn’s wonderful gift to Cape Breton. The terrain, the weather and the magnificent maple and birch
foliage are outstanding. Even larch trees, a cone- and needle-bearing tree, turns bright honey golden before needle drop each year.
I do have a Cape Breton connection. My grandfather was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and, as a toddler with his parents, moved to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Many of his relatives moved to Cape Breton. As an adult, he, his wife and their daughter, my mom, would drive for days on dirt roads to visit relatives regularly whenever they could. I visited a couple of times while in grade school in the late 1960s and a couple of times as an adult. It would be difficult to find a more beautiful place on the planet, with the surrounding ocean and cliffs, mountains and lakes, rivers and trails and wildlife everywhere, along with charming coastal towns and small vibrant cities. But there is a darker side to the island. It can be a forbidding and harsh environment in the winter, as very northern Atlantic environments tend to be. But residents have supported themselves year-round by farming, fishing, mining, tourism, construction and making or repairing things.
When I visited in the ’60s, it was very insular. There was little movement on or off of the island. We could get maybe three TV channels if that. Every house had a large antique-looking radio. And most every house had, as a necessity, a musical instrument or two or three. The highland music of Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton was typically a piano, a fiddle, a guitar, maybe an accordion and some bagpipes, known locally as pipes. To brighten the atmosphere, someone in the house would play something, another might join in, someone might dance a step or two and harsh environment be gone.
But the ’70s and ’80s led to a bit of an exodus of the younger generation seeking higher education, city life and jobs. A 1971 documentary called “The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler” became a local call to arms. The Rev. John Angus Rankin, known as Black Angus, began the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association to ignite more interest and reinvigorate passion in the craft. In 1973 Black Angus organized and hosted a concert, a renaissance of the fiddle, in the micro town of Glendale (a church and a community center, that’s it) with more than 130 fiddlers playing in unison. One of the evening concerts I attended was in the community center, where some of the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association, 40 strong, played each song note for note in unison.
This year’s Celtic Colours festival had a printed guide, also to be found online, to show all that is available. There were 49 concerts and cultural and educational learning environments all over the island. Want to try the fiddle? Accordion? Want to learn blacksmithing? Want to learn a few words of Gaelic? Want a guided hike into a semi-remote area? Tour a coal mine? Make an indigenous drum? Watch whales from a boat? Learn to square dance? Well, we did just that, among other things.
We attended the Celtic Music Interpretive Center on the west coast in the town of Judique for some inspired music and lunch. At one point our sweet, gray-haired waitress couldn’t take it anymore. She put down her note pad and tray and went to the front of the musicians and did a bit of step dancing. Then someone else stepped up, then another, then an Appalachian clogger stepped up and threw down his version of footwork.
Then they cleared the tables and chairs for a square set introduction. The piano player stood up and gave some square-dancing instruction and then we moved to regular square dancing, with him calling the moves. Square dancing is still a regular thing in Cape Breton. Nighttime Celtic club music often encourages square dancing. I had not square-danced since seventh grade when I hated it. The teacher would put on a scratchy and crackling 45 rpm record, which talked us through the moves. We did it in gym class where I much preferred soccer, dodgeball or football.
But at this Celtic center, we promenaded, partnered and corner danced and grand chained as instructed and I proved definitively that you do not need skill to have fun. I later asked Rosie MacKay, a relative of mine in Margaree Harbour on the west coast of Cape Breton, if square dancing was a regular part of their life. “Oh yes,” she said. “Most of my life, two or three times a week.”
The nightly concerts we attended were generally small-venue events. The bigger ones were high school auditorium- or gymnasium-size so throughout the festival there was not a bad seat in the house. The smaller community center venues were close and intimate. The format for each show was similar, with different musicians, some formal bands and some more random collections of talent, playing some music. Then another assemblage of musicians would play a few, then they would take a short intermission. The second part of the show was more of the same followed by a finale with every musician of the evening participating for a final energetic piece, usually accompanied by some enthusiastic and highly skilled, though some less so, step dancing from the musicians.
Some songs would start slowly and sometimes stay that way. Others would start slowly and change a few times, accompanied by audience hoots, to a manic level of excitement. Other songs were high energy from the start. Mairi Rankin, from one of the thoroughbred musical families there, played her first two fiddle notes of the evening and kicked off her heels. There was no toe tapping here. No heel thumping. This music tends to be high spirited and happy and nothing less than a full leg stomp will do, often with both legs. Mairi said between songs, “Celtic Colours is better than Christmas. It’s a homecoming of lifelong friends and musical associates. We have so much to catch up on.”
Although piano is technically a percussion instrument, this was a music festival with virtually no drums. One Irish band had an Irish bodhrán, a single skin drum played with both ends of a short stick on one surface while the other hand touches and compresses the skin from inside to change tone, volume and inflection. Other than that, all the percussive sounds were from the stringed instruments, pipes and foot stomping. There were a couple of wonderful bands that were unique and amazing. Rura, a four-piece band from Scotland, and Socks in the Frying Pan, with three members from Ireland, were both dynamic and fully engaging. Both band bios say they combine traditional regional and folk music with their own take on them. Both bands could be anything from soulful, plaintive, playful and rock-based to full-on/full -throttle tight avant-garde jazz rock. The crowd was alive and super-charged.
I visited another couple of relatives on this trip. Arthur and Ruby MacKay were both born, raised and have lived all things Cape Breton for a long time. Arthur was a miner, a commercial fisherman and developed and ran Whale Cove cottage resort on Cape Breton’s Shore Road. Ruby was the church organist since her teenage years. Although they don’t attend concerts and dances anymore, they still follow the scene. Indeed, our last night on the island, I really did not want to travel cross island for the Celtic Colours finale in Sydney. Arthur said, “Well, why would you do that anyway? Ashley MacIsaac and Hilda Chiasson are playing right here in Margaree.”
These two are veteran Celtic Colours performers and are considered the best of the best. I asked Arthur, “How many homes on Cape Breton would you guess have at least one fiddle.” “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ve got mine right here.” I never knew he played. So, we drove to the Normaway Inn for the show and before long we were square dancing (again) to music of Ashley and Hilda. Hilda was at an upright piano facing the back wall, back to the crowd and Ashley was back to her facing the crowd. All of their many tempo changes happened without eye contact and seemed to be guided by feel, experience and clairvoyance.
I spoke with Howie MacDonald by phone recently. We saw Howie our first night on the island, playing piano with an assortment of Rankins, MacIntyres and MacGillivrays on multiple instruments. A few nights later he was in a different venue with different musicians and playing fiddle. Howie toured with the Rankin family for many years, has released 11 albums and a DVD. He has tried his hand at theater and as a comedian and, at age 53, is finally wrapping up his college career, sidelined for decades by other callings.
At this performance Howie teamed up with Hilda on piano and Mary Beth Carty on guitar for a brilliant feel-good set. I asked Howie about Colours. He told me he has played off and on since its inception and it has gotten bigger and better over the years. “Year to year, the good stuff has been saved and improved on and the lesser stuff has been weeded out.” I then asked him if he knew how to step dance. “Well…yes. Sort of. I grew up in a house with four sisters and one bathroom. I learned a few steps waiting. So, yes.”
It is clear that the vision of Black Angus has borne fruit. Natalie MacMaster and her husband, Donnell Leahy, brought all their kids to perform. Many showed high levels of skill on multiple instruments and all could dance, really dance. Lisa Cameron and husband Vern MacDougall were joined onstage by their young son, Finlay, playing publicly for the first time. Youthful dancing brothers Stephen and Lewis MacLennan showed some intricate footwork, step dancing at one of the concerts. And the young MacNeil sisters all showed musical abilities and song writing talents. College student Joe MacMaster is a highly regarded fiddler, pianist, piper and he step dances. It seems clear the younger generation is preparing to carry the Celtic music, dance tradition forward.
So, at some point before long try to take this interactive, inspirational, beautiful and educational trip. As a couple or as a family you can’t miss. Cape Breton has some great breweries. Breton Brewery makes a great IPA called Black Angus. It was my favorite there. There seems to be a competition at all the restaurants where we stopped. Each has their own version of seafood chowder, some creamier, some brothier, but all loaded with seafood and simply outstanding. Two new golf courses in Inverness are directly on the ocean and are both crazy challenging and simply beautiful. Cabot Cliffs is on Golf Digest’s World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses ranked number nine. For comparison, St. Andrews in Scotland is ranked number five. Cabot links is ranked number 43 worldwide. The views of the ocean from every fairway of each course are magnificent. Sheer cliffs of sandstone and gypsum of 75 to 100 feet mark the edge of the ocean-side fairways. Bring a few extra sleeves of balls.
The natural beauty of Cape Breton makes the trip worthwhile. The music and dance of Cape Breton are passionate, energetic and addictive. The history and the culture of Cape Breton gives perspective and insight into the development of North America. But it’s the people of Cape Breton that will draw you back. Everyone we met was sweet, caring, interesting and interested in our experience there. And, with the political environment in the States, I spent time every day meditating on cancelling my flight home.