Jim Gilchrist: Nuala Kennedy has found a new home

Nuala Kennedy
Nuala Kennedy
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Nuala Kennedy isn’t the only Irish or Scots musician to have thought she’d died and gone to heaven on her first visit to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The Edinburgh-based Irish flautist and singer, however, has continued to build on her musical relationship with the far-flung stronghold of Gaelic diaspora, and consolidates it this month with an extensive Scottish tour with the acclaimed Nova Scotian fiddler and pianist Troy MacGillivray.

“The first time I went to Cape Breton I just couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “I just felt so at home and very connected to the music.”

One might think the more rounded-out Cape Breton style, as opposed to the snappier nature of the Scots music from which much of it evolved, might suit the rolling approach of an Irish flautist. Kennedy agrees and cites the elder statesman of Cape Breton fiddling, Buddy MacMaster: “Buddy said to me once that he thought the way that Cape Bretoners play jigs was closer to the Irish style. And it’s still so tied to the dance; I love playing for the dancing out there.”

Kennedy has frequently visited Cape Breton and its autumnal Celtic Colours festival since that first, salutary trip. She returns in July to teach at Nova Scotian flautist and flute-maker Chris Norman’s Boxwood Flute School.

In the meantime, however, she is teaming up with MacGillivray, with whom she has been playing for years, including an annual Christmas tour in the United States (they’re working on a festive album at the moment). The celebrated fiddler and pianist hails from Antigonish County, where his family are acknowledged as Gaelic tradition-bearers, and he can boast a clutch of honours including the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal, which he was awarded two years ago for his contribution to Canadian culture.

Kennedy played on a recent album of MacGillivray’s, while the fiddler will guest on her next album. She and MacGillivray will hit the road with the two stalwarts of her own band, guitarist Mike Bryan and percussionist Donald Hay, and will also be joined at certain gigs by the young Scottish Borders fiddler Shona Mooney, who will appear on Kennedy’s next album.

Kennedy – who is speaking to me from Santa Monica, California, where she is visiting her fiancé and occasional collaborator, singer-songwriter AJ Roach (they’re getting married in Ireland this summer) – is not one to let the grass grow under her feet, as demonstrated by an extensive and extremely snowy US tour she made with Bryan and Hay in February, covering the American north-east as well as North Carolina and finishing up at the North Texas Irish festival.

“We were really unlucky with the weather – we had snowstorms, crazy weather, but people really made an effort to come out and see us,” she says.

March saw her in France, both with the band Oiralla, which plays music from her native County Louth, and with the very different sounds of Voyage de Nuit, the group she formed with French guitarist and composer Philippe Guidat, which stirs up an intriguing broth of Celtic, flamenco and jazz. With percussionist Malik Adda, French traditional fiddler François Breugnot and the enlisting of ebullient Scots accordionist Sandy Brechin in place of the band’s usual accordionist, Fiona Black, Voyage de Nuit has evolved somewhat, Kennedy says, from when she introduced an earlier version on a Scottish Arts Council Tune Up tour here back in 2009.

“It’s still like flamenco jazz, but it’s been kind of reborn a bit, with a traditional fiddler from the Auvergne and a North-African percussionist. I suppose it’s fusion music.”

Kennedy’s mellifluous flute playing and delicately ornamented singing are strongly rooted in Irish tradition, but as exercises such as Voyages de Nuit and her last album, Noble Stranger, with its contemporary electro-acoustic arrangements, suggest, she isn’t afraid to experiment. The tour with MacGillivray, however, should lean more towards the traditional.

“I just love playing with him,” she says. “His playing is based so strongly in Scottish and Irish music that it’s a natural fit for me. Right from the start, Troy and I had a very natural and spontaneous connection, which frees us up to do more with the tunes.”

• The Nuala Kennedy Band and Troy MacGillivray play Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, tonight, and Eden Court, Inverness, on 7 May, before touring Scotland until 30 May when they play Douglas Robertson’s Loft, Edinburgh. For further information, see www.nualakennedy.com