Reeling in Nova Scotia

IN THE LOUNGE OF A SMALL DISTILLERY a fling is in progress. As the visiting Lord Provost looks on, fiddlers and pipers are letting rip as a man in a kilt leaps into a frenetic step dance. Outside, the autumnal blaze of the wooded glen recedes into an all-permeating smirr. Welcome to Canada.

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, has long nurtured vigorous fiddle, pipe and dance traditions which have attracted keen and sometimes astonished interest from musicians back in Scotland. Last week singers and players from both sides of the Atlantic gathered for the island’s eighth Celtic Colours festival, an annual celebration of Cape Breton, and related music and culture which has become something of a twin fling to Glasgow’s mammoth January spree, Celtic Connections.

Which is why Glasgow’s Lord provost, Liz Cameron, was at Glenora, North America’s only single malt distillery, at a reception to celebrate the relationship between the two festivals. As members of the high-energy band Slainte Mhath gave an impromptu set around the piano - and pianos have an idiosyncratic life of their own in Cape Breton - Celtic Connections director Colin Hynd hinted at what next January’s Glasgow event will bring - a strong Cape Breton contingent, a "Cape Bretonised" version of Unusual Suspects ... and a tractor.

The culture nurtured by descendents of Scottish immigrants to Cape Breton has prompted debate as to how we played before the great waves of 18th and 19th-century emigration. Cape Breton’s fiddling and piping, vigorous step dance tradition and school of piano accompaniment that comes as near Celtic boogie as you’ll get, all offer intriguing musical signposts.

Debate or not, visitors from the home of the highland reel are warmly welcomed and at this year’s Celtic Colours festival Unusual Suspects - the "folk big band" project commissioned two years ago by Celtic Connections from harpist and singer Corinna Hewat and her musical and domestic partner, pianist Dave Milligan - had an enthusiastic reception. The plan was to transplant the Unusual Suspects to Cape Breton, hybridising it with local players. Milligan and Hewat were duly appointed artists in residence for 2004.

The night before last Friday’s premiere, I met them in the Festival Club, hosted by the Gaelic College at St Anne’s. Was transplantation changing the nature of their creation? "A lot," agreed Milligan, fresh from rehearsals, as inexorable Cape Breton-style strathspeys whumped from the club’s main hall. "But we knew it would take a while to get our heads round it."

"All the musicians are getting on brilliantly," Hewat agreed, "although at the beginning we couldn’t rely on everyone to be playing the tunes the same way."

Integration was assisted by the third artist in residence, award-winning Cape Breton singer-songwriter-producer, Gordy Sampson, whose contemporary songs have had Canadian chart success, but who is also heavily involved in the traditional music scene.

The Celtic Colours festival is rooted in scattered communities, sometimes as far as 100 miles apart. So Unusual Suspects premiered amid the 1920s rococo splendour of the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, a former mining town that has declined in a manner all too familiar to towns in central Scotland. The Savoy has hosted many things, including boxing, but it never experienced anything quite like the Unusual Suspects.

There was the old strathspey Tullochgorum, played with characteristic Cape Breton vigour by Kyle MacNeil, its brisk variations punctuated by blasts from the Suspects’ horn section. There was a wonderfully elephantine strathspey on double bass, a pair of frontliners laying down their fiddles to break into a step dance, or give a brazen yell of syncopated exultation. "It’s been totally awesome," MacNeil, a seasoned traditional fiddler, said. "The majority of people weren’t sure what to expect, but there’s a real buzz about it now."

SCOTTISH AUDIENCES CAN JUDGE these latest Suspects for themselves in January. But it won’t just be ebullient transatlantic fusion at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. There’ll be the chugging of agricultural machinery - singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean will incorporate one of his collection of veteran tractors into the folk-multimedia extravaganza he is creating for Connections’ closing event.

Rural Image, the Dunkeld-based singer told me, is aimed at reconciling town and country, a counterblast to some of the current polarising rhetoric. A "farmhouse" set is currently under construction, and, in addition to the tractor, MacLean will deploy a folk ensemble, rock band, choir and chamber strings.

With a big following on Cape Breton, MacLean featured in several Colours concerts,

alongside the likes of iconic Cape Bretoner Rita MacNeil and Toronto-based James Keelaghan, and the much revered Ayrshire-born, Quebec-domiciled David Francey. Elsewhere, it was the turn of the original Nova Scotians, the Mi’kmaq, to celebrate the fiddle - one of the more positive things we colonists passed on to them - at the cultural centre at Eskasoni, where they commemorated the late Lee Cremo, champion fiddler, showbiz star and the community’s most famous son. The evening ended with crowds doing a very Indian- looking dance as assembled fiddles hammered out The Flowers of Edinburgh. Other Scots performers who received a delighted reception on Cape Breton included the spirited Edinburgh sisters’ group Give Way, while another largely women’s band, Dochas, were in cracking form. The Gaelic songs of Christine Primrose and Highland-based Irishman Brian O’hEadhra were given additional poignancy in a Diaspora which is now down to its last 500 first-language Gaelic speakers.

"We always thought Celtic colours would be a success," said Max MacDonald, who launched the cultural festival seven years ago with co-director Joella Foulds, "but we never comprehended the friendships that would develop." Anxious to create a celebration of their island’s music, their research took them to other international folk festivals - including Celtic Connections, establishing a relationship that has flourished.

Not that the music needed "rescuing". Back in the 1970s, a CBC documentary, The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, so infuriated island musicians that they organised themselves and started educating. The documentary acted as a wake-up call, added Foulds, and some of the emerging generation - the likes of Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster, the Rankins and the up-and-coming Kimberley Fraser - helped project Cape Breton music on to a world stage.

But it never forgets its roots. Take fiddler Sandy McIntyre, 69, Toronto-based but raised in Inverness, Cape Breton, who returns to teach fiddle at the Gaelic College. He has played with Cape Breton fiddle statesmen such as Buddy MacMaster and Angus Chisholm, and is convinced their approach reflects Scottish playing two centuries back. "One of the great Niel Gow’s strong points was his strong, updriven bow. That’s the style I play and teach. It was the music that had been brought over and handed down, generation to generation, and we just played what we were taught."

And those rumbustious, driving strathspeys? "In Cape Breton we round out our dotted notes in strathspeys to make them more danceable. Scottish fiddlers put a strong emphasis on the dotted note but to try step-dance that would be difficult. When I play a strathspey I’m thinking of someone step-dancing. Cape Breton music still has that dirt and roughage in it," he laughs. "Like the roughage in whole-grain bread, it’s that extra that makes you want to get up and dance."

And dance they did, at "the World’s Biggest Square Dance" in Baddeck’s Victoria Highland Centre. A hangar-like building normally hosting ice-hockey saw 11,000 people dancing or watching as the island’s finest took the stage to churn out no-holds-barred music that didn’t so much put a skip in your step as grab you by the scruff of the neck and skelp you round the hall.

"Let’s kill the floor!" hollered the MC, and off they went again. Cape Breton music was alive and kicking, but the floor looked in mortal danger.

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