Cape Breton's Celtic Colours: Connecting through Music, History, and Community

by Kerry Dexter /
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Sep 17, 2018 / 0 comments

Cape Breton Island is part of Atlantic Canada, in the far north of the province of Nova Scotia. It is a place where Mi'kmaq First Nations communities share the land with Gaelic and English speaking people whose ancestors came from Scotland. There are Cape Bretoners whose ancestry connects with France, those who trace their roots to Ireland, to New England, to other parts of Canada, and to other places in the world. For all that Cape Breton is a fairly small island, it is and has always been a place where people of differing cultures meet and share their stories.

It is said

Cape Breton
When she sleeps, we call it winter
When she shows her beauty, we call it autumn
And when she sings...
We call it Celtic Colours.

For a bit more than two decades now, the Celtic Colours International festival has been taking place across Cape Breton Island. Artists and audience come not only from Cape Breton -- though there are many on the artist roster and in the  audiences --- but also from Ireland, Scotland, the United States, Scandinavia, and all across Canada and beyond. They meet up for music, meals, learning experiences, and sharing community in places including concert halls, school classrooms, churches, on a ferry, in the woods and trails and seashores of the island, at the Great Hall of the clans at The Gaelic College, across the table in the restaurants of Acadian Canada, at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre, at museums and art galleries, at a blacksmith shop. at the historic Highland Village...


The theme of Celtic Colours in 2018  is Connected.

Connected. Connections shared through music: that is an idea that recurs in this series of stories I've been writing about music in shifting times. Celtic Colours celebrates connections every year. This year it seems especially right to, well, connect what will be going on across Cape Breton with the ideas I invite you to consider this series.
Music of the fiddle, and the fiddle and piano together are central to the music of Cape Breton. So too are the language and the music Nova Scotia Gaels brought with them from Scotland,  the connections and meetings of community, landscape, and family which make up life on Cape Breton, and the interactions of the communities of varied backgrounds on the island. These are what they invite the world to share, especially during Celtic Colours.
One concert each evening of the festival – it takes place this year from the 5th through the 13th of October – will be shown on line, so you may join in from wherever you may be. There are details on that toward the end of this story.

Cape Breton's Celtic Colours: Connecting through Music, History, and Community
Music to consider with these ideas in mind:
The fiddle playing of Dawn and Margie Beaton will give you a sense of what the story of Cape Breton sounds like though music. The lively and generous interaction of all the players in this video will give you a sense of that, too. Dawn and Margie are, as you see, top class players. They are sisters. Thus far they have recorded one album together, A Taste of Gaelic. It's not that they are new to music – they've been playing instruments and step dancing since they were toddlers growing up in Mabou on Cape Breton's west coast – it's that they each have a few other irons in the fire. Dawn is the artistic director of Celtic Colours and Margie is the marketing director of Colaisde an Gaidhlig/The Gaelic College in Saint Ann's.

Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac have been playing music together for more than two decades now, taking tune and song from Cape Breton across the world. They each work on separate projects, teaching, producing, and collaborating with other artists, so though they often perform together, putting that on record has taken a while. Their duo recording is called Seinn, and their regular band mates Cathy Porter and Seph Peters worked with Mary Jane and Wendy on the album and at this concert.

Natalie MacMaster also takes the music of her homeplace across the world. To people who are not familiar with the place or the music, she is perhaps the best known Cape Breton musician. I had the opportunity to speak with Natalie some years back. One of the things we talked of was what she'd say to people who don't know the music in their bones and in their hearts as she does. "Cape Breton music lifts me up and gets me dancing, and it calms me down and brings me peace -- it brings me joy," she said. 

The Men of the Deeps offer another approach to the music of Cape Breton: theirs is a chorus, a brotherhood of sorts. The members all have connection with mining.For the most part mining has played out its time on Cape Breton now. You may learn what the life of a miner was like at The Cape Breton Miners Museum in Glace Bay. That work brought communities -- the miners and their families-- together, and created rich strands of folklore and stories. That spirit lives on in the music of Men of the Deeps. In this video, they sing a song of resilience and hope that has long been part of Cape Breton's musical tapestry.

Speaking of musical tapestries -- Cape Breton's is woven through with  music and traditions of Scotland. There are always a number of artists from Scotland at the festival. This year, Karen Matheson shares her gifts as a singer, and Donald Shaw brings his artistry on keyboards and as a composer and arranger. It has been twenty years since the pair last appeared at Celtic Colours. They are founding members of the top band Capercaillie, and it was with that band they made their first -- and until now only -- appearance at Celtic Colours. This time, the husband and wife return to the Celtic Colours stage as a musical duo for a special night at the Savoy Theatre.

There are many other connections going on and being made during Celtic Colours. Musicians from Ireland, Scotland, and Cape Breton will collaborate to create songs and tunes, and work with boat builders from Ireland and from Cape Breton's First Nations to build a naomhog, a traditional wooden boat design from the west of Ireland, which they will row between two concerts on the shore of Bras D'Or Lake. Every concert -- there will be 49 of them this year -- is a collaboration that plays out the theme of connection, really. Usually three or four acts share a bill, each doing a set of their own and then creating a one of a kind finale in which they all participate together. 

Events beyond the official concerts play to the theme of Connected, as well. There are community meals, workshops, craft classes, sessions, talks, nature walks, farmers markets ceilidhs, and combinations of all these. There is the after hours Festival Club which keeps the connections going until early morning at The Gaelic College, too.

If you'd like to join in but won't be making it to Cape Breton this autumn, keep your eye on the Celtic Colours website. One concert is streamed on the festival's website each evening and left up there and on YouTube for about the next twenty three hours, almost until the next evening's broadcast begins. It is not announced in advance what that evening's show will be, though it can be fun to study the schedule and see if you can predict what will be coming up. Generally the concerts begin at 7.30 pm Atlantic time/6.30 US eastern time and run two to three hours. The people who shoot, direct, and produce the events know what they  are about when it comes to presenting music, too. 

You may also like to know that a compilation recording chosen from live performances will be available in late autumn. Past Celtic Colours Live albums are available, too. 



Other stories in this series....

Music for a Winter's Day

Music for a Winter's Night

Three Feet or So: Music and Creating Positive Change in the World

Geography of Hope: Music of Immigrants and Refugees

Autumn: Music of Harvest and Home

Music for Reflection

Music for a Winter's Eve

Music for Winter's Changes

Music: Listening for Community

Music of Resilience

Music: A Path to Community and Connection

Music: Songs of Hope and Respect

Story and Place in Music

Journeys Through Landscape in Music

Living the Questions: Music for the Journey



Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, Irish Fireside, and other places, as well as at her own site, Music Road