Collaboration and community: The Boston Celtic Music Festival

Kerry Dexter's picture

Music is a powerful way to build and reinforce connection, between individuals and among communities. The Boston Celtic Music Festival (BCMFest for short), which happens this year on 11 and 12 January around Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, celebrates and creates connections across traditions and generations.




It got started  with the idea of connections, actually: the Boston Celtic Music Festival began as two friends were talking about musical connections: Irish flute player Shannon Heaton and Scottish style fiddler Laura Cortese got to musing that though their musical traditions had a lot in common, they never ended up playing the same sessions, and as they talked they realized this was true of  most other musicians they knew as well. Wouldn’t it be great to get all these people together to play? “That’ll never happen! I said. We’re all so busy,” Shannon Heaton recalls. The friends talked on though -- what if they threw a big party -- and made it in the dead of winter, when most musicians are off the road? “From that we thought, what if we made it a big weekend? and then what if we had a bunch of concerts? and then -- what if we had a festival?"


Shannon Heaton

Shannon Heaton


“We certainly didn’t know it would go here!” Heaton says, as BCMFest celebrates its tenth year. “What we did think about, quite lot, was that you have all these incredible traditional musicians -- Cape Breton players, Irish players, Scottish players -- and our communities are so related and share so many values, and we know of each other, but we never get together to play and we certainly don’t collaborate.”  Thanks to BCMFest, though, doors -- and ears -- have opened.


“I think the finale concert this year is a really good mosaic of the Celtic music scene in Boston,” says Sean Smith. Smith has played the festival as an artist -- this year he’ll be appearing with the Irish music trio Corvus -- and is a longtime member of the festival steering committee as well. At that concert, there will be Cape Breton tunes and songs, traditional and contemporary Highland dances from the Scottish tradition, and a tribute which will see musicians across the generations honoring the memory of Larry Reynolds, a major figure in encouraging education and passing on Irish tradition in the Boston area.


Sean Smith

Sean Smith


That finale will be the cap on a lively variety of events that begins on Friday evening with New Tunes from Boston: Boston’s Celtic Composers, a concert featuring Katie McNally, Amanda Cavanaugh,  and other rising stars. This will take place at Club Passim, to be followed by, at the Atrium, the Boston Urban Ceilidh. Emerald Rae will bring Cape Breton tunes, there will be Irish dancing, and Laura Cortese’s Boston Urban Ceilidh Band will rock Scottish music tradition for an event that is “just so much fun,” Sean Smith says.  “You’ve got hundreds of people coming out to dance, not all of them experienced in Cape Breton dance ot Irish set dance or Scottish ceilidh,” but all joining in the high spirits as dances are taught through the evening.


Activities resume with Dayfest, a wide ranging slate of activities that includes participatory events and ones you can sit back and enjoy, stories and songs for kids and for adults of all ages, and performances which emphasize and performances which cross boundaries among the traditions of Cape Breton, Scotland, and Ireland. “When we’re choosing acts, they have to meet a certain high standard of quality,” Heaton says, “and we look for diversity among the traditions, music for kids and adults, participatory events. We have fringey events, too, those are always fun. But one thing that we really look for -- no matter how cutting edge an act is, it has to be deeply connected to tradition.”


Boston Celtic Music Festival

Attic workshop


This year, Dayfest events will include an hour where you can learn Scottish dance,  a songwriters’ circle, an Irish music session, a sing along for kids, and Surf Sligo, where surf music meets Celtic tradition. Acoustic interludes and concerts from  players and bands will be part of Dayfest too. All of that culminates with, very likely, a parade featuring music and dragons, leading to First Church for the finale of the tenth year of the Boston Celtic Music Festival.




BCMFest web site
in addition to the Festival itself, BCMFest presents Celtic Music Mondays every month at Club Passim and at times is involved in other events as well.






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

She writes about  the music of Ireland, Scotland, North America and about the reflective side of being an artist at Music Road. You may also find her work  at Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places.


Photo credits:

parade by Michael Passarini, courtesy of BCMFest
attic workshop courtesy of BCMFest
Sean Smith courtesy of Sean Smith
Shannon Heaton by Kerry Dexter