Celebrating Cape Breton: Celtic Colours

by Kerry Dexter /
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Aug 15, 2016 / 0 comments

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, is a place in the far north of Atlantic Canada where mountain meets forest meets sea. Over the centuries, it has also become a place where cultures meet and mix and respect each other. The Mi'kmaq people came first, to fish the waters and live in the forests. Gradually, others made their way to this remote place. French speaking Acadians and Gaelic speaking Scots found common ground in their lively fiddle music; step dancing Irish met up with Scottish ceilidh dancers; culinary traditions of distant homelands were adapted to feature local gifts of land and sea. Across the years, across the centuries, as people lived together and taught their children and shared their stories and created their music and made new lives in this place where mountain meets forest meets sea, Cape Breton culture was made.

Celebrating Cape Breton: Celtic Colours

The Celtic Colours International Festival, which runs for ten days each October, celebrates Cape Breton in music, language, meals, workshops, art exhibits, and other events. This year Celtic Colours will be marking twenty years of inviting the world home to share its life from 7 through 15 October 2106.

Celebrating Cape Breton: Celtic Colours. Pipers' Ceilidh - St. Ann's - 10/11/15 - photo: Corey Katz

 Pipers' Ceilidh - St. Ann's - 10/11/15 - photo: Corey Katz

The heart of things at the festival every year is music, the distinctive fiddle and piano based Cape Breton style that its artists have taken across the world, and the strands to which that music connects. 

Among those from outside Cape Breton who will take the stage at Celtic Colours this year are songwriter Dougie MacLean from Scotland, piper Carlos Núñez from Spain, guitarist Tony McManus from Scotland, singer Tim Edey from Scotland, guitarist and songwriter John Doyle from Ireland, fiddler Liz Doherty from Ireland, fiddler Liz Carroll from the United States, the Barrule Trio from the Isle of Man, Archie Fisher from Scotland, dancer Nic Gareiss from the United States, Daniel Lapp from British Columbia, The Once from Newfoundland, and Le Vent du Nord from Quebec.

There will be plenty of Cape Breton talent on hand as well, including fiddler Natalie MacMaster, fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, multi instrumentalist J.P. Cormier, Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond, fiddler Wendy MacIsaac, fiddler and piano player and step dancer Kimberley Fraser, the band Coig, and the instrumental duo Dawn and Margie Beaton. There will also be a highly anticipated return to the festival of the Unusual Suspects of Cape Breton, which is a twenty-eight piece folk Orchestra featuring artists from many countries traditions, led by Corrina Hewat and Dave Milligan from Scotland.

Every concert during the nine day run of the festival -- there are more than forty events on the schedule, and that's just the concerts -- is a bit of an ambassador event. Festival organizers have long wanted to make sure whatever event you attend you'd have a real taste of the festival and of the music. Each evening typically includes three or four acts, each of whom do a set of their own and then join up for a finale. Quite often the artists cannot resist the chance to sit in with each other during the course of the evening too, making for all sort of of lovely surprises for those who come to listen and for the artists themselves.

Concerts are held all across the island of Cape Breton in communities large and small. The events take place in venues large and small, too, ranging from purpose built performance halls to schools to churches to community centers to fire halls.

The entire community of Cape Breton Island gets involved in festival events, and not only in music. Community suppers featuring island specialities from lobster to white pudding to fishcakes to baked beans are popular fundraisers for island groups and a fine way for visitors to meet and talk with Cape Bretoners while enjoying good food. There are breakfasts and lunches and afternoon tea available in different communities. The first Monday of the festival is when Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada, so there's turkey and the trimmings on offer, too. Among this year's events, a group of step dancers is working to fund their travel budget by inviting festival attendees to a Thanksgiving dinner accompanied by a bit of dancing.

Want to learn how to step dance yourself? There's a Celtic Colours workshop for that -- several, in fact. You could also learn a few words in Gaelic, or to improve your Gaelic singing skills. Perhaps you'd rather take a turn at the blacksmith's work or making your own jewelry or playing the fiddle? All that is possible. There are guided walks, tours, and talks, too, and art exhibits, including several tracing the twenty year history of the festival.

It is a celebration for visitors who come from away and a celebration for the people of Cape Breton, as well. "Economically it is a marvelous success, not only to the specific venue, but to other businesses and community groups in the area. Socially, the residents get together to plan, help, and participate," points out Barbara Downie of the Judique Community Centre.

"I think most of what we are doing this year is trying to give people the opportunity to celebrate what they've experienced over the twenty years," festival executive director Joella Foulds told the Cape Breton Post. "They've created really special concerts around their own communities, so people have a reason to feel proud."

As a young student, fiddler and step dancer Dawn Beaton took part in a concert in her hometown of Mabou during that first Celtic Colours Festival twenty years ago. She and her sister Margie are now an award winning duo who tour internationally -- and Dawn is artistic director of the festival, a post she has held for six years now. "It's pretty fantastic to be on both sides of it — to be a performer and to know what it takes to get onstage and express something very personal and profound to you, and then to be a part of it and have your say and, I guess, have an impression on what people would see and experience, both locally and abroad," she told the Post. She and Margie will perform during this year's festival.

Whether you have a breakfast sandwich at a local church, learn step dancing at a community center, attend a concert by top notch musicians at a fire hall, or stay up to all hours at the after hours festival club at the Gaelic College, you will be sure to have a vivid experience of, as Cape Breton is known, the Celtic heart of North America

Some events are on the way to selling out already at this writing, so you will want to be booking your tickets, but there are more than two hundred community events and forty concerts during the festival, so there's plenty to choose from. Accommodation is in demand during the festival time, so it's wise to be looking in to that now too. 

If you'll not be making it to Cape Breton -- or even if you will, given the many events that go on -- you will want to keep an eye on the festival's website. For the past several years, one concert each evening has been available online through live stream. Adding to the fun, festival organizers wait until about an hour before the show is to begin (most are scheduled for early evening Atlantic time) to announce what concert it will be each evening.


More about Celtic Colours:

Celtic Colours: A Tapestry of Celtic Culture

Celtic Colours on Cape Breton

Music, Family, & Friends: Celtic Colours on Cape Breton

Listen to our Epic Canadian Road Trip: Nova Scotia Playlist





Kerry Dexter is music editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach her at music at wandering educators dot com.
You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Symphony, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places on line and in print, as well as at her own site Music Road.