Celtic Colours on Cape Breton

Kerry Dexter's picture

Cape Breton, in the northern part of Nova Scotia in Atlantic Canada, is a place of great and unique natural beauty, with forest, highland, lake and seacoast all contributing to the mix. It is a place of unique and beautiful music, too, shaped by the landscape and by the people who settled there, bringing with them songs and tunes and musical ideas from Scotland, Ireland, New England, the American South, and places beyond.

Through the years -- through the centuries -- this has fused into a powerful and distinct musical style which  artists including Natalie MacMaster, the Barra MacNeils, and Ashley MacIsaac have taken around the world. Each year in October, Cape Breton celebrates its music at home, with concerts that feature loads of Cape Breton artists along with singers,  players, and composers from the many strands which have made the music’s history. This festival is called Celtic Colours. This year it takes place 7th through 15th October, and tickets go on sale beginning 11 July.

Celtic Colours
really is a community festival, and that community comprises the whole island. Each year festival organizers put out a call for venues to express interest in hosting events, and each year they receive responses from locations old and new, ones which have hosted many events and ones for which this would be the first time  to join in. This year, venues range in size from community centers and churches  which hold around one hundred people to state of the art halls in Sydney and Port Hawkesbury which seat one thousand audience members. This year there will be 45 concerts taking place in communities including Albert Bridge, Aspy Bay, Baddeck,  Cheticamp, Christmas Island, D'Escousse, Glace Bay, Ingonish, Inverness, Iona, Judique, L’Ardoise, Louisbourg, Mabou, Main-a-Dieu, Marion Bridge, Membertou, North River, St. Ann's, St. Peter's, Sydney River, Wagmatcook and Whycocomagh.

This year, Celtic Colours includes a focus on connections between the music of Cape Breton and the music of the Appalachian mountains and the Cajun music in the American south. In recognition of this, this year’s Artists in Residence are songwriter Ron Bourgeois from Cheticamp and Old Time Appalachian fiddler and singer Bruce Molsky from the US.

“We’ll be getting to know more about our Celtic cousins to the south as we broaden our understanding of the roots and branches of Celtic traditional music,”
says Joella Foulds, the Festival’s Artistic Director. “An emphasis on song this year will help tell the story of the connections and how they came to be.”

That emphasis on song carries through beyond the southern connections, as well. Singers and songwriters Emily Smith, Dougie MacLean and Karine Polwart from Scotland will be among those appearing, as will home grown Cape Breton musicians The Barra MacNeils, Mary Jane Lamond, and Fiona MacGillvray, and from Ireland, fiddler Niamh Ni Charra, and the Black Family, including international star Mary Black.

BeauSoliel avec Michael Doucet from Louisiana, innovative Celtic dancer Nic Gariess, and Appalachian singer and banjo player Sheila Kay Adams will also lend their talents, along with Scottish Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes. MacInnes is a first time visitor to Celtic Colours this year as are Ireland’s Alan Kelly Quartet, the April Verch Trio from the Ottawa Valley, and Cape Breton bluegrass band Crowdis Bridge.

Pipes, piano, fiddle and song will come from the full range of Cape Breton based musicians who will be on hand as well, including Ashley MacIsaac, J.P. Cormier and the Elliot Brothers, Wendy MacIsaac,  Howie MacDonald, Brenda Stubbert, Doug MacPhee, Dave MacIsaac, Marc Boudreau, Douglas Cameron, Maybelle Chisholm McQueen, and Kimberley Fraser. Most concerts during Celtic Colours are ambassador concerts, in a way: several acts share the same bill, and they each play sets on their own and then all join in for a finale. It’s a situation which makes for a nice mix  and closing sets which often lead to the unexpected.

As to unexpected, that’s something you may well find each evening at the Festival Club, a hot ticket for both craic (good conversation) and music which begin as the main concerts wind down of an evening and often go on until the early hours of the morning. It is held at the Gaelic College at Saint Ann’s.

In addition to the music, you’ll find walks, talks, art exhibits and community meals on offer during Celtic Colours, and you’ll also find the warmth and hospitality of welcoming people across Cape Breton. It’s by no means too early to begin planning your trip. Though you’ll not go wrong with any concert you attend, tickets to many of the shows sell out early.

Celtic Colours Festival web site


Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.
Kerry’s work has also appears in National Geographic Traveler, CMT,  Strings, Ireland and the Americas, and her award winning blog Music Road.  You may reach her at music at wanderingeducators dot com.


feature photo:  October leaves in Baddeck, Cape Breton