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

Kerry Dexter's picture

Community: that’s a word which comes to mind when you think of Cape Breton. This island high up on the north coast of Atlantic Canada is a place where mountain and forest meet sea and shore, where the Mi’kmaq people first made their homes and where emigrants from Scotland established a strong Celtic presence in conversation with sea and land, and with those who later came to Cape Breton from Ireland, France, the Ukraine, and other parts of the world seeking home -- seeking community. The communities forged on Cape Breton are at the heart of the Celtic Colours Festival, a gathering which welcomes the world to concerts, music sessions, fiddle classes, ceilidhs, nature walks, art exhibits, craft shows and farmers’ markets and community meals each autumn. This year, the Celtic Colours International Festival takes place all across Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, from 10 through 18 October.



Each of the more that forty concerts allows those who attend -- and the musicians who perform -- to experience several acts. There are at least three or four artists or groups on a program. Each performs a set, and then they all collaborate for a finale -- and at times the artists just can’t wait for the finale to sit in with each other.

This sort of schedule means that longtime friends work together, new partnerships come about, and old comrades reunite, creating a mix of traditional and newly created work, the familiar and the unexpected. This is present all through the festival’s performances, and the festival's theme this year, Family and Friends, is in celebration of this.

Concerts and other events take place in communities all across the island, in venues from fire department halls to churches to schools to the Gaelic College at Saint Ann’s to the historic Fortress Louisbourg. This year, the concerts will begin at the Civic Centre in Port Hawkesbury near the southern tip of Cape Breton. Longtime musical friends from Scotland Aly Bain on fiddle and Phil Cunningham on keyboards and accordion top the bill, and are known as much for their dry wit as for their top class music. From Sweden comes the group Vasen, and from Cape Breton itself, powerhouse fiddle players -- and cousins -- Wendy MacIsaac and Ashley MacIsaac, who usually forge separate careers but are joining up for this gig. Two generations of The Campbell Family, who come from the Isle of Skye in Scotland, will join in with Gaelic song. The Festival's two artists in residence for the year, dancers Nic Gareiss from the United States and Mac Morin from Cape Breton, will be there too. Nuallan will add pipes to the mix, while Sabra MacGillivray and Celtic Touch Dancers will join in as well.




All that is just the first concert on the opening night of the festivities.

Just being present with all the world class musicians scheduled to perform is an education in music and culture. As the festival’s time unfolds, though, there are other sorts of learning experiences on tap across the island. There are fiddle workshops for those who are learning from scratch, as the classes are billed, and levels for advanced beginners and all the way up to advanced players. Not interested in taking a music workshop? You could join a jam session or a Gaelic song circle, or come along as world renown Cape Breton Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond joins musicians from across traditions to explore songs of work and emigration at Cape Breton University's Singing Storytellers Conference.  You could take a ranger led walk in the Cape Breton Highlands one day, and cruise the waters to watch for whales on another. You could learn about how to make fiddles from a professional luthier and how to forge iron from a blacksmith, how to make baskets and hook rugs and cook traditional dishes, too.



About those traditional dishes: at Celtic Colours, communities across the island host meals. The welcome is always warm, the food is great, the prices reasonable, and it’s a fine way to meet Cape Bretoners and others who’ve come to the festival. What might you have to eat? You could have oatcakes, eggs, and ham at a traditional Celtic breakfast, or enjoy tea, coffee and treats as community members share stories. You might choose a dinner featuring fish cakes and beans, or lobster, or fish chowder, or ham and scalloped potatoes, or roast beef and vegetables, or turkey and all the trimmings. After you’ve enjoyed a few of those meals, you might perhaps want to go to a square dance or take in a step dancing class...

The music, though, is at the heart of Celtic Colours. In communities from L’Ardoise in the south to Bay Saint Lawrence and Cheticamp in the north, from Glace Bay and Sydney Mines in the east to Inverness, Mabou, and Judique in the west, and Saint Ann’s, Baddeck, and Iona in the midst, you will hear collaboration and connection of family and friends through music. This will include dancer Nic Gareiss and harpist Maeve Gilchrist from the US and Scotland joining up with The Chiasson Family from Price Edward Island and La Swing du Suete from Cape Breton for an evening of dance in Cheticamp. On another evening, over at Louisbourg, Canadian singer and songwriter Laura Smith and guitarist Tony McManus from Scotland, who’ve been collaborating on Smith’s latest work, share the stage with the brothers of We Banjo 3 from Ireland and Cape Breton’s own long time friends Carl Mackenzie, Doug MacPhee, and Dave MacIsaac. Their will be concerts focusing on Cape Breton piano tradition, guitars from across Celtic traditions, on Acadian and Cajun music, on ballads, pipes, and on fiddle tunes. In the Chapel at Fortress Louisbourg, The Campbells of Greepe will offer Gaelic song, and share the stage with Acadien singer and songwriter Ronald Bourgeois and up and coming Cape Bretoners Douglas Cameron and Maxim Cormier; on another night at a church in Sydney River, former Celtic Colours artist in residence Kimberley Fraser will share music with top class fiddle and cello duo Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, Haas will join in with her sister Brittany and Darol Anger and Kimberley Fraser on fiddle to make up a quartet, and Smith and McManus will add song and guitar to the night.



One of the events of this year’s festival is a birthday tribute to legendary Cape Breton fiddle player Buddy MacMaster. He would have turned ninety during the festival week. The tribute, set for his hometown of Judique, will include  musicians from Scotland, the US, and all over Cape Breton gathering to honor Buddy, who passed on this summer.

In another event planned long before Buddy’s passing, his niece Natalie MacMaster will host the closing concert Together Again: Natalie’s Reunion. Natalie is a legend in her own right, taking Cape Breton music across the world. On this night she will bring it home for a concert in Sydney, featuring musical friends Sharon Shannon from Ireland, Tim Edey from Scotland, JP Cormier and the band Beolach from Cape Breton. The friendship and Celtic Colours connections run long and deep among these top class musicians. It is sure to be an evening true to the spirit of Celtic Colours, and a fitting close to the family and friends main stage events for 2014.



Though there’s been no announcement at this writing, in past years several concerts from Celtic Colours have been streamed live on line. The Celtic Colours website is the place to look for information about this, as well as to find out about tickets, schedules, and related information:




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

Find more of Kerry's work in Journey to Scotland, National Geographic Traveler, Ireland and the Americas, Perceptive Travel, and other places online and in print, as well as at her site Music Road.

Feature photo: Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. In the foregound, the Freshwater Lake. Behind it on the left, the South Bay Ingonish opens up to the Atlantic Ocean beyond the visible Cape Smokey. On the right is partially visible the town of Ingonish Beach. Wikimedia Commons: Tango7174