Tuesday, January 01, 2013

BCMfest: celebrating community

It all started with a conversation between two friends as they walked through Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. Ten years on, the Boston Celtic Music Festival, which kicks off on 11 January, is one of the most creative and community minded festivals in New England.

“We were walking by The Burren, which is known for its great Irish music sessions,’ Shannon Heaton recalls. She and her friend Laura Cortese got to talking about how though their musics shared many traditions and values -- Heaton is an Irish flute player and Cortese a Scottish style fiddle player, both them internationally renown touring musicians -- they never ended up at the same sessions. They started to think about all the people they knew in common from Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton traditions. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could all get together and play?” Heaton recalls, “and I said that’ll never happen, we’re all so busy,” but the friends talked on. “We thought what if we throw a big party? and from that, what if we have a big weekend? then,what if we have a bunch of concerts? and then -- what if we make it a festival?” Heaton says.

“We weren’t thinking about long term outcomes back then,” she says, “ but what we did d think about, quite a lot, was the situation in Boston, and in other communities, where you have all these incredible traditional musicians, you have Irish, Scottish and Cape Breton players --, and we never meet or see each other. Yet our music, our communities, are so related we share so many values and experiences. So we had this idea, what if we could throw this big weekend party -- it could forge new connections. That was the big picture for us when we started the festival.”

It is a vision that’s worked. This year musicians from the traditions of Cape Breton, Ireland, and Scotland will share stages and projects and audiences, beginning with an opening night concert featuring compositions from three rising stars of Celtic tradition at historic Club Passim. That will be followed by what’s become a BCMfest tradition, the Boston Urban Ceilidh. “The Boston Urban Ceilidh is just so much fun. It’s probably the most participatory of all the festival’s events,” says Sean Smith, who has been a member of the festival steering committee since its second year, and played the festival as a artist. “You’ve got hundreds of people coming out to dance, not all of them necessarily experienced in Cape Breton dance or Scottish ceilidh or Irish set dance, you’ve got terrific music -- Laura Cortese and her Boston Urban Ceilidh Band have a rock and roll quality -- and Hanneke Cassel is often the caller, she has a unique way of directing people through their paces,” Smith says, laughing. There might be a parade between the concert and the ceilidh too. “Last year we had an epic parade,” Heaton recalls. “We had a piper on stilts. We went out into Harvard Square, and the busking percussionists on Harvard Square...the guys out there banging on drums, African drumming, they just joined in. It was incredible, it was impromptu, it was great.”

There will be plenty of chances for joining in through dance and song -- and maybe other parades as well -- during Dayfest events on Saturday. These will run all day at Club Passim and at First Church, and will include quiet acoustic interludes from musicians from the Celtic traditions, a sing along for kids, song circles where you can share songs or listen in, and jam sessions where you can play or listen, too and time to learn and watch dances. There will be a tribute to Fairport Convention, a concert by the guitar based group The Dead String Ensemble, a concert of Cape Breton songs and one of traditional and contemporary Scottish fiddle tunes, an hour that sees a mash up of Celtic music and surf rock, and a Cape Breton kitchen ceilidh. “There’s so much going on, I have to keep moving from place to place,” Smith says. “ Some of these performers I’ve seen before and others I’m not that familiar with, so I like to go around from stage to stage and build up all these impressions of what’s happening.”.

“This year is going to be a little bit of a celebration of all the things that we’ve done to date,” Heaton says, “so we’re going to have a lot of participatory elements --dance and music. We’ll have family events. Brendan Tonra, great fiddler in Boston, an older player and well known composer, has a new children’s book based on a tune he wrote, my husband Matt Heaton will be leading a sing along for kids, so we’ll have something for little kids, and participatory stuff for people of all ages throughout the day. We’ll have some of of our funny, fringey elements, there’ll be a tribute and usually a cover song slot -- and we will have parades!”

“The finale concert is always a big wind up,” Smith says of the concert which takes place Saturday evening at First Parish on Harvard Square. This year it will feature sections focusing the music of Cape Breton, Ireland, and Scotland, each of the three musical communities which have formed the core of BCMfest. “Each of them could serve as a concert unto itself,” Smith says.

It will make a fitting conclusion to a festival that’s all about celebrating the Celtic music communities of Boston and continuing to create connections among them. This year Shannon Heaton doesn't plan to be on stage. “I am going to be in attendance, just enjoying and watching the whole thing,” she says. “It cheers me to think that a collaborative, participatory, community minded festival like BCMfest has garnered so much support over the last ten years. I think it’s a real reflection of the type of music that I love so much, traditional music, and the values that are inherent in traditional music communities. This was meant to be a party for all of us,” she says, “and now we’re all throwing the party together.”

You may find out more about tickets and schedules for the Boston Celtic Music Festival at the BCMfest web site.
During the year, BCMfest also sponsors Celtic Music Mondays each month at Club Passim and participates in other activities. There’s information about those on the web site too. You may also want to check out the web site of Concert Window, where you may be able to see some of the events at Club Passim live.
photographs of Shannon Heaton and Maeve Gilchrist, and BCM Fest Parade by Michael Passarini, courtesy of BCMfest

You may also wish to see
Another Fine Winter's Night: Matt & Shannon Heaton
The Boston Celtic Music Festival: a look back

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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