Friday, September 29, 2017

Celtic Colours on Cape Breton

Cape Breton is a fascinating place to explore at any time of year. When autumn landscape, community welcome, and generous sharing of the strands of music which weave though life in this island in Atlantic Canada come together each October at the Celtic Colours International Festival, it’s really time to be on Cape Breton.

This year, 2017, the festival runs from 6 through 14 October as it marks its twenty first season of concerts, workshops, community meals, and cultural experiences all across the island. Visiting artists from Scotland, Ireland, the United States and many parts of Canada will inform the music this year. There’s a special emphasis on Canada’s artists this year as Celtic Colours joins in celebrations across Canada marking the150th anniversary of Confederation.

People were coming to this island in the far north of what would become known as Nova Scotia long before 150 years ago, however. They were making music then, too.

The fiddle is one of the most portable of instruments. When people were driven from their homes in the Highlands and Island of Scotland by landlords who thought livestock would bring better profit than farms, often there was little they could take along. The music and dances in their memories and in their hearts survived, and in many cases, so did their fiddles. Those memories and those fiddles became the basis of their music in the new world.

As much as that music and dance carried on the traditions of Scotland, new elements had their influences. Back in Scotland, music and dance continued to evolve, too. One place where all this comes together in the 21st century is at the Celtic Colours Festival.

The theme of Celtic Colours this year is Roots. It’s an idea which encompasses both the depth of connection and community which make up the island’s cultures and the need to nurture and connect and evolve what is now and what’s to come. This is all present in the music which anchors the festival, and is marked in varied ways in the sharing of arts, crafts, community meals, and other events.

A few things you may expect at Celtic Colours this year:

We Walk As One: the Grand Opening, is a concert which takes place in Sydney at Centre 2000, will feature artists from Scotland, Ireland, Nunavut, and from the Acadian and Scottish communities of Cape Breton. The trio of guitarist John Doyle, flute player and piper Michael McGoldrick, and fiddler John McCusker account for some of the Ireland and Scotland presence as they make their festival debut as a trio. Swing du Sutete brings dance from the Acadian tradition, while singer IVA from Nunavut makes her first appearance at the festival and Cape Breton group Coig returns. Fellow Cape Bretoner Heather Rankin, long known for work with her family band, makes her solo debut at the festival this night, while Cathy Ann McPhee and Patsy Seddon add in Scotland’s presence.

This sort of evening is a tradition at Celtic Colours: every concert -- and most nights there a half a dozen or so going on across the island -- includes several acts. Each plays a set and then they join for a finale. Each evening in this way serves as an ambassador for several sorts of music, and the connections among them.

Across the nine days of the festival, you will a fiddle summit, a gathering featuring First Nations artists, a performance which will take place in historic Fortress Louisbourg, and a tribute concert to John MacDougall, who composed 38,000 tunes. Most evenings offer performances from musicians of differing cultural stands, drawing on connections and contrasts so all may celebrate and learn.

Six songwriters from different parts of Canada will have been working for a week to write material for their concert Songs from Scratch. Gaelic song and Gaelic infused piping, fiddling, dance,and piano playing will fill Saint Matthew’s Church one afternoon in Inverness as Seudan, based in that other Inverness meet up with Cape Breton fiddlers Shelly Campbell and Andrea Beaton and others.

There might be a bluegrass and jazz tinge to things as Grammy winning banjo player and composer Alison Brown from the US joins top Cape Breton fiddle player Kimberley Fraser and Scotland’s Paul McKenna for the Cow Bay Ceilidh.
It’s sure to be an evening to remember when Boston based Scottish style fiddler and composer Hanneke Cassel and her band mates Mike Block on cello and guitarist Keith Murphy share the bill with dynamic African American roots based singer Rhiannon Giddens and Cajun/old time singer Dirk Powell -- and take note, Giddens and Powell are both ace banjo players, too. Ben Miller and Anita MacDonald will add Cape Breton pipe and fiddle tunes to the night as well.

The learning and sharing ad collaboration is not limited to each night’s featured concerts. There are workshops, master classes, and talks to do with music, of course, and you’d have many chances to take part as a players, dancer, or observer, in a ceilidh -- a party with music and dance. You’d have the chance to learn a few steps, too, or you could learn a bit of Gaelic, or perhaps how to hook a rug in the longstanding Acadian way, or try your hand at painting sea scene or learn about blacksmithing with a side of tunes and talk. You could go for a guided walk in the outdoors of Cape Breton autumn, take in art exhibits, create your won art as you try your hand a pumpkin carving, and visit farmer’s markets and craft shows.

If you are not quite ready to wind down after the main concerts each night, too, the always popular Festival Club at the Gaelic College at Saint Ann’s keeps things going until the small hours of the morning.

The people of Cape Breton are warm and welcoming, you’ll find, and very ready to talk and to listen as you participate in all these things. Another great time for Cape Breton conversation is over a meal. You’ll have good chance to do that: there are breakfasts, lunches, afternoon teas, and dinners a plenty. Seafood is a big deal on this island, and you will find ham, roast beef, turkey, Scottish and Acadian specialities, and plenty of veg and desserts on hand too. Groups across Cape Breton step up each year to prepare and host community meals.

The Grand Finale of the music concerts of this twenty first year of Celtic Colours will take place in Port Hawkesbury. Powerful singer and guitartist JP Cormier will bring in the Cape Breton presence. Imar, a high energy group formed of members from top Celtic nations bands, will likely blow the roof off the hall, but if they have not, then Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell are quite powerful enough to do that all on their own. This year’s festival artists in residence, songwriters Buddy MacDonald and James Keelaghan, will no doubt have surprises to share, as will top irish American group Cherish the Ladies, who have been thrilling audiences across the world with the thoughtful and lively sides of Irish music for more than three decades.

This is just a taste of what’s in store across the nine days of this year’s Celtic Colours Festival. Even if you’ll not make it to Cape Breton for Celtic Colours this year, explore the festival’s website to learn about this vibrant place where, as the festival’s artistic director Dawn Beaton says “Music is a powerful force that feeds the soul.” Keep an eye on the Celtic Colours website too to learn if, as has been the case in past years, some of the festival’s concerts will be live streamed online.

One other thing: as part of the living legacy of the festival and to honor this special anniversary in the story of Canada, Celtic Colours will partner with Strathlorne Nursery in Inverness and community partners across the island to plant a maple tree for every ticket sold. Last year there were around 22,000 tickets purchased, so the spring of 2018 should see a big season of maple planting across Cape Breton!

Photographs of Michael McGoldrick, Alison Brown, Hanneke Cassel, Dirk Powell, Rhiannon Giddens, and Joanie Madden (of Cherish the Ladies) made with permission of the artists, by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Canada’s music: Catherine MacLellan who will take part in the Songs from Scratch project
Celebrating Cape Breton’s Heritage and Connections though Music
Sounds of Cape Breton
Scottish Musicians Look at the Future of Our Past
Women of Ireland: Music
Reflections, Travel, Music: Music and its Power to Connect

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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