With the tickets for the Cape Breton’s 2013 Celtic Colours going on sale in the last week of July, Seán Laffey casts an eye back to the 2012 festival: 50 Years of Celtic Tradition on the Menu!
I am sick of TV food programmes. I have had enough of slot-filling competitions where some washed up comedian fails miserably to bake a tray of cakes, who gives a fig roll? Next time I hear a chef say “I’ve a passion for food” I’m going to scream back “get a life!”
So I will apologise right now to anyone who is reading this and is in a like mind. Food is what you do between the tunes and if you need more than bacon and cabbage to get through a day well you better not live in Ireland.
So here goes.
No ordinary soup, Martha Washington’s Cucumber soup. For me that was one of the many highlights of the 2012 Celtic Colours festival. Let me explain, it wasn’t the taste or texture, it was smooth soup, delicious, surprisingly flavoursome (I mean it was made from the blandest of cucurbits), but like everything else it is context that counts.
The soup was the interlude in an afternoon of folk music and local stories at the Cossitt Museum at 75 Charlotte Street Sydney Cape Breton. The Museum is an original 18th century clapboard villa, that is kept at authentic as possible. We took the soup early because the light was fading and to get the second half of the performances in we needed daylight. Now the music from Philip Williams wasn’t that “period” the shanty singer had a steel stringed guitar and had picked up his repertoire of Maritimes’ maritime music from Newfie folk rockers Great Big Sea. The story teller, Ken Chisholm had a penchant for ghost stories, began with tales of Captain Kidd but veered away from the 18th century to accounts of ships blown up by U boats during the second world war and spooky premonitions of loved ones lost at sea.
We did have a story about a makeshift gallows, built from the lumber destined for the parson’s house. Once the convicts had been swung the vicar got the timber back. It is said that today the playgrounds in Sydney are built on the sites of the young colony’s gibbets. The story tellers finished with “Some say the house across the street” he pointed to the yellow timber building two doors below us, “they say the roof beams were refurbished from the scaffold that hung the Flahavan murders.”
Creepy and good fun. It was all part of the 2012 Celtic Colours out reach programme. This takes music and culture to communities across the expanse of the island of Cape Breton. For context its about the size of Luxembourg with population of maybe 120,000.
Back in August, Joella Foulds, Janet Confiant and Dave Mahalick, the good folks at Celtic Colours, invited me over for 16th edition of the festival. My trip was made possible by a generous grant from Enterprise Cape Breton, and just like the musicians I was treated very well, flights on Air Canada, car rental from Budget Halifax and a lovely hotel, the Silver Dart, overlooking Bras D’Or lake.
Before I went I made a list. I had a plan, the festival even had a helpful online organiser to whet my appetite. This was my third visit to Celtic Colours. I thought I was a veteran and I would be able to take it all in. I wanted to catch the big names and see some grass roots events, visit smaller venues and chat to the locals. And that is what got me to the soup tasting in Sydney.
Lads like Dan MacDonald. I met him as he was helping out with stage rigging at the St. Peter’s Lion’s Club. Within minutes he was telling me about the Mac Masters. The Beatons, The Mac Isaacs and the Chisholms. He introduced me to Ashely MacIaac’s mother who was serving sweet potato pie at the nearby Thanksgiving dinner. He knew the names of three generations of players, whose kids play for square dances, who was on at the Ceilidh in the Fire Hall on a Friday. He was proud of what has been kept of the old music and what has been achieved with the new generations of musicians.
Joella Foulds and her team maintain the passion to make the festival work year on year, and the sponsors and the audiences pulled from all over North America and beyond (I met people from Australia, Japan, Europe and Cuba) they provide the dollars to keep the quality of players consistently world class. As proof here are a few of their artists you might and ought to know: The Alan Kelly Gang, The Once, Spragg Session, Madison Violet, JP Cormier, John Doyle, Gerry O’Connor and Orialla, The Outside Track…they all played Celtic Colours 2012.
It is a great place too for spotting emerging talent, Google for fiddler Rachel Davis, Newfoundland’s The Dardenelles, Cape Breton’s Chrissie Crowley , young guitar wizard Maxim Cormier and a wonderful song writer and lobster fisherman Jason MacDonald. There’s the catch. Cape Breton has a living Celtic Culture. Fiddling in particular is strong, handed down as a family heirloom, passed amongst friends and between neighbours.
In the Baddeck Fire Hall on the Friday night I was lucky to hear Maybelle Chisholm McQueen, a pioneer and saviour of Cape Breton Piano. One sound engineer told me “there are 86 keys on a piano and she plays all 100 of them”. The music is predominantly Scottish, but every fiddler I saw could turn out an Irish tune and many sets finished with an obligatory Irish reel. Even in the far west of the island, on the rugged coast of the Gulf of St Lawrence, where the original French culture and language is still cherished, in the Mi-Caréme museum, you can hear snatches of tunes we’d know at home
My final Saturday in Sydney, was a day of contrasts. I began in the Cossitt Museum as you read in the opening paragraph. It was low tech and charming, with an audience less than fifteen, all the room could hold, an intimate afternoon. As the day turned to dusk, candles were lit to give us a true sense of life in the young colony over 200 years ago.
Two hours later and welcome to the 21st Century at Sydney’s Centre 200, home to the Screaming Eagles Ice hockey team. The arena was filled with at least 4000 people. A huge screen above the stage made sure everyone could follow fingers on fret boards and flying feet on the floor. With a six camera crew in place and live streaming Celtic Colours was determined to reach out to a huge Diaspora.
Vancouver’s Daniel Lapp kicked off the show, he is one of the most innovative electric folk fiddlers you are likely to see. Local girls Maryjane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac had a ball with their puirt a beul, whilst Cathy Porter on dumbeck and Seph Peters on guitar kept it driving forward as the girls revelled in accordion and fiddle tunes and step dancing. Alyth McCormack singing in her native Gaelic and sporting at three dress changes added an elegant theatricality to the show. The Battlefield Band was made to feel instantly at home as soon as Mike Katz raised the highland pipes for a set of jigs.
The Chieftains, now in their fiftieth year were on their third visit to the festival, the band for the night was Paddy Moloney, Kevin Conneff and Matt Molloy with Nathan Pilatzke taking over Sean Keane’s duties on the fiddle. Tríona Marshall on harp fills the space left by the Derek Bell. They were augmented by Ryan MacNeil from the Barra MacNeils on piano, bluegrass fiddler and mandolinist Deanie Richardson and guitarist/singer Jeff White, handy folks to help out with Wabash Cannonball and Cotton Eyed Joe. Paddy now 74 shows no sign of slowing down and his playing was crisp and exact and his on bi-lingual banter fast and funny.
The concert built to a huge climax when Chieftains were joined by the local pipe band for a set of Galician tunes pulled from their Santiago album. As an encore, Jon Pilatzke with his Ottawa valley dancing and New York’s Cara Butler led the Diaga Irish Dances straight across the stage and into the auditorium to collect more bodies from the audience for the longest Andro Cape Breton has probably seen since Choiseul gave up Louisbourg in 1763.
The strap line on the Celtic Colours poster asked us to See It All… not possible, even if you have a list. Next time I’ll make a plan to catch the music in: Judique, Iona, Mabou,. Aspy Bay, Glace Bay, Port Hawkesbury, Cheticamp, Ingonish...
Or I could just stick a pin in the map when I get there. During the festival the island is a soup of Celtic and Folk music. There will be a Nordic flavour on the menu in 2013, bring it on and tuck in!
Photo Credits: (1) Celtic Colours Logo (from website); (2) Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, (3) Daniel Lapp, (4) Mike Katz, (5) Paddy Moloney (by Seán Laffey).