Celtic Singularity & Acadian Soul

(Roots Music Making it in the Mainstream) by Mary Ann Ducharme

Inverness County runs the length of the long western shore of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Its precipitous coastline braces the Gulf of St. Lawrence as it enters the North Atlantic, and the view is magnificent by land or by sea. But driving passion that sparks like musical electricity is exploding into the air waves, and packing concert halls. This is further proof, if anybody needed it, that there is more to Inverness County than scenery. There is the character of the Acadian and Celtic people, a quality of "soul" expressed in a traditional sound that has the whole music world paying attention.

Ten years ago what is happening now would have been dismissed as a pipe dream. For instance, a family from Mabou is making it internationally with a repertoire including songs in Gaelic, a language that is exceedingly lively for being considered "dead". Many of their songs are home-grown, part of the everyday life of people here. The Rankin Family embodies Cape Breton mysticism and a joyful defiance of the mainstream. Incredibly, they have become mainstream!

There were early signs that we would do this sort of thing, but right now is the apparent cusp of time and technology for extraordinary opportunities. The Rankins spring from the same soil as John Allan Cameron, among other greats, who first broke the barriers between traditional and mainstream music. The Rankins, and other top notch young stars like Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster, and Joel Chaisson are a part of a growing new jet set who find fellow Capers wherever they go. And there are other rapidly rising stars, like Wendy MacIsaac, Rodney MacDonald, Glen Graham and Rita and Mary Rankin who are well on their way. They did not just "pop up", nor did the other Cape Breton performers at the East Coast Music Awards. They are inheritors of music traditions that span generations.

Explaining Inverness County "soul" is difficult, but there are a few strong notes that contribute to the tune of life here. Past sufferings and exploitations are indelibly stamped on our psyche. If you ask a local historian about the Expulsion of the Acadians, or the Highland Clearances, you discover a powerful emotional linkage with those times. The language, church, and music of dislocated pioneers were their most prized belongings. The Thistle and the Fleur-de-Lys, Nova Scotia and Acadia, shared the same historic battle grounds and the hard times, at least economically, have never really ended in rural Cape Breton.

Clinging to roots, combined with geographical isolation that lasted well into this century, results in a relatively undiluted cultural heritage with interesting results. For instance, Scottish musicians come here to learn about the old-styles of stepdancing, fiddling, and bagpiping. Buddy MacMaster, one of the most popular Scottish fiddle players in Canada, conducts workshops across North America and Europe. Song collectors like Dr. Helen Creighton and Pere Anselm Chaisson have found lyrics preserved in the local culture through centuries. And in Cheticamp, a French speaking visitor hears a dialect of French more akin to that of the 17th century than what is now spoken either in France or in other parts of Canada.

Preservation of the old did not preclude new creation. Pioneer bards like Allan (The Ridge) MacDonald wrote songs about exile, and later about love for the place that became home. This tradition carried through to outstanding individuals like Dan R. MacDonald who is said to have written nearly 3,000 fiddle tunes. There are events that ¿music touristsî to Inverness County would not miss for the world. Our many community festivals have long been the musical cradles for virtually all Inverness County performers now in the limelight. Festivals are the places to see upbeat young players and the veteran tradition-bearers who are their mentors and sources of inspiration.

There are grandaddy festivals with a long history like the Broad Cove Concert. Most of the time Broad Cove is a quiet rural area with not much going on. However, there is a large field shaped almost like an amphitheatre and sound carries very well. In the week leading up to the big concert, every house in the area becomes full to the rafters with relatives traveling home. As the gate opens, those setting stage look on as the empty field is transformed by a sea of 10,000 people. Neighboring fields become crammed with acres of camper trailers, cars and tents. If John Allen Cameron is present, he will certainly sing "Lord of the Dance", a sort of national anthem for the Broad Cove concert. For six hours, the stage is never empty of dancers, singers, fiddle players and guitarists.

The Glendale Festival has a place of permanent importance in Inverness County musical history. On a scorching day in the summer of 1973, 130 fiddlers massed for a crowd of thousands, all intent on disproving a CBC television documentary called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler. It was then that learning to play the fiddle became a "fad" among the young people and the long, dry season of decline ended once and for all. Celtic and Acadian fiddle music share the drive that is almost like being possessed, and the impulse to dance cannot be denied. Ask a fiddler and he will explain distinctive differences between Scottish and Acadian: things like how grace notes are played, cuttings, and decorative touches. The strathspeys are uniquely Scottish, though.

For music with a hybrid Acadian/Scottish flavor, and for pure Acadian music par excellence, tourists would not want to miss the St. Joseph du Moine Fiddle Festival and the Festival de l°Escaouette in Cheticamp. Cheticantins go in for colorful costumes and pageantry, and Acadian flags wave in front of most of the houses, a sign of Acadian pride. The Cheticamp song tradition is particularly solid, with a wealth of local material and there is a fine school choir called L'Echo des Montagnes. Years ago songs from Cheticamp highlighted the singing career of Ronald Bourgeois who won at the Gala of Grandby in Quebec, and at a national competition by the Cultural Federation of French Canadians. Cheticantin Joel Chaisson is one of the latest young fiddlers to receive international attention, recently featured on Radio International's Folk Master series focusing on traditional music in the Americas.

Inverness County is a place of lively humor, vibrant with the rocking Celtic and Acadian rhythms that are setting the music world on its ear. Pass the message on to your friends and relatives from away: for roots and traditional music, you cannot find a better "Down East" place to be than Inverness County during the summer. This is a great place to explore Celtic singularity and the musical wellsprings of Acadian soul.