Cape Breton is an island in northern Nova Scotia, at the far north of Atlantic Canada. It is a place where forest meets sea, where mining and fishing helped define life, and where music has, for centuries, been shared around the kitchen table as often as it has been played and sung in the pub, in church, and on the concert stage. Not for nothing is the province named Nova Scotia, or New Scotland: that is the home place of many who settled there, and today you are as likely to find a MacGillvray or a Chisholm from Cape Breton as you are one from Scotland.
The music has maintained ancestral ties, as well, while at the same time rising to meet the challenges of a new land. There is music in the air always on Cape Breton. That’s especially true for two weeks in mid October, when the islanders invite the world to come celebrate their culture and their music during the Celtic Colours International Festival.
This year, the theme of the festival is the idea of home. The opening concert is called Home is Where the Heart Is, to be held in in Port Hawkesbury, and the closing concert, Songs From Home, is in Sydney. Those are large concerts in large halls. Music of home will also be played out in more intimate fashion as forty three other concerts take place across the island through nine days, in venues ranging from an eighteenth century restored French chapel to a modern school auditorium to a fire hall to a small community center, in towns and cities including Albert Bridge, Baddeck, Big Pond, Boisdale, Boularderie, Cheticamp, Christmas Island, D’Escousse, Glace Bay, Iona, Judique, Louisbourg, Mabou, Main-a-Dieu, Membertou, North River, Orangedale, St. Ann’s, St. Peter’s, Terre Noire, Wagmatcook, and Whycocomagh.
Each of these concerts is a collaborative venture, with, usually, three or four artists and bands performing several songs each, and then joining in for a finale. Visitors and island residents alike can choose to see local favorites such as Andrea Beaton and JP Cormier, Irish artists including guitarist John Doyle and flute player and singer Nuala Kennedy, world renown fiddler and Cape Breton native Natalie MacMaster, singer Bruce Guthro, also a CB native, who is part of the top Scottish folk rock band Runrig, and this year’s composers in residence fiddler Chris Stout and harper Catriona McKay. from Scotland. Dozens of musicians are involved, with a range of concerts to choose from each evening, as well as after hours sets lasting far into the night at the festival club, held on the campus of the Gaelic College at St. Ann’s.
Cape Breton is one of a very few places outside the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles where Scottish Gaelic is a living language, so Gaelic is always part of the festival. Newly written songs in Gaelic, done in collaboration with local artists and as well as with musicians from Scotland and Ireland will be part of the program. There are other things going on besides concerts, too. In addition to playing their music, artists will give talks and workshops. There will art exhibits and guided walks to explore the island’s natural beauty and its history. There will also be community dinners where island residents welcome visitors to share island foods and island fellowship.
The fellowship, the creativity, and the welcoming spirit carry through all the activities at the festival, which this year tuns from 8 through 16 October. To find out more, visit www.celtic-colours.com.
photograph copyright Kerry Dexter, from a Celtic Colours concert in Big Pond, Cape Breton