Communites Unite: Boston Celtic Music Festival

Shannon Heaton and Laura Cortese were walking through Davis Square, In Somerville, Massachusetts. They passed by The Burren, a pub known for great Irish music sessions and performances. That sparked a conversation. “I said, you know, I’m an Irish flute player and you’re a Scottish fiddle player, and yet we never play at the same sessions or do anything together musically, though our music is so similar,” Heaton recalls. “I think we just started talking about that, and saying wouldn’t it be great if we could all get together and play — and I said, that’ll never happen, because we’re all so busy! Then we started thinking, what if we had a big party and from that, what if we had a big weekend, and from that, what if we had some concerts, and then what if we had a festival? And here we are, ten years later!”

Where they are is heading into the tenth year of the Boston Celtic Music Festival, a celebration in January (this year it takes place on 11 and 12 January) which sees musicians and festival goers from the Irish, Scottish Cape Breton, and Americana musical communities of New England sharing music and dance in venues around Harvard Square in Cambridge.

“Community oriented and grassroots, that’s a phrase that’s often used to describe the festival, and I think that’s true. The festival is meant to reflect as much of the community as possible, to show the wealth of experiences with music people have in this community,” says Sean Smith a musician who has played at the festival and since the early years has been a member of the committee that guides the behind the scenes work it takes to put on such an event.

This year the festival will begin on Friday evening with a concert featuring new tunes from several of the area’s rising Celtic musicians, including Katie McNally and Eric McDonald, Bronwyn Keith Hynes, Molly Pinto Madigan, and Amanda Cavanaugh at historic Club Passim, and nearby at The Atrium, the Boston Urban Ceilidh, a high energy time of Celtic dance tunes from across the traditions. All dances are taught as the evening goes along, so everyone is welcome to join in.

During the BCMFest Dayfest on Saturday, there are opportunities to join in, to sit back and watch, and to bring your kids along to enjoy the music, too. The Bells will lead a time for family music, and Matt Heaton will host a sing along for kids. The Royal Scottish Dance Company will perform, there will be a singers in the round session, and Surf Sligo, a meeting of traditional Irish music with surf rock. There will be Cape Breton song and Scottish fiddle playing. Jam sessions and participatory dance sessions open to all will be part of Dayfest as well. “There will be events for small kids and older kids, and for adults of all ages. We’ll have dance and song you can join in, and performances by young musicians and older players,” Heaton says. As people move from the opening welcome to the festivities at Passim to the Boston Urban Ceilidh (and possibly at other times during the festival) “We’ll have parades,” Heaton says. “Last year, we had an epic parade, with a piper on stilts. We went out into Harvard Square, and the buskers there joined in with the piper. It was amazing!” and another indication of the building of community that BCMFest represents and encourages.

To cap off the festival, the Finale concert will take place, as has become a tradition, at historic First Parish Church. Throughout the festival, and at the closing concert, “this year will be a bit of a celebration of all the things we’ve done to date,” Shannon Heaton says. “The finale concert — I think it’ll be a really good mosaic of the Celtic music scene in Boston,” Sean Smith adds. “As it fell out, there are three very distinct elements — and each of them could be an evening’s concert in itself.” The will be Scottish dance, Cape Breton tunes, and a tribute to Larry Reynolds, a major figure in the keeping of Irish tradition alive in the Boston area.

“It has been humbling and inspiring to see how the community has gotten behind the project — for a decade, “ Shannon Heaton says. “I can’t wait to see where it goes next!”

Won’t be making it to Harvard Square this January? You may be able to see some of the events through Youtube or Facebook. BCMFest holds other events through the year, too, including the monthly concert Celtic Music Mondays which takes place at Club Passim. You may find out more about that, and other projects, at the BCMFest web site.

BCMFest Parade by Michael Passarini, courtesy of BCMFest
Sean Smith, courtesy of Sean Smith
Shannon Heaton by Kerry Dexter

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