Up on the north eastern coast of Canada, facing Scotland across Atlantic waters, is Cape Breton Island. Land and sea, forest and mountains, coal mining and working the waters, the winds of politics, economy, and dreams that bring immigrants to its shores: all have shaped the life and culture of Cape Breton. Each year, as autumn turns leaves to blaze and thoughts in Canada turn to the Thanksgiving holiday, islanders invite the world home to a a unique festival of music, community events, and celebration of culture. This is Celtic Colours.
This year, the theme of the festival is family and friends. All across Cape Breton, in concert venues large and small, as well as at lobster and roast beef and ham suppers, talks, walks, visual arts presentations, workshops, ceilidhs, and late night music sessions, the life of the Celtic heart of North America, as Cape Breton is known, unfolds in song, story, and connection.
That connection is present from the opening concert in Port Hawkesbury, which features longtime musical friends fiddler Aly Bain and piano and accordion player Phil Cunningham, from Scotland, along with fiery fiddle playing from cousins Ashley MacIsaac and Wendy MacIsaac from Cape Breton (they both play piano as well, so that may show up too), The Campbell Family of singers from Skye in Scotland, and Nic Gareiss from the United States and Mac Morin from Cape Breton, who are both gifted dancers in creative Celtic style — dancing probably not quite like what you’ve ever seen before. The two dancers are this year’s artists in residence at Celtic Colours.
Celtic Colours concerts are ambassador style; that is, there are usually four or five acts on an evening’s bill. Each will do a set of three or four pieces on their own, and then everybody joins in for a finale. This allows for old friends to play together and new friendships and unexpected collaborations to emerge. Friends for a Lifetime, Such Devoted Sisters, Ties That Bind, Gigging with the Galway Girl, Music of the Night/Musique de Nuit, A Taste of Friendship, Celtic to Creole, A Touch of Irish — these names suggest the range of concerts and collaborations that will take place.
Cape Breton’s own strong musical community will be well represented, as will its musical ties with other lands. The tribute concert Bards of the World, a project done in collaboration with Cape Breton University, will include singers from Africa, Ukraine, Ireland, and Cape Breton. Mary Ann Kennedy from Scotland will team up with dancer Nic Gareiss from Michigan to show how mouth music — a way that music and rhythm for dance was carried on in Scotland when there were no instruments available — works with Celtic dance today. The Galway Girl of the concert title above, multi instrumentalist Sharon Shannon from Ireland, will share a bill with the high energy Quebecois trio De Temps Antan. Festival favorites Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, longtime collaborators on fiddle and cello, will bring their respect for tradition and their creative new tunes to the festival. Swedish group Vasen will make a return appearance as well, and in addition to her work with Alasdair Fraser, Natalie Haas will join up in concert with her sister Brittany, who plays fiddle. Tony McManus, Scotsman longtime resident in Canada, is also a collaborator with Fraser, and songstress Laura Smith, with whom McManus has also worked, will be making her first visit to Celtic Colours. Ace guitarist and concertina player Tim Edey will return from his home in Scotland, and Cape Breton favorites Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond, fiddlers J.P. Cormier and Kimberley Fraser, and choral group Men of the Deeps will bring their music to many collaborations.
“Come on over for dinner!” is an invitation you often hear among friends and family, and so it is during Celtic Colours as well. The people of many island communities offer community meals — breakfast and lunch at times as well as dinner — which are a fine way to enjoy the warmth of the welcoming spirit that they share. You might have music with your lunch at one location, or choose to enjoy a traditional fish cakes and beans supper with in a few minutes walk or drive of an evening concert at another. Traditional Thanksgiving fare is on offer at several meals as well, and the Holy Ghost Ukrainian Church brings in an evening meal with specialties of their community. Seafood, from salmon to fish chowder to lobster is a presence on Cape Breton tables, and one people at firehouses, community halls, and elementary schools are happy to share. The prices of most of the meals is reasonable, the food tasty and filling, and the welcoming smiles genuine. If you really want to splash out, a Thanksgiving dinner at historic Fort Louisbourg as well as a night filled with music there are among the more high ticket items you can explore. The Celtic Colours website links each concert event to what’s nearby, and each meal listing includes notes on how long it will take you to get to nearby concerts.
There are art exhibits to enjoy during the daytime, workshops on handcrafts and Gaelic singing, a blacksmith you can drop in on, quilting to explore, arts markets and farmers markets going on as well. There is also the gorgeous scenery of Cape Breton autumn to take in.
All these things welcome you to Cape Breton during Celtic Colours. It is the music that remains at the heart of it all, however. You might bring your own instrument to an open Celtic jam; you will likely go — and if you go once, go again — to the after hours festival club, where after the main shows of the evening close down, music goes on until the early hours . You may travel across the island from concerti hall to church to pub to community center to hear stories and songs.
Most likely, all through the concerts and other events, you’ll hear the name and the music of Buddy MacMaster. A defining and well loved figure in Cape Breton music, fiddle player MacMaster was to have celebrated his ninetieth Birthday during this Celtic Colours. He passed on in the summer, though, so Buddy’s Birthday Bash, to be held in his longtime hometown of Judique, will be a tribute to his life and music.
Only fitting then, too, that in an event planned long before, Buddy’s niece Natalie MacMaster, herself an ambassador of Cape Breton music whose fiddle playing is known across the world, will bring her fiddle to headline the closing night of the festival. In a concert called Natalie’s Reunion, held in Sydney, she’ll join up with Sharon Shannon, whom she first met at the very first Celtic Colours eighteen years ago, as well as guitarist Tim Edey, Cape Breton favorites Beolach, and others, all celebrating what is the heart and soul of the Celtic heart of North America: the music of Cape Breton.
Won’t make it to Atlantic Canada this October? There has been no announcement at this writing, but in past several of the concerts at Celtic Colours have been streamed live online. Celtic Colours web site is that place to keep an eye out for information on this.
Photographs of Cape Breton autumn and of Alasdair Fraser, Tony McManus, and Natalie Haas are by Kerry Dexter
Kerry Dexter is one of six writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including such things as an evening in Belfast and Julie Fowlis singing of her home in Scotland’s Western Isles
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