Autumn in Nova Scotia: brilliant gold, red, and brown foliage, crisp northern nights, the tang of salt sea in the air — and music. Nowhere does all this come together more readily than on Cape Breton in the far north of this part of Atlantic Canada for the nine days in October which comprise the Celtic Colours International Festival.
This year, as the festival marks its nineteenth year, artists and audience members will come from across Canada, the United States, Europe, and farther afield to celebrate the joy of making music and handing on the traditions that thrive in this part of the world. Ireland and Scotland and France are major sources of these traditions, mixed and stirred by the landscape, connections, history, and present day of Cape Breton.
Music is at the heart of Celtic Colours. This year, the music begins near the causeway which connects Cape Breton Island to the rest of Nova Scotia, at the Civic Centre in Port Hawkesbury, with a concert on the evening of 9 October featuring the eclectic Celtic music of harpist, singer, and composer Loreena McKennitt from Ontario (whose music you met here at Perceptive Travel when I told you of her trip to the Alhambra in Spain), the powerful fiddle playing of The String Sisters, whose members come from Shetland, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden, this year’s artists in residence fiddler Liz Doherty from Donegal in Ireland and singer Lucy MacNeil from Cape Breton, and world renown Cape Breton step dancer and choreographer Sabra MacGillivray. Nine days later in Sydney at Centre 200, the festival will come to a close with the high energy bluegrass of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, the equally fiery fiddle playing of J.P. Cormier, and the heartfelt Cape Breton music of family band The Barra MacNeils .
One of unique features of the Celtic Colours Festival is that each of the concerts — forty seven of them will take place across the nine days — is a collaborative effort. Three or more acts are on each bill, and each offers a set of their own work and then all join up for a finale that may see old friends getting together as well as artists who have just met at the festival creating exciting one off moments in music and dance.
McKennitt, who has built her musical career on exploring the travels and influences of the Celts across the world, is making her first visit to the festival, as are The String Sisters, old time fiddle legend Calvin Volrath from Alberta, the band Mec Lir from the Isle of Man, and Irish American trio Open the Door for Three. Plenty of festival favorites from across Canada and from across other Celtic lands will be returning this year, among them fiddle player and step dancer April Vertch from Ontario, Harald Haugaard and Helene Blum from Denmark, Gaelic singer and harp player Mary Ann Kennedy from Scotland, Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes from Scotland, high energy band We Banjo Three from Ireland, top Irish piper Paddy Keenan and innovative Scottish piper Fred Morrison, and respected harpist Laoise Kelly from Ireland. Donnell Leahy, whose fiddle playing and composing reflect both his Ontario and Cape Breton backgrounds, will be making a return visit to the festival as well.
The music of Cape Breton, based in the heritage of the Scottish Gaels who settled the island centuries ago and shaped by landscape, sea, and community of Atlantic Canada, is at the heart of its festival, with Cape Breton musicians both hosts and performers. This year, too, Cape Breton University and Celtic Colours will be partnering as hosts the the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention, a gathering which includes workshops, presentations, academic papers, and performances on fiddling, related instruments, and dance.
Musicians who have taken the music of Atlantic Canada to world stages as well as those who keep their music closer to home form the largest contingent of performers at the festival each year; this year well known and well loved faces will include keyboard player and step dancer Mac Morin, fiddle player, pianist, and step dancer KImberley Fraser, Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond, vocal group Men of the Deeps, fiddle players Wendy MacIsaac, Andrea Beaton, and Ashley MacIsaac, piano player Mary Lou Beaton, and family band The Barra MacNeils.
Festival artistic director Dawn Beaton gives a look at what to expect…
Cultures from across Cape Breton will be honored and celebrated in both music and community events. More than 250 community events including farmers markets, art exhibits, craft sales and demonstrations, nature walks, talks, whale watching, music sessions, music instruction, milling frolics, Gaelic language song and conversation, blacksmith demonstrations, square dances, and community meals are hosted by groups from all parts of the island. Those community meals are always a highlight for local people and visitors alike, offering the chance for community and companionship and getting to know each other across food including traditional fish cakes and beans, ham and roast beef dinners, lighthouse sandwiches, traditional Acadian fare, pea soup, apple crumble, the island’s wealth of seafood including lobster, mussels, crab, and cod, and the bounty of Canadian Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the trimmings.
A feeling of community and of welcome pervades Celtic Colours from the highest profile concert to the most informal storytelling session to the happily shared lobster supper to the ongoing music and conversation late in the night and early into the morning at the after hours Festival Club and Kitchen Rackets.
Tickets and schedule details are to be found at the Celtic Colours website — at this writing events are already selling out, but on the other hand there are always some community events which do not take reservations or offer advance tickets.
If you won’t be making to Cape Breton in October — or even if you will, with so much going on — you will want to keep an eye out at the festival’s site too for details of possible live streaming of some of the concerts.
Photographs of autumn landscapes and leaves courtesy of Heather Wilson Smith and Stuart Bennett. Photograph of Loreena McKennitt courtesy of the artist and Celtic Colours; photographs of Kimberley Fraser and Wendy MacIsaac and Mary Jane Lamond with Corrina Hewat by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.
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