Cape Breton is a small island, far in the north of Atlantic Canada. Though it is rather out of the way — perhaps because it it is — it been a crossroads of culture across the centuries. It’s a place where First Nations people met up with French speaking Acadians, who met with New Englanders heading north, who met with people from Scotland, and later from Ireland, driven from their homelands by political and economic change. The Scottish tradition became the strongest. It is a culture and a tradition shaped by interaction with the lives and stories of those other settlers, and even more by the rugged landscape of the island, a place where mountain meets forest meets sea. One of the strongest ways this unique aspect of Celtic culture comes out — Cape Breton is, with justice, known as the Celtic heart of North America — is through Cape Breton music.
Though you will find music on Cape Breton at any time of year, and though you’ll find her sons and daughters sharing their unique blend of fiddle, piano, percussion, and song around the world through the year. autumn has become a special time for music on the island. Twenty years ago, Joella Foulds and Max MacDonald, themselves musicians, had a vision for a festival that would celebrate the music of the island, bring culture bearers from lands which influenced that music to share their work, and involve communities and people from across the island. A harebrained scheme, some said.
Twenty years on, Celtic Colours is not only one of the top festivals in Canada, it is one the the top Celtic festivals in the world. This year, Celtic Colours will be celebrating its birthday and welcoming visitors from 7 through 15 October. There will be more than forty concerts and well over two hundred community events including breakfasts, dinners, talks, art exhibits, farmers markets, workshops, and ceilidhs. Events will be held from the southern part of the island near the causeway which connects Cape Breton the the rest of Nova Scotia to far in the north above Cape Breton Highlands National Park. There will be concerts in the Acadian stronghold of Cheticamp, the Gaelic speaking area of Mabou, and the First Nations center of Eskasoni. Historic sites, fishing villages, university buildings, churches, schools, and community halls will host events.
Music is always the heart of the festival. Each evening there are five or six concerts, with things structured so that each concert is a mini festival in itself, with three or more artists who each perform sets on their own and then gather to finish the evening together.
There are always surprises and unexpected collaborations along the way. This year the music begins with Forever in Our Hearts, a concert honoring well loved Cape Breton musicians who’ve passed on.
Other musical highlights to consider include Inverness to Inverness, where musicians from the place in Scotland and its namesake in Cape Breton join up for an evening of Gaelic song; The Unusual Suspects of Celtic Colours, in which twenty eight musicians from Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton and other parts of the world gather as a folk orchestra directed by Corrina Hewat and Dave Milligan from Scotland; Way Up Down North with Irish guitarist and songwriter John Doyle, Cape Breton fiddler KImberley Fraser, dancer Nic Gareiss from Michigan, and others to renew old acquaintances and create new celebrations in the far north of the island.
At Music of the the Night/Musique de la Nuit musicians from Cape Breton and other traditions enhance a special evening at historic Fortress Louisbourg; and Two Fiddles, Two Pianos, Three Voices will find top class Cape Breton musicians Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy joining forces with top Newofundland trio The Once. The closing concert, A Toast to 20 More, will find Mary Jane Lamond, Ashley MacIsaac, JP Cormier, Tim Edey, Wendy MacIsaac and other performers who continue to take Cape Breton and other aspects of Celtic tradition forward celebrating in Sydney.
Those are a few of the scheduled concerts. There’s a late night festival club where music continues into the wee hours of the morning too During the day, you might find some of those festival artists teaching workshops or giving talks or going into local schools to meet with students. You could see art exhibits, learn how to hook a rug in the Acadian way, plant a tree, go for a nature walk, watch whales, try your hand (or feet) at step dancing, learn about Gaelic song, or join a park ranger for a session carving pumpkins.
You’ll not go hungry, either. In addition to the treats you might pick up at local farmers’ markets, you could have breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner hosted by people in communities across the island.
What might you eat? Lobster, for one thing, and all other manner of fish and shellfish caught in island waters. Fish cakes and beans are popular; so is chowder with home baked bread, and you’ll find ham and roast beef dinners as well as plenty of local vegetables as well. Canadian Thanksgiving falls during the festival so there will be turkey and all the trimmings on offer too, and even turkey pizza to celebrate the special day.
What you will also find, amidst all this activity and the number of things going on, is a truly warm welcome from the people of Cape Breton. There is also great deal of world class music, not to mention, if the weather is co operating, a very fine swath of autumn scenery as well.
In case you will not make it to Cape Breton, or even if you will, with all that goes on — you may want to know that in past years some concerts have been offered on live stream. Keep your eye of the Celtic Colours web site for information on this. That’s also where you may find out about tickets, artist schedules, and other information.
Photographs of musicians Kimberley Fraser and John Doyle (who both, in case you are wondering, play their instruments left handed) by Kerry Dexter. Autumn leaf photograph by Leeroy. Photograph of Natalie MacMaster by Corey Katz. Thank you for respecting copyright.
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