Cultures Meet on Cape Breton at Celtic Colours Festival

On Cape Breton Island, in the far north of Atlantic Canada, music is part of the fabric of life, always. So, too, is warm welcome to all who visit.

Though Cape Breton is, you might say, off the beaten path, it has for centuries been a place where cultures met and greet and connect with each other, from First Nations tribes who came to the shore and forests to fish and hunt, to those seeking refuge from political and social turmoil in Scotland, Ireland, France, New England, and elsewhere. The island’s somewhat out of the way location is perhaps one of the reasons people from these diverse traditions have made community together.

autumn maple leaves fiddle cape breton

Scotland’s heritage and influence is strong on the island — it is one of the few places in the world outside the Highlands and islands of Scotland that you’ll find Scottish Gaelic widely spoken. You will find towns named Glencoe Mills, Iona, and Ben Eoin. You’ll also find places with names from First Nations, such as Eskasoni and Wycocomagh, and those which mark Acadian/French heritage, such as Grand Etang and Belle Cote. Heritage is strong, indeed, but all of Cape Breton life is shaped by the landscape of water, mountain, and forest, and the meeting of cultures across the years.

All of this is marked each autumn as Cape Breton invites the world to celebrate its culture and connections. Beginning in mid October around the weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving each year, the Celtic Colours International Festival offers a celebration of music, community, craft, art, dance, history, and landscape. Concerts and events take place all across the island in concert halls, churches, community centers, schools, and many other locations.

celtic colours cape breton logo 2017

There are a number of music and dance concerts each evening of the festival, and each concert is a mini festival in itself: three or more acts share the bill, each performing a set (and sometimes stepping in to support each other as the evening progresses, as well) and then all join up for a finale. Talents and backgrounds are mixed and matched to great effect in this way, delighting both audiences and artists with the results.

There’s more than evening concerts, too. During the day, there are workshops and talks, where you might brush up your Gaelic, learn a few steps of traditional dance, try your hand at or improve your fiddle playing, or take part in making a hooked rug. You could go to a farmers’ market, visit a craft sale, go whale watching, take a guided hike in the autumn tinged forest, carve up some pumpkins, and listen to featured musicians talk about their work.

To fuel all that up, there is plenty of offer to eat. Haddock, cod, lobster, and scallops from the island’s waters and chowder, too, are on the menu. There are traditional dishes including bannock and fricot, and fresh grown vegetables. There’s roast turkey with Thanksgiving trimmings and roast beef and veg, as well as beans and fishcakes and cornbread, hearty breakfasts, tea and talks and music, and community suppers. All across Cape Breton, community groups pitch in to offer hospitality and along the way raise funds for their year long projects. Taking in a community meal or joining another sort of event offer great ways to meet both visitors and the people of Cape Breton and make new friends.

This year, the festival marks its twenty first year, and runs from 6 through 14 October. A few highlights of what’s planned:

Alison Brown’s quiet demeanor on stage sets a backdrop for the powerful skill she has playing music on the banjo, music from bluegrass, jazz, and the varied strands of Celtic music, and creative combinations she composes drawn from intersections of these.

Hanneke Cassel’s fiery fiddle playing is grounded in the music of Scotland, with the touc of Americana influence at times. Her joyful personality and the dry wit she shares with bandmates Mike Block on cello and Keith Murphy on guitar also infuse the program — and have you ever seen a cello player dance while playing? Watch for that…

Sisters Dawn and Margie Beaton do not always have a lot of time to play music together these days — Margie is the marketing director at the Gaelic College of Saint Ann’s and Dawn is the artistic director of Celtic Colours — but when they take out their fiddles, it’s a concert well worth the hearing. Watch for them to put on their dancing shoes, too, as part of Fileanta, an eight person group of talented musicians whose aim is to showcase and carry forward traditional dance sets from many regions of the island.

Irish guitarist John Doyle by Kerry Dexter

Guitarist John Doyle, fiddler John McCusker, and flute player and piper Michael McGoldrick each have stellar solo careers and also work with top artists including Capercaille, Joan Baez, and Mark Knopfler. Together, the conversations they share through their instruments are inspired and inspiring.

Flute player and singer Nuala Kennedy brings her Irish heritage along with what she’s taken in during time spent in Scotland, the United Staes, and Spain to her solo projects. She also teams up with John Doyle and Eamon O’Leary to create music as The Alt.

Irieland musicians John Doyle eamon OLeary Nuala Kennedy

Heritage plays its part in the music of Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell, as well. Giddens first made her mark with the African American string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her solo career builds on her deep love and understanding for music of the American south and the musics which have influenced it.

 musicianrhiannon giddens at celtic connections by kerry dexter

Dirk Powell brings his Appalachian roots into connection with the Cajun and Creole sounds of his Louisiana family. Soulful singing, creative playing on a wide range of instruments, and the occasional dance step mark their powerful collaboration.

musician dirk powell at celtic connections by kerry dexter

Songs from Scratch is a project in which six top Canadian songwriters work together for a week leading up to a concert at Celtic Colours where they will share what they have created. Given the top level talent and varied backgrounds of Festival artist in residence James Keelaghan, Cape Breton native Bruce Guthro, Catherine MacLellan from Prince Edward Island, Ontario’s Lynn Miles, and JD Edwards and Cara Luft of The Small Glories from Manitoba, it is sure to be an intriguing and surprising evening.

There are many Cape Breton musicians who’ve taken their music all across they world. Others are best known in Canada, and there are some who prefer to play their music closer to home. Each of those who take part in Celtic Colours are top class, and well worth your knowing about and listening to, whether their names might seem familiar or not. Just a few of the fine Cape Bretoners to listen out for this year include Wendy MacIsaac, Fiona MacGillvray, Brent Aucoin, Kimberley Fraser, Maxim Cormier, and Patrick Gillis.

cape breton foddler wendy macisaac by kerry dexter

This is just a hint of all you might find on a visit to The Celtic Colours International Festival. While some shows and events are selling out already at this writing. there are many available, and always a range of daytime happening and meals that sell tickets on the door only. There are free and by donation events, too. The Celtic Colours web site is a good place to find out about all of this.

Won’t be making it to Cape Breton this year? Keep an eye on the festival’s website, anyway. In past years they’re received support to live stream one concert each evening, which is then kept up for nearly twenty four hours of viewing until the next evening’s program is getting ready. These are not archived nor do they announce until about an hour in advance each evening what will be that night’s program. It is a fine way to get a good feeling for the festival and for Cape Breton, though, and chances are, you’ll soon be planning a visit after watching.

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