Cape Breton is a land where forest meets sea meets mountain. In autumn of Atlantic Canada, these landscapes are illuminated by light along the shore, blazing colors in the forests, by life and celebration in the communities across the island.
There is always music on Cape Breton: it is woven into the fabric of life. Fiddle, piano, and song are the main instruments and connection to English and Gaelic speaking heritage of Scotland is strong. There are other heritages, too: French speaking communities, the First Nations tribes, immigrants who came up from New England and over from Ireland, and in more recent times, other parts of the world. They have all brought their traditions along to share.
Landscape, community, tradition, and music: these go to make up the celebration that is the Celtic Colours International Festival. It always takes place around the time when Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada. In 2018, the festival will take place from the fifth through the thirteenth of October.
There are as many as six official concerts in a day, and formal concerts are not all that goes on. There are ceilidhs and sessions, where music is shared in informal ways. There are ways to learn how to play music, and talks and conversations where Cape Breton’s unique musical history is shared, and where visiting musicians share their stories.
It’s not just music: you might learn a traditional craft such as rug hooking from the Acadian tradition or basket making from First Nations artists. You could shop at a farmer’s market or at an art gallery, go whale watching or hike a forest trail. Many organizations step up to offer community meals, including such fare as fishcakes and beans, roast beef dinners, soups made from locally grown vegetables, lobsters caught just off the coast, and Thanksgiving dinner.
There is a full range of Cape Breton artists on the concert schedule. There are internationally known visitors from Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Scandinavia, and all across Canada as well. There are usually three to five acts on each concert schedule. Each does a set of its own, and they collaborate on a sure to be one of a kind finale.
Venues for the official concerts include church halls, community centers, purpose built concert halls, pubs, and historic buildings
Here are several highlights of the schedule for October 2018:
The opening concert in Port Hawkesbury is called Fiddles on Fire, justifiably so. Natalie MacMaster has taken Cape Breton music across the world with her fiddle. Marriage to fellow top class musician Donnell Leahy finds her based in Ontario now, but there’s always a special spark to her playing, and her wit, when she performs in her home territory.
Joining Natalie will be Blazin’ Fiddles, whose lineup draws on the range of Scotland’s fiddle traditions and whose high energy performances have brought these traditions around the world too. Festival artists in residence piper Allan MacDonald and guitarist Paul MacDonald will add their part, as will Gaelic singers Rona Lightfoot and Mairi MacInnes.
Gaelic singing will also be featured at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay. Scotland’s Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw, founders of the esteemed group Capercaillie, appear on this night as a duo. Karen is a singer in both Gaelic and English and Donald is a composer and keyboard player.
They’ll be joined in song by two other well renown Gaelic singers, Kathleen MacInnes and Cathy and MacPhee, as well as Cape Breton’s own Donnie Campell and Jinks O’Neill, known for song choices ranging from rock n roll to Cape Breton tradition.
There’s a strong First Nations presence at Celtic Connections this year, felt in both official concerts and though community events including lunch with the elders programs and artisan markets featuring Native crafts and food ways. In Wagamatcook the Mi’kmaw Singers will give the welcome to an evening which includes Metis fiddler Alex Kurstok and the award winning Cape Breton quartet Coig.
Orainn is an evening which will honor Gaelic tradition through both song and instrument. Mary Jane Lamond, known for her interpretations of Gaelic Nova Scotia music, will bring her gifts of song, piper Allan MacDonald will play, and they will all be joined by Ur: The Future of Our Past, which is comprised of selected students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.
Men of the Deeps – the deeps, in their case, being the mines of Cape Breton’s history — will headline a concert at Saint Joseph’s Parish in North Sydney. At the Inverary Resort in a concert called Celtic Pub, you’ll find fiddler Mairi Rankin of The Outside Track joining with cellist Eric Wright of The Fretless, the high energy tradition interpreters Socks in the Frying Pan bringing their music from Ireland, Irish sean nos dancer Edwina Guckian kicking up her steps, and the rising quartet Rum Ragged adding Newfoundland flavor to the night.
Renown Yorkshire singer and songwriter Kate Rusby will headline the closing concert, which will also feature Mary Jane Lamond, composer and accordionist Phil Cunningham from Scotland, and the Ontario/Maritime dancers of Change of Step.
This is, indeed, just a small taste of things. You could get an introduction of blacksmithing and hear some songs at the same time. You could learn traditional dance steps, and then dance them – on a ferry. You might go for a walk in the Cape Breton Highlands, or stay up all night at the ever popular Festival Club at the Gaelic College in Saint Ann’s.
There’s more, of course – as festival communications officer Dave Mahalik’s book title suggests, Celtic Colours can turn into Ten Nights Without Sleep.
That, of course, is not the point – not at all. Celtic Colours is about the sharing and celebrating of the many strands that weave into the life of this place, Cape Breton Island – a life whose varied traditions are especially joyously and deeply expressed and handed on through music.
Many of the headline events sell out, and some community events do as well. There are always community events and sessions and the Festival Club which are first come first served, though. Some of the talks, artist interviews, art exhibits, and farmers’ markets are free to attend, too.
Won’t be making it to Cape Breton this year? You can still join in. Keep your eye out on the Celtic Colours website: one concert is live streamed each evening. Which concert it will be is not announced in advance (it’s fun to study the schedule and see if you can predict which one it will be, though). The recording is left on line for nearly twenty four hours, until it’s almost time for the next one to begin. The people who shoot, direct, and produce these concerts know their stuff when it comes to presenting music, too. In the intervals of the broadcast, films about Cape Breton are shown.
Whether you go in person or watch online, you’ll soon come to appreciate that the Celtic Colours International Festival is one major reason for the well known saying
Cape Breton: your heart will never leave.
—> update: acts for the upcoming autumn will be announced in mid June
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