Canadian Stories in Song: Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Cape Breton

Canada: as much as it is a vast country in landscape, it is made up of regions, towns, cities, communities. Each of these places is home to people with conversation to offer and stories to tell. One way to learn about and appreciate these Canadian stories is through music.

autumn maple leaves fiddle cape breton

As Canada Day approaches, take time to learn about three groups of musicians whose work offers insights into varied aspects of Canadian community and landscape.

Pastelle LeBlance and Emmanuelle LeBlance come from Mont-Carmel on Prince Edward Island. Pascal Miousse is from the Magdalen Islands/ Îles de la Madeleine, a group of islands off the coast of PEI that are part of Quebec. Together, they join up to be the group Vishtèn. They all sing, and they each play several instruments. They love to explore the history of Acadian and Francophone music from their native areas, to give older pieces of music updated interpretations, and to write their own material drawing on traditional styles. They enjoy mixing in Celtic and other sorts of music with Acadian tradition, too, though always remaining true to the heart of the Francophone culture of PEI in Atlantic Canada.

vishten musique  acadian canadian pei

A good place to hear what this is all about is Vishtèn’s recording Horizons. It’s a mix of song and tune. You’ll hear excellent harmony from the three and fine lead singing. They will draw you in with their instruments, as well. Pastelle excels on piano and piano accordion and adds percussive dance steps. Emmanuelle is a percussive dancer too. When you’re not hearing her steps you may find her playing whistles, bodhran, octave mandolin, piano, or jaw harp. Pascal’s favored instruments are guitar, fiddle, and mandolin. A good bit of their music is lively stuff that will have likely have you clapping and singing along — whether you know French or not — or up on your feet dancing. The trio has a fine hand at quieter pieces of music, too. All of this illuminates an aspect of Canadian culture you may not have met before, but odds are you’ll enjoy the encounter. Listen out especially for J’aime vraiment ton accent, Les Clefs de la Prison, Bi Bi Box, and the title track, Horizons.

The city of Winnipeg, in the Canadian prairie province of Manitoba, is where the Red River and the Assiniboine meet. It also turned out to be the place where musicians Cara Luft and JD Edwards met. Finding that their voices and musical tastes went well together, they created the duo The Small Glories. For the prairie and small town based stories they chose for their second album together, they decided to honor the place and the meeting by naming it Assiniboine & The Red. They also chose to invite top Canadian tunesmiths — and one US poet– along to the writing of the songs. These collaborators include Ashley Condon, Lynn Miles, Bruce Guthro, Andrina Turenne, Glenn Bowie, and two artists you have met here before, James Keelaghan and Catherine MacLellan. This makes for richly textured musical ideas, stories which Luft and Edwards tell with spirit, intelligence, and understanding. along with now and then a flash of humor, fine vocals, and plenty of guitar from Edwards and banjo from Luft.

canadian musicians  small glories

The song called Sing, an audience favorite at the duo’s live gigs, is meant to “rouse us out of our complacency,” says Luft, “a song to challenge our era of divisiveness and complacency,” a protest song for these times, the pair agree. Other songs on the recording take up the theme of protest, albeit in differing and more subtle ways. Long Long Moon and Don’t Back Down both have ideas of loss and resilience woven in, and sense of place as well. So do the songs Oh My Love and Alberta. “Many of the songs were written around the theme of home –where we call home, where others call home– and the various stories and histories and landscapes of these specific locations,” Luft says, adding “We focused on Canadian places, we are Canadian after all!”

Scotland, New England, and Nova Scotia all play parts in the backgrounds of the four musicians who make up Fàrsan. They found common ground in the music of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. That’s a place whose own culture and history include connections to each of those other regions. Cape Breton is a natural place for the group to create, as they describe their work, Gaelic traditions in the New World. A fine place to learn how they are doing that is the band’s self titled debut album, Fàrsan. It is a gathering of tune and song, by turns lively and reflective, that shows each band member’s strengths and the ways they really listen to each other to create outstanding musical conversation.

farsan band cape breton gaelic canadian

Màiri Britton handles most of the lead vocals and you may hear her steps on one track too. Elias Alexander plays whistles and border pipes, and adds percussion and foot percussion and also sings — all four of them sing, in fact. Neil Pearlman plays piano and accordion and is a step dancer as well. Katie McNally’s instrument is the fiddle. Each of the four has other musical projects on the go, from Celtic fusion bands to teaching Gaelic to fiddle instruction to podcasting.

The depth of their interpretations on this recording suggests the wells of creativity from which they draw for those other projects. From the opening of a gentle lullabye from the island of Lewis to the rousing closing song with all joining in the singing of a song called, appropriately enough, Shout for Joy, it’s an engaging and thoughtful journey. Listen out especially for that lullabye, Tàladh a’ phuilein, which Màiri learned while living on Lewis and learning Gaelic as a teenager. The Water Boiling Machine set brings in two more Canadian musicians: Andrea Beaton composed the tune from which the set takes its title, and another tune in the set, called Francis Aucoin, is one Katie learned from Cape Breton fiddler and step dancer Wendy MacIsaac while they were both teaching at a fiddle camp. Oran na ròin/ Song of the Seal is a haunting piece based on a legend about the seals of the island of Heisgeir, which lies off North Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Each of the nine tracks is a keeper, well worth your repeated listening. Each will allow you to feel a bit more deeply the connections between Cape Breton and Scotland, and how those traditions are going onward.

The Acadian and Francophone communities of Prince Edward Island, the prairies of central Canada, the Gaelic culture of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia: each weaves a bright thread in the tapestry of Canadian life and history — and music. Take a listen to the music of Vishten, The Small Glories, and Fàrsan. Take several listens — and see them in performance if you can. You will come away with new perspectives.

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Photograph of Vishten courtesy of the artists. Photograph of The Small Glories by Marc J Chalifoux. Photograph of Fàrsan by Steve Rankin. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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