Music: Celtic Colours, Part One


How It’s New York: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada is on the same seaboard as New York, and although it’s a long drive, it’s a short flight. Many players from New York attend and perform at the Celtic Colours Festival every year. In fact, I sat behind old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky on the plane from Newark.
How It’s Irish: Celtic culture has lived on in Cape Breton for a long time, in part because of the isolation. It’s Scottish more than Irish (Irish is more in Newfoundland), but of course many of the tunes are the same, and some terrific Irish players are there each year. This year’s Irish contingent included John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy, Alan Kelly.

This was my first year as a press delegate to the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, but it will not be my last. It was inspiring, exhilerating and absolutely energizing, despite (or maybe because of?) driving hours through woods on the water every day, and staying up way too late watching performances at the Festival Club. This report was written for Irish Examiner USA while the week was going on. There will be more reports, reviews and pictures and video to come– and I’ll be pointing out the musicians when they come to town. For example: Battlefield Band are at DROM on Monday. Don’t miss!

A Celtic Smorgasbord In Nova Scotia

As I write this, I am in Baddeck (pronounced, BadDECK), Nova Scotia, on my second full day of the Celtic Colours Festival.
Lewis MacKinnon

This festival on Cape Breton island is a week long experience of music, workshops, dances, ceilidhs, Gaelic song and language, lectures and more, bringing together musicians from Cape Breton, Scotland, Ireland and the USA.
Nova Scotia, as the name suggests, has Scottish settlers at its heart, and the music here is a blend of Scottish style and American style that forms its own unique sound.

You’re likelier to hear “St. Ann’s Reel” and the four-part “High Road to Linton” than you are “Cliffs of Moher” and “Tulla Reel,” and fiddlers will use triplets over rolls, as they would in Northern Ireland.
Piano is big in accompaniament, and Scottish Gaelic is still spoken.

Last night at a concert Lewis MacKinnon, the first ever poet Laureate of Scotland who wasn’t born there, thanked the crowd in Scots Gaelic.
Alan Kelly,  the piano accordionist who leads the Alan Kelly Gang, was on stage, and shook his head in a deadpan “have no idea what he just said” way, then said “Go raibh míle maith agat” in Irish.
I don’t speak Irish but I’ve been to enough concerts to know what that one means! “A million thank-yous.”

Jessie Stubbert (right) and friend

Although it’s early days in the Festival, I already can’t wait to return and am kicking myself for having arranged to return on Friday instead of Saturday or Sunday. I understand why some of the press delegates I have met so far have been coming for six, seven, ten years.
Phil McIntyre, who emceed the concert I was at last night called “Tunes for the Mira,” was once just an audience member.
Now he runs a concert series in Maine, and is part of the Festival.
Before the concert at the Marion Bridge Recreation Centre began, Phil walked up and down the front rows, asking everyone where we’d come from.
When he was onstage, he asked all the locals to stand up – about half of the crowd of 250-300 people – then said they should shake the hands of everyone who’d come from out of town. “Now that the ice is broken, let’s have a party!” he said.
This niceness and super-openness just seems part of the scenery here. My mother and I had just come from dinner at the Mira Seniors and Pensioners Club – one of the features of the Festival are these “community meals,” prepared by local organizations.
It was like something that you might think was from the small-town past.
The seniors had cooked the food themselves, and seemed sincerely delighted to see us, and all of the others who had come to eat before going to the concert at the Rec Center a block or so away.
One of the seniors who was there was Jessie Stubbert, whose husband was related to Brenda Stubbert. (the famous fiddler, for whom Jerry Holland named his most well-known reel). There are names you hear again and again.

Nova Scotia is only a couple of hours away by plane, but it’s like a different world up here.

Me and Mom, Bras D’Or overlook

New Yorkers beaten down by the bustle and noise of the city will find themselves restored after less than a day by the clean air, the gorgeous scenery of water, golden and red leaves and hills, and the super-friendliness of the people.
The Festival takes place all over Cape Breton Island, though, so you do need a car – something which could be a little scary for city folk.
On the plus side, though, the highways are almost always nearly empty.
As I was driving back to Baddeck from Marion Bridge last night, about an hour away, we passed a stretch with five cars going by. “Times Square,” I thought.

There are concerts taking place all over the island every night, and a Festival Club on the grounds of the Gaelic College, in St. Ann’s Bay.

Outside the Festival Club at Gaelic College

Yesterday, Sunday the 7th, was Canadian Thanksgiving, and all over people were eating turkey and ham and getting together with relatives.
While I’m here, I intend to see Dundalk flutist Nuala Kennedy with her band Oirialla, which includes Dundalk fiddler Gerry O’Connor, Martin Quinn on bass and Breton guitarist Gilles le Bigot. Nuala lived in New York last year and you might have seen her at 11th Street or O’Neill’s; it will be a treat to see her with this exciting band. and Festival resident artist and Cape Breton fiddler and singer Cyril McPhee, Irish singer-songwriter John Doyle and American old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky, who sat in front of us on the plane up from Newark, Newfoundland group The Dardanelles, Prince Edward Island band Vishten, and many others, some of whom will be new to me.
I’ll take a day-long workshop in fiddle at the Buddy MacMaster School of Fiddling in Judique, see some local crafts, eat some fresh fish – and report back on it all to you.
Here’s a little run-down of what I’ve seen so far.

Festival Club

The drive from Halifax to Baddeck is about four hours, which I hadn’t realized, so we didn’t make a concert on Saturday night.
I did however make it to the after-hours club on the grounds of Gaelic College.
Groups perform there but are not scheduled, so you take your chances.
I was lucky enough to see Fiddletree, and the young artist who had won an award called the “Sampy,” given by the Drivers’ Association.
She sang in Gaelic, and pulled some others onstage to sing with her.

The Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association

This group of fiddlers of all ages has been around for 40 years this year, and has a membership of over 100 people.

One of the highlights was when the young people played and you saw the ongoing tradition, but it was also a treat to see some of the players who looked to be 70-something and up, playing away.
Stephanie MacDonald, 26, played in a trio with Leanne Aucoin on keyboards and Jesse Lewis on guitar; she has been part of the group since she was a child.
Cape Breton tune sets tend to start slow, with an air or slow strathspey, then grow increasingly faster.
They often go on for 15 minutes or so. Audiences clap and hoot and holler, and are encouraged to do so – this is something more common in the Scottish than in the Irish tradition. It’s a heck of a lot of fun.
Although the schedule and the driving are a little grueling, the Festival draws people of all ages.
We sat on a ledge (seats were sold out) with a group of nurses who were celebrating their 50th reunion from a diploma program at Victoria Public Hospital in Frederickton. Pat Hamilton said, “we were looking around for something special to do for our reunion.” Great choice!

Lewis MacKinnon

Lewis was the first act in the concert we went to on Sunday night called “Tunes for the Mira.” He’s a strong singer and a friendly, jolly guy.
He sang some songs with a country twang, and one or two in Gaelic, and knew how to get the crowd going.

Winnie Chafe and Patricia Chafe

This mother-daughter team were a sheer delight. Winnie Chafe is known as the “First Lady of the

Pat and Winnie Chafe

Scottish/Cape Breton fiddle,” and she clearly has a classical background as well, with a gorgeous tone and beautiful vibrato, and moving high up the neck of the violin as she played.
Daughter Pat Chafe backed her on piano, and played some of her own compositions as well.
One of the nicest moments of their set was a moment where Winnie got lost and Pat had to play the beginning of the jig to bring her back.
When Winnie caught it the audience cheered and clapped to encourage her.
They got an enthusiastic standing ovation, after finishing with an air by the Scottish composer Neil Gow, “Lament for Neil Gow’s Second Wife,” followed by a tune by his son Nathaniel, “Fairy Dance.”
It was a set of tunes by father and son played exquisitely by mother and daughter.

Alan Kelly Gang

The Alan Kelly Gang

I don’t know why I had it in my head that Alan Kelly was an older gentleman.
He’s a young guy originally from Roscommon Town, now from Galway, who plays that piano accordion with sensitivity, and rhythm. (and he later reminded me we had actually met at 11th Street last year!)
He assured the audience that there would be no violence, that they called themselves a “gang” because “quartet” sounded too classical.
There was a kind of chamber-music communication though, as the four members, consisting of Steph Geramia, Maureen Browne and Alan Kelly, made eye-contact and looked at one another to know where they would go next.
Steph Geramia on flute and sweet soprano vocals was a knock-out.

Alan Kelly

Maureen’s strong fiddling added musical punch, and Tony Byrne’s rhythmic guitar had a mischievous quality to it.
The band released their second album, Small Towns and Famous Nights, last year. I’ll do a full review of it soon, and hope to see much more of them.
Lewis, the Chafes and the Alan Kelly Gang joined onstage for an incredible finale. What a great sign of things to come!
Rushing off to a delegate brunch and showcase now, but will report back next week!

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.