In Search of Folk Music: Cape Breton

A three-fiddler concert in The Barn. Image source: Tourism Nova Scotia www.novascotia.com

So you attend a traditional music concert in the heart of Cape Breton. It’s three fiddlers. First, Fiddler A plays a solo set. Then Fiddler B. Then Fiddler C. Next, A and B play a set together, then A and C, and finally B and C. Then—you guessed it—they all play a set together. What you have here is a two-hour concert of nothing but fiddle tunes. Vocals? Nada. Other instruments to break the fiddling monopoly? Nary a one. This makes some people happy as a Bluenoser in a dinghy full of cod. Others, not so much.

Let’s just say that Cape Breton and fiddle music are pretty much an old married couple, finishing each other’s sentences and smiling down benignly at the young whipper-snappers like guitars and songs with words. I asked a weathered-looking local if everyone on Cape Breton plays fiddle. After a moment’s serious thought—as if he was mentally toting up how many people he knew who didn’t bow the strings—he said, “Pretty much.”

The world’s largest fiddle, Sydney, NS.

My first clue that Cape Breton takes its fiddling seriously should have been the world’s largest fiddle that looms up 60 feet in the middle of Sydney. My second hint could have been my visit to the Celtic Music Centre in Judique, I was keen to take in the free noon-time “Celtic music” performance over a bite to eat. I settled in at a table and was treated to a half hour of…fiddle music.

Really good fiddle music, I hasten to add, because the calibre of playing is astonishing, which I guess is due in part to the fact that island babies seem to tuck fiddles under their chins about the same time they tuck thumbs in their mouths. When they start to walk, they add step-dancing to their skill set, which leads to an entire population that can play complex tunes while dancing around, tapping out rhythms with their feet. By the time a Cape Bretoner hits his or her teens, the bar has been raised so high that even the slouches by local standards are top-class by any other measure.

In addition, every fiddler on the island is related in some degree to a world-famous performer such as Natalie McMaster or Ashley MacIsaac, which means they are genetically programmed to make those strings sing.

Back to the three fiddlers: the best part of the evening for me was after the concert ended and they cleared the chairs away to make a dance floor. By now, it’s about 10:00 pm in The Barn (okay, it’s a barn purpose-built for shows—but it feels like a real barn—at the Normaway Inn in Margaree) on a bright, clear autumn night with a big moon outside. Those same three talented fiddlers sit down with a piano player and start playing for the ceilidh. Wow. Now those fiddle tunes start to make sense as they drive the dancing along with irresistible rhythms.

Despite all this wonderful instrumental music, being kind of a vocals person, what I really wanted to hear was songs, so two nights later, I headed off to the Doryman Pub in Cheticamp. The weather had turned to pissing rain and I arrived at the pub soaked from a hike in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Hot food & drink served up with Le Groupe Lelievre was just what I needed to warm up and dry off. Playing a range of traditional and popular music in both French and English with strong harmonies and excellent backing, Le Groupe had couples out on the dance floor and audience members singing along. They even threw in a few instrumental tunes. The party atmosphere easily drew in locals and tourists alike. And I was relieved to see that the band included a variety of instruments with not one fiddle in sight.

Still, I’d be willing to bet that they all play fiddle as well.

Have you visited Cape Breton? I’d love to hear about the music you enjoyed there or on another trip.

In Search of Folk Music: Princeton, BC

The Didgetary Do’s on stage at the Princeton Traditional Music Festival 2016.

Every August, I pack up my breeziest dresses, my best sun hat, and my music sheets and head to the tiny town of Princeton, British Columbia, about three hours east of Vancouver.

There’s a big, busy highway that rips through Princeton, but once you’re away from that thoroughfare, it’s the kind of place where you can lay down in the middle of the road and take a nap. A couple of pick-up trucks going in opposite directions down the main avenue will stop side by side while the drivers lean out their windows and chat for a few minutes. I’ve not yet seen anyone mosey into town riding Ol’ Paint and tie up at the pub’s hitching rail, but it’s the kind of place where you feel that just might happen.

Fiddler Michael Burnyeat performs at the festival in 2016.

Though Princeton isn’t exactly the town that time forgot, modern and trendy aren’t really the right words to describe it, either. It is, in short, a place where traditional isn’t a dirty word. In fact, it feels pretty good rolling off the tongue as part of the Princeton Traditional Music Festival.

Traditional music—as in “music so old that you don’t know who wrote it”—is not the stuff of popular radio. Instead of three minutes of “baby, baby, I love you,” you get eight minutes of anything from two crows discussing how to eat the corpse of a dead knight to a bawdy song about old men marrying young women. There are drinking songs, sea shanties, ballads about sisters murdering each other, songs celebrating sheep, mourning songs, ancient instrumentals, and, yes, the occasional equivalent to “baby, baby, I love you” e.g., “I have loved you, fair lady, for long and many the day.” There are duels, enchantments, suicides, diseases, disguises, cruelty, faithlessness, and fidelity. So much richer than the tiny palette from which modern music is painted. There are bouzoukis and banjos, dulcimers and djembes, and lots and lots of guitars.

At the Princeton festival, two main stages run through the daytimes of Saturday and Sunday, with a small additional acoustic performance space in the library on Saturday only. Saturday evening is given over to parties, jamming, and songcircles.

Audience participation at the festival dancing.

The festival founders like to point out that venues for traditional music are scarce, particularly in western Canada. Princeton’s event thus serves as a gathering place for both performers and enthusiasts; many attendees return year after year and greet each other as old friends. Volunteers do most of the organizing and running of the festival and musicians donate their time and talents on stage. Because of this, there’s a warm, friendly feel to the weekend that has long been lost in the big-name “folk” festivals. There’s dancing in the streets, singing on the sidewalks, and a unofficial big splash in the cool river with brass instruments and kids shrieking and who knows what else.

And did I mention it’s FREE? Yes, you heard that right. Donations are solicited and warmly welcomed, but there are no tickets and no ticket prices. So you can afford the gas to get there, stake out a tent and heat beans over a Bunsen burner, or reserve a motel room and squeeze into one of the restaurants (all stuffed to the rafters for that one weekend). Bring your little folk, bring your elders, bring your dog. Do it your way, but do it.

Under the gazebo, a centre of action during the festival.

The Princeton Traditional Music Festival celebrates its tenth anniversary this August 18-20. More information is available on their website http://www.princetontraditional.org/

 

What’s your favourite summer festival? Let me know in a comment.

In Search of Folk Music: Wales

Folk music is about history and storytelling, archaic language and ancient notions that are sometimes surprisingly (and disturbingly) contemporary, and modern ideas that may have their roots in antiquity. It’s also about shared culture and joining with your community to express joy, sorrow, outrage, or remembrance. It can be hilarious or mysterious, bawdy or accusatory.

I am proud to call myself a folk musician, and when I travel, I seek out like-minded folks.

In planning my trip to Wales, I thought with excitement of the country’s reputation for beautiful voices and fierce pride in Welsh traditions, and I determined to visit a folk club and share in the singing. With the help of Mudcat Cafe, an online community of folkies across the world, I found a songcircle in Wales that fit into my schedule. Then I resolved to learn one simple song in Welsh so that I could wow the locals.

This was a recklessly brave and foolish ambition. For those of you who don’t speak Welsh, I will point out that it is a fiendishly difficult language for outsiders to learn. I suspect that the native Welsh are genetically equipped with a tongue that attaches in some unique fashion and which allows them to shape the sounds.

Take, for example, the “ll.” Wikipedia describes this as a “voiceless lateral fricative.” There are literally pages and pages of helpful explanation on the Web trying to explain how to create this sound. Gwybodiadur.co.uk: “…put your tongue in the L position and say SH (not S). Don’t forget to keep the tip of the tongue up against ridge behind the teeth and not let it point forwards or downwards as it would do for a normal SH…you’ll sound a bit like a really annoyed cat.”  Try to imagine doing this while singing. Considering the level of skill and determination this demands, one ceases to be amazed that the tiny Welsh nation has doggedly resisted Anglo domination for hundreds of years.

However, I reasoned that even a somewhat mangled version of a Welsh song would count as a culturally sensitive attempt and gain me some brownie points. So I tracked down a short, repetitive, but lovely folk tune called Ar Lan y Mor and I prevailed on my Welsh-born friend for some lessons. I think he almost choked the first time I tried to sing it—no, wait, that was just him correcting my pronunciation.

After several months of practice, I found myself in a Pembrokeshire pub, surrounded by friendly locals. Folkies are, as a rule, very welcoming types, and, though no doubt nonplussed by my presence in the midst of their group, they were kind. When I announced that I would sing Ar Lan y Mor in Welsh, I gleefully noted their surprised and respectful expressions. Nobody laughed at my garbled pronunciation and all applauded warmly at the end.

Just as I relaxed back into my chair, feeling quite smug, the woman next to me leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Very nice, dear. Of course, we’re all English here.” Indeed, as I soon confirmed, they were all escapees from the Anglo-urban rat race seeking Welsh utopia and not one could tell the difference between an “ll” and an angry cat. Bloody ll, thought I.

At the end of the evening, I was slinking, crestfallen, toward the door, when a craggy old fellow at the bar with his face sunk in his pint, glanced up just long enough to growl, “I’m Welsh and ye did pretty well. Good to hear someone singing in Welsh.”

So my efforts were not completely wasted. I gained a healthy appreciation for those few who tackle Welsh as a second language—and they are as rare as red dragons. I witnessed first-hand the long-standing tradition of English empire-builders taking up residence on Welsh soil, a custom that dates back further than King John. And I scored a point for Canadian chutzpah.

O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!*

Have your efforts to speak the local language during your travels been delightful or disastrous? Write a comment and share your story.

*“May the old language endure!”—from the Welsh national anthem