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.