Friday, October 19, 2007

Celtic Culture on Cape Breton

Nova Scotia, one of Canada's Maritime Provinces on the Atlantic coast, is an authentically Scottish outpost in North America. Nova Scotia means "new Scotland," and early settlers included a number of Highland Clans that emmigrated from their homeland due to religious, political and economic realities of the era. Called the Higland Clearances, it was, at the time, the largest single ethnic emmigration in the history of the planet, with the possible exception of the original exodus of the Gypsies from Rajastan.

Cape Breton Island, on Nova Scotia's northern coast, is very much like Scotland's many islands. The Mackenzies, MacLeods, MacIssacs, MacDonalds, Beatons and Rankins settled there in large numbers - replicating the Clan structure, and agriculture and fishing industries that existed in their previous villages. They brought their language, their religion, their rivalries and their love of family and music. It is possible to get deep into the underlying cultural and demographic patterns in this small piece of paradise. For insight, check out Frank MacDonald's wonderful novel: A Forest for Calum.

Cape Breton Island has villages of Scottish Catholics, descendents of Jacobites who were loyal to the Stuarts and to Rome; and villages of Scottish Presbyterians and Calvinists with a somewhat different take. The Island also has an Acadian coast, with a Francophone population that shares religious tradition with the Scottish Jacobites. And of course there are also Irish and even a town that is largely English. But this much is true, the lifestyle and culture is largely Scottish.

Scots' Gaelic is widely spoken on the Island. Even some street and city signs are in both English and Gaelic. The locals talk of "Fairy Hills" and are all talented storytellers. Storytelling is part of the culture. It connects the young and the old; it captures significant events and individuals in the community; and in some cases, records the drunken exploits of particularly unlucky teenage boys. That's right. If you screw up big time in Cape Breton, somebody's likely to write a song about it and it'll get sung at every party for twenty years.

Though all the province's universities boast Celtic Studies programs, including a notable one at St. Francis Xavier, St. Ann's Gaelic College on Cape Breton is the continent's only Gaelic institution of higher learning. In addition to its fine Gaelic language and history programs, including a traditional craft program; the school is a principal partner in the Celtic Colours festival and the site of the festival club - which runs every night of the event from 11:00 p.m. until, well, sometime the next day. There are even shuttles for attendees that have had a few too many Whiskies. Now that's service. (Image: Gaelic College)

Speaking of service, an army of about 1,000 volunteers keeps the festival running like greased lightening (though some of the venues could have used better signage). Drivers, sound techs, stage hands, managers and ushers are everywhere. They've even got uniformed parking attendants to help negotiate the many fields that fill with cars. We saw concerts at venues like a 160 year old church that still used oil lamps; a town volunteer fire hall, and a community center. Our final concert was on the covered basketball court floor of the Inverness Academy.

So what did we hear? A lot of Gaelic songs, fiddle playing, reels & jigs. And some fine singing from the likes of Fiona MacGillivray and Joy Dunlap. There was an outstanding young piper named Kenneth MacKenzie from Mabou that lit up the hall and more than one a capella group. Guests from Scotland, including a vocal group we saw called the Sangsters, rounded out the musical fare. Big name acts that we did not see included: The Chieftans and Dougie MacLean. We saw entire families of Cape Breton fiddlers, but our very favorite was a fresh-faced, energetic 17 year old named Chrissy Crowley. Be sure to check her out, she's already wicked hot and emotional. And she'll only get better.

The concerts were crafted to show off talent in multiple ways. One of our concerts was called Kinsfolk, and featured brother-sister acts. Another was called "The Young & The Restless," featuring the next generation of Cape Breton musicians doing their thing. Another was titled: The Troubadours, and featured a more folk-oriented playbill - including a rousing maritime pirate song. The most interesting concert was a "milling frolic" that we attended on Christmas Island in the Fire Hall. All in Gaelic, no instruments in the building. Working songs.

Here's how it works. A milling frolic is used to "finish" off freshly loomed wool fabric before it is made into clothing and blankets. A group of ten or twelve family members sit around a table with a long piece of wool and sing while they "beat the wool." The wool is passed through twelve pairs of hands as it rotates around the table and is finished and fined. Each member of the family will take the lead in a song, so that songs are passed along and rotate around the table as well. The unique rhythms of Gaelic song add yet another dimension to the experience. All-in-all, it felt like an authentically historic ritual that evoked a simple, earlier age. The senior singer at the concert was a 95 year old gentleman with a twinkle in his eye and a stong voice. I should do so well, LOL.

Celtic music is unique for a number of reasons, none more important than the way the music captures and communicates the rhythms of life and the land. In Gaelic song, each note is a word - and the rhythm of the mouth music is often more important than the content of the words. Somehow it all works to cast an ancient rhythmic trance that can't help but involve the listener in deep and unexpected ways.

Then there were the Sangsters. Directly from Fife and proud of their lowland Scots heritage and traditions. No, they weren't going to be singing in Gaelic. There's some controversy right now in Scotland, they correctly noted, around just what constitutes "traditional" music. And with that, the group launched into a wonderful "Old-Scots" language version of Bobbie Burns' "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose." I guess they made their point. They were so funny, and irreverant. Their Scots accent was so thick it was, at times, hard to understand. But their harmony was exquisite and they did some great old standards. And one notable new one. One of the group members had received a songwriter's grant which he used to fund an effort to collect and organize village insults from the truly aged - whom he uncovered in nursing homes throughout the region. We're talking about regional insults here, one town dissing another down-the-road. Yo mama. And we all thought they were so proper 80 years ago. Uh-huh, not happening. They were badmouthing each other's turnips at the very least. Great song, the parts I could understand. And particularly appropriate for a Clan- and religion-based region like Cape Breton Island.

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