University of Washington

The Traditional Music of Cape Breton Island

The music of the small island of Cape Breton, located off the North-Eastern coast of the province of Nova Scotia, is perhaps the best known traditional music in Canada. Internationally-famous stars like Mary Jane Lamond, Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster have taken a music with deep regional roots and adapted it for the concert halls and arena shows of today, all while staying remarkably true to the infectious spirit of the musical traditions of Cape Breton.

In the 19th century, the island of Cape Breton saw the coming of large numbers of Scots, following the infamous Highland Clearances. These Scottish settlers came to provide the dominant culture of Cape Breton, and the relative isolation of the island from the Scottish homeland meant that the Cape Breton traditions remained closer to their 19th century roots than their counterparts in Scotland. While Scottish music and dance came under the wing of nationalist movements and adopted a codified style for competitions, the music and dance of Cape Breton remained a community affair and kept the original dance rhythms and playing styles of pre-Clearances Scotland. Indeed, today Cape Breton musicians and dancers are sent back to Scotland to re-educate the Scots in their own traditional performance genres.

Perhaps more so than any other place in Canada, the fiddle is king in Cape Breton. Though the accordion spread like a global plague in the late 19th century, insinuating itself into cultures from Nigeria to the Arctic Circle, Cape Breton never fell under its spell. The fiddle continued to be the dominant instrument on the island to this day. Curiously, Cape Breton also has a very high number of left-handed fiddlers, a relative rarity.

Joe Peter McLean Ashley McIsaac
Joe Peter McLean
Photo: Mark Wilson
Ashley McIsaac
Ceilidh with Joe Peter McLean &  Paul Wukitsch Cape Breton Highlands
Ceilidh w/ Joe Peter MacLean & Paul Wukitsch
Photo: Mark Wilson
Cape Breton Highlands

While the fiddle playing of Scotland became rigid and codified, destined more for concert halls than dance halls, Cape Breton fiddling has retained its connection to dancing. In comparing Cape Breton fiddling with modern Scottish fiddling, an immediate difference can be heard in rhythm. Cape Breton fiddle has a powerful rhythmic feel affected with quick snaps of the bow, rapid-fire ornaments and forceful bowing patterns. Indeed, the Cape Breton style is the most rhythmic Celtic fiddle style, as many of the other Celtic styles have moved away from their connections to dancing.

The other main instrument in Cape Breton is the bagpipes. In Scotland, Highland bagpiping has become a veritable industry and the piping style is extremely rigid and carefully codified in order to facilitate competition. In Cape Breton, the bapipes were used primarily for dancing, either social dance or stepdancing. The rapid and rhythmic style of bagpiping in Cape Breton has a unique and exhilirating sound. Though rarely recorded, young piper Ryan J. Macneil is leading a new group of pipers who are reinvigorating the old piping style of Cape Breton. He plays in the super-group Beolach, along with fiddler Wendy MacIsaac, and has just released a solo CD, Piper, (2005).

Due to the isolation of Cape Breton, the Gaelic language was the lingua fraca for many islanders up to the 20th century. Even today, there still remain islanders whose first language is Gaelic. Like most other Celtic countries, the Gaelic language and music have had a close association. The fiddling of Cape Breton is infused with this connection, and some people fear that losing the Gaelic language may cause fiddlers to lose a deeper understanding of their music. Joe Peter Maclean is a wonderful fiddler and one of the last to grow up speaking Gaelic as a first language. He understands the roots that many of his tunes have in Gaelic songs and the roots that many Gaelic songs have in dance tunes. His debut recording on Rounder Records, Back of Boisdale, is long overdue. Of course, the association between music and language is most easily seen in the Gaelic songs of Cape Breton. Song types range from ballads to milling songs (for waulking cloth) and mouth music meant for dancing. The best known Gaelic singer from Cape Breton is Mary Jane Lamond. From the North Shore of Cape Breton, Lamond became internationally famous, winning several Juno awards (Canadian Grammys) through her singing of the traditional Gaelic song repertoire of Cape Breton. Her collaboration on Ashley MacIsaac’s hit single, “Sleepy Maggie,” brought her name to national recognition.

Ashley MacIsaac is the best-known fiddler from Cape Breton, mainly due to his status as a crossover fiddle star. Starting with his 1995 album, Hi how are you today, MacIsaac has made a name for himself both as a stunningly virtuosic traditional fiddler and as a wildly inventive innovator. Blending his Cape Breton fiddle with alternative rock and hip-hop flavors earned him a number of Juno Awards and spots on rock tours like Lollapallooza. Though he misses as many times as he hits, his debut album and the purely traditional follow-up, Fine thank you very much, are both required listening for anyone looking to experience the raw power of Cape Breton dance music. MacIsaac is also known for his ability to fiddle and stepdance at the same time, a rare talent unique to Cape Breton Island fiddlers. His cousin, the equally famous Natalie MacMaster, is also able to pull this trick off in live performance, however, Ashley gained the most notoriety while pulling off some extra-high stepping during a performance on the David Letterman show, where he inadvertantly revealed what Scots wear under their kilts.

For all of the bluster of MacIsaac as an innovator, the tradition of Cape Breton fiddling is so strong and deep that it’s hard to imagine that anyone could feel threatened by his dramatics. Cape Breton fiddling is compelling enough that fiddlers can make a living from playing the purely traditional material. Though Ashley’s cousin, Natalie MacMaster, has recuntly begun experimenting with blending Cape Breton fiddle with world music, she made her name as a purely traditional fiddle virtuoso, the student of her uncle, the famed Buddy MacMaster. For a look at the roots and branches of Cape Breton music in the 21st century, her 2-disc set, Live, provides a wonderful perspective. The first disc focuses on her fusing of traditional fiddling with rock and world music styles, a largely succesful marriage of ideas, while the second disc is a live recording of a dance at the Glencoe Mills dance hall, site of her first public performance as a small child. The whoops of the dancers and the energy of the dance usher the listener into a world in which a musician can tour the world’s largest halls and come home to the local dance hall to light up the night.

For those who fear the extinction of traditional music and dance as the centuries turn over, Cape Breton provides a heart-warming example of a tradition that constantly renews itself to remain relavent. This is clear in the large numbers of tune composers that live on the island. Some of these composers have written thousands of tunes and some of these tunes have, in turn, passed into the traditional repertoire of the island. Jerry Holland is one of the best-known composers of Cape Breton dance tunes, and his compositions feature prominently on his recording, A Session with Jerry Holland, and are transcribed in the accompanying book, Jerry Holland’s Collection of Fiddle Tunes.

From the fiddling fusion of Ashley MacIsaac to the pure drop of Joe Peter Maclean, Cape Breton fiddle has many faces united under the banner of hard-stomping rural dance music.

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