Monday, December 8, 2008

What's Your Father's Name?

It’s the off-season in Cape Breton. Drive through the streets of Baddeck or Louisbourg and you’ll know it. In the summertime, these towns are thriving, now only the essential convenience stores stay open, and the multi-colored Christmas lights strung up outside the year-round homes add the only touch of cheer to what might otherwise be a decidedly bleak view.

The beginning of the short Gaelic language film entitled, a “Wake for Calum MacLeod” was created entirely in Cape Breton, a fact made obvious when the narrator asserts at the film’s outset: “There are only two places on this earth, the island of Cape Breton, and ‘away.’” The film illustrates a phenomenon that persists on the island today. The evil King of the Winds scatters the narrators children to the four corners of the earth, only to have them reunite finally for their fathers wake, where ultimately, they rediscover their Gaelic heritages. In his song, “Man from the Isle of Skye,” a ballad that charts the beginning of Cape Breton’s settlement, J.P. Cormier asserts: “The folks in the cities, they don’t know where they come from, and they don’t care why,” implying that Cape Bretoners, on the other hand, know exactly where their people came from, and perhaps more importantly, where they all are today. It’s an honest assumption, every Cape Bretoner I’ve met knows where in Scotland their ancestors came from, and when they left. Many members of the older generations still live near their numerous brothers and sisters, and one could claim, that out in the countryside, outside of “industrial Cape Breton” where I have made my home, a different mentality still persists, where ones social placement, more often then not,might depend on who their father is.

I was recently traumatized during my last haircut, aside from reeking havoc on my bangs, the hairdresser asserted: “Oh yes, the winters are hard around here, but there also the only times we have for ourselves, the summer is for the tourists, and in the winter we just hunker down and recover.” This led me to ponder just how far the division extends between folks from this side of the Causeway, and those who hale from the other side of the narrow passage. Being from the wrong side myself, I have to wonder how close I can get to understanding and knowing the people of this island?

One cannot doubt that the people of Cape Breton put on a show for the tourists, “Cape Breton Hospitality” is known the world-wide, but those who swear by it have not often spent more than a week on the island. Their Cape Breton “experience” is limited to Cabot Trail snapshots and packaged oatcakes. A good friend of mine who moved here from New Brunswick couldn’t find anyone, or anyone to help him find someone, wire his new home. Although I like to focus on all the good folk I’ve met here, his story echoes my first night at the Red Shoe pub in Mabou, when the fiddler who was supposed to lead me to the hall left me to navigate the windy back-roads on my own. Surely these sorts of experiences are common to all small, close-knit, communities, but is there a reason why they might be exaggerated in Cape Breton?

I think so. The people of the island have something they need to protect, there’s something precious here, a legacy of music that is theirs but that entices travelers to get their own taste in the dance halls and summer schools. It attracts some of North America’s best fiddlers and challenges them to carve out their own place within the its competitive dance and ceilidh circuit. I have to wonder how free Cape Breton music is to change, if Cape Breton fiddlers feel like they’re allowed to synthesize outside influences, or if they feel as though their only choices are “Traditional Cape Breton” or as Otis Tomas so aptly put it, “mongrel.” Socially, even more comes in to play. The island has been depressed for a long time, people haven't traditionally had a lot of money to spare, and the tourists who frequent its shores in the summer often come from the opposite side of the economic spectrum.

This past Saturday, after the West Mabou dance, Jimmy and Margee invited me and another woman from “away” to a Christmas house party. I was hesitant, I didn’t know if we would be welcome, and after driving miles up a track-ridden logging road to the cabin, my uncertainty only grew. The party was fantastic. The chili and wieners were plentiful, all the best Inverness musicians were there, and the sets were in full swing. In between figures, folks from the couches and chairs would hop up to do some individual stepping only to return to their seats a few reels later to a smattering of applause.

At one point, an elderly gentleman asked me where I was from and when I told him New Hampshire, he answered, “I see, you’re here because you love the music.” He couldn’t have been more right, and I couldn’t have felt more welcome. On the way out the door hours later, I realized that the evening had felt exceedingly warm, and for the first time in a while, no one had asked me who my father is.

Monday, December 1, 2008

It's Music Just the Same

Christmas has come to Cape Breton, or at least...Christmas lights have come to Cape Breton. No matter how many multi-colored bulbs the people of Glace Bay hang on their manicured bushes, the weather stays defiantly in a state of perpetual fall, and I've just about given up on my dreams of a white Christmas. Tonight, I went to the last night of my Monday night Gaelic class in Sydney, we had a little party to celebrate the success of the class. In between square sets, an elderly gentleman crooned Christmas country hits into a vintage microphone, and the audience, especially those of the older generation, sang along enthusiastically to every word before the room rang once again with the stomp and tap of the square set.

The evening made me consider what my own perceptions of "traditional" music are, and what exactly it is that I'm after up here. This past weekend, as usual, I went to the square dance in West Mabou. Afterwards, I stayed with a good friend in Judique, close to the Celtic Music Interpretive Center, where the lunchtime ceilidh was on the next day. I awoke around noon to synthesized ringing of Christmas bells in a top 20 version of, "deck the halls" blaring from the living room. "Rock & Roll," she proclaimed, banging on my door, "we've missed church again." Moments later, while she flipped my pancakes in front of the stove, and flipped the CD to an Ashley MacIsaac Christmas album, I found myself confronted with a unlikely dilemma.

"Do you want to come to Port Hood with me to see a country band play? You could see the other side of Cape Breton music. You've got too narrow a focus...but what the hell, I guess if that's what you've come up here for, then it makes sense."

Was my focus too narrow? Was I falling prey myself to one of the main criticisms of anthropologists in general, who tend to pigeonhole the cultures they study? Later that day in Judique, Glenn Graham performed with Robbie Fraser on piano and Patrick Gillis. In between sets, Patrick played soft riffs on his guitar, spanning the gamut of blues, ragtime and rock, "he's playing ozzy Osborne," my neighbor mused at one point, while Robbie vamped quietly in the background. Glenn turned on the synthesizer and improvised for a few moments before falling gracefully into a waltz and out of the church-hall setting.

The dynamic on stage fit in well with a theme I'm starting to notice and trace, something I have not given much attention to, but deserves it just the same: Cape Bretoners affinity for country music, the blues riffs my folklore professor plays on the classroom Steinway during his lunch breaks, the hip hop I hear blaring from open car windows, it's all representative of what Cape Breton has always been, yes it's an island, but nonetheless, the world came to Cape Breton a long time ago.

A few weeks ago, a Newfoundland friend told me about a book called, "The Day the World Came to Town," a non-fiction piece by Jim Defede on the effects 9/11 had on the small village of Gander. Following the attacks on the twin towers, 36 passenger planes were stranded in the isolated town, an occurrence the author traces through the course of four days, highlighting the hospitality, and in many cases, the humor and warmth that resulted from an otherwise desperate situation. I like to think of that event in Gander as a microcosm for what has happened in Cape Breton since the days of early settlement, and is still happening today. In, "A Forest for Calum," Frank MacDonald's semi-autobiographical novel about his childhood in Inverness, you read of the vibrancy of the town in the summer, the bustling racetrack and the busy trains. In "Baddeck, and That Sort of Thing," Cape Breton's first tourist book, author Charles Dudley Warner is surprised by the vitality of life in the lakeside town, and the myriad cultures he encounters along the way.

Certainly the Sunday afternoon crew in Judique aren't the first to push the envelope, Ashley MacIsaac, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists, added heavy-metal accompaniment to an electric fiddle years ago, and Jimmy McGinnis, on the way to my first Judique ceilidh months ago launched into a country classic from the back seat after promising a traditional Scottish song. Of all the things that get around this world, it seems that music is the most adaptable and far-reaching of them all.

Last week, I was playing a few tunes with a friend in Sydney, when Joe Peter MacLean knocked on our door out of the blue. A few weeks before, a local friend had told me, "so many people want to pigeon-hole Joe Peter as the last Gael, the neglect to see what makes up the rest of him." Yes, Joe Peter's first language was Gaelic, and yes the influence of the language is apparent in his fiddling, but he also loves bluegrass music, and u-tube, he has lived in New Mexico and traveled to Scotland. Leaning over a world map that doubling as a tablecloth, he pointed out the world's largest store of fresh water in Russia, just to the right of my tea. Later, with his fiddle in hand, I requested, "Orange Blossom Special," a tune I know he plays just as well as any old-time fiddler from the mountains of North Carolina. Whether it be from Kelly's Mountain or Cumberland Gap, its music just the same, and what it does to us, or to the people that love it, is identical the world around.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mongrel Music

Winter has finally come to Cape Breton. For weeks I've bundled myself up in anticipation of the cold, only to step out into warm ocean breezes that have effectively kept the frost off my windshield and my boots in the closet. Sunday evening we had our first flurries of snow. I watched them fall to the ground and into the outstretched arms of the pine trees near Goose Cove and St. Ann's bay. By this time it was already almost ten, and my friends and I are just pulling up into the dirt driveway of Otis Tomas' home in the mountains.

I've met many Cape Bretoner's whose families came over during the Highland clearances and never left. Their children grew up listening to the music of the old country, their voices still carry a Gaelic inflection, and their "people" can be traced through the father's line back to the original settlers who came from Barra and Lewis to the shores of Iona. There are many ways to be of the island, and although these Scottish chain migrants often receive the most attention, people like Otis, and many of the other artists and musicians from "away," embody to me, what is most captivating about Cape Breton as effectively as the Beatons and the Rankins.

There's a small, but thriving artist's community in the village of St. Anne's. A haven for luthier's, potters, tune-writer's, and various other social derelicts. No one seems to know when exactly Otis came to Cape Breton or why. I do know that he is originally from Rhode Island. Shortly after graduating from high school, he spent a year in the Blue Ridge mountains and picked up the fiddle. Watching him play tonight, I can see the old-time swing in this bowing arm, the bounce that he more than likely acquired during that first impressionable year of learning. To me, it's as familiar and refreshing as a glass of lemonade on a hot day, it conjures up memories of summer, of old-time tunes on the porch, and my own first year of learning.

Otis and his wife Deena live in a house they built themselves. He has a long grey beard, a mane of silver hair, and an easy smile. In the workshop out back, his fiddles gleam softly in a smeared glass cupboard near the front entrance. He brings the grain of the wood to life in a way I've never seen before, knot-work lovely decorates the scrolls and ink carvings grace the back wood pieces. I realize that I've never before thought of instruments as pieces of artwork in themselves, and that there's more to this whole process than strictly the art of music-making. Art has come to settle here. A dusty old piano leans against the back wall with photographs of long-dead local musicians atop its cabinet. There's a wood stove with the image of two men collecting firewood carved into its door, and a chain of quarters hanging from the magnetic surface of its pipe like some kind of avant-garde Christmas tinsel.

Otis shows us the fiddle he's working on now for a Japanese man who has fallen in love with Cape Breton music, and wants his instrument to be comprised strictly of trees native to the island. Perhaps, in a few years, he too will make his way to the island and build a home amidst the people that inherited this music and the woods that give it voice.

Eventually we pass around the wine in some of Deena's goblets and take out our instruments. Otis has become one of Cape Breton's most popular composers. Ask him what kind of music he plays and he'll tell you, it's a "mongrel" mix, he prefers not to rigidly adhere to a tradition, but to move fluidly between them, picking up the best from each and melding it into a sound as unique and carefully crafted as his instruments. His most well known session tune, is in fact, called, "The Mongrel," a swigin' G minor reel that moves about the neck as erratically as its namesake might. The names of his tunes, more often than not, are just as interesting and as unorthodox as their sound. He plays us, "Harem Skarem, The Silver Finger," and finally, "The New Land," named after the plot of ground that would later become his Cape Breton home.

I marvel at home lucky I am to be hearing the composer of these tunes tell us the story behind their names, in his shop in the mountains of St. Ann's while the snow falls silently outside the windows. I've heard that Otis has a long waiting list for his instruments, but I've been dreaming of owning one of his guitars ever since I saw Paul MacDonald's own, with its open rose carved into the head. Otis has a guitar that he built for a customer a few years ago who never returned to claim it. Now, it gathers dust in a satin-line case at the back of his shop. It's small, easy to play, and shockingly beautiful. I'm sure that it was carved specifically to rest on my lap. Curly maple circles the sound hole, up the neck, squares of rosewood adorn the fingerboard in an extended checkerboard pattern, and the pick guard is unpolished, retaining the texture of its grainy ash.

When we finally leave after midnight, I beg Otis not to advertise the guitar and he agrees. On the way home I think of all the song and stories that lie must waiting in its hollow body for someone's voice to give them a name, waiting for someone to give them a life that, in the end, will prove to be more enduring than that of their creator's.

Monday, November 17, 2008



Christmas Lights

On Wednesday evenings, I drive an hour to the small village of Christmas Island to attend an evening Gaelic class. When I leave the Sydney highway and drive along the winding road that eventually leads into Iona, the signs gradually begin to appear in both English and Gaelic while the houses become more spread out. When the lake laps uncomfortably close to the road, I can see the lights on the opposite shore blink wearily like the bulbs on some, distant toppled-down pine tree.

Christmas Island is the last village before Iona, the parish my host-father once called, "the axis of all things Celtic." Iona is in the near heartland of Cape Breton, home to the highland village, and whose shores the Barra people first settled after noticing its uncanny resemblance to their own homeland. The old name for Iona is "Barra" in Gaelic, years ago a zealous priest changed the name of the town to mirror its spiritual counterpart in Scotland, and now only the elderly remember the original identity of the parish.

Not many people live in Iona today. In the summer, the Highland Village attracts a slew of tourists, where the intrepid time-traveler can walk through the architecture of nearly three hundred years, beginning first with the Scottish highland clochans, and ending with the near-modern wooden clapboards that have now been replaced by duplexes and trailers. From every angle and perch the view is spectacular. The Bras d'Or lake, fringed with forest, is more colorful in its autumn reflections than even the grandest Chetticamp hooked rug, and the highland chapel, uprooted and brought by barge to the heights of the village, commands it all. Inside the church there are photographs of the transport of the building, where the imposing chapel face, coming by barge through the mists of the Bras d'Or, would give any sinner the creeps.

Christmas Island might not have the views and architecture of its Western neighbor, but it does have as equally as rich culture. Many of the elderly in the village still speak Gaelic as their first language. Every Wednesday morning they meet at the local takeout to eat chicken wings and converse in their native tongue. After two hours of class on Wednesday, the beginner and advanced classes meet over tea to share songs. Usually, the beginning class trickles out after the tea runs out, leaving behind the native speakers and a handful of struggling beginners behind, myself included.

While I can mutter along with the best of them to the vocables of a Gaelic song, the stories more often than not leave my clueless. Tonight though, I am excited and proud. I ask my teacher across the song circle, what song we had learned last Monday in song workshop.

"De orainn bha sinn ag ionnsachadh De Luaine?"

He promptly launched into "Leis a Mhaighdinn," the haunting Cape Breton version of an old country song about French sailors, diamond brooches, and maidens disguised as ships. Afterwards, Roddy C., the tenth in the long line of Christmas Island Roddy's, launched into a Gaelic story. I cocked my ear and listening closely, hearing the repetition of a word that sounded like "coin," the plural of "cu" or "dog" that I had learned the other day.

This is great. I think. I'm really starting to pick things up. Roddy's telling a story about dogs.

Unfortunately the story had nothing to do with dogs, and my only consolation was that Roddy assumed I had Gaelic, and neglected to translate the story until asked specifically by my teacher. The word that sounded like "coin" was in fact a word for "porch," and the story had been more about children than anything else. Roddy recalled a friend of his back near Boisdale, who, on the porch, would always hear the kids say, "rathad, rathad," road, road, and once on the road it was always, "baile, baile," or town, town.

"You see, it's always in the nature of the young to be moving forward."

Everyone laughed at the conclusion of the story, but I couldn't help but think of the melancholy truth to it. I doubt that when the Barra people came to Iona's shores years before, they thought that their children, at one point, would be eager and willing to leave the land of plenty. I doubt they thought that someday, their native language would be lost in the handful of years between father and son, and later, that their industries would die, and with them, the final, and only reason to stick around.

This past weekend, I went to Halifax, one of the cities that extended its siren call Northward to the shores of Cape Breton and to the ears of its restless youth. I was briefly tempted to turncoat myself. Unlike Sydney, Halifax's shops stay open past four, there are countless bars and clubs, and museums that cater to more than the fickle summer crowds. There is a vitality in Halifax that is lacking in Cape Breton. Still, I have to wonder why, when Saturday night rolled around, I wanted to find the Cape Breton dance. The island is not my home, but I can understand why the young in Boston and Halifax, and now in Calgary and Edmonton, live with fellow Cape Bretoners, why they console each other with stories of home, and why many of them are willing to commute across a continent to work and return. I think that the lights across the water on the way to Christmas island are just as dazzling, and alluring as the bright lights of Halifax, and the stars above, infinitely brighter.

Monday, November 10, 2008

This Island's Quiet

The last evening I spent in Mabou didn't end at one with the dance. I followed my a friend Laura back to her small, rented home, where talked until four in the morning. I didn't roll out of bed until close to noon the next day. The house was empty, and so I wandered next door to John's house, my friend's neighbor, who had all but adopted her since the beginning of her stay in the Cape Breton. I wasn't sure if Laura was there, but I followed my intuition to John's doorstep, trying to remember everything Laura had told me about the man the night before.

John, like so many others in the countryside of the island, has never married. He lives in the house he was born in, and is renowned locally for his step dancing. I paused at the front door when I heard the sound of a fiddle. From the front stoop I could see an elderly man puttering about in the kitchen, I assumed that was John, and that he'd invited one of the neighboring Chisholm's or Cameron's to join him for breakfast. When the music stopped, I strolled in to Laura at the table, going over some new tunes. Charmed, I told her she sounded, "like the real thing."

John's home was one of the oldest I'd seen in Cape Breton. All twelve of his brothers and sisters had been raised in the house, and that morning, they smiled down on our breakfast of toast, bacon, rolls, and eggs from a faded 70's photograph above the kitchen. Above the television, in infinitely richer color, Billie's beautiful young niece gazed confidently out from a newspaper headline announcing her success as a premiere female pilot. Over breakfast, John told us of the busy community that was once his home, of the families that lived down the street, the sound of pipes that announced the evening hours, and eventually, the emptying of the valley that began with the shutting down of the coal mines and continues into today. Later, we walked to a small neighboring valley, where rolled hay's haphazard tracks seemed to mimic a giant's game board, instead of some farmer's-out-of season blunder. The day was magic with possibility, and Cape Breton, small as it is, and often forgotten by the world, continues to be magic for me.

Later in the afternoon, we drove through Inverness village on the way to the Judique session. This is it, I thought, Frank MacDonald's setting to, A Forest for Calum. This is where so many of Alistair MacLeod's characters lived and loved, and where the author still resides every summer. Inverness, like so many other rural villages, was a coal mining town. While many of the company homes are still standing, they're run down, folding in on themselves in a visual representation of the livelihood that once sustained the town's population. The ocean still offers a close and brilliant backdrop for it all, and I can't imagine anything better than falling asleep to the sound of bell buoys on the wind, or waking up to a still dawn's reflection on the harbor.

Thanks to my fanaticism, we stop at Alistair MacLeod's summer home, where I snap a quick picture of Margaree Island...and maybe his house too. I can't see much of the island, but I know this is the setting for his short story, "Island," and that the bright dots of color are the fishing shacks where a lobster fisherman once spent his summers, and where one in particular fell in love with the light housekeepers daughter. Even before I came to Cape Breton, I'd written a song inspired by the story, a song I would record a few days later, and that I hope, is reflective of what sustains Cape Breton today, if nothing else does: the importance of calling a place your own, or, the importance of calling a place your home.

The Star Above Rankin's Point

This island's quiet. Winter's always dark and cold,
but I know, when summer rolls around again,
the fishing boats will line its shores.

I never had a care until the year,
I fell in love with a mainland boy who told me,
I'll take you far from here, from Rankin's shores,
we'll set our oars, and row away.

He died that winter, in the logging camps,
laid down in snow,
folks said you can't presume to know the will of God,
He called him home, left me...

Winter came in late that year,
still my father kept the lighthouse burning bright,
like a star above Rankin's point
he led the fishing boats home to port each night.

He told me count your blessings,
and hold on tight to what can't change.
Well here we've got the towers light, the season's turn,
and the seals to sing your lullabies.

And so the years went tripping by like springtime,
I watched my father slowly getting old.
And when he climbed the tower for the last time
I manned the light alone.

I learned to count my blessings,
to hold on tight, to what's my own.
I'll always have the towers light, the season's turn,
and the seals to sing my lullabies.

Yes, I'm the star above Rankin's point each night.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Winding Down of Summer

Cape Breton has changed in the last few weeks. The leaves are gone from the trees, the young people have returned to Calgary and Edmonton to work in the oil camps, and only the most hardy of tourists dare to circle the Cabot Trail at this time of year. On Saturday nights, when I return from the Mabou dance, I'm passed again and again by massive freight trucks, hurtling down the 104 with their mysterious loads from Newfoundland. They don't bother to stop. Shutters are closed, signs removed from their posts, fluorescent lights blink out, and they elderly prepare for their habitual hibernation.

I went to the Rollie's session last Thursday not expecting much. There are no visitors left for the musicians to entertain, and many of the players players hate driving the long distances between towns after the first frost sets in. I went anyway though, to keep the spirit alive, and perhaps, to keep my own failing spirits up. The first sight to greet me was that Jerry Holland and J.P. Cormier smoking at the front entrance of the restaurant.

A veritable giant, J.P. looms about a foot above anyone else at a party. He wears cowboy boots, heavy gold jewelry, and bolo ties. While he would fit in well at a rodeo or Harley convention, his massive fingers grip a fiddle neck delicately, and he pens beautiful songs about tired old Newfoundland towns and divine intervention with a human face. Despite the darkness and the wreath of cigarette smoke, I don't have to do a double take to know who it is, it is unmistakably JP, and it is unmistakably going to be a brilliant night.

Inside at the session, J.P. decided to sit next to me.

"I'm not playing next to you." I assert.

"Fine! I'm not playing next to you either!" Comes his good-natured response.

But sit next to me he did, and after a while, I got over my nervousness enough to get a few tunes out, and better unabashedly gawk at his brilliance. Looking around, I realize there is something different about tonight's session. Many of the usual suspects are here, but the restaurant is nearly empty. A few old timers doze by the bar, the incorrigible spoon player materializes and then mercifully disappears as suddenly and briefly as he always does, and Papper, as usual, steps outside more than once to smoke the mysterious hand-rolled cigarettes that he refuses to share. One thing is different though, J.P. Cormier and his wife Hilda are at the session, and they are playing with friends they've known for years. There were no tourists around to bother them for autographs, really no one is showing them any special attention, and J.P. assuming I'm local and therefore safe, plays my fiddle, gives me a ten minute lesson, and probably would have given me a cigarette if I had asked him.

Jerry Holland doesn't play for much of the evening, like many of the older folks in Cape Breton, he's sick, and like many again, can't give up the habits that may have contributed or caused his illness. He's wonderfully kind, modest, and seemingly healthy most times I've seen him. I recall a picture of him in one of his fiddle books, where he's young and happy, smiling broadly under a mop of brown hair and a thick mustache. At Rollie's tonight, Jerry's eyes are tired beneath his now-silver hair. He's leaving to go to New Hampshire on Wednesday to gig, but before the evening ends, he'll join the circle to play with his friends. I find out today that Jerry is "from away," that he grew up outside of Boston, but that he listened to Cape Breton fiddlers play in his kitchen as a child, heading up the island himself as soon as he graduated high school.

My friend Paul MacDonald likes to say that the idea of Cape Breton's isolation is really a myth, and that there's another phenomenon that hasn't been given its due consideration, and that's the island's seeming magnetic draw for all the vagabonds and outcasts of society. Somehow, we find our way up the arm of Nova Scotia, and across the Causeway to the rugged shores of the island, to build a home amidst those who washed ashore before us. Like it or not, we're all from "away" in some way or another, and in the end, it's up to the individual to decide where they want to mark those lines in the sand. Ultimately, I think it's not geography, but passion that unites us. Here in Cape Breton, the sad and the beautiful exist side by side, making for an intoxicating dichotomy, and maybe even a little poetry.

The young people don't stay here, the winter's are long and quiet, and cancer seems as common as a cold. Still there is beauty that makes even the lengthiest winter seem not only bearable, but enjoyable. I like to think I've become an expert at spotting it. I love the old barns that still remain, even though there adjacent farmhouses have long since crumbled. I love the brightly painted seaside homes, flecked with long dried sea spray, and I love the the inexplicable talent of the people that have chosen to stay or come here, the music that pours out of them as freely and easily as water through the levies of a broken down dam.

When the session finally ends around one, Hilda and J.P. are right behind me on the way out to the parking lot. It will be an almost three hour drive for them back to the French seaside village of Cheticamp where they live when they're not on tour.

"Keep at the fiddle," J.P. instructs, "she's a beauty."

Then he turns to his wife, "Great night, huh? Glad we came."

I can tell he means it.

JP Cormier Plays my Fiddle

Monday, October 27, 2008

Destination: Meat Cove

ver since I arrived in Cape Breton, I've wanted to go to Meat Cove. One might wonder why. The name leaves little to the imagination, and rumors abound concerning the local color. I ask you to simply pull out a map of Cape Breton, locate Meat Cove, and there you'll have your answer. The fishing village is the northern most outpost on the island, it's a reels cast from Newfoundland, completely isolated, nearly impossible to get to, and undeniably dangerous. So there you have it. I had to go.

I started hearing Meat Cove rumors the first week I was in Glace Bay. Only one family lives at the outpost, they guard their village, and their traditional fishing grounds with an insane jealousy. They bicker amongst themselves, murder is an annual event, and incest and excessive drug aren't just the norm, but encouraged. The rumors only piqued my interest more, how could a small fishing community harbor such extreme violence and dysfunction?

On Wednesday of last week, my friend Laura, a fiddler from Maine, called me and asked if I wanted to camp in meat Cove, one of the few folks from "away" who was still floating around the island like flotsam after the wake of Celtic Colours, Laura was hoping to see the northern end of the island before she returned to the states. I didn't hesitate to agree to go, and the next day, my host parents waved me goodbye from the front door of my home in Glace Bay...

"Good-bye, have fun, call if you have any problems. If my daughters told me they were going to Meat Cove, I'd tie them up in the basement."

Two hours later, halfway to our final destination, I read a satirical Wikipedia article out loud to Laura that my host-father, Adrian, had found on-line. Alongside the signs that you're in Meat Cove (ex: you have one set of grandparents, you go to a family reunion to pick up women), Oscar Wilde was quoted extensively, and seems to have been a regular visitor to outpost, among various other below-the-belt comments, the Irish play-write is quoted in saying of the people of Meat Cove: "If you can't keep it in your pants, keep it in your family." Halfway through the article an invisible third party seizes the pen, and this un-biased eavesdropper reports a questionable comment made during this now-infamous Wilde family outing: "'You're looking pretty hot'...Oscar Wilde to his brother on a visit to Meat Cove."

"Maybe we should camp in Aspy Bay instead." Laura suggests.

Outside Aspy Bay, we pass through the isolated fishing village of Neil's Harbor. Like many of the rural towns of Cape Breton, Neil's Harbor looks sad. The houses are peeling, the lobster traps are hauled in and stacked by doorsteps like forgotten Sunday papers, while the fishing vessels themselves, noble on the water, tilt at odd angles on their concrete pilings. I think of some of the off-season fishermen I'd met in Kerry, disoriented and bored during the winter months, they cannot think of what to do with bodies that are used to the sway of the sea and the pull of the lines, and so they collapse on barstools, defeated, and wait for spring to come around again.

We rent a Cabin at the Aspy Bay Campground, build a fire and wait for our recently-purchased mussels to pop open and reveal their savory treasure. I can hear the waves complaining at the base of the cliffs, the human lights wink out along the shorelines far below, as the milky-way gains in brilliancy, seeming to lay a mantle down to the brightly-lit Newfoundland ferry that balances on the edge of the sea-line, and appears to be preparing for a departure upon the skies celestial route.

We wake early and drive the extra hour into Meat Cove. Passing the small general store that advertises, ice-cream and candy, but displays no hopeful signs of commerce. As soon as we see the Meat Cove campsite, we thank our lucky stars we decided not to camp there last night. The restless sleeper might have rolled out of their tent and off the cliff, and even worse: the campsite is in plain view of the village. The Meat Covians, would have known we were there...and we would have been the only campers.

Enter Sean, Meat Cove's friendly campsite volunteer.

"You guys don't have to pay." He told us, gesturing to a sign that announces, "$2.00 for the use of picnic tables. "We're pretty much done for the season."

Aside from the absence of a few teeth, Sean seems completely normal. He's articulate, polite, and surprisingly attractive. A one-piece, blue work suit comes to an end at his rubber fishing boots, and his hands are rough and strong from hauling traps. He's guarded and hesitant to speak about the people in his village. I can't blame him, he knows the rumors as well as anyone else in Cape Breton, and it's his family that end as the butt of these jokes. He eventually concedes that fifty people live in the village year-round, that the easiest way to get down to the beach is a path from the far-end of the campsite, and that the outpost is, "great" in the winter.

He encourages us to check out the mural some creative tourists painted on the boathouse a few years back (see picture below) and hands us a brochure that advertises the campground and provides a brief history of the cove's inhabitants: "The MacLellan family has been fishing in Meat Cove for six generations. Come experience the wonder of Cape Breton's most northerly village."

Sean tells Laura the general store has been closed for three years, I miss that tidbit of information and make the trek down to the building, only to discover a dimly-lit room filled with ripped mattresses, beer cans, and cigarette butts. Eventually, we wave Sean goodbye, and make our way back down the island, just in time for the Saturday night dance in West Mabou.

In between sets, I tell a local beef-farmer, Gerald, that I'm staying for the winter. His glazed look of horror stops the conversation dead.

"Do you know...WHAT IT'S LIKE HERE...IN THE WINTER!?!"

Thinking back on this exchange today, I'm reminded of the Cape Breton author, Alistair MacLeod's, shorty story, "Island," set on the lighthouse dwelling of Margaree Island off the coast of Inverness county. The heroine of the story, whose family has run the lighthouse and lived on the islands for generations, when faced with her death, laments not her own mortality, but the end of her people's mark upon the landscape. She cannot fathom that someday, unknowing visitors might not know the nicknames for the rocks and coves, the places where people met and loved, waited, and mourned. I have to think that it's this phenomenon that keeps folks in a place like Cape Breton. It's what keeps Gerald, who knows the fierceness of the winter wind, on the island year round, it's what makes me "tough" for sticking the year out here, and's what keeps the MacLellans fishing the angry black rocks around Meat Cove for yet another generation.

Meat Cove Pictures

Margaree Island
Meat Cove General Store
I think I could get used to this town...
Meat Cove
Neil's Harbour
Is this a road sign?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Channeling Ashley

The Celtic Colours festival began the Friday before last with a performance honoring the Galician bagpiper Carlos Nunez in Port Hawkesbury. I missed the first performance. My mom arrived in Glace Bay earlier that day, and we spent the night at the Vespers by the Sea Bed and Breakfast, in a part of town I have never seen, where the shoreline shelves abruptly out into the sea, and the houses stagger haphazardly towards that sudden drop off into the ocean below. I imagine I'm walking through a half-empty library with no bookends. My mother tells me she has never seen a place so like Bethel Alaska, making me wonder if that was the reason why it all seemed so strangely familiar at times.

Every night for the next eight days there was a concert to attend in a different village around island. On Wednesday evening, after my mother left, I drove to Glendale to attend the, "ceilidh in the glen." At the time, I couldn't remember who was scheduled to play, and I had just about had my fill of driving. At the start of the show, when the lights dimmed, an elderly man shuffled up to the mic and sighed dramatically, "Well folks we've got some great music for you tonight, some Gaelic singing, some dancing, and some fiddling. Unfortunately our scheduled pianist broke her arm a few days back and it isn't quite healed yet, but don't worry, we've brought in Ashley MacIsaac in to sub for her. I think he brought his fiddle too."

Out came Ashely MacIsaac and my bad mood disappeared as quickly as the complimentary oatcakes at intermission. For the first half of the concert, Ashely backed up on piano a young Cape Breton fiddler who was making her first festival appearance, and who subsequently, was shaking as intensely as any one of the hydrant colored leaves along the well-traveled cabot trail ...nothing like baptism by fire, I thought. After all the rumors and controversy I'd heard surrounding one of the island's most famous fiddlers, I expected Ashley to a: either mouth some profanities, or b: expose himself before the night was over. In the end, he behaved like a perfect gentleman, cracked a few g-rated jokes, and brought the crowd to their feet with a blast tunes at the end of the show.

Three days before I'd started the Buddy MacMaster School of Fiddling, and later that evening, I made the sagacious decision not to go to the festival club almost two hours away at the Gaelic College in St. Anne's. I had a lineup of teachers I just couldn't sleep through: Jerry Holland, Andrea Beaton, Wendy MacIsaac, Mattie Rankin, Kyle MacNeil, Duane Cote, Colin Grant, Glen Graham, and Dave MacIsaac. During lunch and after the classes, Kinnon Beaton led group jams until the students scattered at dinnertime for the evening concerts.

At the end of the week, I made it to the after hours festival club, and after four hours of staged performance, three hours of back-stage jam sessions, and five greasy fried breakfasts at five a.m. I became adept in rooting out empty dorm beds that were otherwise reserved for bands. The first night, my fellow freeloaders and I found a room wide open with four empty beds. At one the next day there came a knock on the door, disgruntled, my neighbor stumbled out of bed to answer it.

"Good afternoon! Have the girls left yet?"



Two hours later the bagpipers ceilidh started under our window.

"I forgot that was today." mumbled a voice to my right, "I wonder, is it Nunez?"

"I think it's later than that." Came the response from above.

Three hours later, I got out of bed and went to another concert.

Saturday evening was my last night at the festival club, after the show, all the performers gathered in the backstage room, where a massive session ensued. For more than two hours, some of the best traditional players from Cape Breton, Scotland and Ireland entertained the dwindling party goers. Too shy to join in, I watched a séan nós singer in a trench coat and Kurt Cobain-style mop, bang on a bodhrán, while a Cuban bag piper attempted to revive my high-school level Spanish. After receiving one too many responses in Gaelspirish, he gave up and wandered off.

"You know, you can see where the stories of playing music all night in the fairy fort came from, these people are just in a trance." My Gaelic teacher roared above the din. He had been in a milling frolic performance earlier that day.

"By the way, you how I told you the Gaelic midterm is on Thursday? The bad news's on Monday. The Good news don't have to write it...want a beer?"

At five I found a bed on a couch in an empty lounge on the second floor that doubled as a classroom during the Gaelic language weekends. At two the next day, housekeeping started their rounds, eventually busting in on my makeshift bedroom.

"Good afternoon! When are you heading out?"

"Thirty minutes?"


An hour later, after toweling off with the complimentary bathmat in the communal shower, I headed down the road to the lakeside restaurant to get a slice of German apple pie and free refills on my coffee. Celtic Colours was over, my head was pounding, and even the dimming leaves seemed to reflect the aura of anti-climactic gloom that was settling upon the island. Winter would be here soon. A few minutes later the front door opened and in shuffled the Cuban bagpiping band.

"Buenas Dias. Here alone?"

It would be a good day after all.

Celtic Colours Pictures

The Fall Colors
Festival Club
Backstage Jam
Me at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou

Monday, October 13, 2008

Buddy MacMaster School

I won't be posting today, it's Celtic Colours and the Buddy MacMaster Fiddle School is running, check back next Monday!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Where I'm Bound to Land

When you enter into the Sydney region of Cape Breton, the sign welcoming you into the industrial heart of the island hints at the more than concrete and commerce: "Welcome to Cape Breton regional municipality, a tapestry of cultures." Really, this cultural richness is present all over the island, and I was able to taste a little of it myself last Friday at a dinner party in Goose Cove, a stone's throw down the road from the Gaelic college of St. Anne's.

Last Thursday at Rolly's Wharf, I had dinner with a retired construction worker and closet fiddler by the name of Jim Campbell. The session was in full swing. In between tunes we chatted about our families. Jim comes from a family of ten and most of his siblings are still living and working on the island. He believes Cape Breton changed dramatically during the two years he went away to work as a young man, but he can't say how. Three hours later, the session is still swinging, and I feel like I know Jim's family as well as my own.

Eventually, we were content and comfortable enough to settle in and listen quietly to the tunes. During one of the lulls I noticed a middle-aged man talking to the lighthouse keeper, Paul Cranford. I don't know what made the fellow particularly interesting to me. Maybe it was that I'd never seen him before. His hand-carved walking stick and kind, open face probably helped. He eventually came over and introduced himself. Paul MacDonald was his name, he taught at St. Xavier's University in Antigonish, had worked with another Fulbright scholar years ago, and invited me to sit in on his group's rehearsal for the Celtic Colours festival the following evening.

Dinner time the next day, I went to meet Paul at his house in Goose Cove. I lost cell phone service at the crest of a hill, but managed to find my way down the bumpy dirt road to his small cottage. We headed down the road to Paul Cranford's house, or what he calls home the months he's not out on the lighthouse.

Paul Cranford is not originally from Cape Breton, but his love for the music has shaped his life. When he's out at the lighthouse he practices fiddle constantly, he has put countless books together of Cape Breton tunes, and his website allows anyone accessibility to traditional sheet music. Paul's wife is from Western Canada, red-haired, fair, a musician and artist, Sarah is not originally of the island herself, but like Paul, came for the music and never quite got around to leaving. Their house is beautiful. Light plays softly on the hardwood floors and Sarah's pottery decorates the kitchen. An old parlor piano dominates the dining room, with a bell-shaped mandolin resting atop its cluttered top, tipped precipitously on its side amidst loose sheet music and handmade cards.

A bearded luthier by the name of Otis sat on the far side of the table, his wife directly to my right. When she spoke I thought of the Adirondacks of New York, something in her voice, the kindness of her eyes made me think of friends back home. She tells me later the comes from the countryside of New York, she went to Caffe Lena once and saw Mississippi John Hurt play. She was barefoot and young, and the blues-god was concerned she couldn't afford shoes. Later Paul would let me play the guitar Otis made for him, and I'd run my fingers longingly over the carved knot work on its head.

Eventually, the final band member, Paper arrives. Although his roots are Hungarian, Paper grew up near Montreal, where he was well known on the fiddle scene. Now he lives in Cape Breton and golfs avidly. Paper is slight and serious, he recycles the same few sweaters weekly, and smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. He's the last person I could picture on a golf course. These friends that come from all over, with their various passions and histories, share something priceless: their love for the music and their ability to make it...beautifully.

When the group starts rehearsing, I grab a knitted blanket, wrap myself up, and take a seat on the floor by the living room door. Once they started playing, the music becomes a living, organic thing. Otis has an ear for harmonies, Paul knows a million tunes, Paper plays concertina as beautifully as he fiddles. In between tunes the group squabbled and argued over the set list, but always, the creation is the same, a sharing and blending, that mixes in the pulsing of the walls, the reflections in the window panes, and the slight whistle at the door of the approaching rainstorm. By the end of the night I want to cry. Sarah seems embarrassed that I've witnessed some minor squabbles. I want to tell her that I could care less. That what she shares with her friends is beautiful, that it's something I've always searched for, and that I hope to God to find before I die. I want to ask Otis's wife how she found her way, barefoot from Caffe Lena, to the shores of Cape Breton and to a home amidst this particular grouping of soul mates.

At the end of the night I take the English town ferry home. During the two minute crossing the wind picks up, the deck see-saws and I think for a minute that we're going to be blown off course. I imagine where the ferry would end up if I was carried out to sea, whether or not this particular mixture of wind and rain and deep-running tide would deposit me on the shores of wherever it is I'm bound to land.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

Wharf Session

Erin and Joe Peter

Run of the Mill

At the base of Kelly's mountain, an hour from Glace Bay, the Gaelic College of St. Anne's sits along the serene edge of the great Bras d'Or lake. In order to get there, one has to traverse the precipitous and narrow seal island bridge first. Although locals and tourists alike seem to dread the passage, I always look forward to it. During the crossing I feel as though I'm leaving the industrial part of Cape Breton behind. I've grown to love the feel of the emptiness on both sides of me, I look forward to climb up Kelly's mountain, to the panorama of sea-lake and sky at its peak, and the steep decline that ends in a basin that is the village of St. Anne's.

The Gaelic college is a scattering of wood-frame buildings overlooking the saltwater Bras d'Or. When I arrived late Friday evening, I was greeted by the stars, a welcome sight after a month in Glace Bay, where the night sky is dulled to a muddy orange by Sydney's lights. A contingency of PEI Gaelic zealots had already begun a session in the main hall, where a local guy by the name of Joe Peter, a fluent Gaelic speaker and enyclopedia of tunes, played the fiddle to lone step dancer in the center of the floor. I listened for a while, wandered outside briefly to take in the frosted light on the lake's face, and at 2:00 am when the session finally ended, let the low dip of the half moon rock me to sleep.

I took beginner's Gaelic both days of the weekend. My teacher, Alaisdair was from Judique, Gaelic is his first language, and all his English he learned in school. Like many Cape Bretoners Alisdair moves slowly, speaks slowly, and lets the words of his native language thicken like spring mud at the base of his throat. We learned more than 100 vocab words. Window in Gaelic is uinneag, when spoken it sounds like onion. When I fell asleep in class on Sunday my neighbor nudged me awake shortly before an avalanche of red bulbs came pouring through the skylight. Not surprisingly, my Gaelic is even more appalling than my Irish. No harm done though, when someone asks me something I usually answer back in Irish, they assume I'm either an advanced speaker, or a scholar of ancient Gaelic, and more often than not they leave me alone.

Until the Gaelic weekend I was convinced Cape Breton was devoid of a living singing tradition. Although ballads are rumored to be warbled in the glens of Inverness, Mabou mines, and the North Shore up until the present day, there are no regular singing sessions like those I found in Kerry, and I was a little disappointed that I wouldn't be able to share, in Cape Breton, the musical expression I love the most. My fears have proven to be unfounded, now that I've discovered the island's own version of sean nós on steroids: the milling frolic.

In days past, Cape Breton women would gather around the milling to beat cloth, singing in rythym to make the process a little smoother, a little faster, and a little more fun. Today, Gaelic enthusiasts still gather around a table, they still pass a blanket, and although they aren't doing any work per sá, I can't imagine that the original practice is that much different from its contemporary counterpart. One person will sing the verse of the song, everyone joins in the chorus, and by the end of the night, what was once a perfectly good wool blanket might be stretched and beaten beyond recognition. Often the choruses contain vocables, nonsense words that function strictly as percussive supplements. The melodies are beautiful, and the verses themsleves often a little widow into the culture from which they were born, especially those that come from, "the old country."

Today, I started learning 'Ille Dhuinne Og U, "The Brown Haired Lad." By the fourth verse I noticed something slightly suspicious. The Brown Haired Lad's hair color had changed three times. When I asked my teacher what the deal was, he answered, "You can't expect a Gaelic man to keep the same color hair, can you?" Finally, he confessed that the Gaels managed to avoid the Victorian chastity that still plagues contemporary Western culture today. I like to imagine that I would have been good friends with the author of 'Ille Dhuinne Og U, and that perhaps, at the milling table, in another life, in the old country, we might have exchanged a wink and a smile.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

For the Love of God

My car broke down in Mabou three days before I was to fly to Ottawa. As is now habit, I spent the Saturday night at Jim and Margaret's after the square dance in what has now become, "my bed," while my friend Erin laid claim to the couch. On Sunday, Jimmy gave us a tour of Mabou, showed us a movie of family Christmas ten years ago, and finally dropped us off at the Judique music center to see Buddy MacMaster play, only to pick us up again two hours later after the suspicious buzz at the front of my car mounted to an all-out-roar.

Looking back, I liken the first half of the day to the calm before a hurricane. Halfway to the mechanic's shop...the levees broke...

"So," Jim muttered from the front seat, "I noticed that neither of you girls went to church this morning."


Me: "If it makes you happy Jimmy, I'll go to church with you guys every sunday."

Erin: "Why would I go to church? I don't support organized religion."

An hour later, above the drone of philosophical debate, John Beaton attempted to diagnose the rattle coming from the upper right region of my vehicle.

" looks like there's a wire loose, but I doubt it could be making noise like that."

"Yeah, it's so hip and cool not to listen to authority. You're so hip. You're so cool."
"Why do you keep reverting to "hip" and "cool"? I'm twenty four years old...I don't care about being cool anymore."

It could be one of your front rotors, if you'll just stand back I'll spin the wheels."

"Jesus was the son of God."
"Was he?...Really?...How did that come about?"

"I'd say it's the right tire for sure."

"The love of God."
"You keep saying that. The love of God...what does that mean?!"

"In all my years I've never heard noise like that coming from a wheel."

Two hours later, with the fate and origin of the universe still undecided, and my ten year old Mazda in an even more perilous state, Erin and I drove Jimmy's rusty red ford back to Glace Bay. For the next three days, I waited for the verdict from John Beaton and read up on my orientation reading for my weekend in Ottawa.

The basic theme of the articles was as follows: Canadians and Americans in many respects may look, act, dress, and sound the same, but there are key cultural differences. America is a melting pot, Canada a mosaic. Canadians are more communally focused, Americans, fiercely individualistic, sometimes to the point of selfishness.

While in Ottawa, I attempted to identify for the first time some of these cultural differences myself. While in Cape Breton, I'd been so interested in Scottish, aboriginal, and Acadian culture, I'd neglected acknowledge the possibility of an overall national identity that could encompass them all. Just in the pool of the Fulbright fellows that weekend, an outsider might find an overall "Americaness" as difficult to uncover as the elusive Canadian national identity. The Fulbright fellows of 2008 ranged broadly in age, ethnicity and sexual orientation. One 28 year old graduate student would be spending the winter in an Inuit village studying eating habits, a middle-aged professor would conduct a comparative study of Wal Mart in the neighboring countries, while another young PhD, to "keep his job" would publish a book on Asian/American spectatorship.

"Academia is a bitch." He confided to me the following day in the art museum, before turning to chat to a guard in French.

As brilliant as the gathered group was, few conclusions were drawn on the differences between Canadian and American identity. Socialism aside, judging from personal experience, the people of Cape Breton seem to be as fiercely individualist, and dare I say stubborn, as any American, perhaps with an even stronger sense of self emanating from their well-charted histories.

Sunday evening, while I waited for the bus to the airport, I chatted with a young Killam fellow from Nova Scotia who was about to travel to Europe for the first time. He told me it was senseless to compare America and Canada, regionally, the two countries contain as many cultures as there are stars in the sky. He chuckled when I told him I was in Cape Breton for the year.

"Really? You're all the way up there? Hmm...don't you find Cape Bretoners hilarious?"

"They don't seem any funnier to me than people anywhere else."

As soon as I said the words, I regretted them. My thoughts flew back to John Beaton's auto shop, to the fierce moral debate that ended in a hug, to a red truck with the proud declaration, "this farmer drives John Deere tractors" on its bumper, that was proudly my own for four days, and to a family whose faith in mankind's (or strange woman's) goodness was my saving grace the Sunday before. To an American raised in a somewhat brusque culture, this trust does seem a little funny, while to a Mabou man, easy selflessness, like the "love of God" still makes all the sense in the world.

Orientation Pictures

Outside Mahone Bay
Cape Breton Gaealtacht
Sheraton Session

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I'm heading to Ottawa for the weekend for the Fulbright orientation, so I won't be able to post again until Monday, check back then!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Weekend in Mabou

West Mabou Dance
Kitchen Ceilidh, Me, Erin Martell, Peter MacCinnis

Buddy MacMaster in Judique

West Mabou Set

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Heart of the Music

Last Saturday was overcast, the perfect kind of day for a drive, and so I left in the early evening to explore the small village of Mabou on the Western shore, where the heart of the music lies, and where the Rankin family opened the doors years ago to their now legendary "Red Shoe Pub." The drive over took about two hours, in one hour, I had crossed over the seal island bridge and left the industrial huddle of Sydney behind. The houses became more spread out until they vanished altogether, replaced by sea-lakes and pastures. I passed through miles of pine forest before the farms began to appear, silos silhouetted the darkening horizon when I crossed Skye Glen, and by the time I came to the sign to Mabou, I couldn't have read its famous greeting, "Home to the Rankin Family" without the aid of my headlights.

The Red Shoe Pub sits in the small town center, adjacent to a quiet ocean stream. The pub itself was slow that evening, amidst the stares of curious locals I wrote a few postcards and eagerly awaited the arrival of the musicians scheduled to play at ten. When they did arrive, complete with amplifiers and drums, I started to grow suspicious. At a quarter to a friendly waitress confirmed my greatest fear:" Yep, they play mostly country music. What a shame, we had traditional music last night, but check out the West Mabou dance, they'll have good music there." After writing down some cryptic directions, I left the pub and followed a narrow dirt road out into the middle of nowhere, out into the heart of the music.

The West Mabou dance hall sits at the base of a valley, craggy mountains rise up on all sides, the landscape itself seems to be shaped for amplification, a perfectly suited for the music played in its foothills. I could hear the tunes pouring out of the gold rectangle of the doors from my distance parking spot, and when I finally stumbled my way inside, I couldn't believe that this sound was coming from one player. After two weeks here I've learned that Cape Breton fiddlers possess a drive and aggression unparalleled in any other tradition I've encountered, and that evening the conduit was a skinny eighteen year old by the name of Robbie Fraser. Halfway through the dance, as is common on the island, Robbie switched over to piano, and his pianist switched over to fiddle, each proving to be equally masterful on both.

Unfortunately, there would be few opportunities to listen. I was there to make friends and amidst even more curious stares, elderly farmer after elderly fisherman led me out into the set, until by the end of the evening, my newly acquired step dancing skills could have put Natalie MacMaster to shame. Luckily the people of West Mabou repeat the same set again and again, it didn't take long for me to catch on, and and to adequately respond to the relentless, "so where are you from's?" and "I drove through New Hampshire once, I liked Vermont more."

By the end of the dance, I'd managed to charm my way into a local family's spare bedroom, and over tea and cake, with half the dance in attendance, I got to know a little bit about the culture of West Mabou. Although there were multiple fiddlers squeezed into the couple's small living room, the only fiddle in residence was Ashely MacIsaac's first quarter-sized violin in the basement, and a so a music-free kitchen party ensued.

The people of West Mabou are keenly aware of their Gaelic heritage, they embrace all the qualities that are equated with the Celtic people. They love conversation and music, they're thrilled by the supernatural. In the morning over breakfast we swapped ghost stories, while the man of the house, Jimmy, a fisherman who organizes the Saturday dances, confessed he had never seen a ghost per se, but had experienced Cape Breton's own spin on the Irish banshee, "Oh I've never seen a ghost, but I have hear forerunners, that's the sign that someone's going to die. I remember my mother putting me to bed once when I was little, we heard a racket of people in the kitchen, but when we went down, no one was there. My grandfather died the next day."

Like the people of West Kerry, many of the older population of Mabou are devoutly religious, including my host family...
"So Kyle...are you Catholic?"
" guess I'm...nothing?"
Worried looks exchanged.
" you pray?"
"I guess...not?"
"Well what do you do when you have a big exam?"
More worried looks.
"Do you want to come to church with us in the morning?"

The following morning in church, I reflected on the incomparable hospitality of Cape Bretoners while Jimmy, who showed up halfway through the service, went to join the other mildly hungover men of the upper balcony, "I don't care if you don't pray," he told me afterwards, "your welcome in our home anytime." A few hours later there was an afternoon dance to attend in Judique, a French fiddler graced the stage, then a Prince Edward Island fiddler. While a spoon player used every inch of his body for percussion, a dancer showed off the island's close-to-the-floor, casual version of step dancing. When Jimmy led me out into the final set, the sun was low in the sky, and I still had a two hour drive home. Regardless, I had to smile at his parting comment, "The fiddler you know, he's from Chetticamp, one of the French players...I don't care what he is though...he can still play the Scottish stuff pretty damn well."

Friday, September 5, 2008


My Favorite Lighthouse
Highlands along the Cabot Trail
Village of Man-a-Deau
Beach near Chetticamp
Landscape near Glace Bay

Leaving Yarmouth...I'm already seasick

We All Muddle Through in the End

Cape Breton is not an easy place to get to. It took me a five hour ferry ride (much of which I spent sick) and a seven hour drive to come to the causeway that separates Cape Breton from the mainland of Nova Scotia, a causeway that's spanned by a rickety metal bridge that was not erected until the 1950's. As you travel up the interior of Nova Scotia from the ferry landing in Yarmouth, you get the sense that you're traveling closer and closer to the ends of the earth, and when you finally cross into Cape Breton, this cutoff is complete. To me, this feeling is slightly alarming, but to any Cape Bretoner the crossing is coupled with the comforting sensation of "coming home."

The people of Cape Breton are strongly rooted to their history, and as you travel through the Island, this history lays itself bare before your eyes. The villages speak of the people who traveled across the oceans years before to thrive or just survive, and before that, of those who called this island home for a millenia. Along with a myriad of other cultures, the natives are still here. I pass through a number of villages, with the title, "First Nation" painted beneath their greetings. The houses are modest. Women sit out on the steps weaving, reading, or just staring down onto the roads, dilapidated pit stops advertise "Mi'kmaq Crafts For Sale." It's not until you travel further into the interior of the island, or up along the Western Coast that the Scottish settlements begin to crop up like sentinels, their anglicized names undercut with their original Gaelic titles. Traveling to my new home in Glace Bay I pass the villages of "Iona," "Inverness" and "Ingonish." These towns are predominately poor farming and fishing communities. On one side of the road, rolled hay dries in the sun, while on the other brightly painted fishing boats peel placidly beside their wharfs, seeming to rest themselves in preparation for next summer's brief and frenzied lobster season.

All across the island life seems paused. Maybe it's the holiday weekend, or maybe it's something else...I learn from my host family later this evening that the young people are leaving Cape Breton in droves. It's a common enough phenomenon, they want more than their parents lot in life, more than the back breaking work of hauling lobster traps or the endless dark of days in the mines.

The French have left their mark here as well. My new home town, Glace Bay, was named so for its tendency to freeze in the winter. Once home to a booming coal economy, the mines shut down long ago. Old men shuffle along its potholed streets, watching the rain fall down from darkened store fronts. Their surprisingly youthful faces stare vacantly out onto the main road, they seem unaware of this one gift that decades of work underground has allowed them. On my second day on the island I stop off at the Miners Museum, where an ex-miner by the name of Abbey takes me down into one of the old mine shafts. He tells me of the men he worked with, men from Poland, France, Italy, Scotland, Spain and Ireland. He worked in the mine for thirty five years, his greatest accomplishment is sending his children to school, and though he doesn't look a day over fifty, (he's 72) the years in the mines are stored inside him, and he is reminded of this in his father and uncle's concession to black lung. I ask him where the most music in Cape Breton can be found, and he tells me to head out to Inverness County on the western shore, to the seaside farms and small community halls where people gather to dance on the weekends and play music until the early hours in their kitchens, "just listen for the fiddles and knock on the door," he advises me, "they'll take you in."

Traveling across the Cabot Trail the following day I pass through the French settlement of Chetticamp before dipping down into Inverness. The Acadian French dominate here, the music is French, English is only used to converse with the tourists, and I'm reminded in the landscape of the village of Dun Quin on the Dingle peninsula. The houses look as though they might fall into the sea, the salt adds a translucent glimmer to the air. The fields are an otherworldly green and the sky impossibly blue. A moment later I'm in Inverness, where Abbey tells me, "people still sit out on their back steps with fiddles."

I don't hear any of this back porch music today, but a few evenings later, at a wharf pub in North Sydney, I attend my first Cape Breton session. It starts off slow, but by the end of the evening, twelve fiddlers play together at lightening speed. The legendary Jerry Holland sits next to a lean old man by the name of Paul Cranford, one of the last lighthouse keepers in North America, a walking encyclopedia of tunes and local lore. Stuart MacNeil of the Barra MacNeils plays the piano accordion, while his mother listens on the edges before taking her honored place at the upright piano. Later, she tells me of visiting Scotland and the castle where her people came from, while her son continues to play the music that was more than likely carried across the sea from this site, coveted and passed along like and old wedding photograph or tarnished engagement ring.

This connection to the homeland is nothing unusual, most Cape Bretoners seem to know exactly who their people are and where they came from. What amazes me most, is how splendidly everyone seems to get along. I'd say the rest of the world could do worse than to take a cue from Cape Breton. When the Scottish were kicked out of the highlands in the 1700's, they came in exile to the island, and for once, these new world settlers chose not to repeat their empire's cruelty, and settled alongside the Mi'kmaq peacefully instead. The French, the most zealous and intrepid of the new world explorers, intermarried freely with the Mi'kmaq. This history could be directly linked to the alarming friendliness of Cape Bretoners today, I mention this to Abbey at the coal mines before I leave, and his youthful face beams in response: "it's like you've known us your entire life."