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.

"Well...it 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?"
"Um...no...I guess I'm...nothing?"
Worried looks exchanged.
"Well...do 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."