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