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.