The youngsters just keep on coming, and it's a lovely thing to see.
In 1971, when I moved to Cape Breton, I didn't realize that I was immigrating into the Canadian Gàidhealtachd – the only remaining Gaelic district outside the British Isles. I had been raised in a Scotch broth so dilute that I knew nothing of the music, the heroic legends, the poetry or any other aspect of the culture of my ancestors.
Cape Breton was a revelation. At my first Broad Cove Concert, I heard someone on stage crack a joke in Gaelic – and 15,000 people laughed. These folks were Scottish in a way I could barely imagine.
And then there was the music. Hearing Celtic music was like coming home for the first time. I didn't stop loving Bach, the Beatles or the blues – but this new music reached far inside me and plucked strings of emotion I had never known were there. In some mysterious fashion, it was my music, and it spoke immediately to my character, my temperament, my spirit.
But the music, it seemed, was in danger. A film-maker named Ron MacInnis had recently aired a documentary called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, and the island was reeling at the idea that the jig might be up, so to speak.
And so began a concerted effort to celebrate the music and enlist a new generation of players. Led by Father John Angus Rankin, the Cape Breton Fiddlers' Association was formed. It organized a couple of spectacularly-successful mass concerts at Glendale. The Association also encouraged a gifted teacher named Stan Chapman, and by the 1980s, a whole crowd of Chapman's young students was taking the stage at the Scottish summer concerts – Jackie Dunn, Tracey Dares, Kendra MacGillivray, Stephanie Wills, Wendy MacIsaac, Glenn Graham, Rodney MacDonald and others.
I remember being particularly delighted by two teenage players at a Big Pond concert: a slender girl with tumbling blonde ringlets and a very proper young man in white dress shirt and red tartan tie. Both of them played like angels on fire. The girl was named Natalie MacMaster and the boy was Ashley MacIsaac.
The Chapman Generation is now in its thirties, at the height of its power. This month, the Celtic Colours festival included a concert in Judique called “Wendy's World,” centred on Wendy MacIsaac, and featuring many of those same young people. Mary Jane Lamond sang, Stan Chapman was in the audience, and Ashley MacIsaac delivered a blistering, passionate performance which prompted his cousin Wendy to remark that he was “simply the best fiddler in the world.” At that moment, probably nobody in the hall would have disagreed.
So we're all right today. But what about tomorrow? Who's coming along now?
For me, that was the big news from Celtic Colours this year. The show in D'Escousse featured the Alberta band The McDades – and also the remarkable Jerry Holland, one of the most eloquent and melodic of all the fiddlers. But the show was opened by 16-year-old Krysta MacKinnon of Dundee, already a self-confident and accomplished performer – a fine player now, with a long future ahead of her.
The concert in St. Peter's consisted entirely of musicians 26 or younger. Two were from Scotland -- Calum Alex MacMillan and Catriona Watt, a piper and Gaelic singer respectively. The other six were Cape Bretoners. There were four fine women fiddlers, all of whom were also step-dancers: Leanne Aucoin, Rachel Davis, Beverley MacLean and Chrissy Crowley. The youngest player, Douglas Cameron, was just 13, already a veteran who described himself as an “all-purpose” fiddler, capable of handling weddings, dances, concerts or whatever other assignments might be handed to him. But when he was asked to step-dance, he resolutely shook his head.
But the most remarkable performance of the evening came from 23-year-old Jason Roach, a pianist from Cheticamp. Cape Breton pianists are superb musicians, but almost all confine themselves to “chording” – accompanying the fiddlers with pulsing rhythms, liquid runs and great sweeping chords. The only major exception I know is Dougie MacPhee, a legendary figure precisely because he is an accomplished solo performer, playing the tunes with his right hand while accompanying himself with a powerful rhythmic left hand.
Jason Roach does the same thing. He has studied with some of Cape Breton's finest pianists, notably Maybelle Chisholm, and he also has a degree in music from St. Francis Xavier. He is a dazzling performer who plays at sizzling speed, with arms and fingers of rubber. Yet he also has a musicality which serves the tunes rather than overwhelming them. I have never seen anything like him. Like J.P. Cormier on the guitar, Roach does things on the piano that I wouldn't have believed possible.
The kids just keep on coming. It's a wonderful thing to see.
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