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Liz Doherty talks about Cape Breton music – not as simple as it seems

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Cape Breton - Photo by Pete Heywood

Pamela Irving talks with Donegal fiddler and musicologist Liz Doherty about Cape Breton music after an intermediate / advanced fiddle workshop she gave at the Celtic Arts Centre in Judique.

Liz grew up in Buncrana, Donegal, where she studied step dancing and played several instruments before specializing in the fiddle. She finished school in 1987 and studied music at University College of Cork. Under the tutelage of Michael O'Suilleabhain, she learned several tunes per day at sessions hosted by the college. The liberalization of the arts in general, and O’Suilleabhain’s progressive attitudes toward traditional music within the academic arena were a draw for many young musicians at the time.

While at university, Liz confesses to having ‘skived off’ studies for a few weeks to tour with the Donegal fiddlers and supported Alistair Fraser in a gig. He played many Cape Breton tunes, “I was just blown away by the music,” Liz says. Upon her return she was surprised that O'Suilleabhain condoned her travels, given that she was learning more about traditional music, albeit not within the university setting.

In 1991, she graduated top of her class. With a Bachelor’s in music, she was uncertain as what to do next. She was discussing this dilemma in O’Suilleabhain’s office while he was opening his mail one day and as they talked, he opened a package that contained Natalie MacMaster’s first cassette recording. They had a listen, and Liz really liked what she heard. She told her professor that she would like to live in Cape Breton for a year, and immerse herself in the music. He suggested she pursue post-graduate work about Cape Breton fiddle music.

Excited by the possibilities, Liz headed across the waters and for the first three months, she just listened, played in kitchens, studios, and village halls, but over the next four years, Liz’s master thesis became a doctoral thesis for the University of Limerick (1996), “The Paradox of the Periphery-Evolution of Cape Breton Fiddle Tradition.”

What initially struck Liz most about the music was the piano accompaniment. She met and played with the late John Morris Rankin and was very impressed by his piano in particular. He, on the other hand, Liz jokes, kept asking ‘Why do you play the fiddle so darn fast?’

Cape Breton ‘vamping’ is very ornamental, compared to the sparse piano accompaniment in most Scots and Irish music. “While the fiddle is more pared down, the piano is the opposite,” Liz explains.

Liz listened and learned with an open mind. As she spent more time listening to the fiddle and piano style, playing among the best like Jerry Holland and Brenda Stubbert, and researching the social history of the Cape, she began to form her own ideas about Cape Breton musical tradition. “It’s not that Cape Breton music was pure and static, it’s that the music had developed along parallel and different paths than Scottish music.”

According to Liz, several historical influences on Cape Breton made it was it is today. In the early twentieth century, the introduction of the piano, coupled with Cape Breton’s strong relationship to Boston, brought in jazzy influences. Migration between the Cape and Boston was frequent. Bretoners often went to Boston seeking work in times of high unemployment, bringing back the sounds they had heard there.

This insight was very enlightening. I had been listening to fiddle piano duets all week, marveling at the flourish, the complexity of the piano, unlike any piano I have heard in other celtic music. Breton piano is rich, and so dominating it competes with the fiddle. To me, the piano is equal to the fiddle in setting the tone and the ‘bounce’ that makes Cape Breton music so distinctive.

It is true that Cape Breton fiddle music survived for over a century with very little direct contact with Scotland or Ireland, but the repertoire was limited by the lack of access to Scottish music. In the twentieth century, Scottish music collections like Scott Skinner’s were brought over from Scotland by Dan R. Macdonald, a Breton fiddler who had been serving in the Canadian army in World War II and got access to materials that way. “Bretoners were literally starving for the injection of new tunes, and when they got the collections, they played the tunes on the fiddle in the Gaelic old style,” Liz explains. While many of the tunes were new to them and played in old style, the piano accompaniment was more complex due to the Boston influence.

From kitchens to formal music classes

In the 1950’s, ballads often sung at kitchen parties led the musical tradition, moving to instrumental sessions in the sixties. Migration from rural outposts to cities put strain on rural traditions, music included. By the 1970s, there was recognition of the musical tradition, from within and outside of Cape Breton, accompanied by fear that it might disappear.

Formal training began to replace learning by ear at home; opening up the tradition to more girls, as fiddling had traditionally been a male sphere. Formalised training also rigidified styles, as students worked hard to imitate their mentors.

By the 1980’s, Cape Breton was gaining significance on the celtic global map, and by the early nineties, Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac were ‘blastin’ a few tunes’ on the international scene. In 1996, inspired by Celtic Connections in Glasgow, the first Celtic Colours festival took place. Today, the bridge across the waters is a busy one, with musicians coming to play from all over the celtic world.

Exciting times indeed, but do not look too closely outside of the music halls and the ceilidhs. Family fishing boats still fill the harbours, but the mines are closing or closed. Bretoners are still forced to migrate to find work, no longer to Sydney or Boston, but mostly to the province of Alberta - a mere 5,000 kilometers away - to work in the oil patch. Without tourism, festivals and a serious injection of federal money, Cape Breton culture would still be at risk.

I would like to add to Liz’s theory of musical dialectics. The next pivotal period in Cape Breton music is the influence of world roots music. Due to its evolution and formalization, Cape Breton music today has a very distinct stamp. It still tends to be very much a fiddle and piano tradition, despite the ‘out there’ music by the likes of Ashley MacIsaac and Slainte Mhath. With younger musicians coming into their own musicality and confidence, the next step seems to crank it up a notch by embracing other roots influences enhancing their own traditional music without fear of losing its essence. Perhaps that is the challenge in all traditional music today.

I grew up in Canada, watching regional nuances and cultural influences get sucked away by economic necessity and Americanisation; a country that was built on colonization and trade, a country so large and sparsely populated that most of us never go to Cape Breton, let alone cross it in its entirety. (If we are going to spend that kind of money, we go to Mexico.) A country where buddy from Toronto isn’t really all that different from buddy from Calgary; class and ethnic origin are more telling than regions.

That’s what makes the Maritimes ‘other’ both within and outside of Canada, – it is insular in many ways, still on the periphery, still somewhat old worldy; a wee jot on the map, where distances are small, old fashioned churches and graveyards are plenty, and poverty rates are the highest in Canada. - No wonder they talk funny and still play ‘da fiddle. To have lost that musical tradition would have been one more tragic casualty of Canadian cultural history. In the meantime, it is something we all feel proud of, showcased around the world, it’s only getting bigger and better. And that can only be good.

Buy Liz Doherty CDs from The Listening Post