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Rachel Davis: In The Footsteps Of Masters

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The Cape Breton fiddle style is famous the world over, with many names being synonymous with it - Brenda Stubbert, Natalie MacMaster and the late Jerry Holland to name but a few. But there is a new generation of young fiddlers emerging through the ranks, and they are following in the footsteps of these masters, bringing the tradition to new ears with great skill and passion.

Rachel Davis, from Baddeck in Nova Scotia, is fast earning herself a reputation as one of the most talented and respected of these young fiddlers to emerge from Cape Breton Island in recent times. With a well received debut album and a Canadian Folk Music Award nomination for Young Performer Of The Year 2010 already under her belt, it appears that nothing is insurmountable for this fresh young talent. I caught up with her after a Celtic Colours concert in the Gaelic College in St Anne’s, where she had shared the stage with several other young Cape Breton artists. The enormous talent emerging from this small island is something to behold, and Rachel is a prime example of how the tradition is being carried forward from generation to generation, having learnt much of her fiddling from her grandfather.

I asked Rachel how it all began. “I started playing the fiddle when I was 12, and was taught by my grandfather, Clarence Long, who also lives here in Baddeck. I’ve been listening to him for as long as I can remember – he used to practice tunes in his house all the time, and I spent a lot of time there. I had heard the fiddle being played lots, but I never really had any huge interest in it till then. My parents tried to get me going on it when I was smaller, maybe six or seven, but I think I managed a few bars of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or something like that, and then said ‘I’m not having that!’ I started again when I was 12, and practiced a lot with my grandfather – pretty much every day for the first year or two.”

Rachel Davis
Rachel Davis - photo Jim Byrne

“The rest of my grandfather’s family were pretty musical too. They played at a lot of concerts and dances – he was originally from North Sydney. His brother plays guitar, the other brother plays fiddle and my grandfather plays both guitar and fiddle. Other siblings played and danced too. My grandfather on the other side of the family was also a fiddle player. I never met him, he died when I was quite young, but I hear he was one of those people who could just pick up an instrument and play it.”

Being immersed in traditional music clearly had a grounding effect on the young Rachel and she went on to learn more about the fiddle and also to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Celtic Studies at Cape Breton University. In addition she has studied Cape Breton stepdancing, bodhran and Gaelic singing at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts. Singing is something she does from time to time. Gaelic songs are a big part of the tradition in Cape Breton, and Rachel makes a good job of one on her self-titled debut CD. On Dh’fhalabh Mo Rùn ’s Dh’fhàg E ‘n Cala (My Love Has Left the Harbour) she enlists the help of her her mother and grandmother as well as other local Gaelic singers to help her out in the chorus – another example of how Rachel is acutely aware of the strength of tradition that has been passed down to her.

But the fiddle is definitely Rachel’s first love, and she is keen to soak up as much as she can from the wealth of players around her. “You learn something from every fiddler you go to see, at a dance or at a concert or ceilidh. That is part of the fiddle tradition here – you listen to as many different fiddlers as you can, because while it is all still Cape Breton style fiddle playing, everybody puts their own unique interpretation into the fiddle tunes. The tradition is really strong here, and especially when you are in the middle of Celtic Colours, you see how many awesome fiddlers there are in Cape Breton. There are so many people to learn from and be influenced by.”

And Rachel has come to be so highly regarded within Cape Breton as a fiddler, that in 2009 she won the Frank “Big Sampie” Sampson award, given by the Celtic Colours Festival Volunteer Drive’ers Association. This is a bursary given by the Association each year to an up and coming Cape Breton artist looking to make their first recording. “I applied for it in two consecutive years. The first year I didn’t get it. I was relieved I suppose, because that gave me a whole other year to prepare and improve. When you do something as big as a recording, you want to make sure that it is right, that you are really practiced and prepared, because when you go into the studio you don’t want to waste any time. I was thrilled and honoured to be following so many other great musicians that won the award – Colin Grant was the first one to win it, then Jason Roach and also Dawn and Margie Beaton – it’s quite an impressive line-up.”

“Tracy Dares MacNeill plays most of the piano on the CD - she is completely amazing - and Joey Beaton does three tracks on the piano too. Buddy MacDonald handles all the guitar work, and Bronagh Graham, who I met at Cape Breton University on exchange from Limerick, plays banjo on a couple of tracks – she is an amazing banjo player. Ciarán MacGillivray who plays with the Cottars plays bouzouki on one set, and my grandfather came in and recorded a double fiddle set with me, as did Megan Burke.”

“There are a couple of my own tunes on there, but I really don’t write that much. I am always happier playing traditional stuff. It is neat to sit down and write your own tunes, but I was never a person that they just kind of came to - I always have to work hard at it. I have to sit down and say, ‘OK I am going to write this tune’, and turn on the recorder and play out a few notes here and there, and if I think anything sounds good I just keep going. I could have an hour of music recorded and then I listen to it over and see what bits I like. It is little bit more of an effort, but it is always really rewarding afterwards.”

Having listened to many young Cape Breton artists throughout Celtic Colours, it seems that while they all give a very strong nod to the tradition, many of them are becoming a lot more progressive in their style. Rachel does not appear to be one of these though, and tends to stick to the more traditional side of things. “Yes, I guess I do. There are a lot of friends of mine who are playing traditional tunes, and taking them to places they have never been before, and also writing lots of their own tunes. That is completely awesome, but I just think there needs to be a balance in there somewhere. I guess I like sticking to the traditional stuff because that is what I have always enjoyed, and I like it in the form that it is in, so I am happy playing the tunes that way. Everybody wants to put their own little spin on it, just to make their music kind of unique, but I guess I like to keep mine fairly traditional. That’s just me though – it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what everyone else is doing. That’s just what I do.”

Buddy Macdonald
Buddy MacDonald - photo Pete Heywood

In some ways, the very fact that Rachel is not trying to be different actually makes her different, and this can be quite refreshing. She comes across as very at ease on stage, and this is aided by her partnership with Buddy MacDonald, with whom she plays regularly. Buddy is a singer, songwriter and guitarist, and his relaxed manner, along with his sympathetic guitar playing and excellent songwriting, complements Rachel’s fiddle playing well.

“Buddy and I have such a blast - he is awesome! We have been playing together for about five years. We met at a jam session in Baddeck - there used to be tunes at the local Yacht Club every Friday. I remember it so well; I landed with my mum and dad, because I wasn’t old enough to be going there, so I had to have them with me. I must have been about 16 at the time. I remember having just come from a gig and I was so tired, I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to go home, but my mum and dad said I should go because they knew Buddy was going to be there – they knew him from school. So we landed, and I was cranky and tired; but I met Buddy, we played tunes together and I was instantly awake. I love his style of guitar playing – it’s so rhythmic, and the more he gets into it, the more I get into it, and vice versa. We always feed off of each other really well. We started doing gigs, then we got more, and now we are travelling all over.”

“We do our own solo stuff too, but we like collaborating. It has worked for us, and we just get along so well. We don’t rehearse too much, but we have a real freedom where we can get up on stage and go with the flow a bit - we know where the other person is going to head for. It is really nice because it is so relaxed.”

Buddy and Rachel made their debut at the Blas Festival in the highlands of Scotland this year, and Rachel clearly enjoyed the experience of meeting and playing with other musicians from another strong tradition. “I met Brian ÓhEadhra at Celtic Colours last year and talked to him about the possibly doing Blas, and who else could come. Buddy was an obvious choice, and Jeff MacDonald, an amazing Gaelic speaker and singer came over as well, so that kind of covered the Gaelic end of things, which is such an important part of the festival. Jeff and I did a couple of Gaelic songs together in the show as well – it was a really great time.”

In many ways Blas is a similar festival to Celtic Colours, particularly in the way it takes place in various locations scattered throughout the Highlands, so was it a home from home for Rachel? “It’s the same kind of concept, and it was great because we got to see so many beautiful spots. I had been to Scotland once before, but I had never got any further North than Inverness. We were playing in all these different places, from small community halls to the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, which was beautiful too. We got to see so many little communities all over the highlands.”

Blas gave Rachel the opportunity to broaden her knowledge of international fiddlers. “Until I went over for Blas, I wasn’t really familiar with all the Scottish fiddlers. We did a show with Duncan Chisholm, he totally blew me away – I had never heard him before, although he had been here for Celtic Colours a few years ago. Buddy and I did three or four shows with him, and he was really amazing. Music that can touch the soul, I guess. I have learned a couple of tunes that he played in his sets. We also did a couple of shows with Gerry (banjo) O’Connor - he played fiddle too, my fiddle actually - and I have had his CD going in my car ever since.”

Rachel Davis
Rachel Davis - photo Jim Byrne

“I’m getting more into international artists now, especially when they are here in Cape Breton. I did a show with Chris Stout and Catriona Mckay, who are also completely amazing. That’s another wicked thing about this festival - we get so many international artists coming over, and we learn lots of tunes and hear so many unique things when they are here.”

Rachel has also been busy touring with some other Cape Bretoners under the name “A Taste Of Celtic Colours”, helping to promote the festival further afield. “We did a tour last August - New Hampshire, the American Folk Festival in Maine, Maine Highland Games, The Skye Theatre – there was myself, Colin Grant, Darren McMullan, Jason Roach and Chrissy Crowley. We did several theatres and house concerts, for a week and a half and put together a whole little repertoire. One of the Drive’ers from the Association, Jim Campbell, drove us down in his RV, so we were all loaded in together with all of our instruments, and we got to play and work out our sets on the ten hour drive down – the time flew by, learning each other’s tunes and putting sets together. It was a fun tour to do.”

With her degree now behind her, and a career in music ahead, it will be interesting to see what is in store for Rachel Davis. One thing is for sure – we will be seeing her!

Rachel's website

By Fiona Heywood