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Celtic Colours International Festival - Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia - 5-13 October 2018

It’s seven years since we last made the trip across the Atlantic to Celtic Colours, and we were mightily impressed then, so we were glad when at last we were able to make a return visit to the beautiful island of Cape Breton, just off the north-east coast of Nova Scotia in Canada.

Held at the beginning of October to coincide with the beautiful autumnal changes appearing in the vast acres of maple forests covering the landscape, the first thing you notice as you leave the confines of the airport is the wall of colour that makes this area so special at this time of year. As we travelled from Halifax (the main international airport in Nova Scotia) towards the Canso Causeway that would bring us onto the island of Cape Breton, the colours became more extreme with each mile – rich and vibrant reds, oranges, purples and golds as far as the eye could see in most places. It’s a scene that words like “spectacular” and “breathtaking” were made for. Fortunately for us, the festival events are scattered throughout the many communities on Cape Breton Island, and getting to them involves a fair amount of driving, so there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy this stunning scenery throughout the nine days of the festival.

The next thing you notice after arriving, and just as striking in many ways, is the people. From the minute we crossed the Causeway and stepped into one of its cosy roadside diners, we were greeted like old friends. The genuine warmth of the welcome we felt by people in all the communities throughout the week was palpable: from the staff in hotels and cafés, to the volunteers working at the events, the local people out to enjoy the atmosphere, and the punters sitting next to you at the concerts, there was an overwhelming feeling that people were glad to have you around, and were glad to be together. It really was like being in a home from home – not something you experience everywhere.

But we were there for the music and with 49 main concerts to choose from, as well as hundreds of community events across the island, there was no shortage of that. The loose theme of this year’s festival was “connected” – through place, music and relationships. Somehow a week at Celtic Colours brings something of all three of these kinds of connections together.

Crossing the causeway, that physical ‘bridge’ that literally connects Cape Breton to the mainland, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland, such is the similarity in landscape in parts, and the similarity in place names – Inverness, Glencoe, Glendale, Iona, Boisdale. The connection with Scotland is evident, and a consequence of history, as many Cape Bretoners’ ancestors came from Scotland at the time of the Highland Clearances. As a result, the music of Cape Breton is also clearly connected to that of Scotland, although the Scottish influence has been added to by other musical flavours – French Acadian, Boston and Mi’kmaq influences, for example - creating the style we know as distinctly ‘Cape Breton’ today.

The connection between the descendents of Scottish immigrants and the First Nations people living on the island is also celebrated during the festival. Artists from both are involved throughout the week, with several events being hosted in the First Nations communities, giving visitors the opportunity to experience something of their culture and traditions.

The connection of relationships here at the festival is also very evident. I’ve already mentioned the warm welcome we received as visitors to the island. But there is also a strong family-like feel within the ranks of the performers taking part during the week - between those who are part of the Cape Breton landscape, and those whose relationship is based on these cultural connections – artists from Scotland, Ireland, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and elsewhere. These relationships are encouraged by a series of special projects curated by the festival to celebrate that kinship between artists from all over the world, and some of these proved to be highlights throughout the week. But more of that anon.

The festival began with the opening concert, Fiddles On Fire, in the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre, a huge 2000 seat ice hockey arena, also used for conferences and events. As with most of the concerts at Celtic Colours, this show was sold out long before the festival started (some of the shows did so in a matter of minutes – eat your heart out Bruce Springsteen!). The evening began, appropriately, with the two artists in residence for this year – Paul MacDonald from Cape Breton and Allan MacDonald from Scotland. They were joined by Rona Lightfoot and Mairi MacInnes from South Uist in the Scottish Hebrides – all old friends of the festival. Scotland’s Blazin’ Fiddles took to the stage next and played a blinder of a set. Theirs is a slick show, visually as well as musically, and they produce some wall of sound when they get going; they played the hairs off their bows – literally! It would be a tough call to follow that, but Natalie MacMaster was just the woman for the job. She began her set by paying tribute to the many piano players who have provided the backbone for the Cape Breton sound over the years. One by one, six different players joined her in an extended set of tunes, relay-style, ending with all six accompanying Natalie’s fiddle – two to a piano. Later, she was backed by a full electric band (drums, bass, piano, guitar), and at other times the accompaniment was more traditional in style. In a set full of surprises, she was joined by two of her seven children on fiddle and feet, and she also shared the stage with Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw in a beautiful Gaelic lament. Equally at home covering the stage like a rock star or sitting in a small huddle around the piano playing her Uncle Buddy’s tunes, Natalie is a Cape Breton legend, and the crowd loved her.

After the big opening celebration, we deliberately chose to go to some of the smaller concerts (though none is small, really) and this year that really paid off. Held in churches, fire-halls, legions and cultural centres, and hosted by local community groups, these were a bit more intimate than the arena style concerts. With several main events to choose from every day, the highlights were too many to list here. But some memories remain strong.

We arrived at a concert in Wagmatcook, one of the First Nations communities in Cape Breton, just as a “smudging ceremony” was taking place. In this ceremony, the Mi’kmaq people direct the smoke from burning “medicines” (consisting of herbs used for ceremonial purposes) over their faces, heads and backs with a feather. This ritual is designed to purify the body and the space around, and calls upon the spirits of the sacred plants to drive away negative energies. All the people attending were invited to join in – most did, in a very respectful manner - and while the ceremony was progressing, around 10 men from the Indian Bay Singers sat beating a central drum and singing songs from their tradition. The following concert featured a mixture of Mi’kmaq, Métis and Celtic traditions, and included singers, musicians and dancers from the Denny family, from the Eskasoni First Nations community, who sang songs collected in their archives and communities, and who demonstrated some of the dances used for different social occasions by their people. It was a privilege to experience all of this, in this particular place, and it felt like a very appropriate expression of the festival theme of “connection”.

Boisdale is a small community on the shore of the Bras D’Or Lake. Around this area a tradition of writing Gaelic songs and poetry developed over many years, and eventually a collection of these songs was created, known as The Bards Of Boisdale. Local musician and researcher, Paul MacDonald, is very knowledgeable about these songs and their history, and with help from fellow artist in residence, Allan MacDonald, shone the spotlight on them for a night in Boisdale in one of the aforementioned specially curated events. Cathy Ann MacPhee, Kathleen MacInnes, Rona Lightfoot, Mairi MacInnes and Allan from Scotland, joined Paul and Cape Breton lass, Sarah MacInnes, to showcase these songs alongside some of their own repertoire, and there was more Gaelic singing as Breabach finished off the evening – with top-class musicianship, exciting arrangements, three great singers, two sets of highland pipes, and even a dancer, they have it all! Their version of Dick Gaughan’s Outlaws And Dreamers was a highlight (and a wee bit of respite from all the Gaelic for those of us without it!). It ended up a fantastic evening. There seemed to be a high proportion of local people in the audience that night - people who knew the local songs and were singing along – and that added to the warm, informal feel. There was also the most amazing spread of homemade oatcakes and cheese, scones, tea and coffee at the interval which was a real treat.

Another special event was Voices Of The Naomhóg, a show inspired by Irish musician and singer Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich’s recent journey from Ireland to Spain in a traditional Irish rowboat known as a Naomhóg. Breanndán teamed up with Cape Breton fiddler, Rosie MacKenzie, to assemble a group of musicians and singers from both sides of the Atlantic who spent the weeks before the festival building two Naomhógs, with the help of Mi’kmag craftsmen. While doing so, the artists put together a selection of tunes and songs connected to the sea and such voyages, and these were presented in two shows - one on Monday evening in Baddeck, and the second on Thursday evening in Iona, across the Bras D’or Lake. Between the two events, Breanndán, Rosie and their team successfully sailed one of the boats from Baddeck to Iona, where the boat took pride of place for the second concert at a beautiful hilltop church in Iona. The setting was spectacular, but the music and song on that evening were even more so. Breanndán and Rosie were joined by Breanndán’s son Conchúbhair on accordion, Liam Holden (who was on the Ireland to Spain boat as well) on bodhrán, Troy MacGillivray on piano and Kenneth MacKenzie on pipes and whistle (both local-ish lads and incredible musicians), and two of the best Gaelic singers you could find - Mary Jane Lamond (from Cape Breton) and Kathleen MacInnes (from South Uist). Material covered included tunes that Breanndán wrote whilst rowing the boat, a Scottish Gaelic rowing song that Kathleen had tried out whilst on the journey from Baddeck to Iona, and a beautiful love song sung by Mary Jane that, for me, was the song of the week!

In a quirky twist of fate, we happened to be wandering around Baddeck getting our bearings when the Naomhóg was first launched into Baddeck Bay, and we saw the delight in the faces of all present to see it holding its own out on the water. A magnificent achievement, and the resulting musical collaboration was really very special – so much so that some of the tunes and songs were incorporated into The Grand Finale on the last night of the festival.

In a festival of this size, it is impossible to see everyone (though a nightly visit to the Festival Club, where all the artists turn up at some stage, would be a good way of catching most people). In addition to those already mentioned, a few that we saw stood out.

Of the Cape Breton artists, there was a great vibe about Còig – a four-piece comprising Chrissy Crowley, Rachel Davis, Jason Roach and Darren McMullen who seem to have grown up in and around the festival. They were lively, fun and very Cape Breton in their approach and style. Brenda Stubbert is something of a Cape Breton institution, and it was a pleasure to see her – equally at home on piano or fiddle, she joined Còig for a rendition of Jerry Holland’s now classic Brenda Stubbert’s Reel – a wonderful moment. The trio of Miller MacDonald Cormier was also very special. I often say that the music coming out of Cape Breton sounds more Scottish than most of that you’ll find in Scotland, but in contrast to those Scottish bands who are trying to re-invent the music in some clever way, it was an absolute pleasure to hear this trio play good solid tunes on fiddle, pipes and guitar, and play them well.

Celtic Colours always has a good proportion of artists from beyond Cape Breton, and of those Alex Kusturok, a Métis fiddle player from Manitoba, impressed. As someone who is currently struggling to learn the fiddle, I was in awe of his bow-hand. He played a set with Brenda Stubbert on fiddle and Jason Roach on piano, and though he seemed a bit in awe of their musicianship, he was well fit for them. The Young’uns made their first trip to Celtic Colours and went down a storm with their peerless harmony singing and on-stage shenanigans. I have it on good authority that their festival driver had to pull over within minutes of them getting into the car as he couldn’t drive for laughing! And I was thrilled to get the chance to see the Savoy Family Cajun Band in an area steeped with much Acadian history, D’Escousse. Barnsley’s Kate Rusby headlined The Grand Finale, and no doubt made many new admirers, but sadly we were back on a plane east at that point.

One aspect of the festival that shouldn’t be missed is the Festival Club. Held nightly in the Gaelic College in St Anne’s, it doesn’t start until 11pm, but it is worth the late night to experience the laid back atmosphere and the slightly less formal performances from artists. Singer, songwriter and compere extraordinaire, Buddy MacDonald, has been at the helm since the festival started in 1997, and it’s worth getting there early just to hear him kicking the show off each night. A lasting memory for me was seeing Cape Breton fiddle legend Ashley MacIsaac making a surprise appearance to finish off the club one night. Accompanied on piano by cousin, Wendy MacIsaac, it was hard to believe the sheer energy that came from just these two people on stage – it was electric, and probably my high point in a most incredible nine days of music.

Our Celtic Colours top tips….

- Baddeck or St Annes are fairly central on the island and are good places to be based. There are lots of hotels, motels and lodges around that area.
- To get the most out of the Celtic Colours experience, you will need to be able to get yourself around the island, so access to a car is essential. Remember that in Canada, you drive on the right hand side of the road and most of the cars are automatic. Be prepared to drive fairly long distances – it’s often over an hour’s drive from the concert venues back to the central points of Baddeck / St Annes.
- If you have time, take a day to drive around the Cabot Trail – the views are breathtaking, with lots of opportunities to see wildlife (moose, deer, eagles, whales).
- When you get out into the smaller communities, there aren’t lots of places to eat. Make use of the Community Meals in the programme. These are a great solution to the problem of feeding the influx of visitors to the area, and they are friendly, sociable and have great food. We had an amazing Thanksgiving dinner at one this year. Try to book in advance though, as they often get sold out.
- The festival runs a free bus from various hotels in Baddeck to the Festival Club at the Gaelic College each night, and it returns regularly until around 4am – so you can relax without worrying about driving. The journey will usually be accompanied by an ‘interesting’ choice of music, and is normally very good fun!
- The festival club also sells some great food late night, courtesy of local business Stand & Stuff Your Face. I tried a Canadian delicacy, poutine, here – basically chips with gravy and cheese curds! Or you can also avail of an all-night breakfast in the wee small hours in the Gaelic College canteen.
- There aren’t too many pubs around Cape Breton (although The Red Shoe in Mabou is well worth a visit for music). Try the Canadian Legion in Baddeck for a friendly pint if that’s what you are looking for.
- Try to get to a dance during the week – there are several. Music and dancing are still so connected in Cape Breton, and what better way to understand that connection than to have a go.
- There are some open sessions in the programme, but they are comparatively few and fairly spread out. There is an open mic in the Yacht Club in Baddeck every afternoon and the chance to sing or play there. It has a nice atmosphere and a good selection of beer.
- Just go – you won’t regret it!

More info:

We travelled to Halifax, Nova Scotia from Dublin via Montreal with Air Canada. Flights are also available to J.A. Douglas McCurdy airport in Sydney, which is the biggest town on Cape Breton Island. We hired a car from Enterprise at Halifax airport and drove to Baddeck, Cape Breton (a 3 ½ hour trip). We stayed in The Silver Dart Lodge in Baddeck which had a great range of accommodation and was friendly, helpful and clean.

The 2019 festival runs from 11-19 October.

by Fiona Heywood