Re-rockin’ the 902: Met an old friend for the first time, and ushered for the final time.

Saturday (10/19/13) was an exceptional day. I met up for a cup of coffee with my friend and fellow blogger Leah Noble, of the blog Dream Big Cape Breton (follow it, folks, it’s awesome). In addition to blogging Leah is hard at work, as both a full-time student and an entrepreneur. But she was kind and gracious, and carved out some time for coffee. I’d been reading Leah’s blog and swapping emails with her for a year now: it seemed like we were already old friends.

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IMG_1136I had some time to kill before heading off to my final ushering gig, at the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion on Sydney Harbour (the home of The World’s Largest Fiddle). Leah suggested I explore “up the hill”  from the harbour, which features some wonderful Victorian-style homes. I strolled around, and she was right: unfortunately my point’n’click camera didn’t cooperate. A stop for new batteries, and then off to the concert hall.


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. – Pamela Irving, The Living Traditon

Most Cape Breton fiddlers make a claim that would cause musicologists to cock an eyebrow, though they might acknowledge there’s some truth in it. They say their style is more authentically Scottish than what’s played in Scotland today. The island’s inhabitants are immensely proud of that fact, as attested to by the presence of the world’s largest fiddle and bow on the Sydney waterfront. The mythology, greatly simplified, goes something like this: 18th-century Scottish émigrés, fleeing British persecution—forced land clearances and worse—settled in Nova Scotia and lived in relative isolation as fiddling in their homeland became anglicized. – J. Arthur Bloom, The Ümlaut

In 1972 the CBC aired a half-hour documentary that conveyed the message that traditional Scottish-style fiddle music in Cape Breton was in decline and would soon die out. The film, “The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler,” argued that modern music was more popular with the young generation of the 1960s and 1970s and that, as a result, transmission of the style and tunes handed down from Scottish immigrants to Cape Breton would be broken. Following the broadcast, momentum gradually developed to counter the message in the documentary. The first Festival of Scottish Fiddling was held in July 1973, a Cape Breton Fiddling Association was established, and opportunities to learn traditional music became more widely accessible to people of all ages, thus allowing the Cape Breton music tradition not only to survive but also to evolve in new and exciting ways. – Marie Thompson, Acadiensis

IMG_1140Saturday night was the big finale concert of the festival. It marked the 40th anniversaries of both the Cape Breton Chorale and the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association.

My introduction to the fiddlers’ association years ago was completely coincidental: on a previous trip to Cape Breton I spent a Sunday afternoon exploring the Gaelic College, when I heard the haunting strains of fiddle music. I followed the sound to a large hall wherein sat at least 40 to 50 fiddlers and a similar number of listeners. In front sat a piano player and stood a caller with a fiddle: the caller would announce the name of a melody, launch into it, and all the fiddlers would join. Some knew the melodies already, some less so, but after a couple of repetitions they sounded like they all had played it for years. The caller would then announce another melody, and without even a moment’s break they would start the process again.

(I wasn’t sure if I was intruding on this rehearsal. But within moments I was not only welcomed, but was offered food and drink!)

Cape Breton fiddle playing is recognized as a distinct style in the world of fiddle music. Thousands of experts have written thousands of books and articles about Cape Breton fiddling. If they have trouble succinctly defining the style, some Minnesota dude who knows virtually nothing about fiddles isn’t going to do much better! But I’ll try, aided by Wikipedia:

Cape Breton fiddle playing is heavy on the accents. It’s characterized by driven “up-bowing,” or making more string contact with the thickest part of the bow that’s closest to the hand. It has a strong downbeat, driven by the fiddler’s heel against the floor. It features small trills or “ornaments” that are similar to those played by the Highland bagpipe, which was the primary instrument used for dances before the fiddle came along. Drones, doubling, and trebles are shared ornaments between the fiddle and the pipes. Not surprisingly, it also features ornaments that are characteristic of spoken and sung Gaelic language. Up till recent times Cape Breton fiddling was taught and learned and passed on individually, between families and friends, as is the tradition with most folk music.

It’s really quite amazing, what the Fiddlers’ Association has been able to do. Every Cape Breton fiddler of any level of fame has played at some time with the association, and many still do, even the world-famous ones. Instead of the style dying off as the CBC television show’s dire prediction held, young Capers have figured out what a wonderful thing they have all around them, right in their own back yards. If you spend any time at all with young’uns, you know what a rare thing it is for them to grasp a deep appreciation for the culture of their parents and grandparents. As a youngster I certainly would not have developed such a revelation. It all has to do with knowledge and valuing and appreciation and celebration of one’s culture.

(Clip is from a previous performance.)

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