The Welcome,
Celtic Colours 2001
at the Culture & Heritage Centre
of Wagmatcook, Cape Breton, NS
(10 October 2001)

The setting was aboriginal, but Celtic music was the order of the day Wednesday at the Culture & Heritage Centre in Wagmatcook. The Welcome, a concert of Scottish and Irish traditional music, was held in a room surrounded by images and icons of the region's native, not immigrant, past.

Scotsman Brian McNeill, who emceed the show, first proved his "Cape Breton credentials" with a set of fiddle tunes, beginning deceptively slowly before kicking into overdrive for the end. Then McNeill switched to his bouzouki, fiercely played, for "The Yew Tree," a song he wrote in 10 minutes after finding the ancient tree about 15 miles south of Edinburgh. (McNeill's introduction to the song was at least as long as the song itself!)

Before introducing the next act, McNeill lauded Cape Breton's devotion to its Scottish heritage. "I don't think I have ever seen the Scottish traditions so alive as they are on this island," he said. "As a Scotsman, I am so impressed." McNeill pondered whether "the soul of Scotland shifted to this place" with the immigrants who made Cape Breton their home.

The Eskasoni Fiddlers, a group of native Mi'kmaq men steeped in Cape Breton's Celtic fiddle traditions, were next on the Wagmatcook stage. The men -- four fiddlers and a keyboard player -- were a band of few words, playing somewhat timidly at first but growing quickly in confidence, power, unity and tempo as their set progressed. One fiddler, introducing a set of jigs, said there were "Irish, maybe some Scottish" tunes in the set, but "I don't think there's any Indian in there."

This ensemble of Mi'kmaq musicians demonstrated admirably how music can cross cultural boundaries. Perhaps not as refined as other musicians in the concert, they certainly put as much heart into the music as any Celtic band could have done.

Aoife Clancy, a gorgeous Irish singer with a powerfully expressive voice, started her program with a Scottish song: "Are Ye Sleeping, Maggie," based on a poem by Robert Tannahill. Clancy, late of Cherish the Ladies, is currently backed by Christy O'Connell on guitar and Lawrence Nugent on flute and low whistle. She followed up with a pair of Irish songs, "Moll Bawn" and "Rambling Boys of Pleasure," before turning the stage over to "the lads" for a set of reels.

Clancy finished up with two more songs: "Dance Alone," a sultry torch song written by O'Connell, and the traditional "John o' Dreams," pepped up from its usual slow pace.

After a brief intermission, the Irish band Danu -- apparently renowned far and wide for their quality tea-making -- took the stage for a high-powered climax to the show. The seven-piece band didn't take long setting the stage on fire with lively instrumental medleys, starting the reels collectively called "Think Before You Think Before You Speak." They also punched out a jig set called "Peggy's Nettles," written by guitarist Noel Ryan for his mother's painful efforts to wake him. Ciar‡n O'Gealbh‡in then set aside his button accordion to lead the band in song.

The band is led by fiddler Ois’n McAuley and flute and whistle player Tom Doorley. Other bandmates are Brendan McCarthy (accordion and melodeon), ƒamonn Doorley (bouzouki and fiddle) and Donachadh Gough (bodhran and uilleann pipes).

The Irish band thoroughly won over the Cape Breton crowd with its performance. Although offering primarily instrumental sets such as "Cameron Highlander" and "Sporting Nell/The Maid Behind the Bar," O'Gealbh‡in did a few more songs: "An Paistin Fionn" in Gaelic and "Easy and Free," a.k.a. "Jock Stewart," with its well-known sing-along chorus.

Everyone returned to the stage for a final, unrehearsed set of tunes sandwiched around Clancy's and O'Gealbh‡in's grand duet on "Wild Mountain Thyme."

The Welcome was an excellent show of diverse traditions. The presentation was marred only by a group of men, including a couple of the Eskasoni Fiddlers, who spent much of the show talking loudly in the back, apparently oblivious to the performers on stage and the glares from patrons in the last few rows. It was certainly uncharacteristic of Cape Breton, where audiences are unusually attentive to music.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 17 November 2001