Whycocomagh Gathering
at the Whycocomagh Education Centre,
Whycocomagh, NS
(11 October 2003)

Over the past three days, I'd been far too many hours on the road. I rolled across the Canso Causeway today at lunchtime, so I'd managed a few moments to relax, settle into my Baddeck apartment, grab a bit to eat at the Yello Cello and, yes, even snooze a bit before shaking off the last bit of drowsiness and zipping down to Whycocomagh to pick up my media credentials and see my first show, the always excellent Whycocomagh Gathering.

And what better way to make myself feel right at home in Cape Breton again than with Buddy MacDonald?! Since my first visit here in 2000, Buddy has been the epitome to me of this island's rich voice, and his songs are woven tightly into my impressions of the music. Tonight, Buddy took the stage with longtime friend and collaborator John Ferguson, perhaps best known for his involvement with the Maritimes band McGinty. The two together worked their magic and brought me home.

John started the show with "Fly, Canada, Fly," then Buddy -- complaining that his guitar had gone out of tune since he bought it -- sang his popular "Six Strings and Me." The songs featured two voices, warm and perfectly matched, and two guitars, which remained perfectly in synch throughout their portion of the show. Then John switched to fiddle for a set of tunes inspired by his fellow musicians, Mary and Sharon Shannon from Ireland and Phil Cunningham from Scotland, at last year's festival. It was my first taste of Cape Breton fiddle on the trip, and again, it served as a nice welcome back. The duo concluded their portion of the show with Dougie MacLean's "I Feel So Near" ("I just hope that Dougie is doing one of my songs tonight," Buddy confided) and a sing-along novelty piece, "Will the Turtle Be Unbroken."

As the stage was reset for the next act, emcee Burton MacIntyre ran through a tour of the world, finding people in the audience from many provinces, states and several European countries who'd traveled to attend this event.

Then it was Newfoundland's turn as A Crowd of Bold Sharemen took the stage, kicking things off with a lively dance set driven first by Jim Payne's accordion, then Colin Carrigan and Gerry Strong on fiddle and flute. Fergus O'Byrne, the band's token Irishman, played his bodhran like he was putting out -- or maybe starting -- a fire. Fergus sang "The Banks of Newfoundland" and Jim offered up "The Sealer's Ball," a tale of a pair of drunken lads ashore marked by great vocal harmonies on the choruses, before the next instrumental set, a series of tunes by Newfoundlander Rufus Guinchard and featuring Graham Wells on accordion.

This fine, well-received band wrapped up their too-short set with "When We Was Boys," a spirited look at the island through an old-timer's eyes, and "Captains and Ships," a strong, a cappella inventory of the harbor in St. John's.

After a brief intermission, the stage took on an international flavor with Carlos Nunez and his band, returning to the festival for their second year from the Galician (Celtic) region of Spain.

Carlos, a flamboyant showman, began the first bouncy tune on low whistle, but he ran through a broad range of whistles, flutes and pipes before the show was done. An excellent musician on all counts, he also benefits from a strong backing band, including Pancho Alvarez on bouzouki and mandolin, and his brother, Xurxo Nunez, on percussion and keyboards. Fiddler and singer Begona Riobo could easily dominate a stage on her own; working with Carlos was magic.

Half the fun of this show was simply watching Carlos at work, swapping instruments rapidly and directing his musical cohorts like a fey conductor, looking to be in a constant state of rapture through his music, of gratitude to the audience for its enthusiastic appreciation.

During one of the act's few vocal numbers, Begona cut loose with a gorgeous singing voice, totally unlike anything you'd be likely to hear in the Celtic or Maritimes traditions, yet fitting so neatly into the format of this multicultural festival. Pancho also got a chance to show off his strong vocal pipes in a lively song of romantic misadventure.

Carlos kept things moving, playing an Irish hornpipe and a few zippy reels, with riffs so fast as to defy all reason. Wow. Then it was off to Cuba, where he discovered a surprising Celtic subculture in 1992 while recording Santiago with the Chieftains. At one point, he introduced the gaita, Galicia's own style of bagpipes, which takes less lung power than its Scottish cousin. "The Scottish, they blow much more than we blow," he explained. "The Irish, they don't blow. They can play the uilleann pipes and drink the Guinness with one hand."

The show also included a lovely tribute to Derek Bell, the famed Irish harper who died last year, and the Chieftains, "our friends and masters," with whom Carlos has toured and recorded. All four members of the band proved themselves capable of incredible intricacies throughout the show; Xurxo did an amazing job of percussion on a wooden stool that had to be seen. A set that easily could have been the show's climax -- and earned the band a well-deserved standing ovation -- was only a hint of music still to come. Next, Begona led the audience through a delicate, skipping dance to the accompaniment of a Breton set; the dance seemed to infuse the band with even more energy, and soon Carlos and Pancho were high-kicking as they played. After a second standing ovation, Carlos exhorted the crowd: "Are you here for fun? And music? It's not over yet!" Four young stepdancers and dance master Burton MacIntyre -- a tireless local treasure -- kept time in one corner of the stage.

Then it was time for the rousing finale, with Buddy, John and the Sharemen -- plus Nerea Gourlaouen Alonso, one of the teenage dancers, on fiddle -- jamming away on a brilliant tune-and-song medley. Everyone had their turn, including Burton with a bit of, I don't know, Cape Breton rap, and Nerea, who seemed very surprised when Carlos pushed her to the fore.

I've come to expect great things from Whycocomagh, and this year was no exception. Celtic Colours 2003 was off to a fantastic start.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 25 October 2003