The Cape Breton Fiddlers
at the Gaelic College,
St. Ann's, NS
(10 October 2004)

The CBC didn't know what it was starting when, in 1972, it aired a documentary titled The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler.

Cape Breton didn't realize its long fiddle tradition was fading. Some folks still argue that the documentary exaggerated its claim. But it wasn't worth the risk, and fiddlers young and old flocked together to form the Cape Breton Fiddlers' Association, a body designed to promote Cape Breton-style fiddling and other island traditions. More than 30 years later, the organization is still going strong.

The Sunday afternoon concert at the Gaelic College in St. Ann's was emceed by radio personalities Wendy Bergfeldt and Bob MacEachern. To get the show going, they introduced a pair of fiddlers representing the oldest and youngest of the team, 10-year-old Douglas Cameron and 92-year-old Billy Matheson. OK, so they weren't quite in unison, nor was their set entirely polished, but they embodied the spirit that the association was formed to preserve.

Today, there are about 500 association members, and 40 of its fiddlers filled the stage Sunday under the direction of Ed Rogers. Rogers doesn't direct with a podium or baton, by the way, but by calling directions to the group from its center, with a fiddle tucked under his chin.

Soon, the entire group kicked into higher gear, racking through well-practiced tunes with aplomb as the symphonic sound of many strings swept through the packed house. After a handful of medleys en masse, it was time for a few solo presentations, starting with Larry Parks, a CBFA member "since the beginning of time," who proved himself as deft with a pick as a bow, playing mandolin with pianist Doug MacPhee. Next, young fiddler Leanne Aucoin played an exceptional set paired with Troy MacGillivray on piano. (The pair traded instruments before returning in the second half.)

Tomorrow's great fiddlers are today's children and teens. Fifteen of them in the association's youth group were next. It's easy to expect one of those infamously grating school recitals, where every other note falls a hair's breadth from the true -- but this group, halting and unrefined, showed surprising promise, even more so after picking up the pace for a strathspey and reels. The group kept the music going as a half-dozen of the fiddlers stepped to the front to prove their skill at stepdancing, too.

It all left MacEachern feeling "old and inadequate."

Renowned pianist Doug MacPhee had a set in the spotlight, then an Acadian trio (fiddle, guitar and piano) took the stage to demonstrate some of the island's cultural differences. Then, after a short break, the full body was back on stage for a blast of jigs, then reels. "This is one hell of a place to be if you don't like fiddle music," joked Joe MacNeil, who broke from tunes to sing a medley of Alistair MacGillivray songs.

The St. Peter's Youth Group featured three young girls, ages 13-14, all of whom play the fiddle, two of whom stepdance. With Leanne Aucoin again on fiddle, Stephanie MacDonald gave a brief exhibition of the dance, strictly traditional in the utterly still upper body and placid expression (which cracked only once, when members of the audience gave a particularly appreciative hoot).

As the afternoon wound to a close, Dougie Carmichael sang an a cappella Gaelic song of farewell, followed by a return of the massed fiddles. "We love to play, and we love people who love it," said director Rogers. During the final tune set, local dance leader Burton MacIntyre formed a set with four ladies from the audience (The Burtonettes?), followed by eight more dancing fiddlers and a well-deserved ovation.

"There is a generation of young people coming up who are doing a fabulous job of keeping the tradition alive," Bergfeldt said during a pause in the music.

Case in point. Front and center, a 7-year-old fiddler looked utterly petrified, and her bow barely moved on the strings. But, given the association's goal of fostering interest and imparting expertise, it's likely that girl will be headlining a Colours event a decade or so down the line.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 30 October 2004

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