Step Into the Past
at the Fortress of Louisbourg,
Louisbourg, Cape Breton
(10 October 2005)

I had heard wonderful things about this event, and since my husband was with me for this Celtic Colours, we decided to go and were more than happy with our decision. I now know why despite having the steepest ticket price of all the events, it quickly sells out every year -- Step Into the Past is an astounding musical and cultural experience complete with a delicious meal, an extraordinary concert and time travel.

The evening started with all ticket holders driving in a caravan from a cemetery parking lot into the fortress grounds. The weather was a bit cold and rainy, but this just added to the ancient atmosphere. We traveled back in time to the 1740s as we entered one of several dining rooms with candlelit tables. Our salmon dinner was given to us by English- and French-speaking servers dressed in period clothing. Even the dishes and utensils were similar to what was used back then. Excitement began to build after dessert as the much-anticipated walk to the chapel was to soon begin.

The rain fell harder as we were led down a lantern-lit path to the chapel. It felt as if we truly stepped into the past. The period dinner was just a warmup for what was to come. I thought my excitement may have been giving me auditory hallucinations of pipe drones, but then I really did begin to hear Highland pipes in the distance -- I then became worried we were missing out on something, but one of the Celtic Colours volunteers holding a lantern eased my fears by saying, "Those pipes are for you." As we walked to the concert, we were all being welcomed by Angus MacDonald and his son, Allan, who were playing outside the chapel doors.

My first glance of the sanctuary took my breath away and filled me with emotion. It was beautifully lit with candles -- I don't think I ever saw so many candles in one place. Everyone quietly took their seats. Cape Breton's Lt. Governor Myra A. Freeman was then given a pipe escort to her seat by MacDonald.

All of the musicians were on stage seated in chairs. The concert had a round robin format so the performers didn't leave the stage during the concert, which allowed for plenty of interaction and smooth transitions. The acoustics of the chapel made me understand how with proper set-up and talented performers, music was thoroughly enjoyed without electricity and amplification in the past and still can be today.

Robert Deveaux, dressed in clothing the French inhabitants of the Louisbourg would have worn, welcomed everyone in French and English from the speakers' box high on the left side of the chapel. An accomplished musician himself and fluent in French, Deveaux was a perfect choice for narrator.

Margaret Bennett performed first and showed why she is known the world over for her storytelling and Gaelic singing. Despite not understanding more than a few Gaelic words, I was able to follow the songs' plots. Prior to each song she vividly told the story behind it. Her incredibly expressive singing style and exquisite voice drew the listener in -- her entire body gracefully moved with the words while her facial expressions and voice intonations embodied the emotion of the song. I felt as if she were singing grand, beautiful stories just to me. (I'm quite certain the rest of the audience felt the same.) I got lost in songs such as "Uamh an Oir/Cave of Gold" and "Cumha Mhic Criomain/MacCrimmon's Lament" and forgot I can't understand Gaelic. I can still see and feel the power of her performance when listening to these songs at home.

Dave MacIsaac and Carl MacKenzie played several sets of lovely tunes. Once the audience felt comfortable making a joyous noise in a church, the foot stomping began. Their playing filled the room with wonderful sounds of guitar and fiddle. It was easy to see and hear why MacIsaac and MacKenzie are two of Cape Breton's musical treasures.

I knew while listening to MacDonald's pipe playing, I was hearing one of the best in the world. His son, Allan, was with him on stage and sometimes accompanied him. For one set they stood front and center a few feet apart and faced each other while playing. This gave an incredible stereo-pipe effect I hadn't experienced before.

Le Vent du Nord wowed the audience (including festival director Joella Foulds, as evidenced by her grin and inability to sit still) with their high energy vocals and musicianship. They played a number of songs and tunes including the upbeat "Au Bord de la Fontaine" and the slightly slower-paced, "Marguerite." Benoit Bourque showed his stepdancing prowess and, despite disparaging himself as being a bigger and heavier dancer than most and sounding "like he's going to war" while dancing, he was quite light on his feet and a joy to watch. He and the rest of the band (Nicolas Boulerice, Olivier Demers and Simon Beaudry) never stopped smiling during their performance or while others played.

All the performers looked like they were enjoying each other's music as much as the audience was -- this really added to the extraordinary vibe of the concert. Bennett often closed her eyes and swayed to the music. Demers had to take off his tap shoes between Le Vent du Nord's numbers as he couldn't keep his feet still. Smiles and nods of encouragement were given across the stage.

Everyone again took turns during the finale, but a very unique a cappella performance featuring Boulerice and Bennett enthralled the audience. Boulerice had climbed up to the speakers' box when no one was looking while Bennett remained on center stage. I don't know what they were singing, but it was beautiful as they vocally volleyed back and forth; Boulerice sang a verse in French then Bennett responded in Gaelic -- this went back and forth a few times. The chapel was completely filled with their voices and I was filled with awe.

From the moment I arrived, I struggled to keep my emotions in check -- the performers were not immune to this either. Bourque said he had many emotions just walking around the fortress before the show as he had ancestors who lived at Louisbourg. Bennett said she sat down in the chapel before the performance and was overwhelmed with emotion.

The entire evening was magical. My biggest and only complaint of the entire evening was that despite stepping into the past, I moved forward back through time entirely too fast.

by Erika S. Rabideau
7 October 2006