Kate Dunlay & David Greenberg,
Traditional Celtic Violin
Music of Cape Breton

(DunGreen Music, 1996)

If you love the Cape Breton style of fiddle playing, I can recommend any number of recordings where you can get your fill. But if you want to dig a little deeper, explore the roots of the music and see for yourself just how fiddlers from coastal Nova Scotia play those tunes the way they do, you need to check out Traditional Celtic Violin Music of Cape Breton by Kate Dunlay and David Greenberg.

Probably the most useful section of the book is the first 23 pages, which include an interesting and detailed history of Cape Breton's musical tradition and its development from its Scottish roots.

The section also explains Cape Breton modality and its nonstandard scale progressions, the solo fiddling tradition ("a personal expression through the use of ornamentation" employed mostly by single performers, not the groups more common in Irish and old-time sessions), the use of medleys, intentional "mistuning," audible foot tapping, and various bow grips and bowing styles. Cape Bretoners, the book explains, tend towards articulated bow strokes instead of the Irish slurred style.

The book explains how bow ornaments (digs, whips, fat-flats, drones and loops) and fingered ornaments (slashed and unslashed grace notes, slides and warbles) give the region's music a distinctive sound.

For a beginning fiddler, or a fiddler just starting an exploration of Cape Breton traditions, this section is invaluable. For fiddlers eager to skip ahead and start adding to their repertoire, the fun begins on page 25. That's where the tunes are found: 139 transcriptions of Cape Breton traditionals, all highly ornamented and written down as played in the individual styles of fiddlers like Buddy MacMaster, Mary MacDonald, Donald MacLellan, Donald Angus Beaton, John Campbell and Alex Gillis. Recordings of these tunes as written are available on an accompanying CD (not included as a part of this review).

Besides the tunes themselves, each page includes information for finding various published and recorded versions of the tune, the tune's origins, variations of its name and specific quirks of the version (or versions) printed.

The book concludes with a discography of recordings mentioned in the text, a bibliography, printed Cape Breton music collections and sources for buying books and recordings.

If you're simply looking for new tunes to play, there are better tune books on the market. (Bound as it is in large trade paper format, it's hard to play directly from the book anyway.) But if you are excited by the sound coming out of Cape Breton and want to learn more about the tradition behind all those flying fingers and fancy feet, this is an excellent place to start exploring.

(Although it can be hard to find, Traditional Celtic Violin Music of Cape Breton is available from Cranford Publications.)

[ by Tom Knapp ]