Natalie MacMaster:
keeping on her toes

An interview by Tom Knapp,
July 1995

Natalie MacMaster has no trouble keeping her fingers and feet moving at odds.

The high-energy Celtic fiddler from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, performs highly intricate Scottish stepdancing while she plays. That kind of coordination didn't come easy to the young Canadian. A stepdancer since age 5 and a fiddler since age 9, she didn't combine the two talents until about three years ago, when she and some fellow performers did it on a lark. "It's not common," she said during a telephone interview from Halifax. "Ever now and again you'll see some of the younger fiddlers trying it."

Usually not successfully, she added. "In the beginning I had to concentrate," MacMaster said. "I couldn't do very many steps and I couldn't play very many tunes. It's not a concentration thing anymore. It just happens, and whichever way it goes, it goes. ... It's a real crowd-pleaser."

Usually MacMaster plays the tunes and her audience does the dancing. Until recently, most of her live performances were for crowds of folk dancers.That's a relative rarity these days, MacMaster said. Now with three CDs to her credit and a fourth on the way, she said she's doing more concert performances and fewer dances. "I grew up playing at dances," she said. "The Cape Breton sound is so dance-oriented, it helps you get your sound down, and your timing. I don't do them as much anymore, but I like to do the odd one now and again. It keeps me on my toes."

MacMaster grew up in the Cape Breton area, which owes much -- especially a strong music tradition -- to its Scottish roots. Rumor has it that Cape Breton has more fiddlers per square mile than any other place on Earth, and MacMaster believes it. "You only have to go there to know that it's a very good possibility," she said. "That's why I love it."

There can never be too many fiddlers, she added. "You're very busy if you're a fiddler at home; they're very much in demand," she said. "All the young people that have taken up the fiddle in the past few years -- it's just amazing. They're all excited about it, they want to make careers of it."

Fiddles are riding a wave of popularity that's bringing Celtic folk music back into the mainstream, she said. "Everybody, I think, can relate to a fiddle," MacMaster said. "Maybe it just triggers something in them that reminds them of home. Plus, fiddle music is very, very lively. There's a rhythm and a pulse in it that you don't hear in any other kind of music. There's a purity to it."

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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