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CELTIC COLOURS: There Is No Getting Away From It

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Nine long days and nights, 45 concerts, over 250 other events in 33 communities around Cape Breton Island, Celtic Colours is certainly not for the faint-hearted! But it is a gem of a festival that proudly boasts its Celtic roots and showcases the music of the island which is very much alive and kicking.

Just off the North East coast of Canada, Cape Breton is a picturesque island, not unlike some parts of the Highlands of Scotland in many ways. It is vast, rural and encompasses many small communities with strong culture and traditions. The similarity to Scotland is obvious from the moment you cross the causeway – place names, people’s surnames, road signs in Gaelic, the landscape, the friendly welcoming nature of the people – and then you hear the music, that immediately recognisable Cape Breton sound that is at once incredibly Scottish, and yet totally unique with a life all of its own!

Celtic Colours - Cape Breton
Celtic Colours - Cape Breton - photo Pete Heywood

For the duration of the festival, concerts take place in different towns all over the island, held in various centres, halls and churches. This makes the festival quite different from those that are based in one place - as a visitor, it encourages you to travel, and see what there is to see around Cape Breton, and believe me, there is plenty. The colours of the trees in the fall are every bit as spectacular as you would imagine! And the Cabot Trail is a must - with incredible scenery and of course the chance to search for that ever elusive Moose! But for Cape Bretoners, having the festival events scattered throughout the island gives local communities the chance to take ownership of them – and they do, giving a real sense of community to the whole thing.

There are many ways in which this festival is quite unique. One of the most noticeable of these is not directly to do with the music or the culture, but to do with the people, specifically the volunteer drivers. Each year, a dedicated team of drivers spend their Celtic Colours driving the length and breadth of the island making sure the artists get to where they need to be, and getting them home again, often involving late nights and long drives. But, as if that wasn’t enough, they are also in attendance at every concert, where they sell the CDs for the artists. They take a small cut from the proceeds, but not for themselves! Each year, with support from Lakewind Sound Studios, they use this money to give a grant to a young Cape Breton artist to enable them to record their first CD and kick-start their musical career. The Frank “Big Sampie” Sampson Award is named in honour of an inaugural member of The Festival Volunteer Drive’er Association, and they are rightly very proud of the work they do. At many other festivals, drivers are just drivers, but there is a definite status given here, and a respect akin to that given to artists! Drive’ers wear their badges with pride, and it is widely acknowledged that the work that they do is an integral part of the development of both the festival and the young musicians. I found this to be one of the things that sets Celtic Colours apart from other events, and again is an example of how the Cape Breton community has really adopted the festival as their own.

Celtic Colours - Rachel Davis and Buddy MacDonald
Rachel Davis and Buddy MacDonald - photo Jim Byrne

One artist to receive the Drive’ers award is Rachel Davis, a young fiddler from Baddeck who was the recipient in 2009. She was one of the fine Cape Breton acts showcased at this year’s festival. She plays regularly with guitarist and singer-songwriter Buddy MacDonald, and together they play well chosen, balanced sets of tunes and songs. Rachel plays tunes in the old style, no messing about with them, and was a delight to listen to. Buddy writes songs from the heart that have you singing along instantly – I am still singing them weeks later, testimony to their strength and to Buddy’s ability to deliver them in a real heart-warming way. Buddy also seems to be a bit of an institution! He hosts the festival club at St Anne’s every night (which is quite a feat in itself) and seems to be a real inspiration and encouragement to some of the younger musicians that are cutting their teeth in and around the club.

Another past recipient of the Big Sampie is Jason Roach, piano player extraordinaire from Cheticamp. We saw him playing with various people during the week and he never failed to amaze. The Cape Breton piano style is quite distinct and characterises a lot of the music from the area. Jason embodies that style, and is a joy to watch – his hands flying up and down on the keyboard while his feet are stomping the floor with that good old Cape Breton beat, another characteristic of many Cape Breton players. This music is meant for dancing, indeed the style of playing comes very much from the dance tradition, and there was plenty of dancing throughout the week, both on the stage and off it.

Celtic Colours - Natalie MacMaster
Celtic Colours - Natalie MacMaster - photo Jim Byrne

The festival concerts themselves were all well varied, with a good mix of local artists, others from surrounding areas like Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Quebec, and Celtic artists from Scotland and Ireland. As you would expect of a festival of this stature, the standard of music was excellent, with no expense spared to bring the best of the best to the stage. Local legends like Rita MacNeil, Natalie MacMaster and Brenda Stubbert were given pride of place, and were amazing to see in their natural habitat. Cape Bretoners are rightly proud of these great ambassadors of their music, and it was quite moving to see the affection with which they are seen and the respect they are given. I’m not sure many other places mirror this to the same extent.

De Temps Antan are a three-piece band from Quebec, who are following in the footsteps of La Bottine Souriante and Le Vent Du Nord with the typical Québécois style of music accompanied by dancing feet! Their music and songs were full of life - energetic, fun and, dare I say it, sexy! They looked like they were having a ball on stage and it was infectious: it was impossible to sit still. We saw them in a really intimate theatre in Louisbourg and the result was electric – the venue really made it! The venues throughout the week varied in size and atmosphere, my favourites being the smaller ones, which had far more sense of community. It was obvious that while there was a large amount of visitors, the local contingent in each place was also out showing their support. Each night, there were Community Meals held close to the venues, where people who were travelling could go and eat, but also where people from that locality could show off some of their traditional delicacies. We found ourselves at one of these in Petit De Grat, a French speaking area of the island, where we had the most beautiful Acadien Meat Pie Supper – probably the best meal of the whole week, and we even came home with the recipe!

Celtic Colours - Time Edey
Celtic Colours - Time Edey - photo Jim Byrne

Celtic Colours - J P Cormier
J P Cormier - photo Jim Byrne

Celtic Colours J P Cormier
J P Cormier - photo Jim Byrne

Each year the festival hosts a Guitar Summit where some of the best in the business come together on one stage, for a guitar extravaganza. JP Cormier and Dave MacIsaac, both local(ish) lads, were joined this year by Tony McManus, John Doyle and Tim Edey. The resulting concert was one to remember. We were treated to some incredible stuff – from Tim’s gentle Si Beag Si Mor, to JP’s fantastic renditions of Mission Impossible and the Beatles’ Daytripper. John sang a version of Rounding The Horn with a really rhythmic, almost Nic Jones-y style of accompaniment. All were providing backing for each other, in a not-altogether rehearsed way, but it worked! I have to say though; Tim Edey stole the show (in fact he made quite a habit of doing that throughout the festival). His unassuming, almost nervous demeanour, and his cheeky grin really endeared him to the audience, and his guitar work was incredible. He seemed genuinely in awe of the players around him, but it was clear from the way he seemed to be everyone’s accompanist of choice (all through the week too) that the feeling was mutual.

Celtic Colours - Niamh Ni Charra
Celtic Colours - Niamh Ni Charra - photo Jim Byrne

Celtic Colours - Catriona McKay
Celtic Colours - Catriona McKay - photo Jim Byrne

Ireland was well represented by some great artists including fiddle and concertina ace Niamh Ni Charra, harpist Laoise Kelly, and Donegal divas, T With The Maggies (Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Moya Brennan and Triona and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill). The Scottish contingent was also strong, with Chris Stout and Catriona McKay (who were two of this year’s Artists In Residence) and piping supergroup Seudan, amongst others. Musical highlights were numerous, but one worth mentioning is the pairing of Brendan Power and Tim Edey. Brendan truly is a master of the harmonica, and makes it do things that shouldn’t be possible. The pace and accuracy with which he can play tunes is simply stunning. The interplay between him and Tim, either on guitar or button box, was nothing short of breathtaking. They took the festival by storm this year!

The Festival Club takes place every night in the Gaelic College in St Anne’s, about 20 minutes drive from Baddeck. (Baddeck is probably the most central place to stay for the festival with a good range of accommodation.) A free shuttle bus is put on each night, ferrying people from Baddeck to the club and back again, and we found this journey to be one of the highlights. The bus driver, Ed, played DJ each night, and chose a selection of songs to suit the occasion, ranging from Stan Rogers’ Barretts Privateers, to the slightly more ridiculous The Wheels On The Bus! It made for a memorable experience, and the punters loved it.

Rosie MacKenzie, Donogh Hennessy and Tim Edey.
Rosie MacKenzie, Donogh Hennessy and Tim Edey - photo Jim Byrne

The club itself was a good chance to relax and meet people, and also to see some of the artists in a more informal setting. It is very similar to the set up of the festival club at Celtic Connections in Glasgow – stage with PA, cabaret style seating, artists doing short 15 minute sets etc. This was also a chance for musicians to play in some more unusual line-ups, and experiment a bit, with music from both sides of the Atlantic fusing to great effect. We saw a great young fiddler from Cape Breton, Rosie MacKenzie on stage here, playing with Donogh Hennessy (of Lunasa fame) and Tim Edey – both on guitars. Their set was full of drive and excitement, with Rosie very obviously lapping up the chance to play with the two fellas. She topped it all off when she finished a set playing and dancing simultaneously – another Cape Breton spectacle that I still can’t get my head around – amazing!

Festival goers from the UK might be slightly disappointed by the lack of sessions happening in and around the festival, although there were some scheduled in the programme, along with a daily Open Stage. There was not the same “fringe” scene as you might find elsewhere perhaps. This could be down to the distances people were travelling to get to events, or the noticeably fewer pubs around, or it could just be that there was so much other stuff going on. There was a session room set aside in the club, though it was not always busy. We found the girls from T With The Maggies down there one night, having a rare old sing song with a few punters, who were obviously delighted to get so “up close and personal” with them.

Anyone who knows anything about running events knows how much hard work goes in to making them go smoothly. I have to say that from start to finish, the organising team seem to have thought of everything, making the whole experience even more pleasurable. And the artists I spoke to are of the same opinion, perhaps this is one of the reasons why they keep coming back year after year! As do the audience – it does seem that once you have been “got” there is no getting away from Cape Breton. To fully appreciate all Celtic Colours has to offer you really have to go and try it. It definitely is in a league of its own! But watch out – you might find that you never quite get away!

We travelled to Halifax, Nova Scotia with Continental airlines from Belfast via Newark, and hired a car from Budget at the airport. It’s a 3 ½ hour drive from Halifax to Baddeck in Cape Breton. We stayed in The Silver Dart Lodge in Baddeck which had a great range of accommodation and was friendly, helpful and clean.

Celtic Colours - Men of the Deep
Celtic Colours - Men of the Deep - photo Jim Byrne

Celtic Colours caption
Celtic Colours - photo Jim Byrne

Celtic Colours caption
Celtic Colours - photo Jim Byrne

Celtic Colours caption
Celtic Colours - photo Jim Byrne

Celtic Colours caption
Celtic Colours - photo Jim Byrne

More information on Celtic Colours can be found on the Celtic Colours website

This article is from Issue 87 of The Living Tradition Magazine which can be purchased here

By Fiona Heywood