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The Great Grey Goose Incident.

Posted by Sharon Armstrong on Sun, 03/07/2010 - 06:39

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This morning was a bit of a late start due to the deafening honking of early morning geese. I mean, really. Who keeps geese in downtown Dallas? And, yes, maybe in retrospect heading to bed at 6 AM was a bit of a mistake but, once again, who keeps track of time when Vishtèn’s Pascal Miousse, and Louis-Charles Vigneau are leading the session in the hotel lobby? And do you think that maybe there was a few whiskies too many too? Well, since I am in America, I can plead the 5th, and I am also sticking to what shall now and for evermore be known as the great grey goose excuse.

We were all accounted for by 11AM though, on board the shuttle bus, and heading back to Fair Park. The sky was cloudless, and finally spring seemed to have sprung in the South. By midday it was a warm 70 degrees or so, and we all know what that means in Irish festivals all over America…the arrival of the be- corseted and be-cod-pieced Ren- Festers (short for those costumed individuals who always show up at every Irish music festival in some strange version of a Renaissance look.)

I got to talking with one couple, Paul and Colleen Davidson. Colleen was resplendent in a mini-kilt and tight red corset, and I asked her why wear that to an Irish Festival? What was she trying to say with her tiny little pinched-in waist, and merrily bouncing bosom that could be said to be authentically Irish?

“I dress up like this for the festivals,” she said. “Because it makes me feel feminine in every way.” Fair play, I thought.

After a brief pick-me-up in Hospitality Room, or as the artists affectionately refer to it as the ‘Hostility Room’, I got the chance to listen to, and talk with the Nova Scotian band, the Barra MacNeils.

I am a big fan of Nova Scotian music. The sheer energy and exuberance of the tunes can always be counted on to get my feet tapping, and even after the early morning great grey goose incident, the Barra MacNeils soon had me clapping and tapping with the rest of the audience.

The Barra MacNeils are a musical family band from Sydney Mine, a small town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the members of the six-man-and-one-woman- band are all siblings, with the exception of bass player, Jamie Gatti.

“The Mac Niels came from the Island of Barra, just off the west coast of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides,” Kyle MacNeil told me. “That was about 250 years ago, something in that vicinity. Primarily they were Scots Gaelic speaking people. We don’t speak it, but our native grandparents did, and the music is primarily Scottish, with a mix of Irish in there.”

When asked to explain what exactly makes Cape Breton music so immediately distinctive Kyle had some interesting views

“In most cases the difference is that between the Irish and Scottish fiddle playing is that the Cape Bretoners have taken the Irish tunes, and the Scottish tunes, and taken the Cape Breton way round them,” he said.

“There really isn’t a Scottish or an Irish style. Cape Breton style itself is a combination of the Scottish, the Irish, and the French too. You can notice the difference between the tunes in Cape Breton in the different styles of the bowing, or in the ornamentation. Irish music does a lot of rolls, Scottish music does a lot of cuts. Our music has a lot of similarities to Donegal; they do a lot of Strathspeys there.”

According to Kyle mixing things up comes natural to Cape Breton musicians.

“That is what Cape Breton music is all about,” he said “But it has also got a lot to do with people traveling. I don’t know, maybe in the 20s and 40s when they started to immigrate to Boston and Detroit and places like that, I am thinking that they brought Irish tunes back to Cape Breton, not to mention the ragtime piano. It’s great, because although music progresses and you pick up different things from different cultures, you still have the traditional elements. If you go to sessions here in Dallas, or back home, you still keep the traditional aspects of it.”

When asked what it was like to live in Cape Breton, Lucy MacNeil laughed.

“Well,” she said. “We are still there, so it must be a good place.”

“It’s a beautiful spot,” went on Kyle. “We get winter…but a great music scene there. A little different from Ireland, where you can walk into a pub and find a music session, because most of the sessions happen in people’s homes. They are starting to move to pubs a little more, but I think that is the influence of the Irish - the importance of the music and the drink. But it is a great spot for music, beautiful scenery, and if you come up in October for the Celtic Colors, you will have a great time.”

Ed Miller, who was born and raised in Edinburgh, is a staple of the NTIF music line up. He has played at the festival for over 25 years.
“I got grandfathered in, or something,” he said, with what turned out to be characteristic dry humour.

Ed Miller is what is usually described in the States as a balladeer, but according to Ed what he tries to convey with his songs, both traditional and original, is not so much just Scotland’s past, but its present and its future.

“I think it is just a general hunger for some kind of roots, or some expression of their past ethnicity,” he said describing the enthusiasm with which traditional Celtic music is usually greeted in America.

“So many Americans have lost touch with their families' past. Their families have been in this country for two centuries or more, and often they lost contact with the real life that existed there, so they have to find contact with the more tangible things - the symbols - of these cultures. I don’t just want to sing songs about clap your hands, I want the actually try and get something about Scottish social life, or history, or culture, or politics. I want to teach that Scotland is a real place, that it is not a Brig-O-Doon. It’s real, with real people who have the same problems that you have here, like unemployment, the industrial revolution and all the changes as we went from a peasant agricultural society to where we are nowadays, and the industries that came with it, coal mining and ship building. And also to let them know that Scotland is not politically a right-wing country. The majority of people who come the festivals like this come for a good time out, which is very important. They don’t want to be lectured, and I want them to have a good time, but sometimes the people here take a little needling to get them to join in…you know, a few friendly insults.”

One the way out I spotted a girl who was wearing a set of those damn bunny ears, one Lynn Sallee, and cornered her before she could get to the exit. What is the story with the ears, I asked? Go on, tell me.

“I am a Welsh Rarebit,” she said. “It’s a cheesy joke.”