Friday, October 03, 2014

Cape Breton and Music: Celtic Colours

Cape Breton is a place of silence and music, of quiet solitude and deep community. It is a place where mountain meets sea, and where home place is vital and stranger always given warm welcome. All of these are part of the mosaic of life on Cape Breton which is celebrated each autumn during the Celtic Colours International Festival.

Music is at the heart Celtic Colours, music that Cape Breton’s sons and daughters have drawn from deep Celtic roots taken across the world as well as songs and tunes and dance from across Canada, from Scotland where many Cape Breton traditions began, from the United States, from Ireland, and from other communities whose lives have intertwined with the landscape of Cape Breton, including the First Peoples of the Mi’kmaq and those who have come from Ukraine to live in Atlantic Canada.

This year, Celtic Colours begins on 10 October and winds through nine days and nights of music, fun, family, food, and community. Things begin this year in Port Hawkesbury at the southern tip of Cape Breton, with a concert celebrating The Ties That Bind, from family to friendship to tradition. It is an evening which will include music from Scotland’s Phil Cunningham on accordion and Aly Bain on fiddle, step dance and sean nos dance from this year’s festival artists in residence, Mac Morin of Cape Breton and Nic Gareiss from the United States, Gaelic song from The Campbell Family of Scotland, fiery fiddling from cousins Ashley and Wendy MacIsaac of Cape Breton.

As the festival time unfolds. there will be community events including meals, talks, nature walks, art exhibits, craft fairs, music sessions, blacksmiths, weavers fisher folk and historians all sharing their passions, and ceilidhs in addition to a full schedule of concerts across the island each night. Highlights include

a farmers’ market at Sydney River, and a community market with crafts and produce on offer as Isle Madame

Dusty Slippers, a class which invites former step and highland dancers to get back ion the swing of things, at Port Hawkesbury

a show of art along the waterfront at Whycocomaugh and an exhibit of colorful and whimsical folk art called Art for the Soul at the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney

a family square dance at Glencoe Mills, an advanced fiddle class at Saint Peter’s, the Buddy Macmaster School of Fiddling classes at Judique, a traditional tunes session at Cape Breton University in Sydney, a Gaelic song workshop at the Highland Village Museum, the Aboriginal Art at Cultural Festival at Wagmatcook

and those community meals:

a celebration of Acadian food and music at Cheticamp

a taste of Ukraine at Holy Ghost Ukrainian Church Hall in Sydney

roast beef dinner in Port Morien, and fishcakes and beans for supper in D’Ecousse

corn chowder, fresh caught fish, crab, mussels, salmon, lobster, fish chowder and more fishcakes in all sort of locations from Bay Saint Lawrence to L’Ardoise to Mabou

a lighthouse sandwich for breakfast, a ceilidh along with your lunch, roast turkey and fixings for supper as Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada...

This year the festival is supported by Presenting Sponsor the Chronicle Herald, as well as Nova Scotia Tourism Agency, Seaside Communications Inc., Vibe Creative Group, TD Bank Group, and Enterprise Rent-a-Car, who are joining the festival’s ongoing sponsors, businesses which support the festival year after year. They, along with hundreds of volunteers, help make the range of festival events possible.

Evening concerts -- more than forty of them in venues all across Cape Breton-- remain the heart of these events. Most concerts at Celtic Colours, just as with that opener in Port Hawkesbury, are set up to feature three or more acts on a bill, who do sets on their own and then gather for a finale. This autumn, the concerts include

In Inverness, an evening featuring sister musicians, among them Brittany and Natalie Haas and Dawn and Margie Beaton

a tribute to iconic fiddle player Buddy MacMaster, who would have turned 90 during the festival, in his longtime hometown of Judique with musicians from across Cape Breton as well as musical friends from Scotland and the US, including top fiddler and composer Alasdair Fraser

Irish, Creole, and Acadian music intertwine on an evening in D’Ecousse, while musicians with a Touch of the Irish join up at the town of Lower River Inhabitants, and connections of traditional music and dance are the highlight at Mabou in a gig called Close to the Floor, featuring Nic Gareiss, Mary Ann Kennedy, Mac Morin, Mairi Rankin, and Dannsa Morin will spotlight his other love, piano, another night in Mabou when he’s joined by Erin Leahy, Troy MacGillvray, Tracey Dares MacNeil and others to celebrate Cape Breton piano

Ireland, Ontario, Cape Breton, and Scotland meet at Louisbourg Crossroads in the theatre in that city for song and tune from Tony McManus, Laura Smith and others while historic Fortress Louisbourg hosts several Celtic Colours events, among them Music of the Night. On that evening pub, dance hall, drawing room and street scene feature music at it might have been in 1745

Back in contemporary Cape Breton, Roots and Rhythms finds Irish multi instrumentalist Sharon Shannon sharing tunes with Quebecois trio De Temps Antan and Cape Breton Gaelic singers, fiddlers, and step dancers Anita MacDonald and Ben Miller. At another stage further north on the island family and friends gather to pay tribute to and play along with renown Cape Breton piano player Maybelle Chisholm McQueen

There’s more, of course -- on Cape Breton there is always more music and welcome. The formal concerts finish up on the evening of 18 October, though, with Together Again: Natalie’s Reunion.

Natalie MacMaster, who has taken Cape Breton music across the world and into collaborations from bluegrass to classical, comes home to share an evening of music with top musicians from Ireland, Scotland, and her own Cape Breton, on a bill that includes Sharon Shannon, JP Cormier, Tim Edey, and Beolach. It should be an evening, and a festival, to remember.

Not making it to Cape Breton in time for the festival? In past years several concerts have been available on the internet, usually announced quite close to performance dates. Keep an eye on the Celtic Colours web site to see if that will be happening this year.

You may also wish to see
sounds of Cape Breton: Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac
Music road trip: Cape Breton
another view of Celtic Colours, with video, at Wandering Educators
Natalie MacMaster's recent recording, Cape Breton Girl

Photographs of autumn leaves, Wendy MacIsaac, and Alasdair Fraser with Tony McManus are by Kerry Dexter and are copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

Abundance: Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas

Abundance: that is the name Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas have chosen for their most recent recording. It is also an idea which informs the tunes they have composed, selected, and gathered for the project.

Fraser plays the fiddle: Haas is a cellist -- the wee fiddle and the big fiddle, as they sometimes call it.

The tunes encompass both traditional pieces and original ones. All are based in the music that flows from Scotland, with, at times, hints and flavours of other lands and other styles included, from jazz to classical to Cape Breton (which, yes, flows from Scotland too, but has its own voice).

What’s especially engaging here is the level of musical conversation between the bright lines of the fiddle and the dark rhythms of the cello, balanced always, turning and dancing and leading down paths expected and unexpected. The opening track, called The Corrie Man, is a tune from Arran which invites visions of lively step dancers, while the pairing of Neil Gow’s Wife and The Old Reel brings in a tinge of classical ideas. There are four tunes which are part of Connie’s Suite -- a commission for a long time friend's birthday which included elements of dance and place important to the honoree, including the intriguingly titled -- and played -- Ouagadougou Boogie. This turns out to be a really fine mix of Celtic, jazz, and African elements, a suggestion of a not so Scottish place place in Africa that’s near Timbuktu.

This is followed on by Braigh Lochiall, which evokes the heart of the Highlands of Scotland, Another tune, The Referendum was composed by Fraser to celebrate the upcoming vote (the referendum vote on Scotland;s independence is about ten days away at this writing) and in honour of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond’s visit to his fiddle course at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye.

The musical conversations between Fraser on fiddle and Haas on cello center of the music on Abundance. They have invited friends into the story too, though -- several of them musicians you have met here before along the music road. Hanneke Cassel is on piano, James Macintosh handles percussion, Corey DiMario is on bass, Donald Shaw adds accordion, Brittany Haas joins in on fiddle Stefan Amidon is also percussion, Kai Welch and Oscar Utterström sit in on horns. This varied grouping of talents is particularly in evidence on the closing track of the sixteen on the disc, called The Kelburn Brewer.

In their notes, Fraser and Haas remark on the collaboration and community they’ve encountered as they follow the big fiddle and the wee one in their travels. Musical connection is, they suggest, part of the true idea of abundance,. They conclude with this wish: “So here’s to a healthy flourishing of new ideas amongst an open, questioning, listening synergistic group of people that honour the acts of creating and sharing. This album is both a tribute and a thank you to the people we meet along the way. It is a celebration of music and community and possibilities. To the spirit of Abundance!

Photographs of Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas are by Kerry Dexter. They were made at the Celtic Connections Festival with permission of the festival, the artists, and the venue, and are copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.

You may also wish to see
Highlander's Farewell: Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas
Hanneke Cassel: For Reasons Unseen
Scotland's Music: Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming -- A Scottish Fantasy

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Monday, August 18, 2014

music, time, memory: Mary Black

“I'll never actually stop singing,” Mary Black says. The Irish musician does find herself, after more than thirty years of taking her music to places as diverse as Chicago and Tokyo, Australia and Amsterdam, ready to give up the road, though. To mark and celebrate that, Black is in the midst of a year long run of gigs that takes her back to many of her favourite places. She’s calling it The Last Call Tour.

It’s good to know that she’ll not be giving up singing -- indeed that’s been a part of her life since her earliest memories, and something she has always loved.

“My father was born and reared on Rathlin Island, off the north east coast of Ireland, within the six counties, so it’s not under Irish rule. It’s an incredibly beautiful place, a place of great magical memories for us growing up. We were born and reared in the heart of Dublin city, in a business street with a shop, Black’s General Grocers, and to be whisked away every summer from that kind of environment to this wild kind of place that had no electricity, no running water, all the things that people take for granted in the big city but yet had this lifestyle that was so exciting to us as kids -- it was a magical place. It holds a special place. It’s very much a part of who we are, as a family,” Black says.

Black’s father, Kevin, was a fiddle player steeped in the traditional music of this remote place halfway between Ireland and Scotland. To this was added the musical tastes and love of singing of her mother, Patty, who grew up in the Liberties area in the heart of Dublin City and loved popular music and show tunes. The couple instilled a love of music in their children, so much so that brothers Shay, Michael, and Martin, and sister Frances as well as Mary have all worked professionally in music. At times, all five have performed and recorded together as well.

Though at first she struggled with the idea of being on stage, by her late teens Black joined up with the band General Humbert. It also caused her to add a dimension to her stage work. “It was a traditional Irish band, and it was like they were the musicians and I was the singer. When they were playing tunes, I felt like, what’ll I do with myself? So, I picked up the bodhran.” That’s a traditional Irish frame drum, an instrument Black plays still. ”I was lovely to be a part of what they were doing, and not just be the singer,” she says, and she still enjoys that.

Black began her international touring career in the early 1980s when she was invited to join the long running band De Dannan. The first song she recorded with them, Song for Ireland, is a favorite with her audiences still. It’s a contemporary song, one that honors tradition while bringing it forward. From her earliest days of recording, Black has been as master of choosing songs which do that, and which allow her room to put her own stamp on them. “I always want to choose strong material,” she says, “and something I feel I can work with and interpret and express something, and add something to the song.”

So she has. After three years (“three amazing years -- we packed so much into them it seems like more even when I look back,” she recalls) touring with De Dannan and learning about the music business, during which she recorded several well received solo albums, Black decided it was time to take the risk of going out on her own and exploring more deeply the direction in which her own musical tastes were calling her.

By the Time it Gets Dark, released in 1987, found Black drawing on folk, pop, and singer songwriter styles in an elegant combination that introduced her to audiences beyond Ireland as a solo artist, and continued the threads of musical exploration and adventurous taste in material that have lasted on in her recordings. A few years later, she was part of a project of a different scope which also found wide international audiences. Black’s record company was working on a compilation project featuring Irish artists. “So many of them came out to be women,” Black recalls, “that I said, why not keep it just to women? And I think the lovely thing about it is that people might know Maura O'Connell, or they might know me, and they’d buy the record on that, and they get to hear all these other artists, so it was great for everyone.” The first album sparked two more, resulting in A Woman's Heart: Trilogy and subsequent recordings building on the idea as well.

Though she often includes songs in Irish on her albums and in her concerts, Black did not grow up grow up speaking Irish, other than as required in school. Over the years, though, she’s increasingly come to hold the language as part of ireland’s way of life, of its music. “That's why I’ve chosen to have a holiday home down in an Irish speaking area,” she says. “I love the language, and I love the fact that it’s alive and kicking!”

But what about this Last Call Tour business? "I've been touring for thirty years and all that travelling does take it out of you, so I just felt it was the right time," she told the Irish Independent. “I'll never actually stop singing, I'm not ready to give that up yet, but I just don't want to do that hard slog any more; it's grueling.” Black has grandchildren at home to enjoy now, and she’s also just completed work on a memoir. It is called Down the Crooked Road and is expected to be published in October. Black’s daughter Roisin worked on the book with her.

Black, as ever, is looking forward. “I'd like to pick and choose what I want to do,” says Mary Black. “It's another chapter for me and my family and it's exciting."

photograph courtesy of Mary Black

You may also wish to see
Mary Black and Steve Cooney: Just a Journey
Mary Black: By the Time It Gets Dark
Mary Black: 25 years 25 songs

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Music, connection, education: Nicola Benedetti

“Your sound is what you speak through. It should be like telling a story. Be as present as you can be -- and make it sound like you’re making things up as you go, like a painter painting a story.” That's classical violinist Nicola Benedetti speaking, during a master class she taught for students at Florida State University. As with any such class, quite a bit of the time was devoted to specific and detailed comment and explanation on technique. As a natural part of this part of things, though, Benedetti continued to remind students that techniques -- and understanding of techniques -- are tools, at the service of the spirit and ideas of music.

“It’s up to you,” she continued, “it’s up to your imagination to dig deep into the music and come up with a story the way you want to tell it. People can suggest things, but it is completely up to you.” That may involve as much reflection as it does time with instrument in hand, she added. “ If you were to listen outside my practice room, what you’d hear is a lot of silence. You have to slow your thought processes down...”

Benedetti is passionately convinced of the power of music, as a means of expression, a means of connection, and a way of centering, and a way of learning about one’s self in the world. She began finding all these thing early in her own life. At the age of four, growing up in Ayrshire in Scotland, she followed her older sister into studying the violin. A dozen or so years later, on winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award, she found many opportunities offered her. Some of them, it turned out, were not leading her in ways she felt honored the music she was called to make. She went more deeply into the music she was called to play to renew and refresh her perspective, to guide her focus as she made decisions going forward.

Benedetti speaks about this, and directions resulting from her choices

Part of her calling is going deep into the heart of music, and part of it is sharing her passion for the importance of music -- not classical music alone -- in life and education. On the education side, she is Big Sister with Sistema Scotland, which helps bring music to children, especially those who might not otherwise have a chance to encounter it, she gives master classes as her concert schedule takes her across the world, and she’s recently begun and another educational initiative called The Benedetti Sessions, which allows children to work together in a concentrated period of time of learning what it’s like to play music, about the value of practice and focus, and about working together and alone to make music.

Then there’s that concert and recording schedule. Benedetti has a clear-- and it’s apparent from her choices -- adventurous focus on what sort of music she’s called upon to create and share, and a clear view too of the fact that interpretation is as creative and demanding a music practice as is composition.

In addition to classical repertoire including Tchaikovsky, Tavener, and Vivaldi, she has recorded an album of film music, The Silver Violin (you may find the piece she plays in the video above included there) and, honoring her native land, an album called Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy, in which Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy appears alongside music from contemporary Scottish composer Phil Cunningham, songs from the Gaelic tradition with Julie Fowlis as singer, melodies from Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns, and a fresh and graceful take on the well loved piece The Banks of Loch Lomond. A beautiful and creative joining of musical talents from the classical nd folk traditions, Homecoming is a project which is likely to open both to new audiences -- and indeed at present is in the top twenty and climbing in pop charts in the UK, an unusual feat for a classical album.

A gifted and creative musician, an artist with passion for sharing her own creativity and opening doors for others to experience their own gifts: that is Nicola Benedetti.

In an interview with The Spectator she said: “I’m absolutely convinced – and I want the world to know what I know – that there is something in the music itself that can bring you to a place of substance. And from that place, I truly believe that anything is possible.”

photograph of Nicola Benedetti and Phil Cunningham at Celtic Connections is by Kerry Dexter, and is copyrighted. It was made with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue..

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis: Every Story
Scotland's Music: Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming -- A Scottish Fantasy
Celtic and classical: Tony McManus

Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy [US link]

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

Scotland's Music: Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming -- A Scottish Fantasy

Folk music and classical music: both traditions go back long into the work and life of Scotland, yet rarely are they heard together. That happened at the opening concert of the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow in 2014, when top classical violinist Nicola Benedetti and top folk musicians including Phil Cunningham, Julie Fowlis, Duncan Chisholm, Aly Bain, and Eamon Doorley shared parts of a project they ahd been working on, a project which has now become Benedetti’s recording Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy. Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy [US link]

Though she’s a native Scot, from West Kilbride in Ayrshire, Benedetti’s gift and passion for classical music took her away from the west of Scotland to study in London by the age of ten. Her music training took her in other directions than traditional jigs and reels, too, but Benedetti has always had Scotland in the back of her mind. She’s recorded top albums of classical music from Taverner to Tchaikovsky to Vivaldi as well as an album of film music which made pop as well as classical charts, and played her music with orchestras, in recitals, and in chamber music configurations from India to Hong Kong to South America -- and often back in her native Scotland.

Benedetti always receives a warm welcome when she plays in Scotland, whether she is appearing in concert or following another aspect of her musical passion, sharing her work with younger players as part of the program Sistema Scotland and in other educational settings, including her emerging program of master classes called the Benedetti Sessions

It was time to for her to bring classical and traditional music of her native land together. Drawing on emerging friendships in the traditional music scene in Scotland (“I think the sense of togetherness that traditional musicians have is one things I’ll take away from this, and hope to repeat,” she says) she came up with a program which deftly intertwines the classical (Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, part of which is based on four Scottish folk tunes), well known and loved traditional music of Scotland with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as backing band (the Robert Burns tune My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond), and traditional and contemporary folk music including tunes composed by Phil Cunningham (Aberlady, The Gentle Light that Wakes Me), a traditional hornpipe, a set of tunes from Scottish folk icon James Scott Skinner, variations on Auld Lang Syne, and a Gaelic song from the Hebrides with Julie Fowlis as vocalist.

Whatever your taste in music, it’s worth the cost of the disc just to hear these musicians, all at the very top of their game and from very differing points of the musical compass, collaborate on music they all hold as vibrant and important. They bring thoughtful, powerful, and fresh interpretations to the well known and often played pieces and weave them gracefully with the ideas and sounds of those less widely known.

You will feel the mist rising off the water at Loch Lomond in Benedetti’s interpretation, and hear the connections, as well, among the sounds of Gaelic as Julie Fowlis sings it, the classical forms of Bruch compositions, and the melody of another Burns song, Ae Fond Kiss. Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy is a well done, beautifully thought out and brilliantly played collaboration. If you love Scotland you’ll certainly want it, and if you don’t, Homecoming might just inspire a visit.

“I have a constant yearning for Scotland,” Nicola Benedetti told an interviewer for the Telegraph newspaper. “The music on this album comes from a very deep, emotional place. Recording it was a very moving experience.”

Photograph of Nicola Benedetti at Celtic Connections is by Kerry Dexter, and was made with permission of the festival, the artist, and the venue.

Stay tuned here at Music Road for more on each of the musicians mentioned in this story

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis: Every Story
Celtic Connections 2014
Phil Cunningham and Scott-Land at Celtic Connections
Scotland's Highlands in music: Duncan Chisholm
Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy [US link]

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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ireland's music: Cara Dillon: Lass of Glenshee

Cara Dillon is from Dungiven in Northern Ireland, a town just near the Sperrins and just west of Derry. She has a fine new album out, A Thousand Hearts, about which there will be more here along the music road presently. Meanwhile, though, take a listen and a look at Dillon and friends perfoming a haunting take on The Lass of Glenshee at Fleadh Cheoil 2013 in Derry.

Dillon has recorded the song on her album Hill of Thieves.

You may also wish to see
Ireland's music: two voices in which you'll learn about a fine album from Cara's sister Mary
Celtic Connections 2013: Images
Radio Ballads: Northern Ireland

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

celtic connections: seeing music

Celtic Connections, a celebration of music held in Glasgow, Scotland every January, is one of the world’s great music festivals. Artists from across the realm of Celtic connection come to share their music. One of the great things about such festivals is the chance to be present with the musicians and the music, to be part of that connection which occurs when music is shared in person.

At Celtic Connections, that connection is fostered in places ranging from the main concert hall -- which despite being, as you might think, a large place, still offers and air of welcome and intimacy -- to the church turned pub that is Oran Mor. From the down home feeling at the National Piping Centre to the elegance of City Halls, from the Old Fruitmarket -- which is actually that, it did used to be a fruit market -- to the classic and classy Georgian former church that is Saint Andrews in the Square and at many sites between, music finds its place in Glasgow in January.

Here is a bit of what that looked like this year.

American songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, who has been spending time in Scotland working on her music lately, invited Scottish singer Julie Fowlis, on the left in this photograph, to join in with her for a song during opening night festivities

This year, as Celtic Connections was turning twenty one, the band Capercaillie was marking thirty years since high school friends Donald Shaw and Karen Matheson started the band off in Oban, and they were also celebrating the release of their album At the Heart of It All with a concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

You’ll most often find Nicola Benedetti and her violin sharing stage with orchestras and chamber musicians, but on this might the native Scot and home town favorite (she is from nearby Ayrshire) joined up with folk artists Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham, Julie Fowlis and others for tunes and songs and stories from a project they’ve been working on which will be Benedetti’s next recording. It’s meant to be released this summer.

Karen Matheson and Michael McGoldrick of Capercaillie

Over at the National Piping Centre, Irishman Eamonn Coyne and Kris Drever, from Orkney, offered a warm, intimate set of tunes and songs and lively bits of banter too, featuring music from their latest collaboration, an album called Story Map

At the Old Fruitmarket, a creative joining of musical talents found Parween Khan as the opening act, with music from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland following on. Parween is from Rajahstan, where she is carrying on ancient tradition of song called maanda, which might sound a bit like sean nos to those familiar with that Celtic style.

The following act was Rant fiddles, four women whose energy and creativity speak of musical connections from the Highlands to the Black Isle to the Nordic influenced style of Shetland. That Highland flavour comes from Sarah-Jane Summers, who is pictured above. Julie Fowlis closed the evening, introducing her new album of songs in Scottish Gaelic, Every Story.

Photographs are by Kerry Dexter and were made with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venues involved. They are copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.

You may also wish to see
Collaborations: Music from the Heart
Celtic Connections 2014: reflections, part one

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