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Celtic music mastered

Maria Smith | Monday, April 11, 2005

Maybe Celtic music doesn’t remind everyone of home.Maybe it shouldn’t remind me of home either. My family lives in Idaho and my ancestors were mostly English. The other assorted countries that my family originated from certainly don’t give me a claim to the music of Scotland and Ireland.But I did grow up listening to Colcannon – a traditional Irish band who often played around Boulder – and also a lot of bluegrass, which is a close cousin of Celtic music. I lived in Scotland for six months, which was a long enough time to pick up a little bit of Scottish loyalty and a taste for Scottish folk tunes. My sister played her share of fiddle tunes growing up, and as a harpist, I performed more than a few renditions of “Danny Boy” and other Irish favorites.So maybe it makes sense that, for me, really good Celtic music feels homey. Maybe for other people, Celtic music is just another miscellaneous genre with which they feel only a small connection.But for Natalie MacMaster the magic of Celtic music – and specifically Cape Breton music – obviously lies in its connection to her background, her family and the place where she was raised. MacMaster probably owes a good deal of her success to that connection – audiences can feel the heritage of a long line first of musicians, first from Scotland and then from Nova Scotia, throughout her music. MacMaster’s home in Cape Breton is obviously an amazing place and it is a place of which she is proud. The ease with which the fiddler talks about her home and her music easily puts an audience at ease as well.This is not to say that MacMaster and her backing band are not amazingly talented in their own right. MacMaster is a dynamic performer with unbelievable energy. Her fiddling is impeccable and she may not step dance on the level of a professional dancer, but she’s certainly no slouch. Her band plays together beautifully; some musicians just don’t have chemistry, but these five guys come together exactly like a good Celtic band should.However, there’s something about the window into the culture of Cape Breton Island that this music provides that makes these musicians especially powerful. There are probably relatively few people in the world who think to connect the name Nova Scotia with the words New Scotland and probably fewer who realize how direct the link between the first Scottish settlers and the music of Cape Breton today is – this is certainly not something that had ever occurred to me. But if Cape Breton music truly is a purer Celtic form than the music of Scotland today, then the island is evidence that there are always people who know, love and live by their traditions.MacMaster is refreshing partly because she is so obviously proud of her home and its music.”There are more fiddlers per capita in Cape Breton than in any other part of the world,” MacMaster said. “Look how we’ve blossomed.”It’s true that the music has evolved a bit. Modernizing Celtic music is not an uncommon pastime and is not always a pleasant one, but Natalie MacMaster and her musicians introduced some different musical elements to the equation quite successfully. The second half of the show was certainly less traditional than the first, and featured more electric guitars, jazz notes and other sounds foreign to Celtic music. Guitarist Brad Davidge obviously has a penchant for blues, rock and other less than Celtic genres, as he demonstrated in a rendition of “Danny Boy” that fell somewhere between Ireland and North American pop radio. Bassist John Chiasson took the vocal on a number that might have been heard from a combo in a jazz and blues bar. But there can be no mistake about the identity of this band – these are Cape Breton musicians playing Cape Breton music. Whether their music reminds us of our own homes or just gives us a window into the amazing place that these people call home, we can all hope that Natalie MacMaster and all of Cape Breton’s fiddlers continue to make music for a long time to come.