Last weekend saw Sydney’s Waterfront taken over by rock music enthusiasts. This weekend its time to turn our thoughts to traditional sounds as once again thousands make their way to the Gaelic College in St.Ann’s Cape Breton, for the 29th annual Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling. The two-day event is sponsored by the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association and attracts performers of international reputation. The magic of the fiddle is only enhanced, by the beauty of the piano, and the artistry of the dancer. Add to that the Highland pipes intertwined with voices of angels and bards, and you have the making of a weekend of unmatched talent. Things get underway Saturday, with accomplished fiddlers, piano players, step-dancers and fiddle makers leading workshops from 12:00pm to 3:00pm.
The traditional evening outdoor concert will run from 4:00pm until 8:00pm, with the final two hours featuring the youth division of the association. “Most of these kids are members of the Association,” says organizer Betty Matheson. “There are so many involved, with two age groups performing, the youngest being age 6 to 8, and the oldest being 15 and 16.”
The grand concert takes place on Sunday, August 18, from 2:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. spotlighting the very best in traditional Cape Breton music. The crowd favorite group numbers, which in the past have featured more than two hundred fiddlers, will be a focal point of this concert. “Seeing those fiddlers on the stage year after year, bringing such pleasure to the audience, is a very moving experience,” says Matheson. But she is quick to stress that there is more than fiddling involved in the program. “Also featured are talented piano players, bagpipers, dancers and vocalists.”
The mandate of the Cape Breton Fiddler’s Association is to preserve and promote traditional Cape Breton fiddle music. Formed in 1973, in reaction to the Ron MacInnis CBC documentary The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, it has provided workshops and opportunities for its members to learn new tunes and techniques.
“At present there are approximately 500 members worldwide, with the majority in Nova Scotia as well as over 160 all over the world from Texas to Israel.” Matheson says not a week goes by, when there aren’t inquiries about the association, thanks in part to the web-site.
“The members meet once a month, except in winter, due to unpredictable weather conditions.”
For an annual fee of $10.00, ($15.00 outside of Canada), they receive the twice yearly newsletter, as well as an invitation to the Festival. “Many times the newsletter will include a tune contributed by people like Howie MacDonald, or Natalie MacMaster.” The group also takes part in an annual Celtic Colours Concert each October.
“One of the nicest things to see is a new fiddler standing next to an established artist on stage.” She says everyone is treated equally and there is no favoritism placed on any one performer. “There’s no special treatment as each performer is treated the same, but we can always count on attendance at the festival from beginners to world class artists.”
The organizers always see members of other associations take part as well.
“There is a group from Ontario known as the Glengarry Fiddlers, and many of them come down to perform at the festival. As well there are the Guysborough fiddlers under the direction of Eddie Rogers, who works very hard with his group and they take part in our festival each year.” The Chaisson Brothers from PEI will also be in attendance.
“We also look forward to the return of Dr.Tony Smith, a fiddler from Ireland, who will be making his third trip to the festival.”
The Cape Breton Fiddlers Association feels a responsibility to educate the public in the rich tradition of Cape Breton music. With this in mind, workshops are held on Saturday from 12:00 to 3:00, in several different disciplines. This year sees fiddle instructors Stan Chapman and Carl MacKenzie conduct sessions, piano by Susan MacLean, and stepdance with Helen MacDonald and Kaye Hanrahan. Fiddle repair, will be conducted by Tom Gollan. The workshops cost $10.00 and registration takes place one half hour before they begin.
Betty Matheson says it is a jam packed musical weekend with a purpose. “The aim of the festival is to raise money to continue the work of the association. With a budget involved in sending out the newsletter as well as other costs, the weekend supports the efforts of the members.”
So make plans to attend the 29th annual Cape Breton Fiddling Festival August 17 and 18 at the Gaelic College in St.Ann’s.