Scottish piper Fred Morrison plays the last note of a tune and those around him agree it was great. Brilliant. Dougie MacPhee, one of our own gifted piano players, asks him if he’s ever learned any Cape Breton tunes.
“Yeah, one or two,” Fred replies, “written by a man named Dan R.”
“Well,” pipes up John Allan Cameron, “that’s my uncle.”
“No way!” They begin to talk excitedly amongst themselves and somewhere else in the room another tune begins.
This is the Celtic Colours Festival Club, but the scene is not on stage. It’s the green room, the room behind the stage. The place where performers get tuned up and psyched up to go on stage. It’s musicians playing for musicians. It’s not performing, just playing and sharing songs and stories and cultures as well in the process. This kind of gathering is the heart and soul of a festival like this one.
As Cape Bretoners, we’ve always attributed our Celtic music to the “old country” and now it’s come full circle. Sharon Shannon watches closely as Winnie Chafe plays a warm up tune. She questions Chafe about different parts, and softly plays along, a mini cassette recorder run-ning between them. A lot of this gathering is about getting close to other musicians and performers you most admire. Fred Morrison sits beside Ishbel MacAskill, Kathie Ann MacPhee, and Mairi Smith as they sing unaccompanied, taking turns with the Gaelic lyrics. “These women are Goddesses”, he half jokes “In Scotland it’s very rare indeed to see them all together.”
And while all of this goes on, people are called upon to go out on stage and bring music to the waiting audience. But it’s not the same. Of course the paying audience member gets a good show. These are, after all, professional musicians. But what the public doesn’t always notice is the intimate exchange between artists; a head cocked to one side, eyes intent on the fingering. In fact everyone in the green room is so absorbed in the music, that every one is reluctant to leave it to go out and play for the other crowd. Getting a line up for the festival club can be like pulling teeth.
Finally at one point, Gordie Sampson stands up and announces, “Okay, I’ll go up if Eamonn and Frankie come too. And I’m playing the drums.” He heads out to the stage and the others follow. Eamonn Coyne with his banjo and his ever present, up for anything smile, and Frankie Lane, in velvet and rhinestone pants, a cigar clamped in the side of his mouth, guitar strap half over his shoulder. As they set up they are joined by other players, Fred Lavery, Ed Woodsworth and Lisa MacIsaac.
And in this moment, the roads of Celtic music converge. If all the moments of our past push us forward into our present as on a crested wave, then all that has been played and passed down from fiddle to bodhran to pipe, from country to country and across a wide sea, comes to a swell here. This band of people, formed only moments ago, whose existence will only last for the next 25 minutes that they play together, is an accumulation of influences, styles and experiences.
Behind the stage in the green room other unions are forged. Jennifer Roland along with Mary Shannon of the Bumblebees, are only two of the many fiddlers playing in a circle, accompanied by Dougie MacPhee. Wally MacAulay and Buddy MacDonald are beside the stage door, peering out between the band on stage and the event happening inside the room, trying to get the best of both worlds. When the band on stage finishes, they pile back into the green room, putting their instruments down only long enough to grab a beer, and compliment each other on a job well done. Then it’s back to the circle where, long after the bar has closed, the audience gone home and the lights turned off to make room for the light of day, the music continues.