PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 23, 2006

Natalie MacMaster and the Power of Music

by Jim Newsom

Cape Breton Island sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean just off the east coast of mainland Nova Scotia. At nearly 4,000 square miles in area, it is the 75th largest island in the world. It is also the home of Cape Breton fiddle music.

“There are more fiddle players per capita than anywhere else in the world,” Natalie MacMaster told me recently. Though she’s only 34 years old, she’s been taking the music of her home island to the rest of the world since she was a teenager. Wednesday night she will share it with a crowd at the Granby Theater as part of the Virginia Arts Festival’s Port Folio Weekly Music Series.

“Cape Breton fiddle music is largely descended from the Scottish traditions over in Scotland,” she said. “But it really is its own style. It’s very energetic music, very danceable. It’s like a train—once you get on, you don’t get off; it just keeps chuggin’ along. It’s stood the test of time, so there’s something in it that appeals to the inner human spirit. It’s very real and it’s very alive. It gives you new life. When you hear it, you just forget your worries. It’s very positive music.

“We’ve played for dancers all our lives, and long before I was born. There’s a certain type of Cape Breton dancing, step dancing and square dancing.”

Natalie’s uncle Buddy MacMaster is a legend of the genre, having played at dances across Nova Scotia while working days for the Canadian National Railroad for 45 years. After retiring from the railroad in 1988, his reputation spread across Canada and around the world.

“Buddy was a huge influence,” she said. “I heard him more than anyone else, so I reflect his music more than any of the other fiddlers. He’s probably the most well-known Cape Breton fiddler. But I was taught by Stan Chapman, a local that was known for fiddle teaching.”

She started playing herself when she was nine, and had released her first self-produced album by age sixteen. Her career really began to pick up steam across the whole of North America as she added elements of contemporary music to her tradition-infused Celtic blend. Her 2003 recording, Blueprint, pushed the boundaries and expanded her audience even further.

“Here’s the interesting thing about that,” she said. “I’m not actually doing anything differently. People say, ‘Oh you play so many styles.’ That’s not true. I’m clever in that I hire other people who play lots of styles, and they taint my music, they color my music. If you got rid of all the accompaniment on Blueprint and just heard me play the fiddle, that’s just the same kind of fiddling that you’d hear on My Roots Are Showing, which is considered a very traditional Cape Breton record. What’s going on around me is what makes it a different style.

“Nothing moves me like the Cape Breton music, nothing hits me deeper. [But] look at what I grew up with—I had two older brothers and they listened to Ozzie Osbourne and Judas Priest, so I got that influence. I remember listening to Abba at a really young age; Anne Murray, Whitney Houston, Bay City Rollers.

“I’ve had so many different musical influences and I love to create, I love to let my imagination go wild. And I’m one of those people who hates missing out. Whether it’s a party or music, I want to be in on it. So, when I hear other kinds of music—be it Latin, classical, jazz, bluegrass, whatever—it just moves me and I want to get in on that, I want to be right in the middle. I can do that by projects such as Blueprint where I’m right in the center of it all, but it’s all these great musicians doing their thing around me.”

I asked her how the average listener could distinguish between Scottish, Irish and Cape Breton music.

“It certainly is subtle to a lay person,” she admitted. “Scottish music has had classical influence, and that classical influence has made the style a little bit more regimented and formed. Irish music is similar to Cape Breton in that it’s a little bit more of a hand-me-down style where it has become more of a tradition passed on from one generation and less learned. The Scottish are very strong at the technical side of playing the violin and the Irish are really strong at the groove, the feel.

“Cape Breton is very much the hand-me-down style, but it is a relaxed style of music. It’s not as perfected as the Scottish style of today—it’s a little rough around the edges—but you can hear the history in it. You can hear the hard times, the good times; it’s not so polished that it erases those characteristics.”

An Ontario resident since her marriage four years ago to fellow fiddler Donnell Leahy, who records and performs with his family’s band, Natalie was in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with her husband and five-month old daughter when we spoke. The two were performing that night with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. While Donnell changed their baby’s diaper, Natalie explained the appeal of her distinct musical mix of purity, tradition and boundary-expansion.

“That’s the power of music,” she said enthusiastically. “Instrumental music, even though it has its disadvantages for working musicians because it’s not like popular music where you have access to radio and that sort of thing, its advantages are it’s so universal: There are no lyrics and people can interpret and take from the music what they want. It has the power to be really flexible.

“It’s a double-edged sword. Maybe people can connect with it better because you’re not dictating to the listener what they are hearing.”

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