Celtic Colours’ Close to the Floor concert: Various artists at Strathspey Place, Mabou, Nova Scotia

cape breton milling frolic; people gathered around a long table

Cape Breton milling frolic.

One of the things that makes Celtic Colours so magical is the way certain threads seem to run through the festival’s nine days, connecting events that seem far apart in space, time and theme. Thus it was with us, as we found connections between an old-fashioned “milling frolic” on the first full day of the festival, and a dance demonstration in Cape Breton Island’s newest and most impressive performance space three days later.

On Saturday afternoon, October 12, we attended a square dance workshop in the hamlet of Big Pond, followed by a Saturday night square dance later that evening. The puckishly charming Melvin White taught about 30 people the basics of Cape Breton square dancing, Washabuck style.

Between the workshop, which ended at 4 p.m., and the dance, which started at 9 p.m., we needed dinner and some diversion, and both were provided. Just down the road from Big Pond in Johnstown, they were having a Thanksgiving turkey supper in the Parish Hall. As we arrived, we were fortunate to catch the end of a Gaelic song workshop, which was concluding with an activity known in Scotland as “tweed waulking,” and which in Cape Breton is called a “milling frolic.” Participants sat around a long table, rhythmically beating the tabletop with a piece of cloth, while they performed a call-and-response song in Gaelic. It’s a re-enactment of the processing of wool cloth into tweed, which theh workers would accompany with song to alleviate boredom and remain in rhythm with each other. Those around the table included Angus MacLeod, the Cape Breton Gaelic Singers, and special guest Alasdair Codona of Scotland.

Since we’d come in late, we didn’t know who any of the participants were, but the singer we later found out was Codona immediately turned our heads. His voice had a very attractive warmth to it, as did his manner, which was friendly and open. I was intrigued by this brief encounter. We went on to the Thanksgiving dinner downstairs in the Parish Hall, then to the nearby home of a local couple we had met at the squaredance workshop for tea and dessert before the dance.

At the dance, we met several more charming and friendly folks, both locals and off-islanders like ourselves (several of whom we met again a week later, at the festival’s final event, the self-proclaimed World’s Biggest Square Dance, in the ice-hockey rink at Baddeck). We also met and chatted with world-renowned Cape Breton fiddler, Jerry Holland. A world-class (and world-traveling) musician, Holland is also a gem of a person — plain-spoken, friendly, modest and down-to-earth, he’s a perfect ambassador for Cape Breton Island. Suffice to say that, between the friendliness of the Cape Breton residents and the excellence of the music — provided by Holland, Marion Dewer and the MacLellan Sisters, Theresa and Marie — the dance was great fun.

A few days later, on Tuesday, Oct. 15, as usual, we had several events from which to choose for our evening’s entertainment. There was “The French Connection” in the Cheticamp; “Fiddler’s Choice,” at the Broadmore Playhouse in Sydney; and “Close to the Floor” at Strathspay Place in Mabou. What decided us on the latter was Alasdair Codona’s presence on the bill.

Well, there was also the presence in Mabou of what we’d been told was one of the best restaurants on the island, The Mull. Lots of other folks had the same idea, because when we got there about an hour before the concert, the line was out the door and there was a 90-minute wait for a table. So we supped at a delightfully funky pub, The Red Shoe, which is also one of the more active performance spaces on Cape Breton Island — check the weekly newspaper, the Inverness Oran, for listings. (We were able to make it back to The Mull for lunch later in the week, and had a bowl of some of the best fish chowder on the planet, and a very tasty homemade burger with all the trimmings.)

Strathspey Place is a recently built performance hall, whose financing and management have been the focus of some controversy in recent months. But it’s a superb hall, with excellent acoustics and sightlines and very nice accomodations for the performers as well.

On the bill this night was a variety of dancing, beginning with a local troupe including Dawn and Margie Beaton, Cheryl MacQuarrie, Melody Cameron, Gerard Beaton, Harvey MacKinnon, Benedict MacDonald, and Mitch MacDonald. They demonstrated step dancing, Scots Four, and square dancing. A young troupe, the Ryan Dancers of Port Hawkesbury, ages 10-15, demonstrated Highland dance.

Accompanists for the evening were Andrea Beaton on fiddle and her mother, Betty Lou Beaton, on piano. Betty Lou is the sister of Cape Breton’s favorite fiddler, Buddy MacMaster, which would make Andrea the cousin of the highly popular fiddler and step-dancer, Natalie MacMaster — who had just married another fiddler, Donnel Leahy, the week before the festival began. That’s just to give you some idea of the family nature of music on Cape Breton Island.

Codona began his part of the program with some Gaelic mouth music as an accompaniment to a step-dance routine by Melody Cameron of Mabou. A little later, Codona demonstrated a step-dance collected from the Hebrides in the early ’50s, after he explained how step-dancing had mostly died out in Scotland by the 1950s, and was reintroduced to the Scots by dancers from Cape Breton.

The North Carolina-based quartet Cucanandy brought a lively mix of Celtic music and Celtic-influenced dance to the program. After a couple of instrumental numbers featuring the dual flutes of Mike Casey and Malke Rosenfeld, along with Stephanie Johnston on guitar and the irrepressible Jason Cade on fiddle, Rosenfeld put down her flute and started dancing. A member of the globe-trotting Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, Rosenfeld is a dazzler of a dancer. She combines elements of Cape Breton-style step with the jazzy swing of tap and the down-home earthiness of Appalachian clogging. Cucunandy’s music, too, is a toe-tapping amalgam of Scottish and American roots styles.

The whole point of this “Close to the Ground” program was to highlight the closeness of the various roots and branches of Celtic, Cape Breton and American Southern music and dance. It was brought beautifully home when Codona joined Cucunandy, to sing along on a Gaelic song that the came from North Carolina in the mid-18th Century. Not to leave out the Irish, Cucunandy finished up the main set with their arrangement of a slip-jig, which they had rearranged to a 7/8 time signature, instead of the usual 9/8 for s slip-jig.

The finale was one of the best of the week, with all the dancers coming back to take one more turn, to the combined music of Cucunandy and the Beatons. From Mabou it was about an hour’s drive back to St. Anns for a little late-night music and fellowship at the Festival Club … but that’s a story for another time.

(October 15, 2002)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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