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Celtic Colours Experience: By Calum MacCrimmon of Breabach
Our week at Celtic Colours has been a soul-stirring and culturally nourishing experience.
We played music, forged friendships, crossed boundaries and shared memories that will last a lifetime. Delicately now, and with growing thoughts of home, we are on the road back to Halifax Airport with Woody (our final “Drive’er”) at the helm. I am feeling a little emotional to be leaving Cape Breton personally, but equally full of gratitude for this past week’s hospitality and plentiful musical adventures. This year it was our great honour to perform alongside Beòlach as artists in residence. We have been friends for a number of years and have long held on to the mutual dream of working together one day – well this was it! We had our first rehearsal in Glasgow back in August and then (in what seemed like a click of the fingers) it was Mabou – the day of the show. Sharing tunes, reshaping arrangements and bringing this collaborative show together was an absolute joy for us.
Every member of Beòlach displays the highest level of musicianship, unwavering respect for the culture and most importantly, an exceptional character. The show in Strathspey Place was a riot and even felt quite profound at times, most notably the performance of John Morris Rankin’s tune posthumously titled ‘The Last March’ right there on the stage dedicated to his memory. A moment to cherish in our musical careers.
We had a couple of days off to play with after Mabou. Some of the band managed to explore Uisge Ban Falls – Taken aback by the vibrant colours and bustling wildlife. I actually missed that trip in favour of a fine evening with my wife Laura-Beth (who was over playing with The Kinnaris Quintet). We had our ‘date night’ at the Legion in Baddeck. We drank Big Spruce, ate chicken wings and put some money on the ‘Chase the Ace’ 50/50 draw. No jackpot unfortunately but we took a crown and coke at the Yacht Club to cap the night. Perfect!
It was a pleasure to meet a few folk heroes during the festival including Heather Rankin, John MacLean (as part of the piping concert) and we even managed a small gathering in the company of Dave MacIsaac who introduced us to his cassette recordings of Cape Breton music from the ’50s and ’60s. It was an unexpected treat and a privilege to hear these past heroes recorded playing at house ceilidhs back in the day. Dave was so knowledgeable of the performances and very welcoming to us, he really blew our minds with that experience.
James Mackenzie and I performed as part of the ‘Pipers Pub’ concert on the Thursday night of the festival. We got to hear some incredible dance-driven piping from Matt MacIsaac and Mac Morin, and we were both delighted to have been in the company of John MacLean. Hearing John’s energy in the Strathspeys and his unmistakable swing in the reels was a rare treat. We also got a chance to talk with him about his relations with Alex and Patrick Currie who were very important Cape Breton dance pipers of their generation. The pipers took a tune at the after-hours and from what I can remember delivered around 24 parts of ‘John Morrison of Assynt House’ to an inexhaustible crowd.
The final night and the final Beòlach collaboration was ‘The Causeway Ceilidh’. As a Canadian-born Scot, I have to say that performing in the Civic Centre’s hockey rink was a big personal thrill. My grandfather was the head iceman at The Edmonton Gardens back in the ’50s and I was thinking of him as I snooped around behind the scenes at the hockey goals and the parked Zamboni. The show opened with James Mackenzie, Matt MacIsaac and myself piping in the Lieutenant Governor. We enjoyed a stunning performance by Julie Fowlis and her band, later playing ourselves of course to the amazing Port Hawkesbury crowd. Two highlights of the evening – aside from playing with Beòlach – were the performances from young Emma Stevens in the Mi’kmaq dialect and then later an incredible step-dance showcase from a team of island seniors. It was quite emotional to see and hear the cross-generational and cross-cultural elements that were included in the celebration.
This was Breabach’s third visit to Celtic Colours and we have now realized that the only thing more colourful than the Autumnal leaves are the fantastic local characters who support, attend, cook, organize, transport, entertain and endure all of us visiting artists. We were made to feel welcome at all times and it is clearly the local pride and cultural resilience of Cape Breton that has kept the music alive and continues to breathe new life into this unique musical event year after year. Thanks for letting us be a part of it in 2019!
Calum (of Breabach)
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Shannon MacMullin is a Gàidhlig learner, singer and storyteller; a community educator, and the Cultural Experiences Co-ordinator at Baile nan Gàidheal | Highland Village. She loves dancing, making beauty in the world & bringing people together.