SCOTTISH fiddlers, French Acadian fiddlers, Irish fiddlers, Gaelic singers, reinforced by an occasional guitarist, bagpiper, or pianist are filling Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island with music seldom heard anymore. Rekindled interest in Celtic and Acadian traditions is attracting scholars, clanspeople, and travelers for the frequent festivals and ceilidhs (pronounced kay-leel) along a coast which may be the most beautiful in all North America - and a mirror image of Scottish Highlands and wilder French an d Irish shores.
And here am I, amid the seascape and landscape, spiritual and literal, that my mother loved. She came of Scottish and Irish ancestry, studied in Paris, and spent time on French and Scottish as well as American coasts. She made sure I did likewise.
Both born inland, in Kansas City, Mo., we suffered from what my mother labeled "the Midwesterner's inordinate lust for the sea." Thanks largely to her mother, part of each childhood summer was spent somewhere beside the Atlantic. We grew up dabbling in tidal pools, dreaming of whales.
My mother and grandmother were classical pianists, so though I was considered tin-eared and unable to carry a tune except inside my own head, I grew up with classical music.
But fiddles? The only time I heard them was when, age 11 or 12, I hid out in my room, ears glued to hillbilly stations my foremothers scorned. Soon I was dancing to the usual full measure of pop tunes. Fiddles, if any survived in those big bands, were gunned down by trumpets and saxophones.
Alik, a Russian emigre pianist, reeducated me into Schubert, Scriabin, and Stravinsky in Paris, where I followed my mother's footsteps to the Sorbonne. When I steered my own course to Cornell, my pianist roommate, Inger, inculcated Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.
Infusions of the three B's, three S's, and up and down the alphabet have continued ever since. Particularly now that I've married Henry, a classical violinist, live music resounds in the early and late hours of the day. Classical radio stations fill the hours in between.
Music floods over me most happily beside a warm bay, sea, or ocean....
Currently, we live far inland. Toronto. Although Lake Ontario looks and sometimes acts like a sea, it's cold, smells odd, and crabbing and lobstering here are lousy. In any direction, oceans remain distant.
So, although Henry stayed behind, I'm on Cape Breton, washed by the Atlantic, by fragrances of salt and iodine, heather and pine.
The breathtaking Cabot Trail winds through woods, moors, and bogs of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, providing occasional sightings of moose, fox, even a rare lynx. Since Nova Scotia has one of North America's highest concentrations of bald eagles, raptors with eight-foot wingspans soar overhead.
WHERE the road - bordered with lavender lupines, yellow toadflax, purple asters, brown cattails - eases between fields dotted with scattered white clapboard houses and gray barns, it offers pastoral vistas of ivory sheep and black-and-white Holstein cattle. Where the road edges bluffs along the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean, one can swim from pristine beaches into waters which Canadians claim are "the warmest north of Virginia" - at least in July and August. By September, I mainly dabble in
tidal pools, but whales surface offshore. On shore, it's all fiddles. There is music and dancing in some village or hamlet from June until September, whether an extended-family party of fiddlers in a barn or pub, or a festival in a field where musicians, step dancers, and story-tellers in jeans alternate with bagpipers and Highland dancers in tartans. On Cape Breton in particular, several local ceilidhs have mushroomed into major festivals.
And throughout the year, local innkeepers often serve up - along with robust meals - a fiddle and guitar or piano duo. So over a superb lunch I listened to Chester Delaney, one of the leading Acadian fiddlers and storytellers, alternate between French and Scottish narratives.
Fiddlers and their fans spend many a Saturday afternoon together in pubs like the Doryman's in the fishing village of Cheticamp on Cape Breton's northwest coast. After choosing stones on a beach near the harbor bobbing with fishing boats, I watch and listen as master fiddlers and step dancers take turns with performers aged 10 and 14. Step dancing is reminiscent of tap dancing or clogging without cleats or clogs. But how anyone can dance - or fiddle - that fast....
The tunes show strong Celtic influences, and some performers have Scottish names, but in Acadian Cheticamp, the words are mostly French.
Acadians are descendants of the first European settlers who arrived from France as early as 1604. In 1755, the British expelled them from Nova Scotia (reread Longfellow's "Evangeline"), but after sojourns in havens like New Orleans, by the 1800s some returned to the "murmuring pines and the hemlocks." To this day, although Acadians also speak English, they cherish their French, retaining words and expressions no longer found in France or nearby Quebec.
The Acadian festival of Mi-Careme is similar to Mardi Gras but is held mid-Lent. For five days, Acadians turn out in masks and costumes, the more original and mystifying the better, and go from house-to-house making music, dancing, receiving sweets, and trying to remain incognito.
In nearby St. Joseph du Moine, which holds its own festival with both Scottish and Acadian musicians in August, I was startled by a pasture full of gaily-dressed scarecrows. Clad in costumes cast-away after previous Mi-Caremes, they were created by performer Chester Delaney's father, Joe.
More Celtic are the midsummer festivals which succeed one another in Mabou, Glendale, Big Pond, Broad Cove, Port Hood, and St. Ann's. What a feast of fiddlers! And guitarists, bagpipers, pianists, and dancers! Several concerts begin with religious services or parades, and offer activities for children and dances for everyone. For ceilidhs are not just spectator events: locals and visitors alike join in singing, dancing, and playing music.
The Mabou festival, on the southwest coast of Cape Breton, also features a Milling Frolic.
"A frolic here means to get together to do a chore," says Ron MacEachan, a curly-haired, blue-eyed young man who grew up in a large family on a farm on Cape Breton's southwestern coast. He needs only hear a fiddle or bagpipe before breaking into step dancing. "My father, who spoke Gaelic, used to say, `Come, let's make a frolic and get the firewood in.' "
The Mabou Milling Frolic recreates the traditional long winter evenings in sheepherders' homes. Eight or ten neighbors gathered to pound a circle of stiff, newly woven wool until it softened enough to work. While they pounded they chatted and sang, so frolics were also social events.
Broad Cove, the granddaddy of Scottish concerts, held in the meadows around St. Margaret's Church along Cape Breton's Route 19, began spontaneously in 1956 when some 300 villagers celebrating the parish's 100th anniversary flung themselves into an afternoon of Scottish music and dances.
Now every July, Broad Cove hosts the biggest festival on the island, with some 40 sets of performers and 15,000 devotees, including children. For many Cape Bretoners living off-island, "Are you going to make it home for Broad Cove?" has the same wistful connotations as, "Will you be home for the holidays?"
Finding ourselves in the meadow, we fling off our shoes, join hands and dance joyfully around.
On to the Gaelic College at St. Ann's Gut on the northeastern side of the island. Here there are workshops in Gaelic language and song, Highland dancing, piping and drumming, and exhibitions of Celtic spinning and weaving. Then there are the "heavy events," tests of brute strength, such as the Caber Toss. This involves balancing a 30-foot pole in the palms of both hands, resting it vertically against your shoulder, stepping forward to toss it end-over-end in a grand somersault. Whosever pole lands the st raightest and farthest wins.
I'll try that next year. After I shake the mothballs off the yellow-red-green kilt of my mother's clan tartan.
"But we're not all kilts and bagpipes," insists Cape Breton's leading historian and story-teller Archie Neil Chisholm. He underscores the down-home quality of Cape Bretoners who eschew "tartan circus" pretentiousness and prefer a good time with family, friends, and visitors fiddling, singing and dancing on a Saturday night.
However, as almost anywhere else in the world, the various ethnic groups - Scottish, Acadian, Micmac Indian, and Central European - must struggle to preserve their heritages. Many young people leave for further education and jobs on the mainland, especially given the closing of most coal mines, and diminishing marine harvests.
"The catch today is nothing like it was when I started working on boats, at age 13," complains Hubert Cormier, manager of the fishing cooperative. He blames "overfishing by foreign vessels, especially draggers."
During the good season, his boat, White Swan, and others go out after cod. Other captains take visitors deep-sea fishing and whale-watching. But when bad weather comes in October and November, Cormier and other fisherman spend their time repairing boats and nets, surviving on welfare, and occasionally slipping into the Dozyman's Pub for some warming fiddle music.
Fortunately, musical traditions are kept alive by new generations of singers and musicians, such as young virtuoso fiddlers Natalie and Ashley MacIsaac. MacIsaac may also break into step dancing while fiddling, his feet flying almost as fast as his fingers. And upsetting a former all-male tradition, girls are playing bagpipes. This is one place where teenagers are willing to spend an evening with family and friends, listening and taking turns singing, fiddling, piping, step dancing solo or joining in ree ls, square- and circle-dances.
So - I, too, am converted to fiddles. But can I persuade my husband Henry to retune his classical violin?