A pint-sized singer with impressive voice

An 11-year-old girl from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, signed a five-record deal with Sony Music. That announcement might strike dismay in the hearts of those still trying to understand the huge popularity of another youngster, Charlotte Church, who some say sings like an opera diva in distress.

However, Aselin Debison is no Canadian Church clone by any means. Crowds at Boston's Prudential Center Christmas tree lighting ceremonies the past two years received a preview of Aselin's charmingly direct folksy delivery.

She is a young girl who sounds like a young girl, with an untrained freshness and natural communicativeness in both her high and low notes. (As Aselin declares: "I get my high notes from my mom and my low notes from my dad.")

Being aware of her roots is natural for Aselin. The tradition of Celtic music is a strong one in Nova Scotia, involving the history and culture of her beloved home. The wind-swept coastline, sunsets, and mountain ranges of the province's Cape Breton Island have graced many a tourist brochure.

But its natural beauty cannot entirely hide its social ills. Aselin's great-grandfather was a miner, "working with the pit ponies," she says. Last year, the final working coal mine in Nova Scotia was closed, killing an industry that not long ago provided a livelihood for thousands of workers and leaving the region prone to unemployment and its attendant social problems.

Two years ago, at a rally for 1,000 protesting miners, Aselin sang the folksy song "The Island" and reduced the crowd to tears with the chorus, "We are a people as proud as there's been."

She has also sung at local hospitals, nursing homes, and a benefit event encouraging foster parenting.

Her charity work undoubtedly helps her appreciate her roots, resulting in a genuine fervor in the folk material she sings that impresses local experts.

One devotee of what Canadians call "east coast music," Rachel Jagt, says a traditional number like "Farewell to Nova Scotia" gains a moving "deep melancholy" when sung by Aselin.

Her singing is "indeed representative of Cape Breton music in particular and Nova Scotia culture in general," says Andrew David Terris, executive director of the Nova Scotia Cultural Network. "Not only does she sing the songs and ballads of Cape Breton, but she also comes out of the longstanding Cape Breton tradition of young people singing for friends and neighbors at ... kitchen parties and community halls."

Perhaps that's why the Sony recording deal was not even Aselin's first. Warner Music had signed her to a previous contract, which resulted in a Christmas album, "The Littlest Angel," produced by award-winning Canadian folk performer Bruce Guthro.

Mr. Guthro had been Aselin's "idol." "He's so nice and knows how to handle everything," she says. "He treated me like a kid. And he has two of his own, so he knows what it's like!"

When Warner's London office closed recently for budgetary reasons, the record deal fell through, leaving the field open for Sony, which is planning a Celtic album for Aselin to be released by autumn.

Despite her interest in the sober questions of cultural preservation and social ills, Aselin is also a girl who likes to have fun. She especially loves basketball, despite her pint size.

"I'm kinda short for my age, but I play with the guys and pass [the ball] off anyway," she says.

She's also a fan of the Women's National Basketball Association, the American professional league. But since WNBA games are not often televised, she makes do with rooting for male NBA players: Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'Neal are among her favorites.

She wants to be a gym teacher, although her inborn analytical savvy about performance may lead her to a longer musical career than she or her family may suspect right now.

In a phone conversation, she carefully discerns between different aspects of performance, noting that she admires Olivia Newton-John in the film "Grease" chiefly for her acting (rather than her singing or dancing) ability. But what impresses her about another film favorite, Shirley Temple, is "how she dances – I'd love to be able to dance like that one day."

For now, her parents – Donnie, a landscaper who until recently collected unemployment pay during winter months, and her mother, Joan, a former hairdresser – are keeping her well-grounded.

Joan emphasizes that she dresses Aselin in "non-Britney Spears" style. "Since she is 11, we'll dress her like an 11-year-old," Joan says. "When she's 12, she'll dress like a 12-year-old.

"Later on, she can decide for herself."

Named for Aslan, the enchanted lion in the beloved series of Narnia fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis, Aselin has a leonine quality of fierce love for her home in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, which she describes as "a great little town with all kinds of people.

"They're very friendly; there's a lot of fun around here," she says. "It's not very busy, although it can be sometimes. It's a great place to be."

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