Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Part 1 - M is for Rita, Ashley, Natalie and Buddy MacMaster, the Barras and the Men of the Deeps

     "M!"   Wow!

     When it comes to Canadian music, "M" is definitely the motherlode!  There are so many outstanding singers and musicians whose name starts with an "M", that I am forced to break this down into three parts.  Today, I shall focus on the resurgence of Celtic music in Canada and the personalities who brought it back to life. Tomorrow, I will pay my respect to the legends.....the divas....our musical royalty.  Finally, I'll shine a light on the young turks, as it were; the up-and-coming-stars whose tunes are on the lips of all the cool kids in town.  So, sit back and prepare to be dazzled because this is as good as Canadian music gets.  Let's go!

     I recently spent a week back home at the place of my birth, Cape Breton Island.  When I was home, I took my 84 yearly mother out shopping at the local mall.  While there, I bought a t-shirt with the following picture on it:

     Cape Breton Island forms the upper third of the province of Nova Scotia.  It is joined to the mainland by way of a man-made causeway than stretches across the Strait of Canso and it known, simply as, The Canso Causeway.  The bridge shown in the photo is a movable bridge; the kind you find at lift locks and the like.  But, this bridge is held in the hearts of all who call Cape Breton home, not just because of its' role in helping water craft move about the island but, as well, because of the symbolism it possesses; for this bridge is the gateway to Cape Breton.
     One of the characteristics of Cape Breton Island, all throughout its' history, has been the outbound migration of its' youth.  Unemployment rates have trended higher than the national average since before I was born and continue to do so today. Consequently, the siren song of a better life in manufacturing plants of Ontario or in the oil fields of Alberta has often been too much for Cape Breton's young citizens to ignore and, like me, they found themselves as Capers-in-exile in some far-flung part of this great land. But, regardless of where our houses are located, the home of our hearts has always been Cape Breton. Consequently, a secondary characteristic of the Island is that those who leave, like me, always come home as often as we can. When we travel back, we pass under the sign on this bridge and we cheer. To pass under it is to be home. To be home is everything.
     I would have bought that t-shirt based on the emotional pull of the photo, alone. However, being under that sign on that bridge holds an immensely personal place in my heart; more than just the pull of the Island or of Family, for it was at this very spot that I asked my wife to marry me.
     In order to disguise my true intentions and to make my ruse seem as realistic as possible, I had asked my wife to take a photo of me in front of the "Welcome to Cape Breton" sign because, as she knew, from hearing me go on about it, that it held such strong emotional meaning for me. She agreed total the picture. So, on a cloudy, windy, rainswept afternoon, we drove to the Canso Causeway and the photo was taken. Immediately after, we walked back across the bridge and stood upon Cape Breton Island soil. Then, I fell to one knee and married one of the most special places in my heart with the most special woman I had ever met.  Keri said, "Yes". To celebrate our engagement, we drove for about an hour and had tea at a wonderful restaurant called Rita's Tea Room.   The "Rita" in question is, none other than, Rita McNeil.

     Rita McNeil is affectionately known as Cape Breton's First Lady of Song.  Rising from the ashes of a childhood marked by sexual and physical abuse, Rita McNeil came to adopt feminist ideals in the 1970s; particularly, about how women were viewed by men and in the media.  She channelled her anger by writing songs about women such as her mother or else, about people who exemplified what it was to live a hard-working, honest life.  While her highest charting song in Canada was called Flying On Your Own, it is a song about Cape Breton coal miners that is her most beloved and which has become one of the unofficial anthems of Cape Breton Island. This song is entitled, The Working Man. While Rita has sung this song many times on her own, she is best known for sharing the stage with a group of real-life coal miners who formed a choir named The Men of the Deeps.  Rita and the Men of the Deeps have toured the world together, with The Working Man usually being the finale of each show.

     Rita soon developed a sense of confidence in herself as a song writer and in having so many stories to tell based upon her life experiences as a woman and as a Cape Bretoner.  She has won three Juno Awards, four Canadian Country Music Awards, countless East coast Music Awards and has been named a member of the Order of Canada and of Nova Scotia, for her contributions to enhancing the culture of the Island. Because of her success as a singer/songwriter and because of the warmth of her personality, she has lifted the profile of Cape Breton Island and served as a role model for many other singers and songwriters; encouraging them to create glorious music based on the Island, as well.        
     But, for me and for my newly-engaged, soon-to-be wife, Rita's Teahouse was where we chose to celebrate our happiness. We discussed our wedding plans while Rita's songs played in the background. The tea was most excellent, as was the strawberry shortcake. Life was perfect. We felt welcomed. We felt at home.

     Rita's star shone so brightly that, for a time, she developed her own television show on the CBC. The show was simply called, Rita and Friends. While Rita welcomed music performers of all types, it was in her role of cultural ambassador that local performers such as fiddling prodigy, Ashley MacIssac came to attention of all Canadians;  not just those in attendance at the kitchen parties or, ceilidhs, as we call them back home.
     Ashley MacIsaac is a multi-Juno Award winning fiddler, originally born in the village of Creignish. Honing his skills as a child, playing in the hotbed of celtic culture, MacIsaac soon developed a fiery playing style that has endeared him to audiences to this day. However, as talented a performer and musician as Ashley MacIsaac is, it is his personal life that has often claimed the media spotlight. MacIsaac came out and declared his homosexuality back in the 90s, when it was still not a widely accepted lifestyle choice.  His career has suffered because of the prejudice he has encountered due to his sexual politics but, also, because of his attention-seeking antics he likes to employ. His most noteworthy incident occurred while appearing on the Conan O'Brien Show in a kilt, wearing nothing underneath and then, flashing the audience during his musical number. But, at the end of the day, Ashley MacIsaac's talent raises him up above the controversy and, as such, he continues to be at the forefront of all that is good and innovative in fiddling music in Canada today.

     As notorious as Ashley MacIsaac sometimes seemed, his cousin, fiddler Natalie MacMaster, seemed the exact opposite.  Always appearing as sweet and lovely, with her long flowing blonde tresses, Natalie MacMaster is every bit as talented a fiddler as Ashley MacIsaac is.  Playing since she was a little girl, Natalie was fortunate to be raised in a family that included her uncle, the incomparable fiddler, Buddy MacMaster.  Under his dignified mentorship, Natalie MacMaster developed a playing style that incorporates all of the classic fiddling techniques, as well as, adding world class step dancing to her performances.
     Natalie MacMaster grew up in a musical environment and, as such, it is not all that surprising that, as a woman, she would choose to surround herself with musical talent, too. Natalie MacMaster is married to Donnell Leahy of the celtic band, Leahy. They have four children, all of whom, perform step dancing and fiddling.  MacMaster has won several Juno Awards and East coast Music Awards over the course of her career and has represented Cape Breton Island with dignity and class.

     For those of us "from away", the longing for Cape Breton never wanders far from our hearts.  The sound of the fiddlers tune or the piper's lament, is enough to transport us all back to that rock in the sea. However, Life being what it is, many of us have found ourselves far removed from that bridge on that Causeway. But thankfully, inspired by Rita McNeil's success, Celtic music has gained in popularity across Canada. As it has grown, so have the profiles of the performers who write and play with such style and passion. So, it is always a happy occasion when someone from back home goes on tour and comes to our home towns to play.  Rita, Natalie, Ashley, The Men of the Deeps and The Barra MacNeils have all come to my town of Cobourg or neighbouring Port Hope to perform.  God Bless their hearts for bringing Cape Breton Island to those of us far from home.

     The Barra MacNeils, in particular, are very good to tour Canada.  They have consistently done so near Christmas time and have produced several Christmas albums of traditional celtic holiday tunes.  But, to simply say that about the Barra MacNeils is to sell them short, for they are a collective of immensely talented musicians and singers; all of whom embody the spirit of Cape Breton in their playing.
     The Barra MacNeils are all brothers and sisters.  Their name derives from the Scottish Clan system which sees the island of Barra, in Scotland, as being the ancestral home of the Clan McNeil thus, they are The Barra MacNeils.  Each member of the band is classically trained; combining the formal training they have received at Mount Allison University, with the rich experience of playing in kitchens and Legion Halls all across Industrial Cape Breton.  They have won multiple East coast Music Awards.  They have performed here in Ontario but, I have seen them at home at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, too.  Regardless of the stage I have witnessed them play upon, they have brought a little of "back home" into my world and, for that, I am eternally grateful.

***For those of you interested in the trivia of my own life, as you watch the Barra MacNeils play at the Savoy Theatre, note that it was on that stage that I graduated from High School in 1982.  There was no fiddling or step dancing involved but, on that very stage I once stood in all my nerdy teenage glory.  It was, also, on that stage that U.S. Group, The White Stripes, once played to a wild and rowdy crowd. Buddy MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac were the opening acts that memorable evening.

     If Home is where the heart is then, for me (and, for my fellow Capers-in-exile) my heart is in Cape Breton. Although I can no longer call Cape Breton Island my place of residence, I can always rely on the storehouse of memories I have of having grown up there surrounded by the beauty of the land, the   majesty of the Atlantic Ocean, the warmth of the people and the richness of the culture. I am honoured to share this history with all of you through this blog. I encourage each of you to come and visit Cape Breton Island, at least once, during your life time. It is a remarkable Island and the place my heart yearns to be. I will happily be your tour guide, if you'd like.  :)

     In the meantime, I have the great good fortune of still having family on the Island. It pleases me to know that my own daughters have driven across that Causeway and under that bridge and know the story of where Daddy asked Mommy to marry him. When we were in that very store in the Mall where I bought my t-shirt, we asked the girls if they wanted a Cape Breton t-shirt for themselves. Keri held up one that said, "Honorary Cape Bretoner" on it and asked my oldest daughter, Leah, if she wanted it. Leah, to my delight, immediately replied, "No thanks. I already am a Cape Breton girl."

     Let me end this post by tipping a Scottish tam in the direction of these very talented performers whose name begins with the letter "M":

     Singer/songwriting legend, Murray McLaughlin, Rocker, Holly McNarland, one of the stars of the TV Show, Rock Star: INXS , Sweet Suzie McNeil, Modern day pop star, Shawn Mendes, Alternative darling, Amy Millan, Pianist, Frank Mills, Canadian icon, Don Messer and his Silver Jubilee, Maritime singer, Matt Minglewood, Quebec pop curiosity, Mitsou, Chris Murphy (lead singer of Sloan), Electronic Award winner, Montag, Gil Moore (runner of the band, Triumph), 80s rocker, Alannah Myles, Canadian-U.S. metal band, Misery Signals, Multi-talented percussionist, Manitoba (currently performing under the moniker, Caribou), Indie rockers from Montreal, Malajube and, finally, for today, let's end with the musical and comedic stylings of McLean and McLean.
    ***Please note, all you passionate followers of this blog that, today is only Part #1!!!  There are many, many more "M"-list performers yet to come. Send me any omissions after Part #3.  :)

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