© 2020 Donna Hébert, all rights reserved.
One thing you won’t go short of in Cape Breton is music. It’s everywhere. Fiddlers, pipers, singers in Gaelic, French, and Mi’kmaq, step dancers, pianists, pipers, drummers, accordion players, guitarists, square dancers. Everywhere you look, there is music going on. There’s even fiddling on the radio when you enter the grocery store here (I LOVE that!). Music is the calling card for Cape Breton culture.
Per capita, there are more great musicians here than anywhere I’ve ever lived. All summer long, in a normal year in Inverness County there are daily events up and down what has been dubbed “Canada’s Musical Coast.” A feature of those events is the relative youth of some of the players. That’s not an accident. The heritage here is so strong, runs so deep, that young people take up fiddling, piping, step-dance (often the first thing learned), piano, singing – any or all of the above. They’ll also learn to sing and speak in Scots Gaelic or French or Mi’kmaq in school if it’s part of their heritage. Yes, I said “in school.” You can be educated in an immersion program here – all three languages are available. It’s one of the ways Cape Breton protects her cultural heritages.
So, once that young musician, singer, or dancer has the basics down, they are often put on a stage – be it a local ceilidh or community event, often with siblings providing musical support. Early on, these students lose their stage fright and learn to focus on the dance and music, to take performing in their stride. To some this might look like stage-parenting – but for real – do you want kids to get good at something? Then let them do it over and over long enough to become competent. It’s how young musicians are nurtured on the island. It’s a given here that you practice and then you try it out on stage. The structure for that and the necessary encouragement is built into Cape Breton society.
Now, I’ve been an educator for 50 years and I’ve seen kids dragged to lessons they don’t want. I’ve been the teacher trying to make it fun so they’ll stick with it. So here’s the coolest thing. These kids really want to play, to dance, to sing, to learn the old tunes! Their peers are doing it and they love it. There is community status in this for them. I’m sure teenagers here listen to their own music as well but they don’t reject this older part of their heritage in the process of becoming an adult. At the same time, adults are happy to provide as many venues for their performances as possible. Of course, parents of a talented fiddler dream of the next Natalie MacMaster or Jerry Holland but this process offers far more than possible stardom.
Participating in local music events that reflect their heritage reinforces their value, their importance, and their duty to the community as a part of growing up. These parents are rooting their kids in something real, something that gives them an identity they will carry for the rest of their lives, something they can hand on to their own kids someday. Parents and grandparents here look at the out-migration of the young as a heartbreaking fact of life, so anything that will bring their kids back to the island is good. And if they can’t find work back here, well, at least they’ll carry the music of the island with them, won’t they?
So, where do young people go to learn these skills? To start with, many learn right at home. The MacMaster-Leahy family is probably the best known example of what that concentrated attention to heritage can yield. This 2017 link shows Natalie and Donnell’s kids playing on NBC’s Little Big Shots. Their outfits are made from the Nova Scotia tartan and you bet those girls loved the sparkles! Check out the taps on the boy’s sneakers, too!
If your extended family sings and speaks another language or plays an instrument, there’s a good chance you’ll do the same. Where communities value heritage and culture, not just from a commercial standpoint but one of deep connection to their roots, it’s not remarkable to find such dedication to what folklorists call “keeping it alive.” It’s NOT dead and maybe that’s one of the secrets. If you don’t let the good things go, sell them out for empty substitutes, they are there when you need them, for values and for a sense of who you are. Providing young players here with a place from the start ensures that the island’s musical future is in good hands.
[I’m researching programs that teach Cape Breton music and dance and will list them with contacts in a future post.]