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Making Contacts in the Arts

Contact East '98 Displays Our Artists to the World By ANNA-MARIA GALANTE

Wolfville - American playhouses need Atlantic Canadian talent, says one Washington producer attending the Contact East '98 performing arts convention this weekend.

"I can't believe what is up here. A lot of my colleagues have no idea," said Neill Archer Roan, who was looking up potential new acts for Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage.

"I think the art that comes from this part of the world is wonderful. Just incredible. The most exciting and thrilling folk music scene in North America is here."

He was one of over 160 delegates, including artists, agents, managers, presenters and buyers, attending a very musical trade show which opened Thursday in Wolfville's Festival Theatre. "We're thrilled to be able to bring it to Wolfville," said Pamela Kinsman, executive director of the Performing Arts Society of Nova Scotia, which has teamed up with the Department of Cultural Affairs to host the event.

Started in the early 1970s, Contact East is held in a different Atlantic province every two years. It was last held in Nova Scotia in 1990.

This year five of eight showcases were open to the public, including tonight's Sympthony Nova Scotia performance - the first symphony showcase at a Contact convention.

"It's not just classical," Kinsman says. The symphony appears with special guest J.P. Cormier. Other acts include The Novelty Salesmen, Sylvie Proulx and Jeri Brown, The Quigley Ensemble and Joelle Rabu.

Thursday's showcase opened with Slainte Mhath, a band of Gaelic College graduates that has given so-called Celtic fusion a whole new dimension with funky percussion like conga, bongos,steel drum, and cabasa.

Dan MacDonald, of Cape Breton's Rave Entertainment Inc. - a "buyer and seller" of Cape Breton talent - was keen to tell his listening American counterpart all about Slainte Mhath, which is pronounced SLAWN-cha VA.(It's a Gaelic toast which translates "good health to you," and has nothing to do with homework - slanty math or otherwise.)

"These are the younger siblings of the Barra MacNeils," he told Arena Stage's Roan. "They play everything from the bagpipes to sewer pipe!"

Roan nods. "The music here is so fresh, original. There's a lot of difference between artists."

South of the border, he says, Celtic is already hot. However, he is quick to add, much of what's being considered "Celtic" there "is really ersatz, contrived stuff."

"One of the really unfortunate things is the way the record business works ... on the used apple theory," he explained.

"Something works, and it's developed. Then everybody rushes in and makes money off it. If Enya becomes popular, all of a sudden there's a zillion Enya clones. It's sort of disgusting."

Such is not the case here, Roan and MacDonald agree. "Take somebody like John Morris Rankin," says MacDonald. "Someone who would have grown up with the music, someone who is legitimately able to take it and craft it - Natalie, Ashley - because their roots are there. The roots are strong."

This is abundantly clear when Slainte Mhath take the stage.

Ryan and Boyd MacNeil, of Sydney Mines, are up to the challenge of wearing the shoes that have taken their older brothers and sister so far.

In addition to mandolin, fiddle, and congas, Boyd can indeed raise a sewer pipe to a higher calling.

Ryan plays keyboard with vigor, shaking the puny stand beneath the Roland within an inch of its usefulness.

The other three members are equally talented. Bruce MacPhee plays bagpipes and steel drum.

Lisa Gallant, who joined the group in February, plays bodhran, fiddle, cabasa, and step-dances. (Well, they can all step-dance, and don't they!) Stephanie Harley who joined them last year, bringing vocals to a hitherto instrumental group.

They applied last spring to showcase, and were selected by a jury panel, along with 23 other acts.

They are already something of an export commodity.

"Three of us went down to Utah in the spring and did workshops," says Ryan. "We played a concert down there. It was new to a lot of those people - the first time they'd heard any Celtic music."

Now in its fourth year, the group has one CD out, Prophecy, and is working on another.

The five are off to Vancouver next week to appear on the Vicki Gabereau show. They will also be entertaining film festival goers at tonights gala closing party at the Lord Nelson Hotel.


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