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Cape Breton Fiddle Tradition Reaches New Peak

By Ron Foley Macdonald - Halifax Daily News

The Cape Breton Fiddle Tradition, one of the great musical lineages of North America, has reached something of a zenith this spring with the release of two landmark albums. With Natalie MacMaster's double-live CD (on Warner Music) and Slainte Mhath's second album simply entitled Va (on the indie label Maple Music), the Cape Breton Fiddle Tradition has begun the 21st Century in better shape than it entered the 20th.

In Natalie MacMaster, Cape Breton music has found a durable champion who has built an impressive career out of the traditions she grew up with. While her studio albums have dabbled with various musicals forms--you can find bits of Texas Swing, Gyspy Music, Hot Club of France-style Jazz and even a dash of bluegrass throughout her CDs--she's never wandered very far from the touchstone of mainstream Cape Breton Fiddle traditions.

On her new double-live CD, MacMaster brings it all back home. While one disc sees her regular seven-piece touring band tearing through a wide selection of material recorded in a concert appearance in Mississauga, the second catches the flaxen-haired violinist at a Glendale, Cape Breton dance accompanied only by Dave MacIsaac on guitar and Joel Chiasson on piano.

The difference is telling. While the Ontario concert features a broader palette of musical textures--particularly from the guitars, drums and percussion--the Glendale session is raw, unadulterated Cape Breton music in all its economical glory. After all, the Island's Fiddle traditions are based in the social activities of the Friday and Saturday Night Dances which erupt in every corner of Cape Breton throughout the year. Like much Latin music, the demands of socially-derived dance music help define form and delivery. Ultimately, it's one of the great cultural imprints of the East Coast.

Natalie MacMaster's double-live CD manages to sample various musical formats while re-confirming her own connection to the tradition that formed and shaped her musical sensibilities. It's a marvelous set that proves the Cape Breton Fiddle Tradition is stronger than ever.

On the other hand, the new album from Slainte Mhath (pronounced Slancha-va) shows that the Cape Breton Fiddle Tradition is providing a viable jumping-off point for a quintet of adventurous young musicians. While just as grounded as Natalie MacMaster in the jigs and reels of the Island's dance music traditions, Slainte Mhath push the limits of the form by adding more contemporary elements of modern music, including snatches of techno, ambient and industrial forms.

At the group's heart, however, is the potent fiddle and bagpipe duo of Boyd MacNeil (violin) and John MacPhee (pipes). Bolstered by Lisa Gallant (fiddle, vocals, bodhran), Ryan MacNeil (keyboards) and Brian Talbot (on drums and percussion), the group bends and stretches their mostly-traditional material until it sounds utterly fresh, unique and original.

Their new album, Va, sees the group refining an ensemble sound that is remarkably tight and unified. Using the bouncy Cape Breton dance rhythms as a starting place, they build up a plaintive and intriguing series of musical textures that manage to be conservative and avant-garde almost simultaneously. The last two tracks, My New Pants and Attack of the Flying Slugs, show that the young quintet has held on to something of a sense of humour. After the long wait for this new album which saw a last minute change in distribution, it's good to see Slainte Mhathe retain their wry Cape Breton perspective.

With Natalie MacMaster passing a career milestone with her double-live CD, and Slainte Mhath confirming their place at the vanguard of East Coast groups, the Cape Breton Fiddle tradition is in good hands indeed.


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