On to Cape Breton Island and yet another Visitor Center for information – we are beginning to feel like real tourists! The Visitor Centers are wonderful, full of charming and helpful people and lots of information. We acquired a map of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park with nice hikes pre-marked for us, a calendar of the KitchenFest music festival and leaflets of other interesting places. (https://kitchenfest.ca) They even helped with the next campsite reservation, so we headed off on the Ceilidh Trail hoping to hear some Celtic music. Ceilidhs (pronounced “KAY-lee”) are music based gatherings and the music is traditional Celtic music of Scotland. Most of the inhabitants of Cape Breton Island are of Scottish origin and to our surprise, Gaelic is frequently spoken and heard, in coffee shops and in supermarkets. Even some of the road signs are in Gaelic.
Music plays an important role in Cape Breton life and it has been an enjoyable experience for us to discover it in this form and meet some of the musicians. The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s is spearheading this and has organized the two week long KitchenFest music festival for the last five years. They organize other Gaelic focussed activities also. By chance, we had arrived in Cape Breton during the KitchenFest festival so we have had lots of opportunity to listen to music.
We headed first for Mabou, which sounds like something from Star Wars, but is a thriving village on the west coast of Cape Breton in the heart of the Ceilidh Trail. Our first night we went to the Red Shoe, a well known pub with live music. (https://www.redshoepub.com) The food was much more imaginative than you might expect and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner while we listened to our first local performers, Joe MacMaster and friends. This turned out to be Joe, on fiddle, and a pianist, name unknown.
Inspired by this and fascinated by the use of a piano to accompany jigs and such, we headed the next day to the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique, a town just south of Mabou. (http://www.celticmusiccentre.com We first visited their interpretive room where we learned about the history of the Scots and Celtic music in Cape Breton, tried out a few dance steps and had violin lesson. Never having touched a violin before, Denise found this fascinating. We should add that Fred was (slightly) better than Denise was, due to his guitar experience!
We then headed into the restaurant for a light lunch and a Celtic music performance. Lunch was excellent (lobster roll again for Denise!) and the performing musicians were Joe MacMaster, this time with Olivier Broussard on fiddle and Allan Dewar on piano. The music was even better than the food. Joe played fiddle, bagpipes and finally piano and gave explanations as he went. (Impressive for those of us who struggle with one instrument and even more impressive when you consider the vast differences in technique between these three instuments.) Fred asked Olivier about the differences between Francophone and Anglophone music and was fascinated to be told that there was no difference as there was only Gaelic music. (Easy to forget that the Bretons of France are Celts.) We stayed for the full event from about 11.45 to 3.00 PM. Then Denise sat down to discuss piano theory with Joe. Most of us think of the piano as a melody instrument, but here it was basically a replacement for a rhythm guitar (chords in the right hand) and a bass guitar (roots and arpeggios in the left). All of the pianists we heard were real theory monsters, responding on the fly to keys being called out at the beginning of each set.
Some Cape Breton music trivia:
— The dominant instrument is the violin, or fiddle. Why do Scots play the fiddle? Seems that after the Battle of Culloden Moor in 1745 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Culloden), the English banned the bagpipes as a way of weakening Scottish identity and introduced the violin as a way of “civilizing” the Scots. So the Scots happily started playing traditional pipe tunes on the fiddle, a practice that continues to this day.
— We heard it argued that Cape Breton music is more traditional than contemporary Scottish music as the island, and its musicians, were always more isolated. A similar comment has been made of US vs. UK English pronunciation – that is that the US pronunciation is older.
— We listened to a piper from Mabou who has been playing in Scotland for the last twenty years. Why? Bigger market. He introduced us to the Lowland or Border pipes, a simpler version of uilleann or “elbow” pipes. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_pipes) The uilleann pipes are more commonly associated with Ireland. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uilleann_pipes) And for the really hard core, Google will be happy to introduce you to a least a dozen other bagpipes. Who knew?
As it was pouring with rain the next day, we decided that an indoor event would be fun and stopped to visit the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site at Baddeck. (https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/ns/grahambell) A most interesting visit. Bell started his career studying speech and working with the deaf. His father had developed the system of “visible speech” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visible_Speech) and Alexander Graham Bell continued these efforts. It was his understanding of sound, coupled with a knowledge of electricity that led him to invent the telephone, even if it took him 20 years to prove it. He also developed a light based telephone, but this was less practical, until you get to the present day and consider fiber optic cable communication.
Bell was an early pioneer in aviation, using the money he made from the telephone. He, along with Glenn Curtiss, was a founder of the AEA, the Aerial Experiment Association (https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/alexander-graham-bell-aviation-pioneer/) He was instrumental in helping to develop the first manned airplane in Canada, the Silver Dart which flew in 1909. The replica on display was built using the original specifications and materials (where practical) and flown again in 2009 in honor of the centennial of the first flight. He also worked on a series of hydrofoil designs. A most fascinating man.
We also enjoyed a cup of excellent latte in a nice coffee shop in Baddeck (Bean There Cafe http://visitbaddeck.com/bean-there-cafe/) and were fascinated to hear Gaelic being spoken around us. We had no idea that Gaelic was so prevalent.
From Baddeck, we continued to the Broad Cove campground were we planned to hunker down for the the Canada Day weekend.