Monday, October 31, 2011


   Since 1997, the Celtic Colours International Festival has featured hundreds of musicians from all over the Celtic world and attracted tens of thousands of visitors to Cape Breton Island. For nine days in October, Cape Breton Island is home to a unique celebration of music and culture as the Celtic Colours International Festival presents dozens of concerts all over the island, an extensive line-up of workshops, a visual art series of exhibitions, and a nightly Festival Club. Over the years, artists have traveled from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Brittany, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Cuba as well as from across the United States and Canada to join the finest of Cape Breton's musicians, singers, dancers, storytellers and tradition-bearers for the annual Autumn celebration.
   One of the things that sets Celtic Colours apart from the vast majority of festivals taking place around the globe is that it isn't limited to just one location. Communities around Cape Breton Island host concerts and workshops at a time when the fall leaves are at their most brilliant and traveling around the island offers one breathtaking view after another. These communities are the places where the culture has been nurtured for over 200 years providing context for the roots of the music and celebrating each community's contribution to our living Celtic culture.
   In many of these communities, the local fire hall, parish hall or community centre has hosted musical events for generations, in some cases, literally moving the fire trucks out of the hall to accommodate a dance. Venues for Celtic Colours vary from an 18th Century reconstructed French Chapel to brand new state of the art performance facilities to community halls, but all venues share in common the prominent place each holds in the community it serves. The Celtic culture of music, dance and story telling lives on in these communities and provides foundation for the celebration of living culture that is the Celtic Colours International Festival.

   With Celtic Colours International Festival's ambitious schedule (as many as six concerts each day), it is simply impossible to see and hear everything. The organizers of the Festival realize this and take special care in the programming of each show so that it is possible to get a taste of all that the Festival has to offer on any given day. Whether it's Gaelic singing you are most interested in, or Cape Breton fiddling, or local dance traditions, outstanding accordion playing, perhaps, or an afternoon of world-class bagpiping, Celtic Colours festival-goers can tailor their musical experience to suit their tastes.
   Celtic music has seen a resurgence of interest in North America during recent years. Fueled in part by the success and popularity of entertainers like Natalie MacMaster, Buddy MacMaster, the Barra MacNeils, Ashley MacIsaac, the Rankin Family and Rita MacNeil, this interest has focused attention on Cape Breton Island, its music, its people and its culture. Celtic Colours offers the opportunity for visitors to go beyond simply listening to the music. Workshops, offered in many aspects of Celtic and Gaelic culture, allow visitors and residents alike to get the hands-on experience they desire. Host communities around the island present workshops in Gaelic language and song, components of tradition, instrument instruction and traditional dance, as well as offering cultural tours, ceilidhs and a lecture series. They also organize an extensive array of community events including meals and dances.
   One of the most popular features of the Celtic Colours International Festival every year is the Festival Club. Located at the Gaelic College in St. Ann's, the Festival Club opens as the evening concerts are closing, offering an opportunity for Festival artists to perform in a more informal setting, or to get a session in with friends and colleagues from near and far. Performance is by invitation only and depends upon artist availability on any given night. Although the license only allows the bar to stay open until 3:00 am, the music has been known to continue well beyond that time.

   The festival is held at the height of the island's spectacular fall colours, allowing visitors to enjoy breathtaking scenery as they travel to their next event. Traveling to an event may take a visitor around the pristine Bras d'Or Lakes, Canada's largest saltwater lake, or around the Cabot Trail, often called North America's most scenic drive. Wherever you go in Cape Breton at this time of year, you are bound to find amazing scenery around every turn.
   Celtic Colours International Festival is recognized as a world-class event, both locally and internationally. The Festival was named the Tourism Industry Association of Canada 2007 Event of the Year, has received four East Coast Music Awards for Event of the Year, (2005-2008), two Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia Crystal Awards (Events / Conferences 2002, the Golden Hospitality Award 2005), and was named American Bus Association's Top Event in Canada and Attractions Canada's Top Cultural Event in 2001. In recent years, Cape Breton Island has also been recognized by Conde Nast Magazine for its scenic beauty and friendly people (voted number one in the world by its readership) and by National Geographic Traveler as among the top travel destinations in the world.
   Since its 1997 debut, Celtic Colours International Festival has grown to become one of Canada's premiere musical events, and a cultural highlight of Nova Scotia's tourism season, collecting accolades from regional music awards to national and international tourism awards. In doing so, the nine-day Fall festival has introduced the musical culture of Cape Breton Island to visitors from more than two dozen countries and extended Cape Breton Island's tourism season by a full two weeks.

   By any measure, Celtic Colours International Festival has had a very successful run. Starting in 1997 with 27 concerts and 12 community workshops, the Festival has expanded to an impressive 45 concerts and 249 community events in 2010. Over 15,000 people attended the community cultural events and 17,958 tickets were sold to concerts in 33 communities around the island. The Festival attracted 6,214 off-island visitors who came from every province and territory in Canada, 50 American States and 19 other countries. International visitors increased by 1% in 2010, and 4% more Cape Breton residents came out to concerts, contributing to an audience expenditure, excluding ticket sales and transportation to Cape Breton, of $ 6.2 million.

Celtic Culture

   Gaelic Cape Breton has been described as "the most recent and far-flung outpost" of Gaelic Scotland. It is the only area in the world - outside of Scotland itself - where Gaelic continues as a living language and culture. Here the language, culture and traditions have been transmitted through five, six and even seven generations of separation from the Homeland. As such, Cape Breton holds a unique position within the larger Gaelic world.
   During the period 1775 - 1850, some twenty-five thousand Gaelic-speaking Scots from every region of the Highlands and Islands established thriving pioneer communities throughout Cape Breton and Eastern Nova Scotia.
   Gaelic culture thrived in Cape Breton. From the arrival of the first settlers through to the present, Cape Breton Gaels, like their counterparts in Scotland, have continued the development of their linguistic and cultural heritage.
   By the late 1800's Gaelic communities were firmly established throughout rural Cape Breton. The immigration to Cape Breton from Scotland had all but ended by 1860. The Clearances were finished and the Famine was past. The vast bulk of those who wished to leave Scotland had left, and those who remained in Scotland were fighting to win justice in their own country.

   In Cape Breton, Gaelic was alive and thriving. By 1880 the Gaelic speaking population of Cape Breton had swollen to 85,000. This population was comprised largely of first, second and third generation descendants of the original settlers and for the vast majority of these descendants, Gaelic was their first and only language.
   The opening years of the twentieth century saw many changes coming into life in the rural and urban communities of Cape Breton. Some of these changes were subtle; some were more obvious.
   For Cape Breton, the era of pioneer settlement was past. With the growing number of sawmills in the country, and the increased availability of iron and steel, timber-framed construction had all but replaced log construction as the main form of housing. Similarly, the brush-fence and the stake-fence were giving way to pole and even wire fencing. The single-lane tracks through the forest were developing into roads. And the closing years of the nineteenth century saw the opening of the railway as Cape Breton was connected to the rest of North America by an rathad iarainn "the iron road". Also, by 1900, the number of Gaelic speakers had dropped form eighty-five thousand to around seventy-five thousand people.
   There were other changes taking place as well. Beginning in the 1880's, a new pattern of out-migration began to appear - this time from areas such as rural Cape Breton. The coal mines of Cape Breton had been in operation before the Gaels arrived and it was usual for some people to go to work in the mines from time to time. Because of its rich deposits of coal and iron, Sydney and the surrounding townships were emerging as a major industrial region within North America. The opening of the Sydney Steel Plant in 1901 created a demand for industrial workers never before seen in Cape Breton and Sydney was dubbed, "the New York of the North".

   A Ceilidh-house was a favored gathering place in a community and each ceilidh-house would be known locally for its particular form of entertainment. This would most often be determined by the talents of the occupants of the house. A man or woman known for their singing abilities would attract other singers and those who enjoyed songs to that particular house. Hence, singing would be the main entertainment with story-telling, music and dance mixed in. Another house might be known primarily for story-telling, and yet another for music and dance.
   Whatever the favored entertainment, visitors would start arriving after the evening chores were finished. Each new arrival would be greeted in turn and invited to tell their news. The early hours were thus spent mainly in the discussion of the small and large events of the day. As the evening settled, the music, song and story-telling would commence and would continue through the evening and into the night.
   Often performance was followed by discussion. The history behind a story or a song, the meaning and nuances of a particular word or line, bowing styles, fingering techniques - these and other topics might be discussed and even debated. In this way, people shared their collective knowledge, for a Gaelic audience at its best is an informed audience capable of truly appreciating the individual style and talents of the performer within the parameters of the wider tradition. Even the person who might never "perform" participates in a valuable and valued way through his or her knowledge of the tradition.

   In this way, localized styles and repertoires of music, song, and story along with knowledge of tradition, history and genealogy were - and still are - maintained and developed within the "house ceilidh".

No comments:

Post a Comment