Celtic Colours International Festival, Cape Breton Island, Canada, October 11-19, 2002

My ears are still ringing and my feet still tapping from the one-two sonic and rhythmic punch of the Saturday afternoon pipers' ceilidh and the Saturday night self-proclaimed World's Biggest Square Dance, which wrapped up three days ago as I write this. But Cat says he wants a preliminary report in this week's edition on the 2002 Celtic Colours International Festival, so here it is...

Take dozens of world-class musicians from Scotland, Ireland, England, Spain, France, Denmark, the U.S. and Canada. Add knowledgeable and adoring fans from around the world, and hundreds of hard-working local volunteers. Put on 44 concerts and workshops in 33 different venues, from humble parish halls to some of the best performance spaces in North America. Set it all amidst the blaze of vivid autumn colors in the subtly spectacular landscape of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, and you have a recipe for a truly international-caliber musical and cultural event.

That's Celtic Colours.

The sixth annual version, a 10-day affair that ran Oct. 11-19, boasted a stellar lineup of talent. Given the length of the festival and the number of performances, it was perhaps physically possible but in actuality practically impossible to see every artist you wanted to encounter. You could kill yourself trying ... and it might not be a bad way to go. But with a little luck and a good bit of planning, and the press credentials graciously supplied by the festival's media director, the tireless Dave Mahalik, photographer Debra Goldenberg and I were able to see most of what we wanted to see, with a lot of unexpected treats thrown in by happy chance.

It being Cape Breton Island, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting a fiddler, and it's no exaggeration to say some of the best in the world were there. I include among their number Ireland's renowned Frankie Gavin, Chicago's Liz Carroll and Cape Breton's Jerry Holland. You won't find three better fiddlers or nicer individuals on the planet, and we were treated to multiple performances from all three, and personal chats with Carroll and Holland. New to us but not to legions of Cape Breton fans was Kyle McNeil of the Barra McNeils, a powerful, expressive and innovative Breton-style fiddler who brought down the house wherever he played. And newcomer Tove de Fries of Denmark set hearts pounding and jaws dropping with her youthful beauty and her nimble playing. And of course there was the local sentimental favorite, Buddy MacMaster, still getting dancers out on the floor with his solid traditional playing and gentlemanly manners.

You'd be hard put to find three better accordion players on the planet than Scotland's Phil Cunningham, Ireland's Sharon Shannon or the United States' Joe Derrane, but there they were, trading licks on the same stage, the world-class Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay -- and in various venues around the island individually.

Did I mention pipers? Cape Breton native sons John MacLean, who blows a mean set of highland pipes in the "Washabuck" style, and John MacPhee of the Celt-rockers Slainte Mhath (pronounced something like "slawn-javah") focused on the Scottish tradition, while Brittany's Patrick Molard (appearing with his fiddling brother, Jacky), mixed jazzy improvization and minor-key gypsy and Eastern European elements into his haunting piping. And spectral Spaniard Carlos Nunez, one of the festival's headliners, brought the crowds to the feet whenever he played in his driving, tradition-bending style.

Few vocalists are as revered in their homelands as are the Rankins, and Raylene Rankin was clearly a sentimental favorite who had the Canadians in the crowd singing along every time she fired up her pipes for her signature number, "Rise Again." Not to be outshone were Irish singer-songwriter Eleanor McEvoy and Cape Breton's Gaelic songbird, Mary Jane Lamond. Among the men, Cape Bretoners Buddy MacDonald and Paul MacDonald (no relation, I think) entertained as much with their stories as their picking and singing. But it was newcomer Alasdair Codona of Scotland who really turned heads, with his self-effacing personality and his honey-smooth voice as he brought ancient Gaelic songs to life.

It wasn't all individuals, of course. Cowboy Celtic of Alberta turned in a couple of entertaining sets that illuminated the ties between the Scots-Irish traditions and cowboy music. The aforementioned Slainte Mhath brought youthful vigor to their sets and energized the younger fans. And North Carolina's Cucanandy brought a delightful mix of music and dance of Scotland, Cape Breton and the Applachians to life on the stage.

And there were accompanists too many to count, particularly pianists, but also guitarists, mandolin players, a bouzouki or two, some banjo, even.

Top it all off with beautiful scenery, and an island full of truly friendly people, and it was an unforgettable experience.

I'll be writing more about individual performers and gigs in the next few weeks. In the meantime, you might want to check out the festival's Web site, which has links to all kinds of other Cape Breton sites, in case you want to start planning your own trip to Celtic Colours.


[Gary Whitehouse]