(from Jon Hartley Fox via Cityfolk)
Christmas is the best time of the year for renowned Canadian fiddler and step-dancer Natalie MacMaster. As a girl growing up on Cape Breton Island, MacMaster was part of a large extended family and tight-knit community, and the holiday season was the high point of her year. Now that she’s a mother with a family of her own—and living several hundred miles from Cape Breton in Ontario — family traditions are even more important to her. With her husband, fiddler Donnell Leahy, they are creating their own new traditions for their growing family.
On December 4th at the Dayton Masonic Center, Natalie MacMaster offers Christmas in Cape Breton, a holiday celebration that joyfully recreates the Christmas customs of her family home. “We have a lot packed into the show.” says MacMaster, “We offer a bit of a contemporary edge to some of our tunes, and other tunes are very beautiful and deep and more thought provoking. But for the most part it’s light, happy, joyful music. There’s lots of dancing, lots of Christmas music, there’s a local choir guesting, a couple of real tender moments where my mother speaks to the audience. There are some Christmas carols, of course, and Christmas melodies played on the fiddle, and some traditions I share with the audience of Cape Breton during Christmas time.” The local guest choir is the Kettering Children’s Choir.
The northern-most island of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island is home to almost 150,000 people. In the first half of the 19th century, approximately 50,000 Highland Scots arrived there, evicted from their land at home by the forced displacement now known as the Highland Clearances. These Scots became the dominant cultural group on the island and have had the biggest influence upon the evolution of the music, dance and traditional culture of Nova Scotiain general and Cape Breton Islandin particular.
Born in 1972, Natalie MacMaster was part of a musical family in a very musical environment; Natalie’s uncle, Buddy MacMaster, was one of the premier fiddlers in the area and the biggest influence on her fiddling. Natalie began playing fiddle at a young age, giving her first public performance at age nine. She recorded her first album when she was 16, about the same time she began step dancing.
“That happened very naturally,” she says of her recording debut. “I just played, and people started asking me to play at concerts, so I did, and one thing led to another. I remember hearing another 16-year-old on the radio who made a recording. I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it too.’ I did the whole thing [recording and mixing] in a day. That’s kind of unheard of in this day and age. It was just a lovely little project back then, and I don’t think there’s been any record that’s meant that much to me.”
The traditional music that MacMaster began playing at a young age is community music (as opposed to “at-home” music) that’s primarily played on the fiddle and piano. “Its rhythms come from the dancing,” says MacMaster. “It’s dance music. The traditional Cape Breton style of dance has been partnered with the fiddle music forever. A sign of a good fiddler is one who can accompany the dance and keep the beat. That’s why the very deep groove of the music stays.
“The Cape Breton style is almost like a genealogy, the music of our ancestors. I play and dance to music that carries on a bloodline, and that’s very powerful.” The music is highly rhythmic and highly infectious. “It’s such a pure, honest music,” she asserts. “It doesn’t come from wealth and popularity. It comes from tradition and family. Therefore it has longevity. I don’t think it will ever stop being appealing to people of all walks of life.”
Even so, MacMaster prepared for a career as a teacher rather than as a musician. “It never dawned on me growing up that I’d be doing this as a career,” she says. “All the fiddlers I knew had day jobs.”
MacMaster’s most recent album, is Cape Breton Girl, her first studio recording in five years. It represents a return to MacMaster’s traditional roots and is true to that high-spirited dance music. “While my other albums have included traditional music they have also been more exploratory, more arranged,” she explains.
Natalie MacMaster is internationally regarded as the foremost standard bearer for the traditional Cape Breton fiddling style. She has collaborated with a dizzying array of musicians that includes Alison Krauss, Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, Bela Fleck, Faith Hill, the Chieftains, Luciano Pavarotti, and Mark O’Connor. The Boston Herald says that “To call Natalie MacMaster the most dynamic performer in Celtic music today is high praise, but it still doesn’t get at just how remarkable a concert artist this fiddler has become.”
MacMaster has won numerous musical honors in Canada and the U.S., including Juno and East Coast Music awards, and has earned Grammy nominations for several of her albums. She won her first Grammy last year, for her contributions to superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s holiday album, Songs of Joy and Peace. In 2006, MacMaster was made a member of the Order of Canada, a lifetime achievement award (and Canada’s highest civilian honor). She is one of the youngest recipients of that honor.
Natalie MacMaster loves touring and she loves performing. She loves being at home with her husband and children for Christmas even more. She says that these Christmas in Cape Breton performances help get her in the Christmas spirit and ready to celebrate with her family back home. “We’ve done holiday songs and holiday shows, but this was our first more serious attempt at a Christmas show,” says MacMaster. “I think this is the best time of year. I will be baking and loving up my family. I am a Christmas girl.”
Natalie MacMaster: Christmas in Cape Breton
Sunday, December 4, 2011 – 7 pm
Dayton Masonic Center
Reserved single seats: $35, $28, $20