Fiddle (gif)

Introduction to the Music
of Cape Breton,
Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia flag

(under construction)Updated: January 27, 2001


  Most folks in the U.S. will first be exposed to Cape Breton music through the spectacular fiddling of Natalie MacMaster or her uncle, Buddy MacMaster either on The Thistle & Shamrock radio show, or at one of their concerts. Or perhaps you will have heard the blazing fiddle of Ashley MacIsaac or the soaring Gaelic voice of Mary Jane Lamond who sometimes get air time on rock stations.

Natalie and Mary Jane tour the S.F. Bay area several times per year. During the last couple of years there have also been concerts by Buddy MacMaster, Jerry Holland, Wendy MacIsaac, Jackie Dunn, and David Greenberg. Natalie, who has toured in the Bay Area more than any other Cape Breton musician, is an excellent showcase of Cape Breton music because her tremendous skill at both fiddling and step-dancing and her exceptionally gracious personality accurately reflect the musical skill, warmth and kindness of the Cape Bretoners themselves.

  My goal here is only to give people some background about this music and tips on how and where to begin exploring and enjoying this great music. Most local radio stations do not play the music and most record stores do not carry much, if any, CB music. The information here will help you find where to hear and acquire this music and begin your exploration in more depth. It is not my intent to be an encylcopaedic source on Cape Breton music since I lack the knowledge, but I can point you to where you can most likely find that information.

What Is Cape Breton Music?

  Cape Breton music is usually described as traditional Scottish music. However, it is Scottish music and dance as it was played in the late 1700s and early 1800s when the forefathers of Cape Bretoners emigrated from Scotland. The most common tune types heard in Cape Breton are strathspeys, reels, jigs, with a lesser number of airs, marches, and clogs. Typically the tunes are played in medleys; the number of times a tune is repeated is left to the discretion of the performer, though frequently each tune is heard only once. Each medley tends to centre around a single key or tonal area while spanning a variety of tempos, for instance a strathspey accelerating into a reel for a solo step-dance exhibition.

How Does Cape Breton Music Differ from Scottish Music?

   Because of Cape Breton's historic isolation, the absence of English cultural imperialism that occurred in Scotland, and the rigor of life in early Cape Breton, the music and the Gaelic language from which it derives so much of its flavor survived in a far purer and more vigorous form in Cape Breton than in Scotland. Today, Scottish musicians are flocking to the island to relearn music and dance steps long forgotten in Scotland.

Cape Breton music is very fundamentally dance music. It is played for dancers, who may be (temporarily) mere listeners. This contrasts with the pub or concert music seen in Scotland, Ireland, or in most celtic music concerts in the U.S. Whereas, to my mind there is too much emphasis in concert playing in the U.S. on playing fast, particularly fiddling fast, the Cape Bretoners are very focused on having a very energized but steady rythym to the tune. "He or she's good to dance to" is the standard measure of praise. And what I love about Cape Breton playing is this focus on the rythym gives the playing so much more drive and kick than simply playing fast. A runaway train on a long downgrade has less drive than Natalie or Brenda when they get going. And, if you really want drive, and fireworks virtuosity in the same package, just listen to Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie, Dougie Macdonald, J.P. Cormier.

Whether it is played in people's kitchens or at the local parish hall, the sign of good player is folks on the floor dancing up a storm. It is driving, highly rythmic music. The best players achieve a tremendous 'lift' in their playing that makes it almost impossible not to dance. Just listen to Brenda Stubbert's new CD or Natalie's No Boundaries CD and you will understand immediately.

Instruments in Cape Breton Music

The fiddle is at the forefront of Cape Breton music. And what an extraordinary crowd of fiddlers have been produced on this island (see the CB fiddlers page). More are coming, as young musicians are filling the shoes of their predecessors with enormous skill while exploring other musical traditions, particularly Irish and American. 

The common and prominent use of the piano is one of the easiest ways to distinguish Cape Breton music from other celtic music. Hammish Moore, the Scottish pipemaker and piper was written "Another factor...which makes Cape Breton music so distinctive today is the unique piano style. Before pianos were introduced to Cape Breton the accompaniment to the music was the rhythm of the stepping feet. The Cape Breton style of piano playing has developed directly from the rhythm of the steps and has evolved into a sophisticated chordal and rhythmic accompaniment. A typical dance in Cape Breton will have one fiddler and one pianist providing the music."

Solo piano playing is still relatively uncommmon in Cape Breton. However, pianists such as Tracy Dares, Barbara Magone, and Doug MacPhee are demonstrating how very effective the piano can be as a solo instrument for this music. By all means check out her two CDs Crooked Lake and

Less visible, but no less interesting is the amazing bagpipe music and singing on the island. Although Cape Breton pipers generally play the same highland bagpipes as their Scottish counterparts, their style is very different. In Cape Breton, solo pipers played for dances, particularly before the advent of electronic amplification, and the flavor is very dance-oriented in sharp contrast to the military band marches and piobaireachd found in Scottish piping. There is only one Cape Breton piping CD currently available--Paul MacNeil and Jamie MacInnis's Open the Door, but interest in the style is growing, as witnessed by the use of some Cape Breton tunes on the Scottish group Def Shepherd's great album Synergy.

Harmonies and Modalities

Here, I am getting in over my head! and I am relying on Kate Dunlay and David Greenberg's superb tunebook, "The Dungreen Collection". They start out by stating "The scales employed in Cape Breton Scottish fiddle tunes do not necessarily conform to the accepted definitions of 'major' and 'minor'. " The discussion can get quite technical, but for our purposes, it is enough to recognize that the modes often used in Cape Breton music (mixolydian and dorian) use a lowered seventh scale-degree. Persons unfamiliar with this music often assume that the musician wrongly played a note too flat. However, the musician is playing the tune as intended, emulating a Gaelic sensibility to the tones. Once your ear gets used to this, you would have it no other way!

Singing (Gaelic & English)

Until recently, Scottish Gaelic was widely spoken, particularly in the western part of Cape Breton. There was also a strong tradition of gaelic singing. The song types were similiar to those found in Scotland. Many of these were working songs, particularly "waulking" songs sung while 'waulking' the wool to soften in. The principal ambassador of Cape Breton gaelic singing is Mary Jane Lamond, who fortunately for us, tours in the S.F. Bay Area one or more times per year. However, there are many other excellent singers of Cape Breton songs, including the incomparable Rankins from Mabou (both the 'Rankin Family' and their distant relatives Rita and Mary Rankin!).

There is also a tradition of ballad singing in English. This music, good as it often is, is generally less unique to Cape Breton. One exception is the remarkable Men of the Deeps, a superb men's chorale group composed entirely of coal miners. They are definitely worth checking out.

Solo and Group Playing

In sharp contrast to Irish music, Cape Breton music is primarily a solo or duet activity. The archtypal Cape Breton groups will be a fiddler and a pianist, or a solo piper. Recently, the fiddler/pianist duo has been frequently joined by a guitarist.

What is not seen much in Cape Breton music is the ensemble playing that characterizes much of Irish music. If several fiddlers are present, they will usually take turns playing, rather than all join in like a typical Irish session. There is some group playing in Cape Breton, but it usually is reserved to the grand finale of a concert, rather than being the standard practice.

On the piping front, solo piping for dances is the heart of this music. There are marching pipe bands in Cape Breton as there are in Scotland. But it is the more intimate, more dance-oriented solo piping or piping with piano as so beautifully done on Paul McNeil and Tracy Dares' CD that is so special in Cape Breton.

There are exceptions, of course. Rodney Macdonald and Glenn Graham routinely played together for dances and on their CD. I've seen Natalie MacMaster playing together with J.P. Cormier for a dance at Glencoe Mills. There are even some Cape Breton groups, notable the Rankin Family and the Barra MacNeils. But, as most beautifully evidenced on Buddy MacMaster's Judique Flyer and Barry Shears' The Cape Breton Piper CDs, the solo fiddle plus piano combination or solo piper remains the heart of Cape Breton music.

The Preeminent Role of Dance in Cape Breton Music

Liz Doherty, an Irish fiddler and scholar of Cape Breton music, described Cape Breton fiddling well in the liner notes of the superb album Traditional Music from Cape Breton: "Cape Breton fiddling functions primarily as dance music, with dancing being popular both on a social level and as a solo art form."

The solo step-dance tradition is described by Cape Bretoners themselves as being 'close to the floor', in that all the movement comes from the knees down and a minimum of floor space is utiltised. It is this tradition that has been the crucial formative influence on the fiddlers' repertoire and style.

Where the music is played

In Cape Breton, the music played overwhelmingly at dance halls for dances and in people's homes. There is almost none of the pub session scene that one would find in Ireland or the Bay Area. There are also concerts and festivals, but the heart of the music is a the dance halls.

the tunes used....

The effect on bagpipe music

Until electric amplification came on the scene, it was often only the bagpipes that had the volume to fill a dance hall. So the dancers danced to the pipers and the pipers played for the dancers. This interaction allowed the perpetuation of a unique style of piping - high energy dance music. It also affected the fiddlers. The unique scale of the bagpipes and the use of gracenotes by pipers heavily influenced the fiddlers who picked up these sounds. This effect is one of the most noticable differences between Cape Breton and Scottish fiddlers.


Traditional versus (?) Modern Cape Breton Music

There is a continuum of music in Cape Breton from old tunes played on traditional acoustic instruments (fiddle, piano, bagpipes) to modern music on synthesizers, electric guitars, etc. A distinction between what is "traditional" and what is "modern" is necessarily arbitrary, and can best be thought of as a tendency toward a certain style of music. Even Cape Breton musicians known mainly for their pop/rock music can invariably switch to playing the most traditional music in an instant. Indeed, some of the best traditional music one can hear appears on albums by groups like The Rankin Family on tracks next to pop or country tunes, and musicians with a very strong traditional playing also explore other musical cultures such as Natalie MacMaster's album In My Hands.

Recommended First Albums of Cape Breton Music to Buy

Since one only rarely hears Cape Breton music on the radio in the Bay Area, and the number of albums is large and sometimes hard to find, starting to learn about this music can seem a daunting, and potentially expensive, enterprise. It need not be. The quality of recorded Cape Breton music is remarkably high, but some CDs make better samplers of this music than others. My suggestions for an excellent introduction to a wide variety of this music are:

Failte - A Cape Breton Welcome (Celtic Music Interpretive Centre)   Cape Breton is famous for its hospitality, and this is a musical welcome that has you up and dancing, or at least tapping your foot before you know what hit you. And we did tell you that stamina was important...this is 72 minutes of highly energetic music. The CD was produced as a fundraiser for the new Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique, and the local musicians from up and down Route 19 contributed one of the tracks from their own CDs. Lets see, thats 18 world class musicians (+ accompanists). The CD is heavily biased toward fiddle music (14 fiddle tracks, 2 piano, 1 song), 1 bagpipes), and slightly biased toward younger players you might not have heard, but totally deserve to be on this all-star lineup. The cast includes: Buddy MacMaster,  Ian MacDougall, Glenn Graham, Mac Morin,  Robbie & Isaac Fraser,  Natalie MacMaster,   Karen Beaton,   Ryan J. MacNeil,   Troy MacGillivray, Jackie Dunn, Andrea Beaton, Raylene Rankin,  Kinnon Beaton, Rodney MacDonald,  Howie MacDonald,  Mairi Rankin, Shelly Campbell, and Wendy MacIsaac. The only reason this was not an essential purchase for me was that I already bought all the CDs these tracks were taken from! Be forewarned, that after you get a sample of their playing, there is a high chance that you may be buying a whole lot more Cape Breton CDs in the near future. Hey, this is great stuff, and supports a worthy cause. A superb introduction to the music of Cape Breton. (Very highly recommended )

(Heart of Cape Breton) The Heart of Cape Breton - Fiddle Music Recorded Live Along the Ceilidh Trail (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2002) This is an excellent sampling of traditional music played live in Cape Breton with the finest of local musicians, including Buddy MacMaster, Brenda Stubbert, Jerry Holland, Kinnon and Betty Beaton and Wendy MacIsaac. The CD includes 34 pages of liner notes. (Very highly recommeded)

(Souvenir album cover)

The Rankin Family -- Souvenir 1989-1998  (EMI Music Canada 2002). This amazing Cape Breton family of two brothers three sisters frequently joined by Howie Macdonald has won four Junos (Canadian Grammys) and most other Canadian awards. With great voices, gorgeous harmony singing, and wonderful songwriting, their music covers a vast range from traditional Gaelic singing and fiddle playing to country.

This is a  "best of'" retrospective of 23 of the Rankins tunes and songs. Nothing new here, but a fine introduction to this great group that put Cape Breton music on the map in the 1990s, creating an example and opportunities for other Cape Bretoners such as Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac to follow.  The Rankins, with their eclectic blend of country, pop, rock, and straight traditional playing sold over two million records, won numerous Juno awards and won the hearts of millions around the world with the exquisite traditional fiddling and piano playing of John Morris Rankin and Howie MacDonald, the angelic harmonies and step dancing of Cookie, Heather, and Raylene, the song-writing of Jimmy. If you haven't heard the Rankins, get this 2 CD set.

(Cape Breton Connection album cover) The Cape Breton Connection (Stephen MacDonald Productions). This is a collection of 16 instrumental tracks, including four previously unrecorded tracks. The fiddlers represented include many great current ones: Natalie MacMaster, Buddy MacMaster*, Jerry Holland*, Brenda Stubbert, Howie MacDonald*, Jennifer Roland, Glen Graham and Rodney MacDonald, Stephanie Wills, and Wendy MacIsaac. (Previously unrecorded tunes are marked by a *, and Buddy's "Stepdance Medley" is a beauty.) 

Interspersed between the fiddlers is some great piping by Jamie MacInnis and Paul MacNeil, plus the guitar work of Dave MacIsaac and the CD's producer Gordie Sampson*, the fiery banjo work of J.P. Cormier, the amazing piano playing of Tracy Dares, and samples of two groups - the more traditional Barra MacNeils and the more modern Slainte Mhath*. (Available at Down Home Music and mail order from any of the Cape Breton outlets and probably Tayberry Music.) 

Celtic Colours Festival CD The Celtic Colours Festival 'An Rathad A Théid Dhachaigh'/'The Road Home' (the 1997 CD) (SMPCD1007)-- This CD from the 1997 Festival is the best introduction to Cape Breton traditional music one can hope to find. It contains 14 tunes from 14 different artists that appeared at the festival including Cape Bretoners Natalie MacMaster, Mary Jane Lamond, Buddy MacMaster, Dave MacIsaac, Paul MacNeil, Jerry Holland, Ashley MacIsaac, the Barra MacNeils, Jackie Dunn, etc.Down Home Music often carries this, or you 
can order this on-line from the Compact Disk Depot or try Stephen MacDonald Productions, Box 284, Lunenburg, NS, Canada B0J 2C0 (902) 634-4135, Fax 634-4156 e-mail
(Celtic Colours -- 2d Wave) Celtic Colours International Festival -- The Second Wave (Stephen MacDonald Productions, 1998). The 1998 CD is even better than last years! Six great previously unrecorded tracks (marked by *), and 10 superb tracks from existing albums. These include a great duet from Natalie MacMaster and Sharon Sharron*, the best recording of Buddy MacMaster* with Tracy Dares that I've heard, mouth music from the Barra MacNeils, a brilliant duet from Alasdair Fraser and Tony McManus*, a taste of the musically reborn Scottish piper Fred Morrison, Brenda Stubbert playing a new set of reels, Gordie Sampson with Mary Jane Lamond, Tony McManus solo, etc. If you like Cape Breton music, this is an Essential Purchase!
Traditional Music from Cape Breton Traditional Music from Cape Breton Island, (Nimbus Records, 1993) 80 minutes of fiddle heaven here. Fiddlers Jerry Holland, John Morris Rankin, Brenda Stubbert, Howie and Dougie MacDonald, Carl MacKenzie, Buddy MacMaster, and Natalie MacMaster, accompanied by Tracey Dares, Hilda Chiasson, and Dave MacIsaac, along with Paul McNeil on pipes for good measure, all recorded before a live audience at the University of Cork, Ireland(!) The musicians and audience urge each other on, feet are stomping everywhere, and the energy level is very, very high. On top of it all, there is a superb set of liner notes.
Rankin Family album The Rankin Family -- The Rankin Family Collection- (1996) This amazing Cape Breton family of two brothers and three sisters has won four Junos (Canadian Grammys) and most other Canadian awards. With great voices, gorgeous harmony singing, and wonderful songwriting, their music covers a vast range from traditional Gaelic singing and fiddle playing to country. This, their first album, is the most traditional. Almost as good in my opinion is The Rankin Family Collection (1996), The North Country and Fare Thee Well Love (1990). 
Alternately, it is possible to hear small samples of Cape Breton music on some of increasingly ubiquitous Celtic collections records. In particular, try Putumayo's Women of the World, Celtic II which contains tracks from Natalie MacMaster/Cookie Rankin, Mary Jane Lamond, and Pamela Morgan, and even the The Chieftain's otherwise weak album Fire in the Kitchen which has tracks from Ashley MacIsaac, The Rankin Family, and Natalie MacMaster.

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