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Music: Cape Breton Fiddling Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 15th, 2020

Introduction

Cape Breton fiddling underscores a genre of playing music using a fiddle, which is commonly on the Cape Breton Island. Cape Breton music can be defined as a form of traditional music that borrows much of its songs from the Scottish culture. The origin of the music can be traced from numerous Scottish immigrants to Cape Breton Island in the 17th and 18th centuries when the Highland Clearances were implemented.

The immigrants carried with them their culture to the island and established this form of music later on. The fiddling has so far received a warm welcome by people from all over the world. Although Canada has lost its culture today, it is still preserved in Cape Breton. The music is played in Cape Breton Island located in Sidney, and it has unique features that distinguish it from all other forms of music.

Step dancing and the highland style are the two common styles of dancing that the Cape Breton musicians invoke in their dancing. Scottish immigrants living in Cape Breton thus went with their traditions to the island and established the dance, which attracted millions of fans. The dancers have their way of presenting their music by integrating different styles into one unique style that is then used to achieve the intended purpose.

Persons residing on this island are mostly the Scots and the Irish who have established this popular style of dancing. Scotland has most famous fiddlers among them being “Aly Bain and Bruce MacGregor, Douglas Lawrence, Catriona MacDonald, Alasdair White, Aidan O’Rourke and many more including a burgeoning number of fine young players” (MacGillivray, 1981, p.82). Donegal also has played a role in shaping the Cape Breton fiddling.

The Donegals – who also came here as immigrants, turned out as fiddlers in the dance and there is a close relationship between the fiddlers from Scotland, and the Donegal as many of them share names as evidenced in the music played by the two ethnic communities together. However, the Scots are the main dancers, but they have borrowed a lot from the Donegals.

The island has numerous entertainment centers, which have favored the growth of this traditional music. The Doryman pub located on the island offers live local music during weekends. This live performance has boosted the fiddlers who dance both as a career and for entertainment purposes. The pub also offers a good resting point for tourists who visit the island for purposes of listening to traditional music.

Composers of the music

Popular traditional Scottish and Irish artists compose the music. The most popular Scottish composers include Niel Gow and James Scott Skinner. The two are the main composers though there are other artists too who have published their music and are being used by the musicians from Cape Breton. The fiddlers, who also incorporate dancing to make the songs interesting and lively, then redo the songs.

Tourist attraction

With most of the countries in the world having dumped their cultures, the Cape Breton music provides a better opportunity for culture commemoration. Cape Breton has turned out to be a stronghold of Gaelic culture in the modern world and one of the few places in the world where traditions thrive. Tourists visit the island in large numbers to experience the culture of the Scottish people.

People travel to the island to see for themselves the popular traditional dance. Those who specialize in dancing are paid to perform the unique styles as tourists visit the island in large numbers and pay to be entertained. The entertainment business has so far flourished due to the large number of tourists who visit the island for the sole purpose of entertainment. The popular Highland styles of dancing have flourished.

The dance has attracted many fiddlers who come to the island to do the music as a form of employment. McMaster is just a good example of fiddlers who have been in the frontline in ensuring that the reputation of this traditional music reaches every corner of the world.

He has been into the music industry for quite a long time, and he has emerged as a kingpin figure in the industry. He has established a workshop to help in nurturing the talents of the many fiddlers who intend to join the industry and reap the benefits that accrue.

Music Styles

The players of this dance mix different styles. Some of the styles incorporated in the dancing are not new, but they do them in creative and innovative ways, which make the dancing unique and different from any other form of dancing.

Music is done by other artists, if redone by the Cape Breton musicians, comes out as completely different from the original and more often than not, the dancers play the music in bedding and bowing movements that are attractive and entertaining to the audiences. The dancing is characterized by bowing, and the dancers tend to exercise uniformity in their slow, but sure movements.

Timing carries the order of the day, and every dancer is expected to follow the movements of the other dancers in a stylistic and uniform manner. The songs are played in different languages, but the common one is the Gaelic language. The music is characterized by the rising and fall of the voice as the music continues to play.

As the dancing commences, the voice is low, but as it continues to play, the director hikes the voice in a systematic and creative manner. The songs and the creative dancing most often attract big crowds from all corners of the world. The songs commonly played at festivals are documented in history books and the performers practice them in advance before the actual performance.

The music borrows much of its songs from several traditions ranging from the Scottish traditional songs to Irish traditions. However, the music not only comprises the traditional forms of music but also it borrows some bits from modern music. The tune styles are commonly derived from special books published by famous traditional and modern composers.

Instruments in Cape Breton Music

The traditional musicians tend to add flavor to the music by incorporating certain types of instruments to make the music lively. The instruments commonly used today are the guitar and piano. The piano has replaced the popular pump organ that was previously being used during performances.

Special groups, who are conversant with the styles of dancing and aware of when to alter the style of playing the instruments to suit the various intonations, play the instruments. The playing of the instruments in this traditional music is far much different from playing in other types of music.

This aspect is an excellent distinction factor between Cape Breton music and other forms of music. Before the introduction of the piano, the dancers invoked special movements and banging of the floor with their feet to make the music lively and maintain the rhythm. There seems to be specialization in the roles each one of the stakeholders is assigned in the music, and the dancers are different persons from the instruments’ players.

Ornamentation is not left behind in the music. All dancers are in beautiful traditional ornaments (trebles and drones), which gives them a completely different look from the ordinary dancers. The music is played using musical instruments, which keep the whole music alive. Instruments such as pump organ and recently piano are well matched with the intonations during the performance.

The Music and Dance

Cape Breton Island is a delightful world full of time-honored music. The astonishing number and quality of performers are in line with the well-informed keenness of their spectators. In Cape Breton, a good number of residents understand well the gigantic repertoire and are aware of the different traditional music performed by different artists since time immemorial.

On the island, there is a well-organized venue where anyone interested in learning the music is afforded the chance to join the fiddlers during their performance, and they are allowed to contribute tunes that they are conversant with for the mutual benefit of the fiddlers and the audience at large.

There is a well-organized music session known as “Ottawa” where every interested member of the public is allowed to join the fiddlers as they perform their music. The sessions are open to all who can play the common traditional tunes, and it is organized in such a way that the talents of the performers are identified and nurtured to produce more fiddlers in the future.

At this point, people are in a position to show their ability to dance the unique styles adopted by the dancers. The music has maintained a form of a traditional Scottish style of dancing known as step dancing that the Scots have forgotten in their homeland. The dance is well established as the fiddlers spend quite a reasonable amount of their time practicing the styles. The dance is non-discriminatory, and it has no age limit.

Persons between the ages of 12 to 90 are allowed to gather in one hall and practice together. In most cases, the villagers walk for long distances to the parish, for example, the Glencoe Mills parish just to go and practice the music styles with other fiddlers. In such cases, the fiddlers spend up to 5 hours of continuous dancing to test the endurance of the popular and experienced fiddlers.

Distinction from other music

Cape Breton has maintained the Scottish culture far much better as compared to Scotland. Most scholars attribute this aspect to the historical isolation of Cape Breton. Although the music played in Cape Breton is derived from the Scottish culture, the music is conservative, and it has more of Scottish culture in it than the original songs performed by the Scots themselves.

Scottish musicians flock Cape Breton Island for the sole purpose of relearning the Scottish music and dancing styles that were dumped long ago in their homeland. The Cape Breton music is also unique as even when there are no performers at the stage, and the music is playing; the audiences are aware of when to stamp their feet on the grounds.

As the music is playing, the audience remains calm, but all of a sudden, they stamp their feet in uniformity at a certain point. This factor distinguishes the music from the ones played in Scotland and Ireland despite the songs being derived from the two countries.

Another distinguishing factor is the style of music. Cape Breton Music is done slowly, with varying tones, as opposed to the fast playing style in many other songs on the island. Additionally, audiences in other types of music are seen clapping their hands as a show of follow up.

This scenario is not common with audiences of Cape Breton music. In the Cape Breton music, audiences stamp their feet on the ground as opposed to clapping their hands. The rhythm is another distinguishing factor. The Cape Breton music is done in such a way that the tone rises and falls in different stages of the song. The experienced fiddlers achieve the best rhythm, thus moving the crowd to dance even when their mood seems to be down.

Cape Breton Step dancing

Step dancing carries the day as far as the Cape Breton music is concerned. Dancers of this music are conversant with this unique style of dancing, and in most cases, they perform the music in uniform movements. The style involves slight and slow uniform bowing. This style is the most commonly used though there are other styles such as the square dancing style used as supplementary to the step dancing style.

Modalities of Cape Breton music

The Cape Breton traditional musicians tend to play the tunes in a special and unique manner. They incorporate a variety of tunes to their music. They do not just use the major and minor keys, but they invoke other keys in a bid to vary the music tone. This aspect bestows the song with a unique sound and makeup.

Those not conversant with the music may wrongfully think that the performer mistakenly played a dull tone. However, this dullness is deliberate, as it is aimed at demonstrating a Gaelic susceptibility to the tunes. The tone and the rhythm of the Cape Benton music are closely linked to the Gaelic linguistic.

Conclusion

Cape Breton fiddling is a traditional type of playing music incorporating traditional songs and traditional styles of dancing. The Scots and the Irish dominate the music. However, the Scots are the founders of this type of music. The music is played in the Cape Breton Island under the guidance of both the Scots and the Irish. On this island, traditions have been maintained for a long period now, and the music has become a tourist attraction.

The Scottish immigrants, who left their country in search of refuge, first introduced it on the Cape Breton Island in Canada. They came with their culture to the island where they developed it by incorporating different styles of dancing to present their work in a special and unique manner. Most of the songs played are of Gaelic language since most immigrants from Scotland the Cape Breton were from this community.

Reference

MacGillivray, A. (1981). The Cape Breton Fiddler. Nova Scotia, Canada: College of Cape Breton Press.

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