The Music of Cape Breton


Published in the Victoria Standard – Vol. 3, No. 7 – September 16 to September 29, 2013

Ceilidh is a Gaelic word that means gathering, though it’s come to mean much more than that, because when Cape Bretoners gather, music is almost always in the offing. The Ceilidh has become a symbol for the music of Cape Breton. When you go to a ceilidh you can expect to hear a fiddler and the traditional music of the island. Because Cape Breton has become a world class destination for travellers, the ceilidh has become a popular past time for visitors. Musicians gather from all across the island to play for the people who come from away.
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The modern Ceilidh is typically a small event with an audience between 40 to 80 people. Community centres and parish halls are ideal. Usually lasting around two and half hours, a ceilidh is an inexpensive night out that the whole family can attend. Tickets are standard price at $10 for adults and $3 – $5 for children. The fiddle is predominant, and the person playing the fiddle is in charge, deciding which tunes to play. The musicians rarely follow a set list. The most common accompaniment is the piano, but a guitar is welcome, along with pipes, and whistles, and the bodhran, the Celtic hand drum. Depending on the musicians on any given evening there might be singers and dancers as well. Step dancing is common and sometimes even square sets, if there’s room. Traditional refreshments of oat cakes and tea are served at half time. There is no bar. The musicians chat with the audience sharing bits of history behind the tunes they play.

The Baddeck Gathering at St. Michael’s Parish Hall is hosted by Nancy MacLean, a Cape Bretoner from Lower Washabuck. Nancy puts on a ceilidh every night throughout July, August, and three weeks of September. Hers is the longest running series of ceilidhs in Victoria County, now in its fourteenth year. Nancy is a teacher, not a musician but her love of Cape Breton music is the reason she devotes her time to this project. Her ambition is to present original Cape Breton music in its purest form. She does not hire ‘big names’ but draws from the hundreds of local musicians living in Cape Breton. There’s usually a lively break when Nancy calls for volunteers to take a turn at square dancing.
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The Baddeck Gathering opens early so that folks can reserve a seat but Nancy never turns anyone away. There always seems to be an extra stool at the back. Nancy has heard many times over the years “the music touched my heart”, a sentiment expressed by more than a few visitors hearing Cape Breton music for the first time. Nancy hopes that there may eventually be a proper concert hall in Baddeck to showcase the traditional music of her home.

At St. Ann’s United Church Hall, David Papazian, a Cape Bretoner by choice, has hosted bi-weekly ceilidhs for the past eight years. Originally from Toronto, ‘Papper’ came to Cape Breton via Montreal. The St. Ann ceilidhs run every Tuesday and Friday starting in May through to the end of August. David insists on a completely acoustic concert preferring the sound of the fiddle’s natural voice. David is a musician himself, a fiddler, and singer, and plays occasionally at the ceilidh.
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The concerts at St. Ann’s Tea Room serve a dual purpose. The church was moved from Skir Dhu when three local parishes merged to reduce costs. The bi-weekly concerts have become a primary source of funding for the church. As church steward, David volunteered to host the regular series with the mandate that the musicians be paid, and all subsequent proceeds go directly to the church. David’s ceilidh raises a substantial portion of the annual church budget.

Paul Cranford, fiddler, and author of a score of music books of traditional Cape Breton music opened a third ceilidh at the St. John’s Parish Hall in Ingonish three years ago. Paul is pleased with the growth of this new location giving Victoria County three solid venues to present the treasured music of the island. Paul is flexible in his concert set up to accommodate musicians with different styles and ways of playing. He says a great deal depends on the skill of the players, if they are comfortable with microphones, and amplifiers. Many traditional players prefer to play without the aid of electronics. Paul wishes there were more dancers available. He often plays himself at the ceilidhs in Ingonish.

Lucy & Stewart MacNell (Barra MacNeils)While Paul is largely responsible for collecting and archiving much of Cape Breton’s music, he says that the oral tradition of learning is still very much alive. The ceilidh augments the continuation of the rare music by making it available to Cape Breton musicians and travellers alike. It’s a fair estimate he says that ten percent of the population of the island are musicians to some degree.

One of the best parts of any ceilidh is the spontaneity of the event. Musicians are often among the audience and are frequently invited to play. Paul, Nancy, and David are all well acquainted with the local players and their specialties. Sometimes even travellers who come to listen are invited to play. This is, in essence, what makes the ceilidh so special. The gathering is real, not just musicians on stage with paying customers in the gallery, but people coming together to celebrate the music of the island, be it their home, or a once in a lifetime visit.

Even though summer is waning, and there’s a chill in the air that wasn’t there just a week or so ago, and a hint of colour is showing in the trees, if you’re longing for a little more Cape Breton music, don’t despair. It’s not over yet.

The lineup for the 17th Celtic Colours International Festival includes an exciting mix of local, national, and international artists, festival favourites and Celtic Colours newcomers. During the course of 46 concerts and more than 200 Community Cultural Events, the award-winning festival will explore musical and cultural connections between Cape Breton and Nordic neighbours from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Shetland; pay tribute to iconic Cape Breton performers and culture bearers; and present some of the finest Celtic and traditional musicians, singers, and dancers from around the world. October 11 – 19, 2013, For details go to:

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