Celtic Music Interpretive Center
Anytime you are on a road signposted by the silhouette of a bagpiper, music beckons an elegant finger. Don your Scottish tam and seek this treasure: The Celtic Music Interpretive Centre (CMIC) in Judique, on Cape Breton’s Ceilidh Trail.
Once you pass the waves caressing the rocks below Creignish Mountain on Route 19, watch for the steeple of a brown stone church. Across the road, you will hear the soul of a ceilidh.
The license plates tell me who is there today - Rhode Island, Maine, Ontario, South Carolina, Maryland and, of course, Nova Scotia locals. The last time I was there, I was a “home from away” - my current residence in Halifax being just a bit away. As soon as I got out of the car, I heard my childhood nickname called out from a trim fellow in sunglasses sitting on the patio eating a quesadilla and an oatcake for lunch.
Here, when that happens, reply by asking them how they are in Gaelic - Caimar a tha thu? - and that will give you enough time to realize who it is that you haven’t seen in 10 years. That will take care of the rest of your afternoon as everyone (and their dog) has shown up to hear the season’s daily piano and fiddles, ready to dance a square set.
Befitting a place that is almost next door to the home of fiddling great Buddy MacMaster, its exhibit and archives extoll the man himself along with those who came before him and those that followed in his footsteps.
It is this sense of tradition that continue to fuel the facility and its patrons.
“In terms of continuing Celtic culture, you have to remember or understand what came before you,” says Alan Dewar, CMIC Music Director. “It is important to understand the appeal, the approach, what people played and how they did it - the etiquette.
“This music was played in a social setting, not for material or commercial gain.”
“We are trying to educate, at a grassroots level, those who may not have memories of Buddy MacMaster, or know what a house ceilidh is, or never had the chance to experience this music and culture organically.”
The spirits of Winston Scotty Fitzgerald, John Allan Cameron, and Brenda Stubbert drift deeply through the space. Echoes of Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac are found here too. They spent school days just a minute down the road, where our school used to be.
“We are here if someone wants to get a feel for who these musicians were,” continues Dear. “Maybe they want to know how Theresa Maclellan or Donald Angus Beaton would have played a particular tune.”
Music becomes visceral at the CMIC; I hold a vinyl record that could have belonged to my grandparents, who would have put it on the gramophone with the crank handle on the side. Gliding a hand along the sleek wood of a 1940s Marconi radio and turning the knobs evokes fiddle strains, ones that soothed the longing of displaced Gaelic ears for a hundred years or more. In my own head, I still hear the deep voice of 1970s CJFX’s Joe Chesal and CIGO’s Bob MacEachern with the Highland Fling show, marking years of evenings by the radio.
February 2020 saw a recharge for the CMIC. Like so many young Cape Bretoners, Patti (MacDonald) David left the island to study and seek work abroad. She is now back home as a new Executive Director, working with Dewar and a Board of Directors and volunteers.
“To date, we had been focusing on visitors and entertainment and economic sustainability,” she notes. “Like many not-for-profit organizations, it has been a challenge fulfilling our vision. We are designated as the Official Celtic Music Centre of Nova Scotia, and as the Official Cultural Archives for Inverness County.
“Our mandate is to collect, preserve and promote traditional the Celtic
music of Cape Breton through education, research and performance.”
Part of that mandate will see the CMIC tighten partnerships with archival and museum groups around the province and the world. “The music, the history, and the culture of the people of Cape Breton have an inherent value all on their own,” she adds. “I want to ensure that’s the focus - accessible and promoted.”
“We have over 350 videos of live concerts from all over the island,” Dewar explains. “Broad Cove concerts, Mabou ceilidh - our vault is full of gems.” The archives continue to grow and evolve into digitizing, so booking an appointment is encouraged.
Dewar says that the rest of the world is tuning in as well.
“Celtic music - the Cape Breton sound, specifically - catches the ear of a lot of people, whether they are from Scotland, the U.S., or Denmark. When they hear this style of music with their own ears, they are hooked.”
Close ties to Scotland’s South Uist are maintained with visits to the Ceòlas Festival, which celebrates 25 years in 2020. “Our style of music is close to home for them,” Dewar says. “They bring people from Cape Breton to the festival to teach this style of fiddle. John Pellerin, Stan Chapman, and Troy MacGillivray are going this year. There is always that strong bond, back and forth.”
If your companions are keen, or at least tolerant, pick up a fiddle yourself and try the bow. Rumour has it that if you are really, really good, they will recruit you to hop on the stage in the room next door. Apparently, it is soundproof, as planners must have been among those who couldn’t stand an ill-timed squawk interrupting their own melodies.
We are not all virtuosos though. Management here knows that and have prepped a spot. The best of the Island, and often beyond, are around to offer lessons in fiddle, piano, highland piping, stepdance, and beginner Gaelic - all ages, all skill levels - and yes, they are all very patient.
I leave my son looking at a fiddle tune book in the gift shop, and my husband flipping through some Cape Breton Christmas short stories, so I can delve deep into the archives. It leads me into the intertwining of family and music from four cultures that mark Cape Breton fiddle; Scottish, Irish, Acadian and Mi’kmaq. I get deep into an article from Am Braighe, the magazine about Gaelic culture that local Frances MacEachern edited from the ’90s, and I realize I could spend days in here. I also can’t help but think of the late Leo A. MacDonnell, the pointing finger that keeps me writing, a huge influence on the CMIC. Send thanks to him in heaven for that.
Like so much of Scotland, music is tied to the shore and the hardships and joys the Gaels brought with them when they arrived in their boats.
At the end of the CMIC parking lot, there’s a bridge over a brook that looks like it was taken from a fairy tale. Check for the ogre. A wide gravel path winds to the left of the graveyard and takes you to the shore with a beach that I hesitate to write about because I want it all to myself. Discarded fishing buoys hang from the trees, and swirls of mushrooms mix with berries and moss along the way. A side loop will take you to the old St Michael’s pioneer graveyard, only discovered and reclaimed from the tree roots a few years ago by community volunteers. Further along is the site of Judique’s first church, likely built soon after Michael MacDonald brought the first group of Scot settlers to the region in the late 1770s.
If you want a guide, ask for a Celtic Culture Musical Walking Tour or brave the complete Ocean Ceilidh and Seafood Adventure that starts at the CMIC. They’ll give you a little wine or craft beer and send you with area fiddler Chrissie Crowley. She will infuse you with music and culture and Gaelic before a trip on a lobster boat. A square set may break out on the bridge over the brook, part of the Trans Canada Trail. Then you dine and dance with your single malt whiskey before wandering home.
I opt for my own walk, past my MacDonnell and MacDonald ancestors in the graveyard, straight to where I hear the waves curling onto the sand and stones. With salt spray in my hair, and curls blown into a Medusa ‘do, I get a burning thirst, so I head back to the CMIC bar for a little deoch. Siobhan is there, the girl I held in my arms as a newborn, now two decades old. She manages to dance a step and serve a sweet dram almost at the same time. In a minute, she brings out a bowl of lobster chowder and a biscuit, proper Taste of Nova Scotia style. I wish I could have it all year, but I have to go back to Halifax. I will leave it to my aunt Sally to warm the seats of the CMIC. Go to the Sunday Ceilidh any week from 2pm – 4pm and ask her for a dance. You will find her - she’s under five feet tall - but she will take you for a delightful twirl.