Celtic Colours 2011: Passing down traditions in Cheticamp and Judique

I visited Cape Breton, Nova Scotia on a blogging trip from October 11th to 13th for Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton. They gave me a couple ideas of what to see and full editorial control – so what you’ll read here is no-holds-barred travel blogging fun.

Masks in Cheticamp: Joe’s Scarecrows and la Mi-Carême
On my final day in Cape Breton, I had driven up to Cheticamp to meet with the Extreme Group people for a final visit. There were some fascinating things along the way – like Joe’s Scarecrows, which is both the creepiest and most amazing roadside stop in the world (check the video!) – but the real treasure waits for halfway through Lent, when the Mi-Carême festival happens. Back when people took Lent seriously, there was a definite need to cut loose and party for a while, and that is exactly what they celebrate at the Centre la Mi-Carême. Click the video for more:

Passing down Gaelic culture at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre
Driving back down the Ceilidh Trail, I see road signs in English, Mi’kmaq, Gaelic, and French. I’d seen, heard, tasted, and learned a little bit of each of so far – and I’m not talking about the road signs. I’m talking about the fact that Celtic Colours gives a chance for Cape Bretoners to showcase their heritage. It is a substantial opportunity to get to host people who are willing to learn more about the music, language, and food of your culture, not least because it can be as transformative for the hosts as it can be for the participants.

The Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation is hoping to build a museum to pass on their most treasured cultural artifacts. Centre la Mi’Carême wants to remind people of all the fun that you can have with your neighbours using only papier maché masks and some paint. And at my next stop, the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre, Allan Dewar wants to keep the tunes flowing all across the province. Raised in Antigonish, he’s brought his Celtic expertise to Judique as the music director for the Centre. He’s managing a busy couple weeks during the festival, though it doesn’t sound like Gaelic culture shows any signs of slowing down even when the tourists aren’t around. Check the video:

In their own way, each of the places I’ve visited is trying to find a way to link the traditions of the past with a frequently daunting future, and tourism – of the sort that Celtic Colours brings in – has a big role to play. It’s not always obvious what the right way forward is, but I have a feeling that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, eating some food, and learning about what Cape Breton is like for the people who call it home. That’s a start, in any case. Fortunately, Celtic Colours goes way beyond this basic starting point.

Celtic Colours as cultural experience
In my last few minutes on Cape Breton Island, Allan told me that fiddle is a way of life. It’s not something you can get in one lesson, or by listening to CDs. Part of the difference seems to be that music books and CDs are things can stick around even when a culture is long gone. What makes music – or the masks in Cheticamp, or the food in Eskasoni – something truly important is that it’s all there because of a strong culture. If there were not people around to keep the traditions alive, then I sure as hell would not have had much to blog about. But the cultural practices I’ve covered this week are tools: they help ensure that there’s still a culture around to sing about, to belong to, to pass on. They’re also partly constitutive of that culture. Culture is what culture does. It’s something astonishing, and it’s something very few events actually promote: Celtic Colours is worth going to on that count alone.

Although “going to” Celtic Colours doesn’t even make sense, and it doesn’t make sense in an informative way: you can’t go to a culture. You can go to a place, and come away with a newfound appreciation for an entire way of life, but you can’t really just go to a culture. You can visit, and you can hope that you’ll find the true and unshifting reality of a community – as a travel blogger, this is all I have ever hoped for – but you have no guarantee. Celtic Colours, on the other hand, is different. It’s a bunch of decentralized events in unique places (and, often enough, these places also have even managed to maintain their own language), hosted by people who care intensely about using those events to let their culture make the biggest possible impression on the world. They want you, and you, the traveler, need them.

My Celtic Colours trip has been an experience that has put me more closely in tune with more distinct cultural groups than any other activity ever has. I felt that, by the end of my three days in Cape Breton, I had been given the sort of travel experience that happens so seldom that it borders on anthropology and only occurs after years of preparation. I feel like it took me a while to realize that the conversation that I had with Allan at the Celtic Music Centre was a different conversation, albeit very similar in subject matter, to the conversation I had with Alex in Eskasoni. I would have to chomp on this for a while. I did not know what to think; and now that I’ve had some time to contemplate it all, I just want more. That is how powerful Celtic Colours is, and I encourage you to visit.

Cape Breton, day 2: Songsmiths and whiskey in Mabou

Donny from the Glenora Distillery

I visited Cape Breton on a blogging trip from October 11th to 13th for Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton. They gave me a couple ideas of what to see and full editorial control – so what you’ll read here is no-holds-barred travel blogging fun.

The Glenora Inn and Distillery has been through a lot: two past owners, a couple lawsuits from Scottish distilleries who seem unsympathetic to these New World pioneers, and all the challenges of making a first-rate whiskey in a place that has no history or experience in distilling the maddeningly complex single malts that the Glen Breton is now known for. Challenge overcome, I say.

When we arrive at the main entrance, Donny greets us. We find out that he’ll be giving us the tour – which I’ve handily compressed into video and point form for you:

  • There’s a distillery and a malting house on premise – though the malting house is used as a museum. The barley is grown in Saskatchewan and malted in Quebec.
  • They put out about 50,000 litres a year; this could be quadrupled easily enough, but they prefer to focus on tourism during the summer months, as Glen Breton has an incredible restaurant and inn on-site.
  • Call it a single malt whiskey, not a single malt scotch: that’s a title reserved for the whiskeys coming from Scotland.
  • What can you expect to taste in the Glen Breton single malt? Apple and maple – flavours that the surrounding forest imparts into the elixir through the porous oak barrels that the whiskey is aged in. They also do a few really cool ultra-specialty products, including a $300 cask-aged whiskey and the world’s first ice wine-finished single malt, but their basic whiskey starts at $50 – and believe me, basic is not the right term to describe it at all.

Post-tasting, we headed to Mabou for The Song & the Songsmith event: five of the east coast’s foremost folk musicians would come together to play their tunes and talk about how they made them. Everyone on that stage was obviously happy to be there, and you could see the respect they had for one another. If they liked a song, they would sing harmony or strum along in accompaniment.

This is the sort of setting that really makes the cultural diversity of the area apparent: songs were sung in English, French, and Gaelic – really, the only voice missing was that of the Mi’kmaw people. Possibly the best part about driving anywhere in Cape Breton is that you’ll see road signs in each of these four languages too.

I’m from Saskatchewan, as I’ve pointed out before, and it kind of inured me to the effect that Ron Hynes had on the audience as he sang Sonny’s Dreams. I’d never heard it before! Beautiful song, though – and the whole audience sang along. It was amazing, though it gave me a sense for what being “from away” really means.

What did speak to me was what Old Man Luedecke performed. He’s not old – the youngest on stage by fifteen years at least – but he’s as diverse and talented as any one of his peers, and more relevant to me than any of them. His 2011 Juno win speaks to that, sure, but it’s hard to get a sense for how well he nails it without hearing one of his songs:

As far as protest songs go, this is astonishingly good. He’s gratuitous in a good way: in a visceral, mean, butt-kicking way that makes you think that you could follow a banjo into battle. The refrain makes sorrow concrete and uplifting – not an easy task, and especially not for something so multi-faceted and diffuse as the frustration that the Occupy Wall Street movement has tried to capitalized on. Keep an eye on this dude – which you can do quite easily on Twitter.

I drove a bit north of Mabou to stay at the Macleod Inn. For $85 a night, I got the most spacious and comfortable suite I’ve seen in a very, very long time. It’s not often that I’m comfortable enough to unwind while on the road, and this is the special sort of place that lets it happen. Props to the friendly owners – they make a mean fruit salad for breakfast.

Cape Breton, day 2: Hiking through the Highlands National Park

I visited Cape Breton on a blogging trip from October 11th to 13th for Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton. They gave me a couple ideas of what to see and full editorial control – so what you’ll read here is no-holds-barred travel blogging fun.

I got up after a long night of music and scenic drives to a bright new day at the Bras d’Or Lakes Inn. The Inn is known for its great food, and a breakfast buffet ($10 when you book the room) gave me a final chance to enjoy the warm dining room and the great view.

Today, I decided it was time to do some hiking. I would go up the west side of the Cabot Trail to the beginning of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where a three-hour guided hike was launching from the interpretive centre just north of Cheticamp. The trails are about 9 km long, they go up 265m of mountain, and wind through three distinct forest types. The cost? Free. Check out the video below for trees, streams, and friendly Texans:

Q: What is another way of saying that the hike had tired me out?
A: I was ready for lunch, so I went to the Red Shoe Pub. It’s owned by a couple Rankin sisters, so you can bet on hearing some of the family’s famous Cape Breton musical talent if you make the trip. I showed up in mid-afternoon with a fantastic appetite, which sort of off-set the lack of music. The place was still packed, and the beer tap list featured Garrison and Propeller standards and seasonals. I had the Garrison Oktoberfest Brau, thinking that it would pair nicely with my absolutely amazing fish and chips. It turns out I was wrong: the crisp fish batter’s seasoning was a fresh citrus and pepper combo that made the heavy mouthfeel of the Brau completely out of place. Pro tip for next time: the Garrison Hopyard pale ale would do this haddock justice – and with food like this, there will definitely be a next time.

I had a couple hours before I would meet the rest of the Extreme Group’s contingent for supper and a tour of the Glen Breton distillery, but thanks to incredibly bad cell phone reception, the minor task of updating my social networks and booking a hotel for the night became a major side project. The problem: my Fido/Rogers phone would not work northwest of the 105.  I found an unprotected wi-fi network, thinking I could do some planning and calling from Skype, but the signal was too weak. I resolved to drive back towards where I last had reception to fire off a tweet or two, and by the time I was finished, it was time to learn about whiskey. That, though, is for another post – check back tomorrow!

Cape Breton, day 1: Music in the air from Port Morien to St. Peter’s

I visited Cape Breton on a blogging trip from October 11th to 13th for Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton. They gave me a couple ideas of what to see and full editorial control – so what you’ll read here is no-holds-barred travel blogging fun.

Cape Breton is a bigger place than you’d expect. Maybe that’s a subjective call, but my GPS was giving me an unusually high number of instructions on the way from Eskasoni to Cow Bay. And while the looping, switchback roads might contribute a bit to the sense that you’re not getting anywhere quick, I think the main fault lies with the scenery. I blame the scenery for making time – and my pace – slow down. It’s tough not to stare when the ocean extends from sharp cliffs to mingle with the sky on the horizon. Hell, it’s hard to stay in your lane.

After a bit more than an hour (plus obligatory Tim Horton’s stop), I made it to Port Morien for the Cow Bay Ceilidh. A few local and international artists would entertain the occupants of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 055. Unfortunately, as with most events at the Legions of Canada, the crowd was fairly advanced in their years. Honestly, the average age was about 60. Dancing and raucous celebration were to be replaced by polite clapping and soft humming. The downstairs location of the bar might have had something to do with that, too.

Fortunately, the music and the acerbic wit of Celtic performers would make up for the graying audience. Cleverness started at the outset (“the emergency exists are wherever you want if you’re big enough”) and continued throughout. The MC opened the evening with a couple classic songs, and the audience participation was serene: a couple hundred calm voices and mistimed claps led the way through Irish Rover. Another song about a woman and her breasts led into the next act: John Ferguson and Roger Stone.

They’re damn talented musicians, I tell you. They also give a bit of a sense for the themes of traditional Celtic music. I’ve already mentioned the song about the woman and her breasts; by the end of the evening, there would be more than a few songs whose prevailing theme could best be described as “women doing what they shouldn’t” (like the song about a nun who was implicated in brewing moonshine). The ‘women’ leitmotif was second only to references about age and mortality. Most of the jokes were about this – about graying hair and poor eyesight. It occurred to me that the songs and the genre haven’t changed much in the lifetime of this crowd.

Anna Massie and Mairearad Green (closest pronunciation: Moira) are on stage next. They are Irish and Funny. My notes, at this point, are more scribbles about how bad the audience is. Though the venue is at capacity, the right half of the room is absolutely silent. Then the music starts, and the subject matter of their songs is shockingly different. There is a song about friendship, another about food, and there are nearly as many “tunes” (re: instrumentals) as proper songs. I note the awesomeness of the accordion, and leave.

There was still one more event to catch before the close of the night: the Kitchen Racket Jam Sessions were being held at the Bras d’Or Lakes Inn, which sits on the south end of the lakes at St. Peter’s. I decided I would bring my fiddle along for this trip, so a kitchen party was just where I could get my jamming fix. Hit the video below to see some of the acoustic goodness of the night:

Cape Breton, day 1: Eskasoni Cultural Day

I visited Cape Breton on a blogging trip from October 11th to 13th for Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton. They gave me a couple ideas of what to see and full editorial control – so what you’ll read here is no-holds-barred travel blogging fun.

The Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation is about half an hour east of highway 105, and it’s home to splendid views, awesome fishing, and a proud people. After learning that the venue had changed, I made it to the Elder’s Centre and found Mi’kmaw culture on full display.

Out front, I notice someone else with a media pass – a local Eskasoni guy who has been doing photography in the area for a long time. He introduces me to Alex Poulette because I ask if anyone can speak about Mi’kmaw history, and I get exactly that. Alex tells me about his life as a musician, and that’s a calling that he casts as inextricable from the culture that he’s a part of. You can see a bit of our conversation in this video:

What I saw for the whole rest of the day showed how Mi’kmaw culture arises from the everyday lives of its people. For every piece of the culture’s rich tapestry, there is a practice that keeps it going. Alex found that music could connect him with the myths of his forebears so that he could pass on history to the next generation – but I spoke with cooks, with hunters, with weavers and drum-makers who had all found that these activities let them continue the Mi’kmaw way of life.

The willingness of everyone at the Elder’s Centre to tell me about their culture was enough to make an anthropologist jealous, but I was there as a blogger, and we are famously hedonistic types. I am happy to report that I genuinely had fun there, for a couple really good reasons:

1. Waltes: the oldest game in Northern America

Also known as “Indian dice,” waltes is played with six dice and a round, concave wooden board. To play, you lift the board, then slam it back down. If five of the six dice land on the same side, you get a point. Don’t worry – they’re more like coins than dice, as they only have two sides each. If you do that twice in a row, you get an extra point – for those counting, that’s three points. The points are kept track of with sticks: three sticks make one point, and if you score three in a row, then you put a stick in your hair, which will count later on in the game.

There’s another way to win: get all the dice on the same side. That gets you an old lady stick, which is worth five points. Once the three old ladies are gone, the same process will get you an old man: that signals the end of round 1.

Round 2 is where my brain turned to mush. I was an instruction-following, waltes-playing automaton. I was in the zone. It really does get somewhat more complicated, though, and my notes and memory cannot be relied upon after this point. I can only implore you to go out and try waltes for yourself. It takes a long time to build the skills to be good at it (one sweet trick involves waving briskly over the still-spinning dice to flatten them out on the side you want), but you will certainly have fun.

Sit for a while, and you’ll see how this very lively game is also a cultural treasure. The dice are made from animal bones. The board is made by boiling a knot of a tree for about a day; the one we played with was the last one made by a local craftsman. “I had to beg him to make this one!” says my playing partner (she kicked my butt). The old man and the old ladies refer directly to Mi’kmaw history: the chief, it’s said, had a few wives – and the fifty-one scoring sticks are their many kids.

2. Food

The cost for the Eskasoni Cultural Day was $25, and it got you a meal. Your choice: moose stew or baked salmon and scallops.

Both dishes were caught, hunted, gathered, or otherwise procured from Cape Breton. You’re wondering about the moose, so I’ll tell you: it was hunted by Lindsay Paul, an Eskasoni man who was helping out at the Cultural Day. Hunting’s about more than just food. It’s where the considerable Mi’kmaw oral history gets transmitted. Lindsay’s dad taught him to hunt when he was about eight, and Lindsay will do the same for his kids. Once the moose is felled and butchered, the meat gets marinated overnight to soften it up. It’s cooked simply, and served with traditional bread and stewed vegetables. In terms of taste and texture, it was close to unseasoned beef brisket – not exactly fine dining, but it was super wholesome and delicious. The seafood dish was lighter and more contemporary, served with a lemon wedge and bacon-wrapped scallops, and it was really well-cooked.

After my day in Eskasoni, I headed down to Port Morien and St. Peter’s for a night of celtic music – check back to hear a bit more about my adventures tomorrow!

Cape Breton, Day 1: An Introduction

I’m from Saskatchewan, which means that on the four-hour drive from Halifax to Cape Breton’s western shore, I was pretty happy with what I saw. The landscape was full of interesting features – there were trees, and hills, and so much more. The road wound around the landscape, instead of straight and endlessly through it. The forest was turning, giving more colour than I can remember seeing in any number of autumns back west. It reminded me of the lushest parts of Saskatchewan’s north.

I thought this nice drive would prepare more for what Cape Breton is like, but it didn’t. Cape Breton is a land that destroys your sense of accomplishment. My girlfriend’s step-dad has a photo he took on the Cabot Trail: an eagle, a whale, and a busload of tourists share the frame. The place is so densely packed with breathtaking scenery that no tour bus will ever scare it all off.

The Cabot Trail is great. I’ll save it for another trip, though. This time, I’m on assignment: I’ll be blogging about the cultural bounty of Cape Breton, and especially that of the 2011 Celtic Colours International Festival. Toss in some culinary tourism and a few outdoor adventures, and my itinerary is packed for my three-day whirlwind trip to Cape Breton.

Here’s the disclaimer part: I’m contracted by Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton. However, I have full editorial freedom. What comes will be a true reflection of how I felt about my experience.