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The Reel Deal

MacMaster's fiddle, feet are Cape Breton ambassadors


In parts of Cape Breton it's said that each neighborhood and valley has its own distinctive music. Out of one of these places comes Natalie MacMaster, who's become one of the best-known ambassadors of the Canadian/Cape Breton heritage. "It's very, very rural, on the southwest side of the island," says MacMaster, who's from Troy, Nova Scotia. With her traditional Canadian Celtic fiddle sounds and rhythms she lends vibrancy and originality to a traditional, time-tested music. Her vivacious fiddling leaps and sparkles into all sorts of unexpected directions, and when combined with her nimble step-dancing, it turns her reels and jigs into a perpetual motion, down-home house party.

Speaking with Natalie by phone after a performance in Asheville, she described her Cape Breton music,

"It's very strong in rhythm, that's the strongest feature. There's years of dancing behind it. Also, the Gaelic language is closely tied with the music." When asked why, she explained, "The Gaelic language is very throatal, and that reflects in the (fiddle's) bow movement.

"The language and dancing kind of shaped it a bit."

According to Natalie, "Places in Cape Breton like Sydney, Mabou and Judique all have their own fiddling dialects." Asked about neighboring Newfoundland's music she noted the "similar traditions and similar attitudes. But the actual music is different. There's more accordion. I only know two accordion players in all of Cape Breton. There's also more singing in Newfoundland; more instrumentals in Cape Breton." Asked how it compared to our own Carolina traditional string band music, MacMaster said, "It's certainly hard to articulate about your (American) music. I couldn't do it justice."

She's touring now, in part promoting her recent CD, Blueprint. Band members on the tour include Brad Davidge on guitar and vocals, and John Chiasson on bass and vocals. Playing piano and keyboards — a staple of traditional Nova Scotia music — is Allen Dewar, while bagpipes and whistles are played by Matt MacIsaac. Finally, on drums and percussion is Miche Pouliot. The band members have toured with Natalie for four to six years, with most coming from Nova Scotia.

Interestingly, Natalie says, "I played piano before I played fiddle. I still love playing the piano. I still play it at square dances and house parties, but not onstage. Also, I danced before I played fiddle. I started playing the fiddle when I was nine years old. We had lots of relatives working in Boston. My first fiddle came from one of those relatives."

Though touring to support Blueprint, be aware that Natalie mainly is a ferocious, energetic live performer. She has recently been quoted as saying, "Never in the history of my CDs has it been a representation of what I do live."

Playing live, she has a bigger sound, as she explains, "You have the energy and you have the visual, so more of your senses are being attacked. I want to take (audiences) on an emotional ride. I want them to feel pride and joy and excitement and wonderment."

So Blueprint is different from her live appearances. After hearing an Alison Krause recording (Forget About It), Natalie was inspired to record, explaining, "The whole idea for the project came about from me wanting to make a record that is acoustically brilliant and very clean in production."

The quest took them to Nashville, and the result is a hybrid, in that she brought her Nova Scotia band members to Nashville to integrate Cape Breton's styles with much of Nashville's folk, country, and New Grass Revivalists — Sam Bush, John Cowan, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Alison Brown plus bassist Edgar Meyer. Even New Age artist Philip Aaberg pops up occasionally on piano. As she explains, "Most of my records have piano and guitar. This album has more exciting sounds, like banjo and dobro."

Call it fusion, call it trad, the recording has both, with some surprising twists and turns along the way. Basically Blueprint is an attempt to merge two styles. Some tunes are strictly Cape Breton with their characteristic merging of several reels into one long medley. One example is the opening cut, "A Blast," which combines three lively tunes — called strathspeys — some traditional and some penned by Natalie, turning the selection into a rustic barnburner. "Jig Party" is another traditional number. Going the other way, in a newgrass, fusion direction, is "Bela's Tune," which is much more improvisational and unpredictable.

There are only two cuts with vocals on the recording, and few in her live performances, as it's not the Cape Breton way. "Live," she says, "a couple of songs are done by band members with vocals." On Blueprint, the cut "Touch of the Master's Hand," comes off as a more powerful piece precisely because of its vocals. Vocals, she says, "Gives breadth from fiddle tune to fiddle tune. It makes it more musical, more refreshing.

The final song, "My Love, Cape Breton and Me," the second Blueprint vocal, is a moving tribute to her love for both her homeland and her new husband. She doesn't sing on this track — MacMaster rarely sings — instead the vocal is done by her cousin, Kate Quinn. It was written by her father, Bob MacMaster, and was first performed at her wedding. Two years later she was inspired to use it to conclude the album, with the lines, "It's all that I want in this life and it's free. My love, Cape Breton and me."

Natalie MacMaster plays Spirit Square's McGlohin Theatre Tuesday at 8pm