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The Music of Cape Breton

9 Essential Starter CDs

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Cape Breton Island is a gorgeous island in the province of Nova Scotia (Latin for "New Scotland"), Canada. Much of Cape Breton's population is descended from displaced Scottish Highlanders who were driven from their homes during the infamous Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. Traditional Highland culture, music, and language has remained alive and well here in this windy Canadian outpost, which is worth a visit should you have the chance, and certainly worth exploring through music, so pour yourself a Glenora and read on!

Buddy MacMaster - 'Cape Breton Tradition'

Buddy MacMaster - 'Cape Breton Tradition'
(c) Rounder Select
Buddy MacMaster is one of the best-known and most-respected fiddlers in Cape Breton, and really, all of the Celtic music world. Hailing from Judique, a town which is one of the major strongholds of Cape Breton's Scottish culture, he's been playing fiddle for ceilidhs (traditional music and dance parties) since he was a teenager, though did not become a full-time professional musician until his retirement as a railway station agent in 1988. This CD is a nice collection of traditional and traditionally-styled tunes with MacMaster's signature flair: reels, jigs, strathspreys, and more.
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Natalie MacMaster - 'Yours Truly'

Natalie MacMaster - 'Yours Truly'
(c) Rounder Records
Natalie MacMaster is the niece of Buddy MacMaster, and part of an enormous extended musical family that includes Ashley MacIsaac and the Beatons (who you'll read about in a minute). Natalie plays the traditional style with a clean, modern flair, and is a smooth and confident player who can easily meld the Cape Breton style with other fiddle-based musics, leading her to become one of the most popular Cape Breton crossover artists. She's performed and recorded with the likes of The Chieftains, Alison Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma, and Faith Hill. She's at her best, of course, when she's playing her gorgeous interpretations of the traditional tunes and her own new-trad compositions. If you happen to ever catch her live show, you're in for a special treat: she generally pulls off a bit of step-dancing in with her sets (while playing fiddle, nonetheless), showcasing yet another important Cape Breton tradition.
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Ashley MacIsaac - 'Ashley MacIsaac'

Ashley MacIsaac - 'Ashley MacIsaac'
(c) Decca Records
Ashley MacIsaac is the bad boy of the Cape Breton music scene. He's known for his rock star antics, both onstage and off, and beloved as one of the greatest fiddlers in the genre. Though he can play the old songs with the best of them, he's more widely-known for combining traditional elements with a modern, indie-rock aesthetic, which has led him to become a multi-platinum-selling artist in Canada. This album is a nice combo, where you can hear his skillful fiddling but also get a good sense for MacIsaac as a songwriter.
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Mary Jane Lamond - 'Storas'

Mary Jane Lamond - 'Storas'
(c) Trade Root Music Group / Turtlemusik
"Storas" is Scots Gaelic for "treasure," and Mary Jane Lamond's music is certainly that. She has an angelic, ethereal voice that seems almost tailor-made to perform the music of her culture, as though her being born on Cape Breton Island was no accident of fate. She performs the rich traditional vocal music of Cape Breton (and Scotland before): folksongs, lullabies, ballads, and so on, and her music is substantially more subdued than the dance music of many of her colleagues on this list. She does employ an excellent band, though, both recorded and in her live performances, both of which you should take in should you be given the chance.
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The Barra MacNeils - '20th Anniversary Collection'

The Barra MacNeils - '20th Anniversary Collection'
(c) Barra Music Canada
The Barra MacNeils are a family group which is currently made up of six siblings: Sheumas, Kyle, Stewart, Lucy, Ryan, and Boyd MacNeil. They've been performing together on international stages since 1980, when they were all just teenagers, and their vibrant onstage dynamic and rich, lively, deeply-textured sound has made them popular with both fans at home and around the world. This album is a nice retrospective of the first 20 years of their career.
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The Rankin Family - 'North Country'

The Rankin Family - 'North Country'
(c) EMI Music
Another sibling band, the Rankin Family hails from a tiny (but musically prolific) town called Mabou, in Nova Scotia's Inverness County. They made multiple platinum-selling albums (including North Country) in the early and mid-1990s, but eventually decided to take an indefinite hiatus in 1999. In 2000, eldest brother John Morris Rankin was killed in a tragic car accident, and it was only after 8 years that the remaining four sibling band members decided to reunite. They are once again recording and touring regularly throughout Canada and occasionally abroad.
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The Beaton Family of Mabou - 'Cape Breton Fiddle and Piano Music'

The Beaton Family of Mabou - 'Cape Breton Fiddle and Piano Music'
(c) Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Though the fiddle is certainly king in Cape Breton music, the piano (and, historically, the pump organ) is also an important textural component. The Beaton family, fellow townspeople of the Rankins and cousins of the MacMasters and MacIsaacs, are particularly wonderful purveyors of the fiddle and piano interplay that have soundtracked many thousands of house dances and ceilidhs over the centuries. Every track on this album is a traditional "set" (medley) of tunes that will likely leave you wishing you knew how to dance a strathspey.
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Joe MacLean - 'Old Time Scottish Music From Cape Breton Island'

Joe MacLean - 'Old Time Scottish Music From Cape Breton Island'
(c) Rounder Records
If you want to really get to the heart of Cape Breton's fiddle music, it's best to go back as far as you can. Joe MacLean was a well-known fiddler, song collector, and composer who amassed and annotated an enormous personal collection of Scottish-rooted music from Cape Breton and throughout Eastern Canada. His papers are now housed at the HighlandVillage Museum (and are indexed for browsing online), but this excellent collection of songs he recorded in the 1970s is certainly a more instant form of gratification! Simple, featuring just fiddle and piano, they're really a nice representation of the pure Cape Breton sound.
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Barry Shears - 'A Cape Breton Piper'

Barry Shears - 'A Cape Breton Piper'
(c) Barry Shears
Though the fiddle and piano dance music tradition is the dominant one in Cape Breton, there are other elements of Scottish traditional music present in the island's folk music scene. This, of course, includes vocal music (like that which the aforementioned Mary Jane Lamond performs), but it also includes the instrument which many associate most closely with Scottish music, and certainly the music of the Highlands: the bagpipes. Barry Shears is probably the best-known carrier of the Cape Breton bagpipe torch, and this excellent record showcases his talent (and his knowledge of great old tunes) nicely.
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