Music Road: Sounds of Cape Breton

Cape Breton, on the far north coast of the Maritimes in Canada, is a land of forest and sea, woodland and mountain, winding road and fishing port. It is also a land where many emigrants, especially those from Scotland, have found harbour. It is a place where the language, music, and culture of Scotland thrive and flourish and intertwine with landscape and in community with other peoples who have made Cape Breton home. All of these things make their way into the sounds of Cape Breton.

“I was drawn to the language first,” says Mary Jane Lamond. “My grandparents were Gaelic speakers so I was always interested in the language and the song tradition, and began spending time with people who were interested in songs. It became a passion for me, and I think I really found my voice when I started singing Gaelic songs.” Lamond has carried that passion and understanding of Gaelic music across Canada and the world and back to Scotland as well with her appearances at concerts and festivals, as she has become one of the most renown artists of Gaelic song.

Her musical partner at many of these gigs has been Wendy MacIsaac, who plays fiddle and piano and has been known to step dance on stage as well. MacIsaac started out in step dancing, in fact. “My mom used to teach step dancing lessons with Natalie MacMaster’s mother, actually. They’d go around to the dance halls in surrounding communities on Cape Breton and teach, and I’d go along with them and picked it up by getting into the circle. It was definitely my first bit of music — and then when I did learn how to play the fiddle, I almost immediately began playing for dances. I have to say, that was my practice, really — when you play for three hours a night several times a week, you have to know a lot of tunes, you learn tempo, you learn what people like to dance to.” MacIsaac had the rhythms of Gaelic on Cape Breton by heart, as well. “My grandparents were Gaelic speakers,” she says, “so although I don’t always understand everything that Mary Jane might be saying in a song, I understand it, you know.” It is with a set of tunes which invite dancing that the album Seinn starts of. It winds through varied story and song, traditional and contemporary, of the sounds of Cape Breton of its landscape and people. Nearly twenty years ago now Lamond and MacIsaac crossed paths in the music community on the island, and became friends. Though they’ve each done many projects together and separately, Seinn is their first recording to focus on their sound as a duo.

“We were both overdue to put out an album,” says MacIsaac, “so it seemed like it was time. When we first sat down to figure out what we wanted to do, we didn’t have every track in mind. We probably had five songs we knew what direction we were going in. Then what Mary Jane would do is run songs by me, ones that she really liked, and what I would do a lot of times is pick a tune that would compliment the song.”

What draws Lamond to a song? “Melody,” she says, “I like to have different kinds of rhythms on a record, and of course the story in the lyrics, too, and a certain kind of, I guess, rootedness.” She finds that in songs from the tradition and from contemporary writers. For example, The Blue Mountain’s Lullaby is a contemporary song by Jeff MacDonald and Brian O’hEadhra, while The Soldier’s Song reaches back into the history of the isle of Skye.

MacIsaac often interweaves tradition and present day as well. That opening set, Yellow Coat, comprises two tunes from Scottish and Cape Breton tradition, a tune from Cape Breton musician Kinnon Beaton, and another from Irish fiddle player Tommy Peoples. Then there were times when MacIsaac wrote tunes for the project. “I haven’t written many tunes for my own albums, and I don’t know why that is!” she says, laughing. “For a set called Boise Monsters, there’s a tune I wrote basically half way through the record – we were thinking we needed something in that spot maybe a little different from the traditional sound.” Another MacIsaac tune, called Keeping Up with Calum, got its name “because while we were working on the the record my one year old son was busy rearranging my house!”

The tunes and songs flow naturally across Seinn from dance to air, from songs with the rhythm of work to tales told of love to stories of place. In Lamond’s graceful voice and MacIsaac’s fiery playing you hear the sounds and voice of Cape Breton present and past, and the sounds of connection and friendship. “Joy,” says Mary Jane Lamond. “That’s what I would like people to take away from this album – a sense of being joyful, being uplifted by this music. Because that’s how I feel about it!”

It took nearly a year for Lamond and MacIsaac to put the album together as they balanced creating it with their other commitments. One benefits of this, though, was that they were able to include in addition to their regular musical collaborators Seph Peters on guitar and Cathy Porter on percussion and other instruments, several musical friends, including people you’ve met here along the music road before. Among the guests are the women of T with the Maggies from Ireland, and from Scotland Tim Edey, Corrina Hewat, and Dave Milligan, as well as Ashley MacIsaac and Patrick Gillis from Nova Scotia.

Kerry Dexter, Music Road