THE CELTS Cape Breton is the home of another exotic micro-culture forged by poverty, pride, and isolation, although in this case it's not so much Louisiana as Appalachia. It is here that my Fear of Scottish Stuff gives way to unbridled, intoxicated admiration. (It helps that I'm staying at a distillery.) Cape Breton has preserved and intensified a kind of Scottishness long lost in Scotland itself, just as the French spoken in Quebec bears an accent forgotten centuries ago in France. The locals feel no sense of inferiority beside the motherland; in fact, Scotland has turned to Cape Breton in order to revive its own traditions.
My "hotel," the Glenora Inn & Distillery, brews the only single malt native to Canada, and it's fine stuff: not so much a peat-heavy bog of an experience, but a golden, almost brandy-like liquor. The distillery will also rent you a chalet—primitive except for the Jacuzzi—with a view of the green, green valley, where tiny white farmhouses flash with sun.
Weird is, I'll remind you, a term wed immortally to all things Scottish by the bearded sisters in Macbeth. I don't meet anyone transparent, green, or headless, but I do feel, during my stay in Cape Breton, that I have encountered a people and way of life as mysterious and affecting as anything this side of the Atlantic and the Middle Ages.
Cape Breton culture (perhaps all culture?) has music at its root, and its specific flavor of Celtic music might well have died out were it not for the influence of a documentary. Canada has a peculiar relationship with the documentary film, which is an important national genre. Elsewhere, things happen and then get documented; here things get documented and then they happen. The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, televised in 1972 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so jolted the endangered species that fiddling enjoyed a massive revival. (A resident, remarking on the island's epidemic of unemployment, cracks to me that someone would do a great public service if they made The Vanishing Cape Breton Worker.)
I never imagined that I would be much taken with fiddling. Who knew?I'm behind the times here; a local fiddler, Ashley MacIsaac, brought the music of Cape Breton to the outside world a decade ago. MacIsaac ("Ashley" to everyone on the island) doubled the tempo and began to play the grunge clubs of Toronto, came out of the closet, and—after flashing his genitals on Late Night with Conan O'Brien—saw his career peak in a blaze of flamboyant drug abuse and sordid behavior. Cape Breton music is in fact very similar to what Ashley took to New York and Europe: virtuosic fiddling, sans vibrato, with heartstopping changes in tempo and uncanny, almost telepathic interaction between band members.
The thing to catch is a ceilidh, pronounced "kay-lee," which is a traditional kitchen party. I don't manage to witness one in an actual kitchen. The town of Mabou is the epicenter of Cape Breton music, and overcivilized ceilidhs are held regularly at the community halls. You can hear some superb players, but it's very much a sit-down concert experience, as opposed to the Scotch-drenched, reeling debauch that I imagine I missed.
And then there's the foot music. Ashley MacIsaac gained early fame, before the age of 13, not as a fiddler but as a step dancer. Step dancing in Cape Breton is known as "close to the floor" and involves very little of the body north of the knees. Amazing thing to watch, really: a guy standing loose and motionless, looking almost bored, as his feet and ankles put Fred and Ginger to shame.
To experience Mabou, you can't do much better than to stay at the Normaway Inn & Cabins, about 35 miles away in Margaree Valley. Normaway has for years been an instigator of all things Celtic; it holds regular barn dances and invites local acts to play after dinner.
Dave MacDonald, the proprietor, is a fierce advocate of Cape Breton culture. He records the music, promotes it, defends it. God help any act that snubs Mabou. Ashley MacIsaac, who danced at Normaway when he was a wee tyke, is only now beginning to undo the damage he caused by behaving too much like a standard-issue celebrity. Even the famed Rankin Family is expected to play fundraisers in order to avoid alienating its fan base.
In other words, this is a culture composed of actual people interacting face-to-face with actual people—as opposed to viewers interacting nose-to-screen with product. The CD or video of your music, in Mabou, is incidental: what matters is the thing that happens in the kitchen.
In the lounge at Normaway I am privileged to see musicians and step dancers Rebecca and Guillaume Tremblay, ages 18 and 16. Relatively unknown, they generally perform in a threesome, the Tremblay Family, except that their older sister has gone off to study cosmetology. I know I'm gushing like those naïve college kids who first "discovered" the blues in the sixties, but who cares. The culture of Cape Breton is enjoying something like the folk revival in America 40 years ago, and it's about time. I'd be amazed if anywhere else in North America were routinely producing teen performers like Rebecca and Guillaume Tremblay: shy, and gormless, and preternaturally good.
For Celtic music, Cape Breton is the Mississippi Delta. Or it's the Delta, Houston, and Chicago all rolled up into one.
A great portion of the young locals, of course, have been infected by pop cultureand haven't the faintest idea what they have at home. One waitress, itching to leave, informs me that "it's the most boring place on earth." Where does she come from?Bras d'Or, in the center of the island. "I wouldn't call it a town. It's more of a road, with people."
And what precisely does this girl miss?"Well, I was down in Florida at the House of Blues, and 'N Sync walks in! I mean, that doesn't happen in Cape Breton. You go away, and suddenly you see stars."
Well, before I moved back to Montreal, I used to see stars every weekend at my neighborhood café in Manhattan. All I can say about the experience is that stars are generally a lot shorter than you expect. I know I'll never convince my shining waitress of this, but I hope that, after seeing a few of these stunted celebs, she'll go running back to Bras d'Or.
With a bit of sleuthing, in fact, she could find more than a few celebrities of a different sort living quietly right under her nose. Robert Frank, the photographer. The composer Philip Glass. The essayist Calvin Trillin. All have found this province inspiring and congenial, and a welcome respite from 'N Sync.
It's a road, you see. With people.