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MacIsaac brings a fiery fiddle to Cranbrook

Ashley MacIsaac (left) on stage with guitarist Chris Babineau. - So Plaid Music
Ashley MacIsaac (left) on stage with guitarist Chris Babineau.
— image credit: So Plaid Music

A revolutionary fiddle player is touching down in Cranbrook on Wednesday — expect the Key City Theatre to be rocking.

Ashley MacIsaac is arguably the greatest exporter of the music of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, a small region that punches way above its musical weight. But over a 20-plus year career, he has taken traditional fiddle playing and incorporated it into the most modern of styles — hip-hop, rock, electronica — thus helping reinvent the traditional genre.

MacIsaac called up the Daily Townsman last week for a conversation. The subject was the fiddle.

"My mission was never to push the fiddle as a rock instrument," he said when I asked him. "Because I always wanted to be a guitar player, like every other kid, I suppose. But I did have a mission to push my music itself, not necessarily the culture, I suppose, of Cape Breton, where I grew up."

“And it so happened that I ended up making rock records — I’ve done all kinds of different styles of records subsequently.”

The music and culture of Cape Breton, as it turned out, was the way he chose to launch his career. Cape Breton music is a famous, distinct style of the broad family of Celtic musics — growing out of its history of French, Irish and Scottish immigration. I asked MacIsaac about the theory that Cape Breton music is what Scottish music would have evolved into if not for the conquest of Scotland — particularly the Highlands — by the English in the 18th century, around the time of the Battle of Culloden.

“That’s the general consensus in Cape Breton,” MacIsaac said. “It’s not the same consensus in Scotland, because obviously Scottish culture is Scottish culture, and for whatever reasons it’s gone in the direction its gone.”

MacIsaac says the language of a culture and its music are closely intertwined. The loss of the Gaelic language because of the English influence is a key aspect of the development of Scottish culture.

“Right from the language and the cadence with which people speak, the loss of the Gaelic language, and how those rhythms with which is was spoken meant how all kinds of music — whether it’s bagpipes, or fiddles, or singing —  was performed,” MacIsaac said.

Over the past 124 years or so, the music iof Scotland has become revitalized.

“It’s developed again from that level into a resurgence of a more gut form of music. Is it performed exactly the way Cape Bretoners perform it? No, and again that’s directly linked to the kind of language that people speak.”

Celtic music, especially when played on the fiddle, is immensely different from region to region. I ask MacIsaac about the Irish style of fiddle, compared with the Cape Breton and Scottish styles.

“Irish music is different again,” he said. “I would say it’s more directly related to their traditions of having evolved without a lot of outside influence, except for American Irish music eventually. Irish music comes from their language as well, and their language cadence is a lot different than in Scotland.

“There’s a lot closer of a connection to the way older Cape Bretoners speak and the way Irish people speak, than to the way Scottish people speak and Cape Bretoners speak.”

MacIsaac holds forth on ornamentation — the slurs, stutters, grace notes and other musical tricks to make notes jump out and make the fiddle talk.

“It goes back again to the Gaelic translations of the music. The main difference of playing tunes (in Irish or Cape Breton styles) are in something called ‘cuts’ (a quick, percussive grace note on the fiddle) and ‘rolls’ (three notes slurred into five). Irish music is more rolling, more fluid, in a sense. Where in the notation you would see something written out as a cut, it would be would written out as a roll in Irish music.

“You’ll hear a distinctive difference even in really trad Irish players and really trad Cape Breton players, although I think the Irish and Cape Breton ones are closer in sound than your trad Scottish and your trad Cape Bretoner.

“I could talk about it on a microcosm forever,” he adds, “because I’ve made my living out of it.”

There is a lot more to MacIsaac’s music, or course, than just the trad playing, as much as he may represent it. He has always pushed the boundaries, incorporating elements of rock, hip-hip, electro-music into the traditional styles. This direction brought him massive attention when he burst onto the scene in the early 1990s — right on the crest of a worldwide resurgence in popularity of Celtic music.

I suggest that Celtic music can be easily incorporated into rock — like a spice.

“It can easily be incorporated very poorly as well,” MacIsaac responds. “For every hundred albums I’ve heard of cross-over Celtic music, I’ve skipped though about 99 them. About three seconds per track I say ‘okay, this is not my cup of tea.’

“When I made my first record, we used real rock guys. We didn’t use a bunch of Celtic guys who learned how to play rock, it was rock guys who came in and played. And when I toured, I was touring with a rock band — sort of an early Great Big Sea style. That boom-chuck thing (four-four reel time,) that’s typically how you hear Celtic music put into rock. For every good album there are a lot of bad ones.”

He’s  is also working on a new album — his 13th, which will be ready for release in the fall of 2014.

“I would say it’s 40 to 50 per cent ready now. We’ve almost completed the demoing, and the next stage is to find the right person to gloss it all up and help me with the arrangements,  because once again I’m figuring out how to take parts and whole sections of fiddle tunes and incorporate them into something else without them sounding out of place.’ There’s only so much I can do on the pop arrangement side — it’s not my forte. I always take it to a certain stage and then I hopefully can find certain people who are really pro at making a hip-hop, electro-Cape Breton fiddle track actually sound like a hip-hop track.”

Accompanying MacIsaac on his trip to Cranbrook and points west are Chris Babineau, a traditional guitar player from Cape Breton, and J. Andrews, a DJ/percussionist. “So we have a three-piece which can do very traditional stuff and also fairly hip versions of ‘Sleepy Maggie’ and ‘Devil in the Kitchen,’ and stuff like that too.”

As for what kind of show we can expect in Cranbrook?

“It’s always the same,” he said. “Me playing the fiddle, me yakking my face off, and some sort of arrangement based on when I get to the venue and see what it is — if it’s a theatre, a club, I figure out the best way to run the show, if it should be electric heavy or more traditional heavy.”

Ashley MacIsaac plays the Key City

Theatre Wednesday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m.

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