As an East Coaster you grow up knowing that there is an exorbitant amount of musical talent that is saturated on our shores. It is something that I think we all take a little for granted sometimes. “Of course there is going to be live music at the pub and of course it is likely going to be lovely and of course the guy who plays the keyboards for *insert ECMA winner here* and *insert ECMA winner here* also writes beautiful songs of his own and of course the girl who plays the fiddle also plays the piano and also plays the guitar and of course her brother plays the bagpipes, obvious. And of course there is going to be a jam session in the kitchen of that party you are going to and of course everyone will be clapping on beats two and four and of course everyone knows someone who has dropped a record or is working on one and of course it’s going to be incredible and will likely somewhere, somehow reference the ocean in some quaint, wistful way, because we’re from the East Coast where these things are in our blood.” In my experience, it was only when I moved far away from home that I realized how truly remarkable and special our musical canon and our musical culture is. It is something to be celebrated and relished in unabashedly and so it was wonderful to be able to do just that at two events at the East Coast Music Awards this weekend.
The first event I attended was specifically a celebration of Cape Breton, arguably the Mecca of East Coast Musical Exports, which was at the Marquee Club on Friday evening. Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac performed some tunes from their new record Seinn, although the audience was a little rowdy and it was challenging to appreciate the gorgeous arc of the Gaelic lyrics in Lamond’s deft command of the language, but the accordion, guitar and fiddle playing were jaunty and masterful and floated magically above the din of the crowd. I can’t recommend this record enough, MacIsaac’s fiddling is so sweet and rich with emotion, which beautifully matches Lamond’s crisp diction and warm vocals that effortlessly capture and communicate the essence of these folk songs giving them an immediacy, a contemporary energy and infectious spirit that transcends the language barrier and anchors them deeply into the audience’s heart. Then we were treated to young Margie and Dawn Beaton, two fiddling sisters from Mabou whose debut CD Taste of Gaelic won the 2011 ECMA for Roots/Traditional Album of the Year. They’re adorable to watch and fun to dance to as they feed off each other’s energy and at times break out into step dancing. The entire crowd exploded as soon as they started their first tune and the fiddles were on fire for the rest of the set. And of course, speaking of fires and fiddles, the superstar of the evening was Ashley MacIsaac, who tore up the stage like a Fucking Fiddle Rock God. As an artist he is so original with what he dares to do with folk music, melding it in with rock music, with techno music, and making it perfectly suited for an evening of dancing at the club. As a consummate performer, he puts on a show that revels in the danger of the momentum of the music, that at any moment his stick may fly out of his hand and go barreling across the room and that one is never certain what might happen, what Ashley might say next or do next. Like the best rock stars of the contemporary world, he is continually reinventing himself so one is never able to pin him or his music down or put it or him in a convenient little box. He is revolutionary and soulful. He is playing in a post-modern context, but still ardently connected to his ancestors. He is captivating and fun to watch while being intensely gifted and skilled. I am already eager for more Ashley MacIsaac performances to come. I am both hooked and intrigued.
As I looked around at the crowd at the Marquee Club last night I was immediately struck (although not surprised) by the demographics. The majority of the people who crowded the dance floor and screamed and stomped and danced joyfully for fiddle tunes and folk music were between twenty and forty years old. Most were white, but some were not, which made me smile. When the ECMAs started twenty-five years ago Nova Scotia was experiencing a resurgence of Celtic music and culture and this transcended into national and international attention, interest and acclaim for East Coast music. While it is easy to be cynical about the changing face of the music industry and our culture’s obsession with anything American or packaged to be a “sure-fire hit,” it is perhaps even more significant to see how many people in a city like Halifax get excited about local music, about traditional music and who are fiercely proud of their province’s musical canon and traditions. This suggests that we may be on the cusp of another wave of Celtic renaissance and that the rest of the country may benefit in looking to us as an example of how to foster a rich heritage that also embraces multiculturalism, appeals to the younger generations and encourages its musicians of all different styles and sensibilities to play and to thrive.