Sunday, November 2, 2008

From Ceilee to Ceilidh

When my first child was born 27 years ago, my partner Annie and I faced the age-old opportunity of what to name him. One of the advantages of a nine-month gestation is that there's a fair amount of time in which to ponder ones' options. As it happened, during this period in our lives Annie was getting together regularly with a group of neighbors to play Irish music, and she was inspired by the Gaelic term for those gatherings, ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee)—which equates to an informal congregation to play and enjoy music together.

Figuring the Gaelic spelling was too much of a burden with which to saddle our unborn son, we anglicized the ending to something a bit more straight forward, finally settling on "Ceilee."  While it's hard for first-time observers to intuit that the "C" is hard, we were enamored of the unique and festive qualities of this improvised name.
• • •
Vacationing with my wife Ma'ikwe in Nova Scotia this week, imagine my surprise when her father and step mother suggested we spend the weekend at their Cape Breton cottage (located in East Skye Glen; if you're keeping score at home, that's between Whycocomagh and Mabou, straight west of Lake Bras D'Or) and attend ceilidhs Saturday evening Sunday afternoon. That's right, real ceilidhs. (Or, as they say in Nova Scotia, the real MacDonald.) While we scored a few points for knowing what a ceilidh was (and even more for knowing how to spell it), the truth was I had no idea what kind of music to expect.

As it turned out, it was Scottish step dancing—which thrives on Cape Breton, thank you very much. While some hoofers indulge in a fair amount of bouncing, for the most part it's all done from the knee downward, and the very best dance "close to the floor."

The prime tourist season there is June to mid-October. During that stretch, there is music and step dancing six nights a week (all but Sunday) in the heavily Roman Catholic western part of the island. Traditionally, the instrumentation is a fiddle, accompanied by a piano. Sometimes, there's a guitar on stage as well, though that's a semi-heretical modern concession. The fiddle player—who is just as likely to be a woman as a man—is key, and they maintain a strong beat by bouncing a leg percussively on stage as they play, which is a style I've never seen in bluegrass. The evening ceilidhs start at 10 pm and go til 1 am. 

While that may make sense in Madrid (where Spaniards are just starting to think about dinner), or even in the summer months where the higher latitude of Cape Breton (46 degrees and change) translates into a night sky that has just started to reveal its stars by that late hour, it was hard to make sense of the 10 pm start in November, which seems the middle of the night. Nonetheless, people were streaming into the parking lot by 9:45 pm to ensure good seats at the tables next to the dance floor. It was perhaps the quintessential Canadian experience: snow flurries outside, fiddlers warming up on stage, and Saturday night hockey on the television in the back of the room.

On Sundays, there's a matinee in Judique (JUH-dick), at the Celtic Music Interpretive Center, running 3-6:45 pm. Perversely, the Saturday evening show in Mabou (MAH-boo) was billed as a family night—and yes, there were children under 10 in attendance, waiting patiently for their turn on the dance floor—where nothing harder than ginger ale was served; Sunday afternoon you could buy beer, wine, or that uniquely American bastardized brewed beverage, Smirnoff Ice. Go figure.

The music is played in predictable sets of three pieces: two jigs, followed by a reel. If you're asked to dance for the first number, you stay on the floor for all three before it's kosher to sit down or switch partners.

The featured fiddler this Sunday was Marc Boudreau from Cheticamp (CHET-i-camp), an Acadian (think Longfellow's Evangeline and the rootstock of today's Louisiana Cajuns) enclave up the western coast of the island. From his boyish looks I'd guess he's still on the sunny side of 30, yet he really tore it up. In the middle of the afternoon (after things had suitably warmed up) there was a special guest appearance on spoons by local legend Gerry Devoe, also of Cheticamp. He only played for one jig, yet displayed a flair and fluidity that I'd not seen before, either with spoons or bones. Rhythmically alternating between his thigh and the palm of his off-hand, he'd improvise down his calf, off his elbow, or even against his forehead. It was quite a show. In contrast with the diminutive Marc, Gerry was on the north end of 70, a silver-maned man with a bulbous nose and the honey-tongued voice of a raconteur; he spent most of the afternoon agreeably socializing and cajoling ladies onto the dance floor—including Ma'ikwe.
• • •
One of the most impressive aspects of the music was how it's become a glue for the local culture. This is community at its best. A melting pot from the outset, the First Nation people of Cape Breton are the Ma'qmaq (MAC-muh), and most of the villages names come from that language. In addition, there were waves of French (who settled Louisbourg on the south coast) and then the Scots and Irish. Though the island has been steadily losing population since 1960 (then over 130,000, it's now down more than 10%, mainly due to the collapse of the cod fishery), the rural population (at least on the west coast) has maintained its identity and flavor through a strong adherence to its two traditions: faith and music.

While there's no doubt that skill is prized on stage and on the dance floor, it is a very accepting society. In addition to the featured musicians, aspiring fiddlers were given a chance to perform when Marc took a break. It was noteworthy that in the two ceilidhs I attended, the main fiddlers were under 40. While there are no doubt many accomplished older musicians who are still plying their craft on Cape Breton, the young are picking it up and being celebrated for their virtuosity. While a majority of the crowd was over 60, the young also dance, and the step dancing culture encourages partners to switch regularly, often mixing the generations 

The dancing is done with partners and traditionally that means a man and a woman. Yet when two women partnered, no one skipped a beat. While the basic square requires four couples, dancers seamlessly expanded to accommodate a fifth or sixth couple. If you wanted to dance, there was room for all. Whenever the numbers would swell to eight couples and beyond, mitosis would occur and the one square would become two.

Fancy steppers would dance right next to those with two left feet, and everyone would be have a good time. The more experienced would gently correct the befuddled and there was always enough patience and music to finish the prescribed steps. While some had more breath than others, and some had lighter feet, the smiles were ubiquitous.

I had a warm time at the ceilidhs and was inspired by how the Cape Bretoners have relied on music to not just retain their culture; they have learned to become one with their music, and use it to enhance and celebrate their community. It was an inspiration. And made me proud to have stumbled into naming my son Ceilee.

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