Culture & Life


Dirt in the fiddle:

Gaelic community explores Féisean potential
By Frank Macdonald*

(INVERNESS, 12/13/03) -- Is there a place in Cape Breton for Féisean, community-based festivals that offer instruction in Gaelic language, song, dance, music, storytelling and drama?

Certainly the concept in not new to the islandís Gaelic community which has been developing Féisean for years in Mabou, Glendale and elsewhere, and nowhere more successfully than at Christmas Island, now thirteen years into the Celtic arts experience, and it was at Christmas Island on Saturday, December 6, 2003 that a conference was held to discuss the potential for an organized approach to Féisean, exploring their cultural and economic impact, their benefits and impediments. It was a day of discussion, consultation, speakers and small group discussions, facilitated by Bernadette Campbell.

Graphic examples and distinctions were described by Father Angus Morris when he addressed the conference regrading the performance of music. His talk centered around Cape Breton fiddling as he had learned to play it as a child, and the way that younger fiddlers perform that same music today.

Morrisís first encounter with music was the Gaelic jigging of tunes by his mother. "Then when people would come to the house and play the fiddle, it would be the exact same tunes I heard my mother signing," the Mabou parish priest explained.

Emphasizing the role of the community in which he lived in the development of the music he and others learned to play, Morris spoke about the pleasure of listening to fiddlers like Donald Angus Beaton "who totally amazed me, the sound that came out,"Dan Joe Campbell, Angus Allan Gillis, Angus Chisholm and others. Their bowing techniques, he explained, were developed to project the sound, something that is no longer necessary for fiddlers because of PA systems. "All of these fiddlers played with the dirt of it in their fiddles.

"Now fiddlers are cleaning it up. Some young fiddlers toady could play circles around those others, but the sound isnít there." The reason, Fr. Morris suggests, is that the Gaelic is being lost from the fiddle tunes. He doesnít argue that a fiddler needs to speak Gaelic, himself having none, "but thereís Gaelic in my English," he adds. That Gaelic influence comes from living in an atmosphere that informs the fiddler through a sort of cultural osmosis. To get the Ďdirtí or the Gaelic in oneís fiddle, a fiddler must first learn by ear, then jig those tunes to himself or herself over and over until they belong to him.

"Make the tune your own. There are more fiddlers than ever now but can you tell me who they are?," he asked, suggesting that younger fiddlers donít have the same distinct signatures that made the sound of older fiddlers individually unique. "Look at fifteen fiddlers on stage and one bow in going up and one bow in going down and one is stopped, trying to figure out where the rest are. This is because the Gaelic foundation is missing, and without it so goes the Gaelic music," Morris said, adding that if a fiddler doesnít have the Gaelic rhythm, "they have to go for speed." He also observed that many fiddlers, after playing for fifteen years or so, begin to assess themselves in the context of their peers and find they sound just like everyone else, and begin then to develop an individuality.

Morris also pointed out that in the past, the community demanded music,.then asked "Who are we playing to. People come because of the Gaelic in the music. Do we think the audience is different? Why not give them the real stuff?"

Frances MacEachen, Cultural Officer with the Department of Tourism and Culture and one of the conferenceís organizers, pointed out to Fr. Morris that, "The environment was just there when you were growing up. They never had to create an environment."

The conference on Féisean was to address that particular need in the Gaelic culture of Cape Breton, the creation of an environment where young people and other interested community members can immerse themselves in the Gaelic language and arts for a day or a week, come in contact with the tradition bearers of language, music, crafts, food, and begin to understand their culture within the context of its traditions.

Glendale Gaelic speaker, Jeff MacDonald, addressed the meeting about his good fortune to have grown up among some of the most respected speakers and singers on the island, and at age 18 became a Gaelic learner. Today, considerably more than a learner, he is one of the few poets writing in the Gaelic, his songs having been sung at concerts and recorded. Having outline the linage of his Gaelic influences, the family and friends, he reported with pride that he had been present at the birth of his son and was able to welcome him in Gaelic, and because of those first words the boy heard, MacDonald said, "He knows who he comes from."

In arguing for the development of Féisean, MacDonald told the conference that the more people are educated, exposed to the Gaelic culture, the more the influence it will have on their own structures. "The Féis can reaffirm our culture. These are the words to remember; affirmation, reaffirmation, validity and unanimity."

The thrust of the conference was to determine whether or not the will exists among the participating communities to take part in Féisean, and to examine what it involves, its benefits, obstacles and commitments.

To find some of these answers, those in attendance joined in a conference call with Arthur Cormack of Scotland who has played a significant role in the successful development of Féisean in that country, where more than 4000 young people take part in the more than 30 Féisean held each year. The movement has been so successful in Scotland that it has been identified in one European study as the most successful cultural activity in Europe.

In their phone consultation with Cormack, those attending the Christmas Island conference asked about the challenges, benefits, fostering of community involvement and how to make the connection between the Gaelic culture and the cultural forms which spring from them, such as the music.

Cormack explained that the Féisean is Scotland have had a strong youth emphasis, and are usually held when school in not in session. This frees up interested youth to attend, and it also frees up the school which is usually the best available venue in small communities.

One impediment frequently encountered in Scotland is the lack of school interest, Cormack explained. Often information about a Féis is sent to the school but the schools donít distribute the information and the young people and the community donít learn about it.

One enviable advantage the Scottish Féisean have over efforts in Nova Scotia is that the organization in Scotland is funded to the tune of £600,000 a year, with additional assistance from the Highland Council and other government agencies. "It allows us to do what we are doing," Cormack points out.

Other issues around the movement are familiar to most community-based organizations such as volunteer burnout and lack of cohesiveness within the community, but the benefits are measurable.

In the 1980s, Cormack said, there was nothing in the schools regarding Gaelic music or skills in the language, "but the Féisean started because nothing was being done to educate kids in the language and culture. There is no doubt about the benefits (of Gaelic in schools now), but there is also a whole scale of cultural skills they donít get in school."

Both in Scotland and in Nova Scotia there was acknowledgment that if Gaelic is being taught in the schools but no atmosphere exists outside the school where they can apply what they are learning, the odds on success are minimized. Féisean offer one atmosphere where the cultural language and skills can be strengthened and reinforced. The previously mentioned European study also showed that students taking part in Féisean find themselves more self-confident, their circle of friends increases, they learn new skills.

In Scotland, as in Nova Scotia, the concern was to introduce the young participants to the influences closest to the tradition, those who, as Fr. Morris had described, as having the dirt in their fiddles. This involves archiving old tunes, and finding traditional material closely associated with the community where the Féis is taking place.

There was agreement in Christmas Island that if the conference decides that a province-wide organization is needed for the promotion of Féisean, it should not determine how each community is to carry out its own Féis. Community interest and resources should determine that, but support should be provided.

Throughout the Christmas Island conference, participants pointed out that the Féisean movement is not intended to replace other community or individual efforts, nor to pass judgement. Fr. Morrisís talk on Cape Breton fiddling, for example, was comprised of observations, not judgements, on Ďthen and nowí. Other participants pointed out that the Gaelic community, in promoting the development of Féisean, is trying to secure, within the many influences to which Cape Breton is now subjected economically, socially and culturally, the language and traditions that have for centuries defined a large portion of the islandís population, and work to prevent those traditions from being lost for all time.

The information and input gathered at the Christmas Island conference will be assessed and distributed to those participants as the Féisean movement determines if there is a role it can play through this concept to "keep the dirt in the fiddle", so to speak.

*Frank MacDonald is editor of the Inverness Oran