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Symphonic Celtic: Family band gets to the root of Cape Breton style

By Amy Smart, Times Colonist

Some would say Celtic music’s cultural currency peaked in the 1990s, when Cape Breton’s Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster and the Rankin Family fiddled and toe-tapped their way onto Top 40 charts.

Fellow Cape Bretoner Stewart MacNeil of the family band the Barra MacNeils begs to differ.

“The music has a universal quality to it,” the 47year-old said on the phone from his hometown of Sydney Mines, N.S. “I suppose it’s a bit like blues, where it’s a culture. It’s one of the biggest influences on world music.”

The Barra MacNeils formed 25 years ago and comprise six siblings – Kyle, Lucy, Sheumas, Stewart, Boyd and Ryan – plus bassist Jamie Gattie.

Between 1991 and 2001, they earned five East Coast Music Awards and 10 more nominations. They’ll do three shows with the Victoria Symphony, beginning this afternoon.

The family band has travelled to Celtic festivals in places as unexpected as Barbados and Montgomery, Alabama – proof that even if Cape Breton is not producing as many stars right now, the Celtic music tradition is alive and well.

And like Cape Breton, each locale calls the music its own. MacNeil recalls hearing what he thought was Newfoundland accordion music at Expo 86, soon after the Barra MacNeils put out their first album.

“When we went in, they were from Baffin Island,” said MacNeil, who sings and step dances as well as playing the accordion, tin whistle, flute, bouzouki and guitar. “The Scottish music they play, they considered it part of their music.

Because when the whalers came there, they would have brought that with them. So there’s stories of that right around the globe, really.”

But the common thread, wherever Celtic music grows, is typically the musicians’ roots. He said that while home from touring, he’s studying Gaelic – a project he began taking seriously seven years ago – to get closer to his own roots in the small Gaelicspeaking island of Barra in Scotland.

“I got interested through the songs and wanted to be able to read the songs and learn them more, without always having someone phonetically teach you,” he said. “It’s like this big puzzle and you start chipping away at it. Before you know it, you’re in the middle of it.”

The Barra MacNeils are adding two new recordings to their 14 albums this year. Celtic Colours features a variety of guests from the folk, Americana and Celtic music worlds, such as Ireland’s The Black Family, Moncton’s Matt Minglewood and New York’s Bruce Molsky. It was recorded over the course of a few days during the Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton last fall and is due out this summer.

The second is a Live in Concert album, recorded over two nights with Symphony Nova Scotia. Folk and formal symphony music may appear at odds on the surface, but MacNeil says they’re a natural fit.

“I think it’s a great marriage. Between the music of Cape Breton and the orchestras there’s a lot of possibilities,” he said. “I think the acoustic nature of the music really lends itself to symphony treatment.”