Music 1253 Music and the Politics of Cultural Representation in Nova Scotia
Tourism Marketing • The province of Nova Scotia is routinely marketed through tourism promotions and popular culture advertisements as a sort of living Scottish antique. • Bagpipers meet arriving tourists at border crossings and airports, greeters wear vests made from the Nova Scotia tartan (signifying that Nova Scotians are all part of one ancient clan), and all receive a welcome in Gaelic: Ciad Mile Failte (One Hundred Thousand Welcomes). • Tourism literature encourages visitors to attend one of the local ceilidhs, which are often professionally staged concerts rather than the informal gatherings the word implies.
New Scotland? • The ascribed Scottishness is curious, considering that the population of Nova Scotia comprises a diverse range of ethnicities and heritages. • As Ian McKay points out in his important essay “Tartanism Triumphant: The Construction of Scottishness in Nova Scotia, 1933-1954,” Nova Scotia was not even the most Scottish province in Canada when it began to be branded as a true “New Scotland” • In 1921, only 28% of population was of Scottish origin • PEI and Ontario had higher percentages of Scottish citizens than NS
Tartanism • Premier Angus L. Macdonald began rebranding Nova Scotia as “Scottish” in the 1930s • Under Macdonald’s premierships, Nova Scotia gained its official tartan, Gaelic motto, the Cabot Trail, Highlands National Park (featuring a replica of a shieling from the island of Skye), the Keltic Lodge Resort in Ingonish, and a Gaelic College in St. Ann, Cape Breton. • Macdonald’s Tartanism stemmed from a romanticized view of his own Scottish heritage, shrewd political strategy, and a strong belief in the economic promise of ethno-tourism.
Macdonald’s Strategy • Though a third-generation maritimer, Macdonald often spoke publicly and in personal letters about his proud Scottish lineage. • This lineage was not portrayed as a connection to a living, evolving, twentieth-century culture, but as a link to an idyllic society from the past. • Macdonald was a skilled politician and this portrayal of himself as a descendant of a great clan from the old country enhanced his populist appeal. • However, Macdonald also saw the benefits of representing Nova Scotia to the world as a Folk society with ancient Celtic roots. • Macdonald and his followers basically invented symbols, fabricated events, and outfitted the representatives of the tourism industry to appeal to American travelers who wanted to experience Scotland without crossing the Atlantic.
Hugh Trevor-Roper • The links to a Scottish identity are even more tenuous considering that the representative tokens of Scottish Tartanism – kilts, bagpipes, tartans – have no real foundation in ancient Highland Scottish culture, as is usually claimed. • Hugh Trevor-Roper explains how the Highland tradition of Scotland stems from the mid-eighteenth century, and is not an ancient tradition passed down through the mighty Scottish clans. • In fact, Trevor-Roper argues that Highland culture owes much of its cultural identity to Ireland.
Scottish Tokens • Tartans, kilts, and clans do not extend from an ancient past but are essentially modern inventions that simplify and stereotype Scottish culture for contemporary society. • Nova Scotia Tartanism appropriated these superficial Highland Scottish tokens in the mid-twentieth century in a carefully crafted re-branding that still persists to a large extent today.
Helen Creighton • Folklorist Helen Creighton recorded, transcribed, and documented music that she believed to be at the heart of Nova Scotia’s true Folk society • Songs and Ballads collected had their origins in the collection of Francis James Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads. • More about this later (next week), but the Creighton collection reinforced the idea that Nova Scotian society was antimodern, predominantly rural, and backward
Why were these stereotyoes accepted? • Money! • Marketing of Nova Scotia as a haven of the past, unfettered by modern society - appealing to travellers. • Folk and Scottish cultures provide tourists with a sense of the exotic but without having to travel far • Convenience of a (mostly) similar language as well as modern conveniences (restaurants, golf courses, hotels).
Television • Television and radio broadcasting, as well as recording technology, provided powerful new modes of tourism promotion and utilized the province’s rich musical heritage as another element in the marketing package. • “Don Messer’s Jubilee” was broadcast nationally from Halifax, and featured “down home” country music and dancing. • Don Messer was a fiddler, though his style was more American “old time” than Scottish. • “Singalong Jubilee,” which ran nationally from 1961 to 1974, capitalized on the American folk music revival.
Singalong Jubilee • The show helped launch the careers of singers Catherine McKinnon, Gene MacLellan and Anne Murray, and was therefore an important vehicle for the development of a music industry in Atlantic Canada. • The show was originally intended as a television vehicle for American folk singer Pete Seeger; however Seeger’s involvement was cut short when his passport was revoked by the United States House Committee on Un-American Activities. • While the American folk revival had direct ties to the communist movement, Singalong Jubilee reinforced the Folk culture stereotype advocated by Creighton. • Many of the songs from the Creighton collection were regularly performed, and there was a preference for songs of the simple Maritime life. • The house band played banjo, guitar, upright bass, and even a washtub bass. As the popular show evolved over its lifetime, new songs were incorporated into the repertoire. • However, a number of these added further to the maritime Folk stereotype, such as Jim Bennett’s “Black Rum and Blueberry Pie”.
Black Rum and Blueberry Pie We’re living in the age of space as everybody knows. Most everyone is in the race as this here country grows. But, down among the lobster pots you’ll find a funny crew. Us Maritimers don’t do things like other people do. We just like fishin’, fightin’, getting tight’n starin’ at the sky. Chewin’, spittin’ and just sittin’ watchin’ things go by. Climbing rocks and drivin’ ox and learnin’ how to lie. Drinkin’ black rum & eatin’ blueberry pie.
Upper Clements Park • A family theme park was constructed by the Progressive Conservative government under Premier John Buchanan in the mid 1980s. “Upper Clements Park” was strategically located in the Annapolis Valley riding of the then Minister of Tourism, Greg Kerr. • Among the many attractions, the park featured a replica shanty fishing village, a pirate island, and a prospector cabin. • Craftspeople worked on site at weaving, spinning, soap-making and other folk crafts. • The live entertainment featured Victorian era clowns and bicyclers, a singing fisherman, a storytelling pirate, a Victorian school marm and, most perplexingly, a group of characters who lived in an old train shed and spoke with southern U.S. accents! • A live band of musicians performed material largely derived from the Helen Creighton collection.
Sounds of Nova Scotia • In the 1990s, the provincial government began marketing Nova Scotian music through a series of recordings titled Sounds of Nova Scotia. • These recordings were simply compilations of tracks from previously recorded albums by local artists. • The songs were largely folk-influenced adult contemporary tracks meant to appeal to a middle-aged tourist audience. • Antimodernism and the fun, simple life were overriding themes with tracks such as “The Bluenose,” “Small Town Wind,” “Sound the Pibroch,” “Song for the Mira,” “Jigging Medley,” and “Good Times.”
Good Times • “Good Times” is the first track on the Sounds of Nova Scotia, Volume1 recording, and is performed by John Allan Cameron, who is often referred to as “the godfather of Celtic music in Cape Breton.” • Each verse of the song begins with: “You ask me what I like about the Maritimes?” and then proceeds to rhyme off a seemingly endless list of maritime stereotypes. • Each verse culminates with a chorus that is meant to summarize East Coast life: • Good Times It’s a big feed of lobster It’s a cold Alpine in my hand It’s a quarter to one and the fun’s just begun Singing “Song for the Mira” with this good time band.
Cape Breton Island • The first two Sounds of Nova Scotia recordings in the series featured twenty-three tracks, nineteen of which were by Cape Breton artists. • If music was going to be used as a marketing vehicle for tourism promotion, then Cape Breton with its perceived Scottish identity would be a focus. • Tartanism and the Folk concept combined to create an attractive cultural package in Nova Scotia that served the political appetite to establish and expand an industry based on ethno-tourism. • Cape Breton Island became the logical hunting ground for cultural wealth, as the traditional fiddle music served both the Tartanist and Folk ideals.
Cape Breton Summertime Revue • The “Cape Breton Summertime Revue” encapsulates all of the most blatant Cape Breton stereotypes. This annual production was first staged in Sydney in 1986 in an attempt to capitalize on the summer tourist season. • A smaller version of the show known as “The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton” had been operating since 1977. • The production featured a combination of traditional Cape Breton fiddle music, and original songs that conformed mainly to a contemporary folk or country style. • The musical performances alternated with various comedic sketches that highlighted the stereotypical backwardness of Cape Breton Islanders. • Video Link
Revue continued • The “Cape Breton Summertime Revue” attained its height of popularity at the very time that Canadian East Coast music was receiving national attention. • The show actually toured Canada several times, presenting an entertaining parody of the Maritime lifestyle to audiences across Canada. • This had positive economic spinoffs for the tourism industry. • However, the national marketing of a stereotype only serves to further undermine Cape Breton in its attempt to rise from economic depression.
Cape Breton Fiddling • Throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, Cape Breton fiddle music has been promoted through tourism literature as a pure legacy of Nova Scotia’s Scottish ancestry. • In 1997, the official tourist guide for the province of Nova Scotia, dubbed the “Doers and Dreamers Guide,” featured a picture of Cape Breton fiddle master Buddy MacMaster on its front cover. • The annual tourism theme for that season was “Celebrate Our Music.” • Rather than extolling the stylistic plurality of the province’s musical culture, which includes a thriving alternative rock scene, an urban hip-hop community, a professional orchestra, a fine chamber music program, a country music legacy, and active Acadian and Mi’kmaq musical communities, the tourism industry focused predominantly on the “Celtic” music of Cape Breton as the main marketing vehicle.
Travel Literature • Newspaper and travel literature play a significant role in furthering this Scottish Folk stereotype. • In Travels in the Celtic World by Rannie Gillis, Cape Breton Island is literally and pictorially linked to Ireland and Scotland. Descriptions and pictures of Kisimul Castle and Loch Morar are juxtaposed against those of Highlands National Park and the MabouCeilidh. • The book actually begins with the author’s tale of a Cape Breton dance where fiddler Natalie MacMaster performed. The account features this astonishing description of her: • “But Natalie MacMaster is not only one of the fastest rising ‘stars’ in the new firmament of Celtic music. Nor is she just an attractive blond who happens to play the fiddle. Along with her musical peers, she is the descendant of a long line of Celtic musicians who can trace their ancestry back to a time before the Roman Empire. To a time before Caesar.”
Gaelic Report • Nova Scotia Museum’s curatorial report in 2002 on Gaelic in Nova Scotia by Michael Kennedy • This report is an extensive overview of the history and state of Gaelic culture and the Gaelic language in Nova Scotia. It was sponsored by the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture under Rodney MacDonald (also a fiddler) • Michael Kennedy’s Gaelic Report is intended as a warning of the pending extinction of the Gaelic language from its previous bastion on Cape Breton Island.
Gaelic Language • Michael Kennedy’s Gaelic Report is intended as a warning of the pending extinction of the Gaelic language from its previous bastion on Cape Breton Island. • It is curious, then, that the language is perennially tied to a mythical ancient Celtic culture and not promoted as a potentially vibrant and evolving modern language. • This echoes Angus L. Macdonald’s own conception of Gaelic. • The Gaelic College was established by Macdonald in Cape Breton, not as a laboratory for a living mode of communication, but as an archive of a fossilized language that should be preserved as a museum exhibit. • The result has been a language petrified from lack of use.
“Gaelic” Fiddling • The issue of Gaelic is complex but most fiddlers generally agree that the sound of a correctly performed Cape Breton fiddle tune resonates with the sound of the spoken Gaelic language. • This relationship does not involve the specific timbral or tonal properties of the spoken language but rather relates the rhythms of the language to the fiddle tunes and playing techniques. • Efforts to associate Cape Breton fiddling with the Gaelic language as spoken in pre-emigration Highland Scotland also echo other attempts by fiddlers and tourism vendors to ascribe a pure Scottish lineage to the music.
The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler • The perception of a threat to the local tradition from outside influences has persisted as a powerful identity myth on Cape Breton Island since the early 1970s. • In 1971, Ron MacInnis directed a CBC documentary titled The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler. • The main thesis of the film was the threat of extinction facing the fiddle tradition because of the dying off of the older generation of fiddlers and a lack of interest from younger musicians. • The mainstream pop-culture influences of radio, television, and Hollywood cinema were viewed as a powerful source of cultural competition, distracting young Cape Bretoners from their true cultural roots. • Video Link 1 • Video Link 2
MacInnis’ perspective • As with many documentaries, The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler takes a particular stand without any pretense to objectivity. • The script, interviews, and images were carefully chosen to suggest a Folk culture from a bygone era with a unique musical tradition on the edge of extinction. • Director Ron MacInnis casts himself in a primary role in the film as an outsider entering this strange world. • In contrast to the rural countryfolk he interviews, MacInnis is presented as the model of contemporary urban life, sporting a trendy 1970s hair style with complementary “mutton chop” sideburns, and driving around the beautiful countryside in a convertible.
Glendale Festival • Formation of the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association and the staging of the first Glendale Festival in 1979 did not result because Cape Breton fiddlers believed in the premise of the film. • Their true agenda was to demonstrate the strength and longevity of the tradition, which they believed was under no threat of extinction. • Indeed, the very fact that 130 fiddlers played to over 10,000 fans at one concert in rural Cape Breton is a testament to the fact that fiddling was thriving as a tradition in the 1970s.
East Coast Music prior to 1990s • The Atlantic region of Canada has produced a number of national and international popular music success stories. • Hank Snow and Wilf Carter were each born in Nova Scotia and achieved international recognition as depression-era country music singers. • Snow was also renowned as a country songwriter, having penned the country music standards “I’m Movin’ On,” and “I’ve Been Everywhere.” • Carol Baker, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Joan Kennedy, Ron Hynes, and Gene MacClellan were also successful Canadian country artists. • Rita MacNeil achieved national stardom as a singer/songwriter who combined elements of easy listening, country, folk, and pop music. • Anne Murray became an international star in the 1970s, with many hit songs and gold records in the United States and Europe as well as in Canada. • In addition to country music, Matt Minglewood and Dutch Mason were widely respected blues artists from Nova Scotia, while the Nova Scotia band April Wine produced a number of hit rock singles in Canada in the 1970s, as did the PEI band Haywire during the 1980s. • Halifax-native Sarah MacLachlan became a pop superstar during the 1990s.
No Music Industry • Prior to the 1990s, however, there was very little in the way of music industry infrastructure in Atlantic Canada. • Nearly all of the above-mentioned acts had to leave the East Coast to pursue recording contracts in central Canada or the United States. • There were no major record labels with satellite offices in Eastern Canada, and few of the independent labels had any distribution or development arrangements with any of the majors. • “Celtic” music was very popular locally and was a useful vehicle for the tourism industry, but most of the Celtic artists prior to the 1990s were not widely known throughout North America, though many were able to tour throughout parts of Europe.
John Allen Cameron • Perhaps the one exception to this was John Allan Cameron, the so-called Canadian “godfather of Celtic Music.” • While Cameron never received any wide airplay on mainstream radio, he was popular throughout Canada from the 1970s until his death in 2007 • He is seen by many as a trailblazer, bringing East Coast Celtic music to national (and to some degree international) attention.
Halifax Rock Scene • The East Coast music scene began to attract an unprecedented amount of attention from the mainstream music industry during the early 1990s. • In Halifax, indie rock bands such as Sloan, jale, Thrush Hermit, Hardship Post, and Eric’s Trip formed the core of a local “grunge rock” scene that paralleled a similar hub of underground music activity emerging out of Seattle, Washington. • Sloan received a major recording contract with DGC Records (David Geffen Company) in 1992 after self-producing an independent recording titled Smeared in a friend’s living room. • After their success with Geffen, Sloan went on to form the independent label Murderecords as a way of developing other local rock bands. • The American label SubPop eventually poached many of these bands from Murderecords. In fact, most of the industry attention directed towards these indie rock bands was from record labels in the United States.
Rock not good for tourists • The Canadian music industry paid relatively little attention to this activity compared to the emerging Celtic music scene despite the fact that Sloan went on to receive critical acclaim and impressive record sales. • This confirms the importance of regional identity in Canadian popular music marketing. • Sloan and other indie rock bands defied the regional Atlantic stereotypes: there were no songs about the sea, no songs about the past, and no fiddles. • Sloan played to a young, cosmopolitan, and urban market that was difficult to translate into commercial tourism revenues • The kids who bought Sloan albums generally didn’t vacation in Atlantic Canada.
Rankin Family • The Rankin Family from Mabou, Cape Breton, also signed a contract with a major record label in 1992. • Various incarnations of this band had been performing at weddings and dances in Cape Breton throughout the 1970s but by the late 1980s, five of the twelve siblings in the family had formed the core of the band. • Their music combined aspects of folk, pop, and country music in addition to traditional Gaelic songs and sets of fiddle tunes. • Successful performances as part of the Cape Breton Summertime Revue and Mabou Jig tourist productions in Cape Breton led to an independent eponymous recording in 1989 with a follow-up independent record in 1991 titled Fare Thee Well Love. • These recordings were phenomenally successful for an independent band playing traditional Cape Breton music. By 1992, they claimed to have sold nearly seventy-thousand independent records.
Record Contract for Rankins • This success prompted the Canadian office of EMI/Capitol Records to sign the Rankin Family to a Canadian recording contract • Additional agreement to nationally distribute the independent recordings. • The title track to the Fare Thee Well Love recording was also released to radio as a single in combination with a music video that received a coveted regular rotation spot on the Canadian music video network MuchMusic.
Deterritorialization for Radio and Much Music • The single and video to Fare Thee Well Love are examples deterritorialization. • The title and subject matter of the song suggests a bygone era, and the melody conforms to that of a typical folk ballad or Gaelic song. • However, the recording provides a contemporary easy listening arrangement for the song that easily transcends any regional style. • There are no fiddles in the recording, and the piano provides surface melodic accompaniment along with an oboe, while the bulk of the sound is characterized by a thick synthesizer patch and a highly processed drum kit. • The video is neutral with respect to location and era except for the colour scheme, which is brown and white, suggesting an old photograph. • None of the band members play instruments in the video and only appear as singers.Video Clip
Reterritorialization of Image • While the hit single contained no regional references, the band parlayed this success into future successful recordings and performance tours by promoting their traditional Maritime roots. • They appeared on MuchMusic and performed live at the 1994 Juno awards, each time performing a song in Gaelic. • Their live concerts continued to feature sets of fiddle tunes with step dancing, while they continued to record traditional Cape Breton music along with maritime folk standards. • Their first major label release North Country was preceded by a release of the single “Rise Again,” a Cape Breton anthem about overcoming hardship. Video Clip • Once again though, the instrumentation on “Rise Again” featured the synthesizer, piano, oboe combination that was so successful on “Fare Thee Well Love,” and avoided any sonic reference to Cape Breton music. • The band identity therefore had clear roots in traditional Maritime culture, but their music was skillfully packaged to better fit standard radio formats.
More Signings • Following the success of the Rankin Family with EMI, the other major record labels began scouring the East Coast for other potential success stories. • Record industry lore began to spread regarding the untapped wealth of musical talent in Eastern Canada. • Over the next few years, each of the major record labels operating in Canada signed East Coast acts: • The Barra MacNeils (Polygram) • Lennie Gallant (Sony) • Great Big Sea (Warner) • Ashley MacIsaac (Universal/A&M) • Natalie MacMaster (Warner)
“Delocalized Regionalism” - Great Big Sea • The Newfoundland band Great Big Sea first gained attention for their energetic live show consisting of Irish and Newfoundland folk songs as well as derivative original music. • Initially a mainstay of the Atlantic university pub scene, the band benefited from the Canadian recording industry’s brief interest in East Coast music during the 1990s. • The marketing campaign made every effort to juxtapose the musicians with their Atlantic, neo-Celtic roots. • Television interviews and music videos were shot next to the Atlantic Ocean, and the first major label release Up displayed pictures of an accordion, a fiddle, and an old broken bridge on the CD cover, which was lined on its right side with a picture of the sea. • The album largely contained a mix of traditional and original songs. • However, the album’s first single was a “Celtic” cover version of the song “Run Runaway” by the British glam-rock band Slade. Video Clip • The follow-up album Play featured a similar treatment of the popular R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” • The popularity of the original versions of these songs allowed the music to become deterritorialized as part of an international pop repertoire.
“Delocalized Regionalism” - Others • Other East Coast acts applied the same strategy of reterritorialization of style and image, and deterritorialization of musical content. • The Cape Breton band The Barra MacNeils released John Sebastian’s “Darling Be Home Soon” as their first single on their first major label release Closer to Paradise • The Newfoundland band The Irish Descendants released Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” on their breakthrough release Gypsies and Lovers.
Delocalized Regionalism • The combination of deterritorialized sound and reterritorialized image was the perfect national (and international) marketing strategy • Music could be played on standard radio but image still reinforced exotic, rural, backward, Scottish roots • This strategy was not aimed at increasing the appeal of this music for a potential American audience. • None of these cover recordings received widespread distribution or radio play in the United States. • Rather, the decision to record recognizable pop standards was aimed at a national Canadian market. • The artists increased their national marketability by releasing deterritorialized pop hits. • Yet the stylistic aspects of the original versions of these songs were transformed to fit a reterritorialized ideal of Atlantic Canadian culture. • In the process, the lyrical content and the semiotic associations of the original releases were nullified, and the songs were refashioned as East Coast Celtic songs, with their implications of a rural seaside setting, party atmosphere, and quaint, simple lifestyle.
Local Labels • Local independent labels also signed agreements with major labels for marketing and distribution, as well as some artist development. • Groundswell Records, which managed a small catalogue of East Coast acts including Rawlins Cross and Laura Smith, signed a distribution arrangement with Warner Music Canada. • Halifax-based distribution company Atlantica Music signed a national distribution deal with EMI • New EMI-sponsored record label called Latitude Records to find and develop local artists. • This represented a high point in the development of the East Coast music industry, and there was great anticipation over who would be the first artist to sign with Latitude.
Damhnait Doyle • As if to further add to the perception of a vast wealth of unspoiled East Coast talent, Latitude Records first signed a junior employee of Atlantica Records named Damhnait Doyle • She was purportedly overheard singing in the mailroom. • Doyle was to be developed as an “alternative pop” singer, but her clearly regional name and fairytale rise from obscurity provided just enough of a regional identity to appeal to the new market for East Coast music. • By 1997 however, Atlantica, along with Latitude, had folded, owing thousands of dollars in sales revenues to local artists. • The Latitude artists, including Damhnait Doyle, were briefly picked up by EMI Canada before eventually becoming independents again.
The New Economy? • The development of a music industry in Atlantic Canada beginning in the 1990s was perceived by many as a potentially lucrative economic sector • Particularly in Cape Breton and Newfoundland where the coal, steel, and fishing industries had recently collapsed. • Local musicians hoped for record deals and high-profile performances, while tourism vendors eagerly anticipated waves of new tourists who would come in search of the music. • Government agencies fuelled this speculation by providing funding for industry initiatives. In Nova Scotia, much of this was directed to Cape Breton.
Another Boom Bust • The expected economic boom never materialized. • In fact, the East Coast recording industry replicated a twentieth-century pattern of industrial boom and bust that characterized the ship building, coal, steel, and fishing industries. • Each of these industries relied heavily on government subsidy and corporate investment from outside of Atlantic Canada that dried up once profits proved scarce. • The music industry followed suit, and there are warning signs that Nova Scotia’s offshore oil industry may suffer the same consequence.
Fiddling still thriving • Along with the hopes for a wave of economic prosperity arising from the music industry, came a fear that commercialization of Cape Breton music would result in the dilution or eradication of its traditional roots. • This also never materialized. In fact, the opposite occurred: a renewed interest in Cape Breton fiddling with more youth than ever picking up the fiddle bow. • In fact, Cape Breton fiddle music became part of a global Celtic revival where Celtic musics in various forms attained an unprecedented degree of international popularity.
“Celtic” Renaissance • The deliberate focus on Celtic music in Atlantic Canada was understandable considering how easy it was to align this musical genre with tourism marketing initiatives. • In addition, the 1990s witnessed worldwide a rise in popularity of various musics collectively termed “Celtic.” • Riverdance, Titanic soundtrack, Braveheart Soundtrack, Afro Celt Sound System, Celtic Tides CD etc.
Ashley vs. Natalie - Cape Breton Fiddle Stars • On the surface these two Cape Breton fiddlers share a number of commonalities. • Both were born in the early 1970s (MacMaster in 1972 and MacIsaac in 1975) • Both from small towns in Inverness County on Cape Breton Island (MacMaster from Troy, and MacIsaac from Creignish). • Both began playing the fiddle at a very young age and signed recording and distribution deals with major Canadian record labels in the 1990s. • Both fiddlers incorporate popular music styles into their fiddling performances, but also retain certain traditional elements in their shows, including fiddling while step dancing. • Despite these similarities, the two fiddlers maintain vastly different public personae, and have embarked on completely divergent career paths.
Ashley Discovered • Ashley MacIsaac first came to national attention in the mid 1990s, following a remarkable series of events. • In 1992, he was contacted by the American theatre director Joanne Akalaitis after she and her husband, composer Philip Glass, had seen MacIsaac perform at a Cape Breton square dance. • Akalaitis and Glass were collaborating on a new production of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck and wanted MacIsaac to perform as part of the play. • A few years after his performance in Woyzeck, MacIsaac visited New York again, and he contacted Philip Glass while he was there. • Glass invited MacIsaac (and his fiddle) to a dinner party for a surprise guest who turned out to be the American pop star Paul Simon. • Simon was so impressed with MacIsaac’s fiddle playing that he invited MacIsaac to play on a recording that Simon was producing for his wife, singer Edie Brickell. • When news of this reached back to Atlantic Canada, a media frenzy resulted.
Freakish Genius • Ashley MacIsaac’s good fortune fueled the notion of an untapped wealth of musical talent on Cape Breton Island. • This was a true Cinderella story: a young, raw, musician was discovered in his remote “natural habitat” by a world-famous and well-connected New York City composer who then graciously invited the fiddler into the inner sanctum of the musical elite. • The story proved hard to resist for the local press. • Adding tothis powerful rags to riches narrative trope was the fact that MacIsaac was and is rather unique for a Cape Breton fiddler. • His young age of eighteen was not in itself unusual for a fiddler, but his prodigious talent, commanding presence, and individual sound was remarkable for such a young musician. • His fiddling technique is also quite idiosyncratic in that MacIsaac plays left-handed but with a right-handed fiddle. In other words, his fiddle is conventionally strung for a right-handed bowing arm, but MacIsaac plays with the fiddle on his right shoulder and bows with the left hand, and therefore essentially learns all of his fiddle tunes backwards. • This unusual playing technique reinforced MacIsaac’s persona as a rough, unrefined, and perhaps even freakish genius, an image which directly contrasted that of Natalie MacMaster.
Natalie MacMaster • Natalie MacMaster’s talent was well known on Cape Breton from the time she began excelling at her fiddle studies. • She was used frequently by the Nova Scotia Tourism industry as part of its Celtic marketing strategy in the 1990s. • Her picture was featured frequently in the provincial tourist guides, and she was a frequent performer in government-sponsored campaigns. • Two of these, the “Coast of Difference” and “Sea Sell” productions were touring musical variety shows that placed MacMaster’s fiddling front and centre. • MacMaster’s obvious beauty, refined demeanor, and wholesome image combined to create the perfect marketing character for Nova Scotia tourism. • She provided pure, traditional, family entertainment which, despite her potential sex appeal, deliberately lacked any overt sexuality. • Her persona symbolized conservative family values and resulted in appearances in effective television advertising campaigns for Tim Horton’s Donuts, Farmer’s Dairy milk, and General Motors Pontiac automobiles.
Ashley MacIsaac’s Image • Initially, perfect persona for the record industry • Anything but wholesome and traditional. • He did often perform in a kilt, but augmented this traditional dress with t-shirts and toques more typical of the 1990s grunge rock scene. • Music industry could rally behind a grungy, rock fiddler • First major label release Hi! How Are You Today a major success with Sleepy Maggie becoming an international hit single • Features traditional fiddle tune with dance groove