Cape Breton's Natalie MacMaster Lets Her Hair Down

Firebrand fiddler puts on a lively show of dancing and revved-up traditional tunes.

AUSTIN, Texas — There are certain musicians who can command their audiences before they speak a word, and when the first haunting offstage note sounded from Natalie MacMaster's fiddle at her performance at One World Theater on Tuesday evening, it was clear that the Cape Breton player is one of them.

Playing a slow Celtic air as she walked onstage, MacMaster quickly drew listeners in with a faster jig. Then she moved on to the contemporary with a composition by fellow Nova Scotian J.P. Cormier, "Josephine's Waltz," and shifted into high gear with "Flamenco Fling" (RealAudio excerpt), in which trad Gaelic musician figures are flavored with flamenco rhythms.

Trading high-energy licks with guitarist Brad Davage, MacMaster showed how far she could easily stretch the boundaries of her traditional style.

"We're going to take you all to a different place — we're going to the kitchen," MacMaster said as she, along with Davage and bass player John Dyant, gathered chairs in a circle onstage to play for the step dancing of keyboard player Mack Moyle.

It was in just such a setting that MacMaster first came to know the fiddle herself, growing up in a family of musicians along the windswept Atlantic coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. These family jams often included her uncle Buddy MacMaster, who is regarded in traditional circles as a master fiddler.

Starting Early

Natalie picked up the fiddle at age 9 and performed at her first concert about six months later.

"I didn't really know there was any other kind of music when I was growing up," she said earlier this spring from her Cape Breton home, "and still, when I want to learn old tunes or get ideas about the music, my first thing to do is pull out tapes of family house parties."

In keeping with that sentiment, her most recent release is titled My Roots Are Showing — Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton Island (Rounder). The cover image shows MacMaster with her eyes closed and, in the background, a tree with images of presumed ancestors looking out from its spreading branches.

Onstage in Austin, the fiddler next played the medley she calls "Welcome to the Trossachs" (RealAudio excerpt), composed in part of the tunes "Memories of Winston," "Highlanders Farewell to Ireland," "Gravel Walks Reel," "Colonel Thornton" and "The Hurricane," revealing and reveling in the varieties of Cape Breton dance music.

Jigs, reels, hornpipes and strathspeys are participatory forms of music, meant to be danced and clapped along to.

"Somebody who doesn't know the ins and outs of the music can certainly feel the rhythm," MacMaster said. "It's right there, the power and the lift in the tempo and the groove — the feel of the music is just so strong."

Flexing All Muscles

Proving that the style and her playing are infinitely flexible, MacMaster then took what is usually a fast jig, "Bluebonnets Over the Border" (RealAudio excerpt), and brought it down to a slow air.

She picked things up again for "a last blast of tunes before intermission" with a medley of jigs and reels ending with the "Cottonwood Reel," "an American tune which is played quite often at our dances," she said. "See, you Americans have even infiltrated Cape Breton with your music!"

After the break, MacMaster opened things up by performing her only vocal recording, the Celtic rap-style ode to the fiddle "In My Hands" (RealAudio excerpt), the title track to her Juno-award-winning disc of last year on Rounder Records. (Junos are the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys.)

"That's an idea that I had tossing around in my head for a while," she said. "I'm not a singer, I thought. But there must be a way to do this — I'll just say it! So that's what I did."

Bringing the nearly three hours of music to a close, MacMaster danced and whirled across the stage, tossing her hair and kicking up her feet to the Celtic rhythms as she played. With a standing ovation the crowd begged for more, and another tour de force medley of dancing and fiddle playing unfolded until — with a final "Thanks so much for the encore! See you down the road" — MacMaster sent her audience out into the warm Texas spring night, refreshed with a blast of sparkling music from the shore of Cape Breton.