10 Nights Without Sleep: Cape Breton’s Celtic Colours International Festival

10 Nights Without Sleep
by Dave Mahalik
$18.95, paperback, 156 pp.
Breton Books, October 2013

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I had met Bumblebees fiddler Liz Doherty years earlier when she was in Cape Breton researching fiddle traditions. We were friends already so it made sense that I would be their driver, and it wasn’t long before friendships were formed with the rest of the Bumblebees—harpist Laoise Kelly, accordion player Colette O’Leary, and Mary Shannon who played fiddle, mandolin and tenor banjo. Laoise and I made quick friends—she rolled her own smokes and I had usually smoked all mine. She was always ready to “go for a fag.” I guess my personality and my willingness to let the night go on until it was over matched theirs. We all would be there after just about everyone else had turned in for the night or wandered off. Hanging out with these four would set the standard for years. They were mad about the music in a way I’d never seen before. They’d play all night long and be game to go at it again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. This is what they did. They played music, and being in Cape Breton for Celtic Colours was like having their own playground.

I was finishing up some work at the What’s Goin On office when the phone rang. “Dave, the Bumblebees want to go to Gordie Sampson’s party in Big Pond after their show in Ingonish. Can you pick them up at the Holiday Inn in Sydney around midnight?” Starting at midnight and heading to a party at my friends’ house? Sounds like my kind of job. This is going to be fun. Even though I had eight hours or so until I was needed, I had been bitten by the bug and knew I would get no more work done that day, so I headed to the Holiday Inn just to see what was going on. The main lobby was alive with activity—people coming and going with armloads of instruments and luggage, luggage trolleys piled high with the familiar shapes of guitar and fiddle cases, people checking into the front desk with odd accents, and lots of stretching limbs after transatlantic flights and long drives from the Halifax International Airport, five hours away. Ready to get in on the action, I made my way downstairs. Tables were set up to distribute information to artists and volunteers. I said hello to my fellow troops, many of whom I knew from past musical experiences or who had volunteered during the East Coast Music Awards when they were held in Sydney in 1995. So I hung around for a while, soaking up the atmosphere, going out for a smoke to catch up with people, and making myself useful where I could before heading off home for a meal and a nap in anticipation of what I was sure would be a long night ahead.

That first mission to the house in Big Pond that Gordie Sampson shared with friends and fellow musicians Matt Foulds and Carlo Spinazzola—for the party after a show called “Winston’s Classic Cuts” at the Big Pond Fire Hall—brought Celtic Colours to life for me. It may not have been my kind of music, but it was my kind of party.

The house was jammed to the rafters as music and dancing took over the clock. I couldn’t imagine how Laoise Kelly’s harp was going to perform at a kitchen party, but she parked it right next to the table and dug into the tunes with Gordie and Stuart Cameron on guitar, Liz on the fiddle, Colette O’Leary playing accordion and Matt Foulds on hand percussion. For the next couple of hours, you could barely move through the kitchen, but the music danced through the old farmhouse.

At one point I was upstairs in line for the bathroom, and it sounded like someone was pounding away on an old piano. I mentioned to the next person in line that it sounded like Sheumas MacNeil was really drivin’ ’er now. When my line-mate asked when Sheumas had arrived, it occurred to me that there was no piano in this house. As I listened closely, I realized it was Laoise’s harp I was hearing, chording along to the tunes like a Cape Breton piano. And never again would I worry about how an Irish musician would make out at a party in Cape Breton with any kind of instrument.

I had been to quite a few parties at this house, with most of the same people, but this one was different. Parties with this crowd of locals—Gordie, Carlo, Matt, Stuart—usually had a strong musical component. Playing music went pretty naturally with drinking and smoking, and we were all pretty good at it by now. On this night though, there was a sense of discovery. The usual cast of characters had been infiltrated by an unknown cast of characters, and there was no easy way of knowing hosts from guests. The humour, music, and willful consumption were shared by all equally. And it all centred around the music, which itself was elevated by the focus it held in the room, among those playing around the table and those standing at the edges. Although the players came from different countries and had as much in common musically as not, and the collection of instruments—guitar, harp, fiddle, accordion, hand-drums—was exotic by Cape Breton standards and not typical of the kind of session common to this kind of party, still there was a sense of shared tradition. Tunes led by Laoise and Liz and Colette were picked up by Gordie and Stuart and Carlo, who infused them with their own flavours—Carlo’s all-feeling soul and down-and-out blues; Gordie’s fresh absorption of traditional tunes plus his keen sense of popular culture; Stuart’s musical heritage and recent emergence into the world of his father, John Allan Cameron. It all added up on that night in Big Pond.

Long after everyone else had turned in for the night—with the blinds drawn against the early morning sun—Laoise and Colette called for one more “choon,” but the few who were still resisting sleep no longer possessed the faculties to take on such a task. And I don’t think Laoise and Colette were much up to the task at this point either, just wanted to listen to someone else play. I did pick up Colette’s accordion, but it wasn’t long before I gave up. Finally Colette and Laoise went to bed and I went to sleep on the floor. And for me, the festival was really and truly under way.

10 Nights Without Sleep
by Dave Mahalik
$18.95, paperback, 156 pp.
Breton Books, October 2013

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