The Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling 2019 will take centre stage this weekend at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts in St. Ann’s.
“There is no other place to be,” Betty Matheson said.
She is a long-time member of the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association (CBFA), the organization that sponsors the two-day musical showcase.
The festivities kick-off Saturday (Aug. 17) with fiddle (beginner, intermediate and advanced), piano and step dance workshops.
“We have so many great instructors,” Matheson said, noting they are world-class calibre.
She added the goal of the festival is “to educate as well as entertain.”
There will also be supper available for purchase, following by a tune-sharing session, which launched in 2018 and drew rave reviews.
“It was so popular, so we decided to bring it back,” Matheson said.
The opening day wraps up, from 7 to 9 p.m., with a concert and square dance.
Sunday (Aug. 18), the finale concert – from 2 to 7 p.m. – features myriad local and international talent.
Concessions are available throughout the concert and there is plenty of free parking.
“We never say who is coming,” Matheson noted, when asked about the line-up of performers.
She added “everyone is treated the same,” no matter their level of exposure or notoriety.
“It is a great family atmosphere,” Matheson said, noting there is no alcohol permitted at the finale concert.
Media personalities Bob MacEachern and Wendy Bergfeldt emcee the show.
Over the years, the festival has moved around; along with Glendale, there have been stops in Sydney and the Highland Village in Iowa.
“We decided that we needed to have a home,” Matheson explained, one that offered permanent infrastructure.
“It provides everything that we need,” she added of the Gaelic College.
She credited college director Rodney MacDonald who, she pointed out, is also a renowned fiddler, for helping provide items on CBFA’s “wish list,” including a new canteen.
“We are so lucky – they are great to us,” Matheson said.
She noted food and concert prices are reasonable.
“It is always wonderful, but very hectic,” Matheson said of the festival.
The seeds for that ‘always wonderful’ weekend were planted in early 1972, with the release of a CBC documentary.
The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, produced by Ron MacInnis, explored the belief that traditional Cape Breton fiddling was in decline, with its demise on the horizon.
“It really upset people,” Matheson said.
It also mobilized them.
“We wanted to put that [idea] to rest,” Frank MacInnis said.
He helped launch a group, which included Father John Angus Rankin, Father Eugene Morris, Burton MacIntyre, Archie Neil Chisholm, Father John Angus Rankin, Rod Chisholm, Judge Hugh J. MacPherson, Anne Marie MacDonald, Jeannette Beaton, Joey Beaton and Ray ‘Mac’ MacDonald, to discuss the creation of a fiddlers’ festival.
“It was supposed to be a one-off,” MacInnis said of what would be the first Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling, which took placed on the Glendale parish grounds in July 1973.
More than 130 Cape Breton fiddlers wowed crowds numbering in the thousands over that weekend.
“It was totally amazing,” he added.
That success helped spawn the formation of CBFA which – almost a half century later – continues its mandate of ‘preserving and promoting’ Cape Breton fiddle music.
“It has been quite a ride,” MacInnis said.
Describing the accomplishments as “pretty rewarding,” he added, there have been countless “great people” who have contributed to the continuing success of the association and its festival.
The CBFA boasts more than 500 members.
“Oh, My Gosh, no,” Matheson said, when asked if the membership is made up of only fiddlers.
There are pipers, singers, dancers, guitarists and pianists – just to name a few.
“There is such a variety,” she added.
Matheson noted the association is governed by a volunteer board, while members do not receive performance fees.
“It has been a busy year for us,” she said, including taking the stage in early July at the annual Glendale concert.
The CBFA has released its sixth CD, which focuses on traditional tunes, but it also includes some new tracks.
“It is as well as they have ever played,” Matheson noted.
Both album release concerts included performances by association members and special guests.
The CBFA is also preparing for a ‘grand tour’ of Ireland in July 2020.
“Needless to say, the membership is extremely enthused about reconnecting with our fiddling friends and fans in Ireland,” Matheson said.
Fifty-seven members are making the trip, with planning and fundraising underway for some time.
“We are really looking forward to it,” Matheson said.