Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy
Cape Breton and Ontario fiddling
Nova Scotia and Ontario, Canada
If Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, has a musical ambassador, it might be Natalie MacMaster, whose virtuosic fiddling and energetic step dancing have brought the island’s music international acclaim. Cape Breton boasts a complex, beautiful style of fiddling brought to Canada by early 19th-century Scottish immigrants. For more than two centuries, Cape Breton players have staunchly preserved and nurtured this style, known for closely hewing to its Scottish roots. “It is very family oriented,” says MacMaster, “and passed down from generation to generation.” The music, she says, “is part of how you live.”
MacMaster began playing at age nine, absorbing the music from her uncle Buddy MacMaster, a legendary Cape Breton fiddler. “I had already been singing—‘jigging’ them as we call it—and step dancing,” MacMaster explains, describing the tradition common on Cape Breton of singing syllables to imitate fiddle tunes. “At every family and community function I went to there were fiddle tunes.” She was soon playing throughout Cape Breton. Her first album appeared when she was 16; she now has multiple award-winning recordings, and has played over 100 shows a year for the last 15 years. For her unflagging promotion of her Cape Breton heritage around the globe, Natalie MacMaster was awarded the Order of Canada in 2006.
Born and raised on the family farm in Lakefield, Ontario, master fiddler Donnell Leahy similarly carries on a longstanding family musical tradition. Leahy’s father was an Irish Canadian fiddler, and his mother a step dancer from Cape Breton, so it’s no surprise that by age three he had a fiddle in hand. He went on to fame as the leader of the eponymous, festival-headlining Celtic family ensemble Leahy. MacMaster and Leahy married in 2002 and embarked upon a professional as well as a personal union. They perform together often, and recently released their first duo recording, One, for which they were named Instrumental Group of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards and Fans Choice Entertainers of the Year at the East Coast Music Awards. The fiddlers now have six children, aged 2 to 10. All are immersed in the tradition, and the older four, who jig, fiddle, and step dance, have begun to join their parents on stage. “I work really hard trying to carry on a tradition for them by keeping my tradition going,” she says. “I want to pass that down to them.”
MacMaster is quick to explain she has adapted Cape Breton traditions during her time on stage. Cape Breton fiddlers sit when they play at social dances and other events; Natalie has subtly tweaked that tradition, standing and sometimes step dancing when she plays. Her award-winning work often reaches out to other traditions as well—her recordings include a Grammy®-winning performance with Yo-Yo Ma, and collaborations with Alison Krauss and Bela Fleck—but always giving a performance infused by her roots. In her work with husband Donnell Leahy, MacMaster has embarked on an exciting new journey celebrating their Canadian and Cape Breton heritage.