I have to confess I first crossed the Canso causeway at the age of 45. Had I made the trip twenty years earlier, I might never have left, such is the appeal of the island of Cape Breton.
In October 2010 I was back in Cape B for the final four days of the 2010 Celtic Colours festival. My trip was kindly sponsored by the festival and the Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation. A huge upfront thanks folks for a brilliantly organized event with absolutely no media no pressure (tell it as it is and don’t airbrush the pictures). All I had to do was hit the hot spots and click away with the Fuji.
This is no ordinary festival, here’s the official post festival PR pic, to give you an idea of the importance of the event to the region:
The numbers are in for 2010 and the Celtic Colours International Festival continues to be an economic boon to Cape Breton. The 14th annual festival took place from October 8-16 in communities all across the Island. There were 45 concerts and 250 community cultural events over the nine days. 18,000 tickets were sold to concerts and attendance at community cultural events was 15,400. 54% of the audience came from off-island and 46% were from Cape Breton. The number of attendees increased by 400 over 2009.
Every year Celtic Colours calculates the dollars spent by its audience as a means of measuring the impact of the festival. We survey the audience widely, and ask them how much they spend while they are in Cape Breton in addition to their concert tickets and travel to get here. A contest ballot at every performance determines the geographic origin of visitors. In 2010 the audience expenditure was $6.2 million, an increase of 13% over last year. That is purely the new dollars spent and is not the “economic impact” as calculated using standard economic impact models. According to calculations by ECBC in 2009 using their model, the impact of the festival is more than $15 million.
The tourism sector is the big winner. Hotels, rental cars, restaurants, museums and cultural facilities all benefit from increased business during the festival. Mary Tulle is CEO of Destination Cape Breton. “Celtic Colours has allowed for the season to be extended so that occupancy rates are that of peak summer season.” Many small businesses and artisans report that Celtic Colours is their busiest time of the year.
The impact of Celtic Colours goes well beyond the tourism sector and the dollars spent by visitors. The festival also contributes to the revenues of artists, venues, and community groups throughout the island. Cape Breton artists received performance fees of more than $130,000 in 2010 in addition to CD sales and broadcast fees. Many were seen by international talent buyers and benefited from opportunities for bookings all over the world. Venues and community organizations received more than $100,000 in direct revenues from the festival. Groups who hosted community cultural events earned an additional $75,000 from their events. Many local churches and halls owe the upkeep of their furnaces and roofs to Celtic Colours. Jacquelyn Scott is the Chair of the Celtic Colours Festival Society. “Both the festival programs and the community events make a significant contribution to the quality and sustainability of community life on the island. Without hundreds of committed volunteers and capable staff this simply would not happen.”
So there I was for the final four days of event, fuel in the car and plenty of empty memory cards in the camera bag. Me and my camera saw gigs by Brendan Power and Tim Edey in the Alexander Graham Bell Museum. An enjoyable open session in Baddeck Yacht club, on a stormy afternoon when the waters of Lake Bras D’Or were frothing at the quayside. Vishten on the Friday in the Fire Hall in Baddeck who had the crowd dancing within the first three minutes of their Prince Edward Island Acadian soiree.
There was an exceptional afternoon of new music and song writing at the Gaelic College on the final Saturday. On the same night I caught the closing concert along with a crowd in the thousands at the impressive Joan Harris Memorial Pavilion in Sydney. Skilfully directed by Joella Foulds who proved she is more than just a festival administrator, I watched the rehearsals and saw what a strong directorial hand she had on the tiller. “Just one verse and two choruses” she told some veteran singers, professionally they complied and the pace of the concert didn’t miss a step. The big gig was highly polished show with all the latest technology and a camera crew included.
I must mention the late night festival club, music stretching beyond 3 am and being Canada they served real chips and pop to stave off the late night munchies.
Want some specifics? Let’s talk about Thursday, the day before the weather broke. Mid-morning in Baddeck’s Presbyterian Church Buddy MacDonald was singing self-penned songs for a CBC regional radio broadcast. As he had been the MC at the late night festival club the night before, he’d no right to be so fresh and so funny.
During a break in the recording I popped next door to the Masonic Hall for a look at the local art exhibition. Mrs. Ryan took my two dollars entrance fee. We chatted a bit, she apologised for the rusty fall colours this year, “Perhaps” she said “it was the mild winter, maybe it is global warming?” I asked her how far it was to Ingonish, she said “about an hour, but you’d better leave early and enjoy the Cabot trail”.
By 2 pm I was travelling north over the fiery-forested hill country. Lovely and lonely. For some of the way highway maintenance had stripped the surface down to bare gravel, slowing my progress to an adrenaline crawl. Back on a decent pavement I found a white clapper board building with a simple sign over the door “Gaelic Singing Club”. If only I had stopped and discovered more, but Ingonish seemed to be a lot further than “about an hour way.” I drove on while there was still daylight and some tarmac left.
Four miles beyond Ingonish, another road with the top trimmed off took me to St. Peter’ Catholic church. Outside was a large queue of people waiting for the night’s sold out concert. Inside the statue of St. Peter that greeted me was exactly like the one we have at home in my church in Cashel (Ireland). “How’s that for corporate branding?” I said to myself.
The gig called Music in the Hills condensed the character of Celtic Colours into one venue. The festival travels out to communities, they respond by putting a local stamp on each event and by volunteering in droves to make it happen, there really is nothing else like it anywhere.
At the back of the Church there was a small table with CDs for sale, the stall was run by the volunteer drivers, who ferry artists around the island. The money they collect goes straight back into the tradition as each year the cash from those sales helps a young musician make a debut album.
The bill in Ingonish included locals Rocky Shore named after a tune written by their fiddler, the famous Paul Cranford, who led them in set after set of rousing Cape Breton medleys. They joined Otis Tomas, a New England fiddler and luthier who now calls Cape Breton home. He played sophisticated jazz tinged music from his Fiddle Tree project. His ensemble included instruments he had built from a single Hard Sugar Maple tree he culled from the forest behind his home.
The Once from Newfoundland, De Temps Antan from New Brunswick and our own Laoise Kelly from Mayo. A big geographical spread, but watch their feet and you’d know where they came from.
Laoise Kelly gave a warm and gently funny performance. Bare footed, her toes only hinting at tapping as she let the sound of the strings and the reverberation of her harp fill the Church. In contrast the Cape Breton fiddlers adopted a very physical percussive style, with one foot stomping out a steady, sometimes even aggressive beat.
The Once brought Newfoundland folksongs, with their bouzouki, bodhrán and mandolin to the party. With material from the darker chapters of the folk singer’s fake book, it was easy to see how they have become the must-see act of the year. When it came to feet, their lead singer Geraldine Hallett had a foot tambourine to back her bodhrán playing.
The night closed with another trio, De Temps Antan. Sometime members of La Bottine Souriante, this was culture cut down to its core: folky, cheeky, bouncy, laughing-bright-eyed-devilment. French Canadien reels, call and answer songs, mouth music and complex foot rhythms that got the crowd clapping along from the first accordion flourish. As one photographer commented, “they are a booking agents dream”. The Catholic Acadiens were back in their spiritual home and we were loving every minute of it.
Only time for one mass encore, the fog was coming in and the MC told us to take care, because “Moose might be on the highway”. I drove back along the coastal route, eschewing another trip over the mist covered mountain. I took the five dollar car ferry at English Town, the shorter route to the Festival club in St Ann’s.
It took about an hour on that road. The Mason’s matron was right after all.
Photo Credits: (1) Celtic Colours Logo (from website); (2) Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, (3) Brendan Power & Tim Edey, (4) Otis Thomas, (5) Laoise Kelly (by Seán Laffey).