Barra MacNeils Keeping the Celtic Spirit

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Submitted by Bill King

Editor’s Note: 2014 marks over 27 years for the Cape Breton Island based family group, the Barra MacNeils, in an outstanding recording and touring career. This holiday season they are celebrating again with their yearly Christmas tour that takes them from the Pacific West to the Atlantic East coast. It all begins in British Columbia, taking in some dates in Ontario,then to the Atlantic East Coast to P.E.I.,New Brunswick and wrapping it up December 21st in Nova Scotia. The music, memories and magic that is the Barra MacNeils will be coming to Massey Hall on December 13, 2014 – one show only at 8 pm. For more on the tour visit:

Bill King: It was our 35th anniversary and we decide to celebrate in Cape Breton with stopovers in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Prior to that, my partner Kristine and I were guests on Michael Enright’s Sunday Edition on CBC and made mention of our impending trip. That show carried to the far tip of Cape Breton Island where math teacher David Rasmussen and family overheard. Through a friend, they contact and invite us to spend a week with them in Bay St. Lawrence.

We flew to Halifax and spun our way down around Peggy’s Cove across the province to the base of Cape Breton Island, stopping to snap photographs along the way. We stayed in bed and breakfasts - no plan or time schedule.

It was just beyond September 16, 2004 and tourists had departed, the roads cleared. Temperatures hung just below 18 degrees during the day, 8-10 at night. The land was sea wet as fisherman went about setting their lobster traps. The Cabot Trail was covered in dense fog as Hurricane Ivan was blowing up the coast and swells to full intensity the day we arrive. Tall grasses shielding the mountains lay flattened as the ocean rams the coastline with long cascading waves. Kris and I fight through hundred kilometers an hour gusts and make our way to road’s end and stand before the tumultuous sea reveling in God’s miracle acre. A glorious land set aside for a special people to fully live, populate and celebrate. That solitary moment opened a channel between mind and heart inviting both to converse. That moment forever linked our souls with a place that still haunts us to this day.

I caught up with band member Stewart MacNeil of the Barra MacNeils as he was traveling the back roads of the island between gigs with the band.

Bill King: Up front, Cape Breton and that whole region is one of my favourites in this country, perhaps the world. We even stayed up in Bay St. Lawrence.
Stewart MacNeil: The “Jumping Mouse?”

Bill: That’s what they call it?
Stewart: I think there’s a camp up there they call the “Jumping Mouse.”

Bill: You must look out each day and feel as if you live in one of the most exotic places in the world?
Stewart: It certainly is spectacular, especially in the fall it really comes alive. And this year, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the foliage so vivid. The wind storms didn’t come early, so it was gorgeous during Celtic Colours Festival this year.

Cape BretonCape BretonBill: Is this one you play annually?
Stewart: No, every second year. Even the years off there are gigs here and there that some of the band members are involved with. It was another successful year. The festival was designed to stretch tourist season. Now it’s the busiest time of year. It’s done what it was meant to do and what an amazing roster of musicians; J.P.Cormier, Laura Smith, Tony McManus, Natalie MacMaster, Sheumas and Kyle. Cape Breton seems to be a spiritual place for a lot of people you talk to; there is some sort of Zen quality that gets people to the island. I suppose that’s what keeps us living there.

Bill: The terrain has been described a close match to Scotland.
Stewart: Yes, and in some ways the Margaree areas would be similar to Ireland as well. For a small island it has the mountains and the water and the Bras d'Or Lake – saltwater inland sea is amazing in its own right. Even experienced sailors think they can run the waters but when they get down there the winds change so fast it can overwhelm.

Bill: What can you say about your hometown Sydney Mines?
Stewart: Sydney Mines is where we grew up. Lucy and I and our parents still live there; the rest around the Sydney area. Coal mining is what built the town. In the early 1800s the town came together very fast. It was a steel mill at one time. In the early 1900s Ford Motor Company was considering setting up shop in Sydney Mines having coal and steel right there. It never materialized. There’s a strong tradition of music in Sydney in general. For the coal miners there were a lot of songs they shared in their work. It seemed to be a common thing for people, just play. We grew up with Trad music from my mother and father’s side that sprung up in rural parts of Cape Breton – up around the Iona, Washabuck region. My mother’s house – the MacKenzie house was the first to have a piano in the community and was the place where all of the fiddlers gather. House parties, unlike Scotland and Ireland where pubs were the big thing; in Cape Breton you had less of that merchant class. A lot of the music happened in the house party or parish halls. Even today when they talk about music in the kitchen, it’s very true and still the preferred place for small gathering of fiddlers' play. They love the way it sounds and to be close to the food and drink.

Bill: Were the MacNeil’s coal miners?
Stewart: When my father moved to Sydney Mines he’d got his electronics trade in the Air Force. My parents bought a house in the early 1960s. He worked the transatlantic cable from Newfoundland to Cape Breton. It was a prosperous town but after the mines closed it was a big adjustment. The town is a different place now but still has a very vibrant music thing that means a lot to people. My mother still plays a session every second week at the Blue Mist Tavern. Music is a huge deal to most people on the island.

Bill: Does it vary stylistically as you cross the island?
Stewart: Yes it does. We had this strong tradition of that in our house. There was Trad music being played but we also had formal lessons – choirs and all. There was this guy James Taylor who was born in Sydney Mines and worked the mines and made enough money to go to Boston. He studied pipe organ and had multiple choirs while he was there. When he was sixty-five years old he and his wife moved back and started teaching a classical type of program. We were so fortunate to have that type of instruction. We all have formal training and studied at Mt. Allison University different programs. It was a mix of stuff that brought together the Barra MacNeils. What makes us unique as a Celtic band is the fact everyone sings, and are multi-instrumentalists.

Bill: And a close knit family.
Stewart: It’s surprising how much time we spend together. Families are families no matter how you slice it. Each Has their idiosyncrasies and after awhile it gets hysterical. I suppose at the end of the day you are either going to get along or not. Fortunately, most days we get on the same page.

Bill: I’m looking up ahead at your tour schedule and it seems as if the band is catching a rare few breaks the coming months.
Stewart: It’s a great tour to do. What could be better than to bring the spirit of the season into each town as you’re coming. For a lot of people they like to make the Barra MacNeils their Christmas show. An annual event! It’s become part of their family tradition. We just released last season our third Christmas project and they are really well received. What makes it nice, the show has to do with the memories of our Christmas’s, what we grew up with and the generations before us. It was a time of thanksgiving and just stopping and realizing how lucky we are to live where we are. That sense of the community – visiting all those sounds, the tastes, the smells. Those memories live on and have so much to offer when you are putting together a show. It’s not done in a real glitzy way that’s why it resonates with people. It comes out of real experience.

Bill: It think one thing about these shows that captures people’s attention is the step dancing.
Stewart: Well, it’s true. I remember when we were kids and you’d be around the house and the tunes be going and just about everybody had to get up and perform their step. Not everybody was Fred Astaire. They’d make it up and “giv 'er” what they had. It’s the spontaneity of the moment, especially today at the wedding celebrations. The fiddlers will play on and on and it’s almost as if it’s contagious, people just keep jumping up and step dancing. Our mother was an incredible step dancer as well as playing piano, guitar and being a writer – wrote songs and Trad tunes and she really saw early on how good this would be for us to play music. It was something of serious joy. Around the holidays it was a mix of playing music and road hockey and whatever – that real Canadian thing! It all puts a very positive spin on what the holidays are truly about.

The Barra MacNeils are:
Kyle (vocals, guitar, violin, mandolin), Lucy (vocals, bodhran, Celtic harp, fiddle, stepdancing), Sheumas (keyboards, piano, bodhran, fiddle, bouzouki, vocals), Stewart (vocals, accordion, tin whistle, flute, bouzouki, guitar, stepdancing), Boyd (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, percussion, stepdancing) and Jamie Gatti (bass)