Natalie MacMaster bounds onto a stage playing her fiddle “with reckless abandon — but it’s controlled reckless abandon,” the late John Allan Cameron, fellow Cape Breton musician, once said. She leaps around, seemingly unable to stand still, and combines her expertise in Cape Breton step dancing with virtuoso bowing. It’s almost impossible to stay in your seat when she’s at work.
It’s startling to hear that being onstage is, in a way, downtime for MacMaster. “It’s kind of like going to the spa,” she says in a phone interview while on the road in her current tour. MacMaster and her husband, Donnell Leahy, an equally accomplished fiddler, bring their music to McCarter Theater in Princeton on Friday, February 26. Also performing is the Celtic string band Time for Three.
This is the first tour for the McMaster-Leahy couple. Natalie, 37, has performed for years with her own band, while Donnell shot to fame with his family’s group, Leahy — eight brothers and sisters from Ontario, all of whom play, dance and sing traditional Canadian-Celtic music. Leahy became well-known in 1998 when they were the opening act for Shania Twain on her first world tour.
This time, the duo performs with just two pianos as back-up. “We don’t actually have that much experience playing together,” admits MacMaster. “It’s very fresh and new. We chose the two pianos because we wanted it to be totally different from Leahy and from the Natalie MacMaster band. But we are enjoying it just as much, oh my gosh, absolutely. There’s great joy in variety. And the change of not having a full band is refreshing; although I’m sure by the end of it we’ll be anxious to play with the full band, too. One complements the other. But it’s great — our first tour together, and great for us to be able to travel together instead of being apart. And we have our three children with us.”
MacMaster knows something about traveling. She’s been an acknowledged master of the Cape Breton style since she was 16, and she has cross-pollinated on albums with the likes of classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bluegrass fiddler Allison Krauss, and rock guitar legend Carlos Santana. “Oh, that’s probably the most exciting part of what I do, the collaboration, and the unknown,” says MacMaster. “Meeting people and seeing people who aren’t from my tradition enjoying it; being inspired to work together and inspiring me to play things that maybe I wouldn’t normally think of.”
She has recorded 10 albums, including the 2000 Grammy-nominated “My Roots Are Showing.” She’s a show-stopping stepper, too, often playing and dancing simultaneously, which shouldn’t really be possible. But MacMaster seemingly can’t help herself.
The music of Cape Breton, on the Atlantic coast off Nova Scotia, has its origins in Scotland. Brought over by Scottish immigrants fleeing their English oppressors in the late 18th century, it features high-energy and a strong pulse driven by the fiddler’s heel tapping into the floor. That is one of the reasons that dancing is such a great part of the music.
“The Cape Breton fiddling style has a very distinct groove,” MacMaster says. “There are fewer slurs in the bowing (than traditional Irish or Scots fiddling) and more continuous bow rhythm. It’s a very intense beat and one that sort of puts you in a trance. It’s very steady and very strong, and ever-present.”
Although MacMaster’s music has branched out a bit, the Cape Breton influence is always there when she’s onstage. “I personally feel a need to stick to it,” she says of the Cape Breton sound. “Because I like to satisfy the locals and let them know that just because I’m traveling and touring, and just because I don’t live in Cape Breton anymore, I don’t want them thinking that I’ve abandoned my traditions and my culture. I have great pride when I do the traditional music. And I want them to be proud, you know?”
MacMaster’s father, Alex, retired 12 years ago from his lifelong job as a paper maker at a paper mill not far from Cape Breton Island. Her mother, Minnie, worked as a secretary for a number of years and for the past 20 years has been the office manager’s assistant for Natalie and her company, MacMaster Music Inc.
One surprise for knowledgeable fiddle freaks is to find out that MacMaster did not study with her uncle, famed fiddler Buddy MacMaster, even though she started playing at age nine. “I took lessons with Stan Chapman, a great fiddler and teacher, for about two years,” she says of her formal musical education. “But I credit my style very much to Buddy, because I listened to him more than anyone. I’ve asked him so many questions over the years — what are you doing in this section, that sort of thing. Listening has been a huge part of my learning. Ninety-five percent of my repertoire I just learned by ear. I have not opened a book very much. I’m very glad that I can read music, but mostly I just listen.”
The Cape Breton music was considered endangered in the late 20th century. A 1971 CBC documentary, “The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler,” opened a lot of eyes to the problem. A Cape Breton priest and music aficionado, Father John Angus Rankin, and others took matter in hand. That led to the forming of the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association and an annual October festival, Celtic Colours International, which attracts artists and visitors from around the world.
‘I would definitely attribute the renaissance to that film,” says MacMaster. “What happened was that Rankin and some others decided to show that this music was still alive, and it came back. There were over 100 fiddlers who gathered but they were all older — over 50, a large percentage of them. When I was growing up, there were not a lot of kids my age interested in the music, not at all. A handful, maybe eight or ten, were my age. But now — well, I just did a DVD a couple of years ago and had the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association join me onstage. I would say that a large percentage of them were women under the age of 20. It was just like a real ‘Whoa!’”
Young women in traditional music: it’s a relatively new concept in an old tradition, but in the last 30 years or so, more and more female instrumentalists have become not just part of the Celtic music scene, but vital to it, from the all-female Irish-American group Cherish the Ladies, to fiddlers like Eileen Ivers and Winifred Horan, and accordionists like Sharon Shannon. Throw in MacMaster’s playing and dancing, and you have one hell of a band without needing a second locker room.
“The nature of the times,” says MacMaster. “A way of life in the old days was that the men did the work and the women stayed home and took care of the children, and worked at the laundry and the cooking. When did they have time for music? But I’m a traditionalist; I call myself a stay-at-home mom on the road.”
MacMaster and Leahy have three children all under the age of six; in fact, their youngest will be turning one around the time you read this. MacMaster has mentioned with some pride that she was back onstage performing only three weeks after she gave birth. That’s not something she could have envisioned when she got a phone call some years back from a man named Donnell Leahy who wanted to meet her. He had never seen her, but his mother is from Cape Breton, and he was intrigued by a cassette of her music.
“Intrigued enough to make the 22-hour drive to meet me,” MacMaster says, and if she’s blushing, you can’t tell over the phone. Now, was it a real date, or just two musicians getting together? “No, it was a date. Donnell goes in the front door, as he likes to say himself. He doesn’t beat about the bush.”
So, eight married years, three kids, and an 800-acre farm in Ontario later, the whole family is on the road, at least for now. “It’s month by month, year by year,” says MacMaster, sounding like any working mom. “The oldest hasn’t started school yet. I’ve been home-schooling a little this year to see if I can do it. And if that goes well, maybe we would continue next year. She’s so little; I think I feel as long as she’s home for a bit each year to get piano lessons or swimming lessons or normal things.”
Of course being a mother is time-consuming, and MacMaster admits that she hasn’t done as much writing since the family came along. But the trade-off is that motherhood has given her a greater appreciation for her other job. “I think I possibly enjoy my time onstage now more than ever,” she says. “It’s me time. It used to be that when I was onstage that was my work, giving to the public. It still is, but because I give all day to the children, (onstage) is just about me and the music.”
Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, Friday, February 26, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Fiddling, singing, and step-dancing husband-wife duo join with Celtic band Time for Three. $37 to $48. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.