The curtain of gray mist that seems to hover perpetually over this island home to 120,000 shrouds a lifestyle that is simple, centered, and refreshingly anachronistic. Here, the rock stars are homegrown fiddlers from 8 to 80. Or, in the case of Buddy McMaster, who is given as much credit as anyone for rejuvenating the Cape's musical heritage, 87.
Distinguished by a mop of white hair and a vintage black suit, McMaster looks more like an old-time banker than a musical folk hero as he hunches over a metal folding chair on a bare, makeshift stage in the barn of the 80-year-old Normaway Inn, tuning his instrument as an eager audience of all ages waits for what will be one of his last performances.
As a child of the West nurtured on "Ventura Highway" and other pop classics that glamorize California free-spiritedness, fiddle music was definitely not my cup of tea. Some visitors initially scorn this "unrefined" tradition and the remote region that has embraced it as a mall-less backwater plagued by industrial decline, labor unrest, and a steadily dwindling population. Take the woman from Toronto who was surprised to discover the "sophisticated" Inverness County Centre for the Arts, "here, in the middle of nowhere."
"What she hadn't quite grasped yet was that 'here' is not the middle of nowhere but is, like William Carlos Williams' red wheelbarrow, the center of the universe," observed local writer Frank MacDonald. "Ask anybody who lives here."
Another common misconception is that fiddling is a cultural relic with no enduring appeal in our age of globalization.
The sellout crowd in the barn for McMaster's ceilidh ( kay-lees) suggested otherwise. So did enthusiasts from all over the world who annually flood into the area to witness rousing music performances at pubs, churches, libraries, and cultural centers, earning Cape Breton a reputation as the "only living Gaelic culture in North America."
The frenzy peaks during the Celtic Colours International Festival, founded in 1995, a celebration of Scottish, Acadian, and First Nation (Aboriginal) heritage involving hundreds of singers, dancers, and musicians.
The modest venue and the unassuming onlookers at McMaster's concert are oddly endearing, in contrast to big-city pseudo-sophisticates such as the woman from Toronto. When I ask the man next to me if McMaster is the best fiddler on the Cape, he shrugs agreeably.
Then McMaster launches into a medley of reels, clogs, jigs, and strathspeys, prompting fans to tap their toes and unleash approving little hoots. They seem more Scottish than the Scottish, certainly not the Deliverance-like reprobates I half-expected.
The fondness for fiddling might explain why Cape Breton possibly has more musicians per capita than anywhere else. "In New York, people want to know what you do, in L.A. they want to know what you drive, but in the Cape they want to know what you play," said Manhattan-based Mary Cherpak, who grew up on the island trying to master the piano.
'The devil's music'
Cape Breton's fiddling phenomenon is rooted in the struggles of the first European immigrants, largely Scots, who began arriving in waves during the late 1700s. Their fiddles, bagpipes, cellos, harps, and other old-country instruments provided a link to the past and a way to pass the time. Family life centered on these instruments, which were proudly handed down from generation to generation. In some clans, every member learned to play one or more of them.
But the fiddle was always at center stage. Coal miners, fishermen, and steel workers fiddled to celebrate everything from school openings to church fund-raisers. "The music became the catalyst that kept families and communities together," said Sheldon MacInnes, who teaches at Cape Breton University. "It took away the rough edges, and provided a way to cope with life's hardship."
Many considered fiddles magical, capable of elevating the spirits and enticing people onto dance floors. Some believed that "fairy folk" presented legendary 19th-century fiddler Donald Campbell with an enchanted bow.
The religious establishment took a less angelic view. One theologian called fiddle tunes "the devil's music," MacInnes said, noting that the church tried but failed to curb the instrument's influence before finally embracing it.
Upper-class bias against fiddles and their association with "unrefined" music, the post-World War II incursion of modern technology, and the exodus from rural Cape communities during the depressed 1950s and 1960s appeared to be the death knell for the tradition. But a 1972 Canadian Broadcasting System documentary, The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, sparked a powerful reversal.
'Violins with attitude'
Today, fiddles are again a force on the Cape and learning to play them is once more a rite of passage in some families. Locals sometimes jokingly call the instruments "violins with attitude," perhaps because their upbeat sound seems to defy often grim weather and economic conditions.
To MacInnes and other traditionalists, the instrument represents the fierce resolve of Cape Bretonians not to let external forces - no matter how formidable - jeopardize the essence of themselves, just as the Cape's raw Nova Scotia beauty has resolutely withstood encroachment from developers. The embrace of this unique music also symbolizes a sense of personal empowerment in even the sparsest settlements, which often sport welcome signs that proclaim fiddlers hometown heroes.
This zealotry is particularly evident during Celtic Colours, where it's not uncommon to see visitors singing and dancing between shows before capping well-oiled evenings at St. Anne's College with impromptu midnight performances.
The capstone for me is the riveting performance by Buddy McMaster, and the spontaneous square dancing that follows, drawing energetic participants of all ages, nationalities, and skill levels. Some of us rootless outsiders are not so fast on our feet. But here, in this enclave of living Gaelic culture, where the "Ventura Highway" intersects the Center of the Universe and where the fiddling is as profound as anything produced by Tchaikovsky or Vivaldi, no one seems to mind when we get in the way.