Natalie MacMaster's showstopping Celtic tunes

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Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

Dynamic fiddler Natalie MacMaster returns to George Mason University directly from a weekend at the East Coast Music Awards in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where her latest album, "Cape Breton Girl," won for Best Traditional Instrumental Recording of the Year.

"It's an honor to receive the award," she said. "My goal was to make an album that takes me back to the traditional music I grew up with. My roots are ancestors who came from Scotland to Cape Breton nearly 300 years ago. I didn't read music as a child, but learned to play by ear."

This album, her first in five years, was recorded at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto. Along with her fiddle, the instrumentation of guitar, bass, whistle, flute, bagpipes and piano reflects the Celtic roots of early settlers on Cape Breton, primarily fishermen from Brittany, Scotland, Ireland and England. During the bleak winters on the turbulent Atlantic coast, they warmed and entertained themselves by gathering to sing, dance and play their varied instruments. Every member of every family played at least one instrument and knew the folk songs by heart. Many of the traditional songs, jigs, reels and folk dances originated in their homelands centuries earlier. Isolated from much of Canada on Cape Breton, they soon created their own distinct style.

MacMaster learned the fiddle so quickly from her uncle and cousins, masters of the instrument, that she was performing by the age of 10. Thirty years later, she, too, is a master of her craft and has released 11 albums -- three of them going gold -- as well as four singles and videos to match. She has also made an instructional DVD that teaches the fiddle and co-wrote "Cape Breton Aire," a book of Cape Breton Island's musical history and exquisite scenery.

Onstage
Natalie MacMaster celebrates St. Patrick's Day
» Where: George Mason University Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax
» When: 7 p.m. Sunday
» Info: $24 to $48; 888-945-2468; cfa.gmu.edu

MacMaster's boundless energy drives the fiddling and step dancing that turn her concerts into events not to be missed. She not only enlivens her audiences she also inspires her own children, who often accompany her on her tours and take their own turns onstage. When she is nursing a baby, as she is at present, she brings along a baby sitter to tend to matters backstage.

She is married to Donnell Leahy of the popular Canadian ensemble Leahy and cleverly manages to tour regularly while homeschooling and caring for their five children.

"Donnell and I share so much that our marriage is an inspiration," she said. "It's wonderful being able to verbally share our thoughts and incredible to have someone who thinks the same. When one of us is touring, the other stays home to take care of the children."

On special holidays, she sometimes joins her husband and musical in-laws onstage. Other times, MacMaster tours on her own or with such heavyweights as Alison Krauss, Faith Hill, the Chieftains, Mark O'Connor and Carlos Santana. This 21-stop tour will take her west from Fairfax to Utah, then north to British Columbia and eastbound back through Canada to Ontario.

Although her first love is the distinctive Cape Breton fiddle, she adores all kinds of music and listens to pop, rock, country, jazz and even flamenco. Among her many honors are three honorary degrees, 11 ECMA awards, eight Canadian Country Music Awards, a Juno Award for Best Instrumental Album, two Grammy Award nominations and a Grammy win for her role in Yo-Yo Ma's recording "Songs of Joy & Peace."

Each summer, MacMaster and the Leahys host a music camp at Lakefield, Ontario, where aspiring musicians of all ages gather to learn from them and their guest artists. "This is such a valuable experience," she said. "The greatest joy raising children in a musical household is seeing them discover that the music is in them and they can do it. My role is to pass on the joy and responsibility of sharing music with them, and I pray every night that music will dwell in their hearts, minds and bodies. The point is not that they should become professionals, but that music is important in everyone's life."

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Author:

Emily Cary

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner