Dancing in Mabou, Cape Breton Island–part 2


Ciad mile failte. One hundred thousand welcomes.

“G’day. G’day. How are ya?” said the trim, silver-haired woman, sidestepping down the aisle of folding chairs.

“Just as you see me,” said one of her cohort.

“Came over to say hi.”

Julia and I are in the row ahead, settling in and taking stock of the no-frills Community Hall in Mabou, a tiny village in Cape Breton Island. Linoleum floor. Unadorned stage with two microphones and a keyboard.

I’d been promised an evening of music, song, and dance, and I’m wondering what this little speck in the epicenter of Canadian Celtic culture will deliver.

I’m also eavesdropping on the salty old gals who are gossiping in the row behind me. The lilt of their dialect is entrancing, but I’m familiar with the type. Every small town has them. They know everyone; nothing escapes their notice. These are the ladies who run the church socials, the funeral dinners and the fund-raisers, usually with efficiency and good cheer.

Now they’re speaking softly to each other.

“They say the Rankin girl is bad again.”

“Kathleen saw her and said she won’t last much longer.”

Silver heads wag.

The hall lights dim and a portly, older gentleman climbs the few steps to the stage. He is the masculine counterpart of the ladies behind me. He is stout-ish, 70-ish, and dryly hilarious with a warm, avuncular drawl.

“This celebration of talent from our town has been going on since 1967,” he said in more expansive language than I can recall. “And some of us are growing old and feeble and tired, and yet still you come.”

The Mabou Fiddlers

He kept up a sprightly banter while the Mabou Fiddlers, a shy troupe of young people, took the stage. They were followed by various combinations of fiddles and keyboards and dancers.

They were the sons and daughters (and sometimes parents and spouses) of the people sitting on folding chairs in the crowded hall. And clearly this audience was relishing the spirit of the clan that flowed through it. This was the village talent show. This was the proof, in fiddle and pipe, song and dance, blood and bone, of their history and heritage.

The children’s choir took the stage under the direction of yet another scion of the Rankin family. As the children began singing in Gaelic, percussive sounds filled the hall. I looked around to see where the noise was coming from.

It was feet. Everyone in the audience was stomping on the floor, keeping time. It sounded like a deep, beating drum.

The Mabou children’s choir, singing in Gaelic.

The children finished, and a pair of young girls performed a traditional step dance and left the stage.

“Thank you, girls,” says our MC. “Aren’t they the nicest girls? Did you see any boyfriend coming in with them? No? Well, we’ll have to change that before the night is over.”

A pair of pipers follow. Finally, the grating skirl of bagpipes—I’ve always loved it. Then four pairs of dancers join them. Traditional dance here seems understated compared to the fancy kicks and tapshoes I saw on Prince Edward Island. Dancers here wear soft black shoes without taps. Steps are fast and snappy and ankles are loose.

“How long has it been since you’ve seen a square set danced to the pipes?” Our MC asked in all seriousness.  “Seventy or eighty years? And now it’s back.” The audience exploded.

A square set danced to the pipes.

As the evening wound down, thin and serious Fr. Allen MacMillen took the stage in his plaid vest and Roman collar. A gaggle of church ladies followed, and we were treated to several Gaelic tunes sung with perhaps more enthusiasm than finesse. Fr. MacMillen beamed. He was beside himself with excitement in his restrained, Scottish way.

Fr. MacMillan and the ladies’ choir

Nothing if not enthusiastic

“The last song everyone knows,” said Fr. MacMillan, “so join in.”

The audience knew the words very well and sang the Gaelic chorus lustily. The melody had a mournful, longing quality that Gaelic captures so well.

Not to be outdone, my erstwhile landlord, Fr. Angus, pastor of St. Mary’s where I was parked, played a couple of creditable tunes on his fiddle, not without trading insults with our worthy MC first.

Fr. Angus on the fiddle

For a final, windup joke, our MC threw PC to the winds.

“Now, you may have wondered,” he said, “why married women tend to be, well, heavier than single ones.” (Snorts from the audience.) “That’s because single women come home, see what’s in the refrigerator and go to bed. Married women come home, see what’s in the bed and go to the refrigerator.”

Everyone cracked up while the old guy maintained a complete deadpan. That had been his schtick the entire evening.

I wish I’d gotten better photos. I wish I’d taken a video. I wish I’d written down more of the repartee, but the truth is, I was so completely absorbed in what I was seeing that I forgot everything else. Including this blog.

Julia and I walked up the hill to the parking spot at St. Mary’s Church. It was a warm night, but I was mostly feeling the warmth of this community that had allowed me to be a fly on the wall for this little celebration.

*          *          *

I later read that the “Rankin girl” the ladies behind me were whispering about was Raylene—the oldest of the performing sisters. She was well-known throughout Canada and had produced two albums of her own in addition to performing with the family band. She died on September 30, 2012 after a long battle with breast cancer, barely a month after this evening. She was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery. She was 52.

More photos from Mabou are on my FB page here.

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