18:48
TED2003

Natalie MacMaster: Fiddling in reel time

Filmed:

Natalie MacMaster and her musical partner Donnell Leahy play several tunes from the Cape Breton tradition -- a sprightly, soulful style of folk fiddling. It's an inspired collaboration that will have you clapping (and maybe dancing) along.

- Fiddler
Natalie MacMaster is a star of Cape Breton fiddling, a Canadian tradition with Scottish roots. Her energetic style and virtuoso talent has brought her star billing on the international folk circuit. Full bio

Natalie MacMaster: I'm going to just
00:12
quickly start out with
00:14
a little bit of music here. (Applause)
00:16
(Music)
00:18
(Applause)
03:22
Thank you! (Applause)
03:29
I took my shoes off to dance,
03:35
but maybe I'll get at that later.
03:37
Anyways, I... where to start?
03:40
Well, I'm really excited
03:44
to talk a bit about
03:47
my own upbringing in music
03:50
and family and all of that,
03:53
but I'm even more excited for you people
03:56
to hear about Donnell's amazing family
03:58
and maybe even a little bit about
04:01
how we met,
04:03
and all that sort of thing,
04:05
but for those of you that may not
04:08
be familiar with my upbringing,
04:10
I'm from Cape Breton Island,
04:14
Nova Scotia, eastern Canada,
04:17
which is a very, very musical island,
04:20
and its origins come from Scotland
04:23
with the music and all the traditions,
04:26
the dancing, the language,
04:29
which unfortunately is dying out
04:32
in Cape Breton.
04:35
The traditional language is Gaelic,
04:37
but a lot of the music came
04:39
from the Gaelic language,
04:41
and the dancing and the singing
04:43
and everything, and my bloodline
04:45
is Scottish through and through,
04:48
but my mother and father
04:51
are two very, very musical people.
04:54
My mom taught me to dance
04:57
when I was five, and my dad
05:00
taught me to play fiddle when I was nine.
05:03
My uncle is a very well-known
05:06
Cape Breton fiddler.
05:08
His name's Buddy MacMaster,
05:10
and just a wonderful guy,
05:12
and we have a great tradition at home
05:15
called square dancing,
05:17
and we had parties, great parties
05:19
at our house and the neighbors' houses,
05:22
and you talk about kitchen cèilidhs.
05:25
Well, cèilidh first of all is Gaelic for party,
05:27
but kitchen party
05:31
in Cape Breton is very common,
05:33
and basically somebody drops into the house,
05:36
and no matter what house you go to
05:39
in Cape Breton, there's a fiddle there,
05:41
guaranteed, and I'd say,
05:43
well there's first of all more fiddlers
05:45
per capita in Cape Breton than anywhere
05:47
in the world, so ten chances to one,
05:49
the fellow who walked in the door
05:51
could play it, so you'd have someone come
05:53
into the house, you'd invite them to play
05:55
a tune, and lo and behold
05:57
a little party would start up and somebody would dance,
05:59
and somebody would sing, and all that sort of thing,
06:01
so it was a wonderful, wonderful way
06:03
to grow up, and that is where
06:05
my beginnings in music come from:
06:07
my surroundings, my family,
06:09
just my bloodline in itself, and, oh,
06:11
I've done lots of things with my music.
06:14
I've recorded lots of CDs.
06:17
I was nominated for a Grammy and
06:19
I've won some awards and stuff like that,
06:21
so that's awesome,
06:23
but the best part was meeting my husband,
06:25
and I've actually known Donnell
06:28
for probably 12 years now, and
06:31
I'm going to get into a little bit of, I guess,
06:34
how music brought us together,
06:37
but I'm going to introduce you
06:40
right now to my new husband
06:43
as of October 5,
06:46
Donnell Leahy. (Applause)
06:49
(Applause)
06:52
Donnell Leahy: Thank you. I'm kind of new to the TED
07:01
experience and I'm glad to be here,
07:03
but I'm just trying to put it all together,
07:05
trying to figure all you people out, and I've
07:07
been here for a short while, and I'm starting
07:09
to understand a little bit better.
07:11
So I asked Natalie, what do I do?
07:13
And she said, just talk about yourself.
07:15
It's kind of boring, but I'll just tell you a little
07:17
bit about my family. I'm one of 11 brothers
07:19
and sisters from Lakefield, Ontario,
07:21
an hour and a half northeast of Toronto,
07:24
and we grew up on a farm.
07:27
Mom and Dad raised beef cattle,
07:29
and I'm the oldest boy.
07:32
There are four girls a little bit older than me.
07:36
We grew up without a television.
07:38
People find that strange,
07:40
but I think it was a great blessing for us.
07:42
We had a television for a few years,
07:45
but of course we wasted so much time
07:48
and the work wasn't getting done,
07:50
so out went the television.
07:52
We grew up playing—
07:55
Mom's from Cape Breton, coincidentally.
07:58
Mom and Natalie's mother
08:00
knew each other. We grew up playing,
08:02
and used to dance together, right, yeah.
08:04
(Laughter) We grew up playing a bunch of,
08:06
we played by ear and I think
08:08
that's important for us because
08:11
we were not really exposed to a lot of
08:13
different styles of music.
08:15
We learned to play the instruments,
08:17
but we kind of had to come from within
08:19
or go from within, because we didn't
08:21
watch television, we didn't listen to a lot of
08:23
radio. We went to church
08:25
and to school sometimes,
08:27
and farmed and played music,
08:29
so we were able, I think,
08:31
at a very critical age to develop
08:33
our own style, our own self,
08:35
and my mother plays, my father plays,
08:38
and the style that came
08:41
from the Ottawa Valley in Ontario,
08:44
we call it French-Canadian style
08:46
but it originated in logging camps.
08:49
Years ago, hundreds of men would go
08:51
up for the winter to the camps
08:54
in Northern Ontario and in Quebec,
08:56
and they were all different cultures,
08:59
and the Irish, the French, Scottish,
09:02
German, they'd all meet, and of course
09:04
at night, they'd play cards
09:06
and step dance and play fiddles,
09:09
and over the course of many years,
09:11
the Ottawa Valley fiddling kind of evolved
09:14
and the Ottawa Valley step dancing
09:16
evolved, so that's, I kind of started out
09:18
with that style and I quickly
09:20
started doing my own thing,
09:23
and then I met Natalie, and I was
09:26
exposed to the great Cape Breton fiddling.
09:29
That's how we met. (Laughter)
09:32
You tell them. (Laughter)
09:35
NM: You want to or no? (Laughter)
09:38
Well I guess I have to now.
09:41
Well, it's just so interesting that
09:44
Donnell's upbringing was very similar
09:47
to mine, and I actually saw Donnell play
09:50
when I was about 12 years old,
09:53
and he and his family came to
09:56
Inverness, which is about 45 minutes
09:59
from where I lived, and I was just
10:02
blown away, like, it was just amazing,
10:05
and you'll find out why pretty soon here,
10:08
but I couldn't believe the fiddling
10:11
and Mom was there with me,
10:13
and she was saying —
10:15
Donnell's mother came up on stage
10:17
and danced with her children, and Mom
10:19
was saying, "That's Julie MacDonnell,
10:21
I used to dance with her when we
10:23
were kids. Little did I think our children
10:25
would be playing instruments, you know,
10:28
playing music, yeah."
10:30
Twelve years, er, 20 years later little did she think
10:32
her kids would be getting married,
10:35
but anyway, so, then I got
10:37
a phone call about, I dunno,
10:40
seven years later. I was 19,
10:43
first or second year of college,
10:45
and it was Donnell, and
10:47
he said "Hi, you probably don't know me
10:50
but my name is Donnell Leahy."
10:53
And I said, "I know you.
10:55
I have a tape of yours at home."
10:57
And he said, "Well, I'm in Truro,"
10:59
which is where I was,
11:01
and he asked me out for supper.
11:04
That's it. (Laughter)
11:07
(Applause)
11:09
Then — Will I keep going? (Laughs)
11:12
(Laughter)
11:15
Then we dated for two years,
11:17
broke up for 10, got back together
11:19
and got married. (Laughter) (Applause)
11:22
DL: So anyway, we're running out of time,
11:25
so I'll just get to it.
11:28
I'm going to play a piece of music for you.
11:31
It's actually a Scottish piece I've chosen.
11:34
I starts out with a slow air.
11:37
Airs were played in Europe
11:39
at burials, as a body was carried out
11:42
from the wake site to the burial site,
11:44
the procession was led by a piper
11:46
or a fiddle player.
11:48
I'll quickly play a short part of the air,
11:50
and then I'm going to get into
11:53
kind of a crazy tune that is very difficult
11:55
to play when you're not warmed up,
11:57
so, if I mess it up, pretend you like it
11:59
anyway. It's called The Banks.
12:01
(Tuning)
12:07
(Laughter)
12:23
(Music)
12:25
(Applause)
16:31
NM: Well, we're gonna play one
16:56
together now. (Applause)
16:58
We're laughing, like, because
17:00
our styles are totally different,
17:03
as you can hear.
17:05
And so, you know, Donnell and I
17:08
are actually in the process of
17:11
writing new pieces of music together
17:13
that we can play,
17:15
but we don't have any of those ready.
17:17
We just started yesterday. (Laughter)
17:19
So we're gonna play something together anyway.
17:22
DL: With one minute.
17:24
NM: With one minute.
17:26
(Audience reaction)
17:28
DL: You start. NM: No, you have to start,
17:30
because you've got to do your thing.
17:32
(Music)
17:34
NM: I'm not tuned. Hold on.
17:40
(Tuning)
17:48
NM: I feel like I'm in the duck or
17:56
the bird pose right now. (Laughter)
17:58
(Music)
18:09
(Audience claps along)
18:40
(Applause)
19:42
Announcer: Great news,
19:50
they're running late downstairs.
19:53
We've got another 10 minutes.
19:55
(Applause)
19:57
NM: Okay. Sure.
20:04
All right, okay.
20:11
Let's get her going. (Applause)
20:13
(Tuning)
20:16
DL: What do you want to play?
20:23
NM: Well, um...
20:26
(Music) (Laughter)
20:28
NM: Uh, sure.
20:39
DL: How fast?
20:41
NM: Not too fast.
20:44
(Music)
20:46
(Audience claps along)
20:58
(Cheering)
21:04
(Audience claps along)
21:06
(Music)
21:14
(Applause)
21:38
DL: We're going to play a tune
21:49
and Natalie's going to accompany me on the piano.
21:51
The Cape Breton piano playing
21:53
is just awesome. It's very rhythmic
21:55
and, you'll see it.
21:58
My mom plays piano, and she learned
22:00
to play before they had a piano at home
22:03
in Cape Breton. Before Mom's family had
22:05
a piano in Cape Breton, she learned to play
22:07
the rhythms on a piece of board,
22:09
and the fiddlers would all congregate
22:12
to play on the cold winter's evenings
22:14
and Mom would be banging on this board,
22:16
so when they bought a piano,
22:19
they bought it in Toronto and had it taken
22:21
by train and brought in on a horse,
22:23
a horse and sleigh to the house.
22:26
It became the only piano in the region,
22:29
and Mom said she could basically play
22:31
as soon as the piano arrived,
22:33
she could play it because she had learned
22:36
all these rhythms. Anyway, we found
22:38
the piano last year and were able to
22:40
bring it back home. We purchased it.
22:42
It had gone through, like,
22:44
five or six families,
22:46
and it was just a big thing for us,
22:48
and we found actually an old picture
22:50
of somebody and their family years ago.
22:53
Anyway, I'm blabbering on here.
22:56
NM: No, I want you to tell them about Leahy.
22:58
DL: What about Leahy? (Laughter)
23:00
NM: Just tell them what—
23:03
DL: She wants me to talk about—
23:06
We have a band named Leahy.
23:08
There's 11 siblings. We, um—
23:10
What will I tell them? (Laughter)
23:12
We opened—
23:14
NM: No surgeries.
23:17
DL: No surgeries, oh yeah.
23:19
We had a great opportunity.
23:21
We opened for Shania Twain for two years on her international tour.
23:23
It was a big thing for us, and now
23:25
all my sisters are off having babies
23:27
and the boys are all getting married, so we're
23:29
staying close to home for, I guess,
23:31
another couple of weeks.
23:33
What can I say? I don't know what to say,
23:35
Natalie. We, uh... (Laughter)
23:37
(Laughter)
23:44
NM: Is this what marriage is about?
23:48
(Applause)
23:50
I like it. (Applause)
23:53
(Laughter)
23:59
DL: Oh yeah, okay,
24:01
in my family we had seven girls, four boys,
24:03
we had two fiddles and one piano,
24:06
and of course we were all fighting to play
24:08
on the instruments, so dad and mom
24:10
set a rule that you couldn't kick anyone
24:13
off the instrument. You had to wait
24:15
until they were finished, so of course,
24:17
what we would do is we'd get on the piano
24:19
and you wouldn't even get off to eat,
24:21
because you wouldn't want to give it up
24:23
to your brother or sister, and they'd wait
24:25
and wait and wait, and it'd be midnight
24:27
and you'd be still sitting there on the piano,
24:29
but it was their way to get us to practice.
24:31
Will we play a tune?
24:34
NM: It worked. DL: It worked.
24:36
Sorry, I hate to carry on...
24:39
So this is our last number, and we'll feature Nat on piano.
24:41
Okay, play in, how about A?
24:43
(Music)
24:53
(Applause)
27:02

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About the Speaker:

Natalie MacMaster - Fiddler
Natalie MacMaster is a star of Cape Breton fiddling, a Canadian tradition with Scottish roots. Her energetic style and virtuoso talent has brought her star billing on the international folk circuit.

Why you should listen

It's not easy to make traditional Irish-Scottish music sound sexy and yet still seem wholesome. But Natalie MacMaster manages this feat, drawing listeners in with her playful showmanship, and then holding them rapt with astounding technical flourishes.

The niece of renowned Canadian fiddler Buddy MacMaster, she's taken up the mantle as standard-bearer for Cape Breton fiddling, a method of Scottish-style violin-playing that's evolved over the last century on this island neighbor to Nova Scotia. The tradition was on the wane when, in 1972, a CBS documentary provocatively titled The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler jump-started preservation efforts in the fiddling community.

MacMaster's enthusiastic charm and extraordinary skill has landed her star billing on the international folk circuit and multiple Grammy nominations. She's released nine albums, including Yours Truly (2006), Natalie and Buddy MacMaster (2005) and My Roots Are Showing (1998). She's toured with countless performers, including the Chieftains, Faith Hill, Carlos Santana and Alison Krauss, and has been awarded two Juno Awards (Canada's equivalent to the Grammy).

More profile about the speaker
Natalie MacMaster | Speaker | TED.com