Fiddlers Kyle and Lucy MacNeil come from a family rooted in the Gaelic music traditions of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. They play with brothers Sheumas (piano) and Stewart (flute and accordion) in a group known as The Barra MacNeils. Touring extensively and making recordings since the mid-'80s, The Barras were the first successful group to come out of Cape Breton's rich solo fiddling tradition.
Lucy, what are your earliest memories of hearing the fiddle?
It would have to be listening to Sheumas, Kyle, and Stewart practicing with the help of Mom's guidance, and getting ready for concerts and local community events and things like that. I remember an awful lot of practicing and tunes, and Mom jigging the tunes because she'd be teaching them by ear. Other than that, being up in Washabuck hearing my uncle Carl [MacKenzie], who's quite well known, and my late uncles Simon and Charlie. And also our uncle Hector. And the other times that really are vivid in my memory are when the Stubberts came into our living room in Sydney Mines. Those were long afternoons of lots of fiddle.
You mentioned that your mother jigged the tunes -- jigging the tunes means lilting the tunes, singing them. Is that how you learned your first tunes?
Yes, I'd have to say. I could read music and I was taking lessons for several years, but it was three Irish tunes -- don't ask me the names -- three Irish reels that I had learned from Mom to play at an Irish concert in North Sydney.
And yourself, Kyle, would you have learned your music by ear from your mother?
The earliest fiddles I remember were at my grandmother's place. I was fortunate because I heard a lot of the older fiddlers -- like Dan Hughie MacEachern -- and I remember an afternoon after the Highland Village concert, Donald Angus Beaton being there. So I was very young, but still there was an influence on me as far as hearing all this great music then. But my first tunes were from that, and from Mom teaching me by ear. And it was like two or three years before I ever took any music lessons.
What made you think you needed music lessons?
Actually, Mom wanted us to learn to play slow airs the way that Winnie Chafe played them. That's the reason we all started lessons. Sheumas and I were taking fiddle lessons at the same time from Professor Jimmy MacDonald here in North Sydney. He taught us how to hold the violin, and the technical side of playing, the tone. Sheumas took lessons for quite some time and as things progressed he moved towards the piano and we became a fiddle-piano duet thing, but Sheumas still plays.
We played together a lot, actually, when we were young. We could all read music and we were still taking classical violin. The majority of the traditional tunes were still by ear, and at that time there were very few recordings of Cape Breton fiddlers. Most of it was on home-made cassettes. There would have been some albums -- Carl MacKenzie, John Campbell, and of course all the Winston LPs. So I would learn all the tunes off the records and the tapes that I could find so I'd have enough tunes for dances. The dance is where I developed a lot of my Cape Breton fiddle style.
Your mother's a dance teacher, so was it playing for her dance classes or for square dancers?
Both, actually, because Mom was a great dance teacher.
Lucy: Still is.
Kyle: Still is! But she liked to have live music. So I played for her dance class all through my teenage years and earlier than that, and it was a big influence on my tempo, I suppose -- not to play too fast or too slow -- and to be able to read the dancer and know how to play for each dancer. I remember her saying that she really liked Donald Angus Beaton's playing for step dancing, and Joe MacLean's, because they looked at your feet and followed your feet and played to your feet. So I think that was a big influence as far as my style of playing. And of course the square dances, it's all about tempo there, too, because it helps to make you a better player, playing for a group of dancers.
Did concerts change that then? Has that changed your tempo, or do you think you were rooted strongly enough early in the game?
There's definitely an element of dance music in our concerts. That's still probably the most popular thing for a crowd. There are also tunes that are more listening tunes, solo tunes, I guess you'd say.
So you integrate dancing in your concerts -- you have step dancing.
I think even today, dancing's still the biggest part of our concerts. Today our music, some of it, is pretty modern, but the traditional aspects of the fiddle playing and the dance music are still there.
[For the rest of this article, purchase the Fall 2004 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
Photo: Carol Kennedy