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Cape Breton's Carl MacKenzie
Peter Marten
1999-09-01

Carl MacKenzie of Washabuch, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, plays with the driving enthusiasm that we have come to take for granted in Cape Breton fiddling. He has also made a name for himself as an expressive and perceptive fiddler who obtains a sweet sound from the instrument. Words like "magic" and "soul" often appear in descriptions of Carl's playing, and are confirmed by the material on his CDs Cape Breton Fiddle Medleys and Highland Dance Fiddle, and his numerous records. He has traveled widely in North America and abroad, giving concerts and conducting workshops. Fiddler Magazine had the chance to talk with him after one such workshop at Boston College's Gaelic Roots festival in June 1998.

How old were you when you started playing?

I tried to play when I was nine or ten, I suppose, and gave it up because I wasn't approaching it the right way or something. But then when I was about twelve years old, I started and I learned. I had no teacher; my older brothers played, but in that day and age, you sort of just learned on your own. I don't know why; you just picked it up and you learned it. You watched other people, what they were doing. The first tune I learned was called "The 42nd Highlander's" [lilts the first few bars]. And I was always told that if you get one tune, no matter how simple it is, then that's it, you've then got the idea of it down and you just learn another tune, learn another tune. And that's basically about the way it went.

...

How were fiddlers regarded in the community when you were growing up?

There were certain people in the community that you would really look up to. One was your clergyman; that has changed somewhat in the last while. And your doctor; well, I suppose your doctor's still looked up to by some, but not as much. And a fiddler; if you played the fiddle reasonably well, you were almost like a kind of a god. And if you played it really well like [Winston] "Scotty" Fitzgerald or something like that, well. Even if I played the fiddle, I wouldn't dare play the fiddle if some of these people were around, even when I was getting kind of good at it, because they were so much better and you just wouldn't waste the time by taking the time from them. But fiddlers were very much appreciated, probably more so than they are today.

Like any style, Cape Breton fiddling has certain intangible characteristics. Is it possible to describe in words the "lift" that Cape Bretoners put into a tune?

Well, a lot of it is done with the bow, and it has to do with giving more value to certain notes. Maybe a hesitation or emphasis on a note; you can emphasize it by playing a little louder, or a little more forcefully, or embellishing it with special grace notes. Giving it a certain emphasis with the bow  instead of just bowing up and down, sometimes doing two or three up-bows in a row, and then you can come down with a real strong down-bow. It gives the tune a push, that's the way I like to put it. And at the same time, if someone is dancing to it, then the dancer feels that same thing, too. So it's an accent; it's like if you were trying to express something and you just said it in a monotone, it wouldn't have the same emphasis. Well, it's the same thing in the music.

It's interesting that you put it in terms of spoken language. Do you think the music reflects the fact that, up until relatively recently, Gaelic was the main language on Cape Breton?

Well, I don't understand Gaelic -- I should, I should be kicked for not learning it -- but back when I was going to school, the parents at that time figured that learning to speak Gaelic was a detriment to your education, that you should put all your emphasis on English, and that type of thing. But nowadays -- how wrong they were. I just love to listen to [Gaelic speakers], even though I don't understand it, because it's so expressive. Up and down, and that's kind of the way the music is, too, you know [lilts a bar of a strathspey]. You tend to drag out certain notes, so you kind of weave it in and out, yet keep the same timing, and give more value to notes you want to emphasize, and maybe cut back on others -- that sort of thing.

Where do you think the ornamentation and gracings in Cape Breton fiddling come from? Have the pipers had an influence in this respect?

Well, certainly, the piping has a lot to do with it. If you ever look at pipe music, it's just full of grace notes, and certainly the fiddler will take some from that. But also, our forefathers that came over, even my parents, would sing Gaelic songs, and they'd put grace notes in the Gaelic songs. Presumably, back in Scotland, when they were driven from the Highlands, I would think that the way that they played wouldn't be so terribly different than the way that we play now. We didn't make up a new style in Cape Breton. So, that is possibly it -- if it's in the pipes, why wouldn't it be in the fiddling, maybe to a lesser extent.

But for myself, learning the fiddle, I soon found out that if you didn't put this ornamentation in, the music is pretty flat. And I'd listen to a tape of myself, and I'd say, "Well, how do I get this sound?" So I listened to the older, better fiddlers and watched them and picked things out from each one of them, and I think generally that's the case. Like for instance, the younger players not so much now, but the older players would always use the little finger when they were playing, you know, and the reasons for that are several. I use a lot of vibrato on almost every note that I play, and I use the little finger rather than the open string. The open string gives it a kind of a stark sound. So it just developed, generally speaking, in Cape Breton that they'd tell you, if you didn't use your little finger, you'd never make a good fiddler. I don't know if that's true or not, but...

...

[For the full text of this interview, as well as Carl's tune "Jacqueline," 
purchase the Fall 1999 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Peter Marten is a journalist and translator based in Helsinki, Finland.]