Celtic Colours 2011: Passing down traditions in Cheticamp and Judique

I visited Cape Breton, Nova Scotia on a blogging trip from October 11th to 13th for Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton. They gave me a couple ideas of what to see and full editorial control – so what you’ll read here is no-holds-barred travel blogging fun.

Masks in Cheticamp: Joe’s Scarecrows and la Mi-Carême
On my final day in Cape Breton, I had driven up to Cheticamp to meet with the Extreme Group people for a final visit. There were some fascinating things along the way – like Joe’s Scarecrows, which is both the creepiest and most amazing roadside stop in the world (check the video!) – but the real treasure waits for halfway through Lent, when the Mi-Carême festival happens. Back when people took Lent seriously, there was a definite need to cut loose and party for a while, and that is exactly what they celebrate at the Centre la Mi-Carême. Click the video for more:

Passing down Gaelic culture at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre
Driving back down the Ceilidh Trail, I see road signs in English, Mi’kmaq, Gaelic, and French. I’d seen, heard, tasted, and learned a little bit of each of so far – and I’m not talking about the road signs. I’m talking about the fact that Celtic Colours gives a chance for Cape Bretoners to showcase their heritage. It is a substantial opportunity to get to host people who are willing to learn more about the music, language, and food of your culture, not least because it can be as transformative for the hosts as it can be for the participants.

The Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation is hoping to build a museum to pass on their most treasured cultural artifacts. Centre la Mi’Carême wants to remind people of all the fun that you can have with your neighbours using only papier maché masks and some paint. And at my next stop, the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre, Allan Dewar wants to keep the tunes flowing all across the province. Raised in Antigonish, he’s brought his Celtic expertise to Judique as the music director for the Centre. He’s managing a busy couple weeks during the festival, though it doesn’t sound like Gaelic culture shows any signs of slowing down even when the tourists aren’t around. Check the video:

In their own way, each of the places I’ve visited is trying to find a way to link the traditions of the past with a frequently daunting future, and tourism – of the sort that Celtic Colours brings in – has a big role to play. It’s not always obvious what the right way forward is, but I have a feeling that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, eating some food, and learning about what Cape Breton is like for the people who call it home. That’s a start, in any case. Fortunately, Celtic Colours goes way beyond this basic starting point.

Celtic Colours as cultural experience
In my last few minutes on Cape Breton Island, Allan told me that fiddle is a way of life. It’s not something you can get in one lesson, or by listening to CDs. Part of the difference seems to be that music books and CDs are things can stick around even when a culture is long gone. What makes music – or the masks in Cheticamp, or the food in Eskasoni – something truly important is that it’s all there because of a strong culture. If there were not people around to keep the traditions alive, then I sure as hell would not have had much to blog about. But the cultural practices I’ve covered this week are tools: they help ensure that there’s still a culture around to sing about, to belong to, to pass on. They’re also partly constitutive of that culture. Culture is what culture does. It’s something astonishing, and it’s something very few events actually promote: Celtic Colours is worth going to on that count alone.

Although “going to” Celtic Colours doesn’t even make sense, and it doesn’t make sense in an informative way: you can’t go to a culture. You can go to a place, and come away with a newfound appreciation for an entire way of life, but you can’t really just go to a culture. You can visit, and you can hope that you’ll find the true and unshifting reality of a community – as a travel blogger, this is all I have ever hoped for – but you have no guarantee. Celtic Colours, on the other hand, is different. It’s a bunch of decentralized events in unique places (and, often enough, these places also have even managed to maintain their own language), hosted by people who care intensely about using those events to let their culture make the biggest possible impression on the world. They want you, and you, the traveler, need them.

My Celtic Colours trip has been an experience that has put me more closely in tune with more distinct cultural groups than any other activity ever has. I felt that, by the end of my three days in Cape Breton, I had been given the sort of travel experience that happens so seldom that it borders on anthropology and only occurs after years of preparation. I feel like it took me a while to realize that the conversation that I had with Allan at the Celtic Music Centre was a different conversation, albeit very similar in subject matter, to the conversation I had with Alex in Eskasoni. I would have to chomp on this for a while. I did not know what to think; and now that I’ve had some time to contemplate it all, I just want more. That is how powerful Celtic Colours is, and I encourage you to visit.

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