Ben Miller & Anita MacDonald have become renowned across Atlantic Canada and further afield for their synergistic, pipe and fiddle driven style of Gaelic dance-music. Joining together the musical traditions of Cape Breton and the Scottish Highlands, while incorporating influences from Ireland, Shetland and beyond, Ben and Anita have created a signature sound. We were delighted to hear them at last summer’s Home County Music and Art Festival in London, ON, and we’ve been eagerly awaiting new music ever since. As well as performing as a duo, Ben and Anita tour as a trio (Miller | MacDonald | Cormier) with Acadian multi-instrumentalist, Zakk Cormier. Zakk is a dynamic musician with deep roots in the musical community of Prince Edward Island. He brings his talents as a sympathetic guitar accompanist, as well as the driving rhythm of Acadian foot-percussion.
As Miller | MacDonald | Cormier, these three young artists create a powerful sound, which transcends the boundaries between Cape Breton, Scottish, and Acadian traditions. Their new album, “South Haven,” was just released last month, and is a tremendous addition to Ben and Anita’s discography. We’re so pleased that Ben and Anita could take some time to talk to us about the new project.
“South Haven” is a live recording – did you go into the performance with the intention of recording it for release, or was it a more spontaneous decision?
BEN: You could say that South Haven was actually recorded “live in studio”, rather than in front of a paying audience, but it wasn’t actually recorded in a studio at all… We found a beautiful old church in the rural community of South Haven, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and decided that we wanted to record the album there. South Haven isn’t too far from where Anita grew up, and the acoustics in the church were amazing. We really liked the idea of recording live off the floor, with the three of us in the same space, in contrast to the more convention recording studio format. We wanted to capture the energy and synergy of three musicians playing together live, but we also wanted to take the time to be creative and to explore different musical possibilities in a way that we just couldn’t have done in front of an audience.
This album also includes Zakk Cormier; how does the additional sound he brings to your palette change how you approach your music, if at all?
BEN: Zakk is an Acadian musician from Prince Edward Island. He grew up immersed in the fiddle and dance traditions that they have in the Evangeline region of PEI. In many ways these traditions are very similar to the music that we have here in Nova Scotia, but there are a few key elements that have really broadened the way we approach our music. The biggest of these is probably Acadian foot-percussion which Zakk brings to our sound. This is something that is popular in traditional music within Francophone communities across eastern Canada. It adds a great driving beat to the melodies, and adds just another layer of connection to the dance traditions that are so intertwined with our music. Once it kicks in it just makes you want to move!
We first heard you live at last summer’s Home County Music and Art Festival in London, ON, and I know you’ve played in a number of locations in Canada, the US, and the UK now… as players of traditional music, you are not only performers, but also perhaps educators about your musical traditions. As you’ve taken your music far and wide, what has been the response?
BEN: Educating audiences is a major part of what we try to do, but its never a hard sell! I think people really like hearing the stories and history of the traditions that we bring to the table, but at the end of the day so many elements of what we do seem to be so universal. At its core, our music is made up of dance tunes and Gaelic songs that are hundreds of years old, but they tell stories of average people dealing with love and loss, joy and hardship. It doesn’t matter if an audience speaks English, French, Gaelic, or Danish – people just seem to get it.
We’re often asked why we love Canadian music so much (since we’re based in the US) and one of the reasons is the vibrant traditional music scene, especially coming from Canada’s East Coast and Maritimes and with so many young artists. Do you have any thoughts on why so many exceptional young artists have chosen traditional music and what has fostered such a great environment for its survival and growth?
ANITA: Growing up in Cape Breton, I was lucky enough to have been born into a musical family where I was encouraged from a very young age to take up an instrument, to sing, or to dance. I think that this is the case for many traditional musicians in the Maritimes. When you’re exposed to traditional music in an organic environment at such a young age, it becomes a deep part of who you are. There are also many great local organizations, such as The Gaelic College, Féis Cape Breton, and The Cape Breton Fiddlers Association, which have helped to create an environment that encourages youth to take an interest in their culture and traditions. This seems to have created a generation of young people who take great pride in their culture, and who want to bring these traditions to the world.
Anita, I was curious about this sentence from your bio, and I was wondering if you could expand on it a bit: “She often utilizes older scordatura or “high bass” tunings, a defining element of the Cape Breton tradition in years gone by.”
ANITA: “High Bass” tunings were once a very important part of the fiddle tradition in Cape Breton. The term refers to raising the pitch of one or both of the bottom strings on the fiddle. This makes the instrument resonate more and increases the volume. Before amplification, it was common practice for two fiddlers to team up to play for a dance. Using these alternate tunings allowed the pair to be louder and to accompany themselves with drones, mimicking the sounds of the pipes. In Cape Breton, the most common of these tunings is A/E/A’/E’, which means tuning both the “G” and “D” strings up one note to “A” and “E”. This tuning is sometimes still used today, but it has become more of a novelty in the tradition. The other main tuning that I use is A/D/A’/E’. This tuning is not usually seen in Cape Breton today, but it can be found in many other fiddle traditions, including in Quebec, Shetland, and Norway. The first tuning is great for the key of “A”, while the second one is great for the key of “D”. Our album was recorded entirely in these two alternate tunings. We have found that they really compliment the drones on the pipes, and allows the pipes and fiddle to interact in a more intimate way.
Ben, you have a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh, focusing on the dance-music traditions on both sides of the Atlantic. I know this is a topic for an interview all by itself but I’m wondering if you could share a few thoughts on how those traditions have diverged over the years, and how they remain similar?
BEN: Having grown up outside either of the two geographical areas that I focused on in my research, I feel like I have been able to look at this question fairly objectively. I have a lot of love for Scotland’s traditions and its music, as well as the pieces of this tradition that found their way to the New World in Eastern Canada. I think the biggest difference that we see today is in the amount and type of external influence that has affected these traditions. The traditional music scene in Scotland, for example, has has been greatly impacted by the parallel folk music traditions that exist in Ireland. In the large cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, it is often easier to find jam sessions with folks playing traditional Irish music, than Scottish music. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, as the Irish music tradition is equally rich and beautiful, but the fact that so many folks in Scotland have chosen this music over their own native traditions says something in itself. Those in Scotland who are sticking to strictly “Scottish” music are often very heavily influenced by the classical music tradition. This has been true since the time of James Scott Skinner, especially in the northeast, but it is even more true now, since the rise in popularity of “traditional music degrees” offered by institutions such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. There is an emphasis on theory, technique, and composition that you just don’t see in the traditions of Eastern Canada.
In contrast, the traditions here in the Maritime provinces have seen comparatively little outside influence until recent years. Things were just so much more isolated in many of the communities where this music has thrived. The traditions here also seem to be more connected to the dance forms that have historically accompanied this music. Across Eastern Canada, throughout Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and even down into Quebec, you hear players constantly referring back to the traditional dances they grew up attending or playing for. The value of creating music that makes folks want to dance seems to really inform a lot of what people are trying to do over here, even at the more progressive ends of the spectrum. In Scotland, there are pockets of this attitude here and there, but not to the extent that I see it in the Maritimes. (Apologies – there isn’t really a short way to answer that one!)
As of this writing you have one show remaining on your calendar; what is ahead for you all this summer?
ANITA: We have a very busy summer ahead! We will be performing at festivals and venues in the Maritimes, Ontario and the Eastern United States. These include KitchenFest! (NS), Almonte Celtfest (ON), Stewart Park Festival (ON), The Moose ‘n’ Fiddles Festival (ON), Maine Celtic Celebration (ME), and more. Our summer dates will be available on our website in the coming weeks: benandanita.com