My year-long Canada 150 pledge to only play CDs by homegrown artists on our car stereo throughout 2017 recently reintroduced me to a pair of talented musicians and composers from my native L’Ardoise.
And even though they were featured on an album recorded only three years ago, the efforts of fiddlers Allie Mombourquette and Kayla Bona wound up vaulting me back to my elementary-school days in the early 1980s – a time when it wasn’t so easy to find a fiddler to accompany a dancer.
It all started when Allie invited Kayla to join her for two cuts on her self-titled 2014 debut album. (I’m saying “debut” optimistically in the hopes that Allie will someday bless us with another album bearing the same colour, energy and spirit as the one I’m referencing in this column.)
You’ll hear Kayla’s voice on the album’s final track, doing an all-too-rare recording of the Roger Stone classic “L’Acadie,” made famous by Brakin’ Tradition on their 1992 album Powerfolk. But Allie and Kayla also teamed up for the album’s fourth cut, “Les Filles de L’Ardoise,” which includes a bouncy fiddle tune called “Welcome To Your Feet Strathspey” and finishes with another traditional piece called “The Bird’s Nest Reel.”
Now, apart from the fact that the two women blend their fiddles beautifully together in this medley – and get solid backing from Celtic guru J.P. Cormier on guitar and bass – you’d think that would be the beginning and end of my story.
Except for one small thing: For the longest time during my formative years, those two particular fiddle tunes were the only pieces anyone ever heard whenever a dancer took the stage at a local show – and most of the time, they weren’t even heard in a live performance.
See, in the early ’80s in the L’Ardoise-St. Peter’s area, there wasn’t a real drive to teach young people how to play the fiddle, and there also weren’t a lot of adult fiddlers around who could drop in to a musical event to make a cameo role at a moment’s notice.
Now, let’s add to this picture by pointing out the lack of traditional step-dancing instruction in our part of eastern Richmond County. Sure, there were Highland dancing teachers, and my younger sister was among a growing group of young girls learning the fling and the sword dance and such. But you weren’t nearly as likely to find Celtic step-dancers to the degree that you might find them in other parts of Cape Breton, particularly Inverness County.
However, at a certain point – likely the fifth grade – I started to notice that one of my female classmates was regularly getting asked to show off her stepping skills during the variety concerts and similar events that took place at École L’Ardoise and our parish hall.
And I also noticed that, every time she got up to dance, a cassette player hooked up to the sound system would crank up the same set of fiddle tunes – including the two recorded by Allie and Kayla three decades later, “Welcome To Your Feet Strathspey” and “The Bird’s Nest Reel.”
I finally discovered that one of the best-known fiddlers in the L’Ardoise area, Gordon Cotie, had pre-recorded these tunes so that my classmate would have something to back her up whenever she danced in public. And this happened regularly enough that I started to recognize the opening notes, the shift in tempo from the strathspey to the reel, and even a short series of climbing notes that the bassist would play in the latter stages of the medley.
Of course, as we grew older and started to meet fiddle players outside our community – most notably, the Touesnard sisters of River Bourgeois – that worn-out cassette tape disappeared and more live music accompanied my dancing friend and her fellow steppers.
I still think this story is worth telling, however, to help us realize how lucky we are to have such a vibrant music and arts community in the Strait area today, with so much connectivity between the individual communities, towns and counties that make it up. I honestly think some people might be genuinely surprised that this wasn’t always the case, even in the supposed Celtic music mecca of Cape Breton.
If nothing else, it gives me the chance to thank Allie and Kayla for bringing back great memories of terrific tunes that filled our L’Ardoise venues, years before either of these fine ladies were even born. I hope I’ll see one or both of you at another “clear classic” ceilidh sometime soon.