Traditional Mi’kmaq songs get a contemporary make over

BADDECK: Two Cape Breton musicians are making the old new again.

Fiddler and singer Morgan Toney and producer Keith Mullins are lending contemporary arrangements to traditional Mi’kmaq songs, and the results are creating a buzz.

“What I love doing now is taking Mi’kmaq songs that are usually played, sing it, with a voice and the drums, and bring it to the fiddle,” Toney told The Reporter.

Toney said he only started playing the fiddle about a year-and-a-half ago while a student at Cape Breton University. After months of private lessons, he became hopeful that he could continue playing.

“It was more like a happy accident,” Toney recalled of his origins on the fiddle. “Once the semester was over I was like, ‘maybe I can stick with this’ because by the time the year was over I kind of started getting the hang of things.”

Toney then took his music home, which was where he learned for the first time that three of his great uncles and his late grandfather all played the fiddle, with a preference for Scottish jigs, reels and strathspeys.

“I took what I learned from class and brought it to my Mi’kmaq communities of Wagmatcook and We’koqma’q First Nations and they loved it, and that was just for fun,” Toney noted. “There’s a strong family tradition with this instrument and that kind of motivated me a whole lot more. I didn’t know about this.”

While in the studio one day at CBU, Toney thought about playing the “Mi’kmaq Honour Song.”

“I was singing the Honour Song as I practicing for a gig and then as I was practicing, I was thinking ‘I wonder if I can play the ‘Mi’kmaq Honour Song’ on the fiddle?’ I recorded myself singing, I matched it with the fiddle and after a couple of days working with it, I put it on Facebook and that was amazing! I thought that was it for me, ‘okay maybe I should start doing this more.’”

A couple of months later, Toney – who also writes and sings in English and Mi’kmaq – was planning to record the “Ko’jua, ” a Mi’kmaq dance song that has been played in Unama’ki for centuries. Toney explained that the lyrics have evolved over time but he was told by an elder that the song is about a dog that has a broken leg, and the dance, which is performed in a circle, mimics the movements of a wounded animal. There are even different dance styles for the “Ko’jua” in each Mi’kmaq community in Cape Breton, Toney says.

“The language has evolved through the years so it’s very hard to find someone who knows what the words mean,” he noted. “The song was made a long time ago, so people have an idea of what the song means.

“It even goes further than the lyrics, it’s more of a dance song so when someone sings the ‘Ko’jua’ people come and dance. That is a song to dance to.”

The song arrangement was the idea of Mullins at his new Barn Breagh Studios in Baddeck.

“[Keith] added a banjo track to it, and guitar, a bass drum, a couple of shakers, a whole bunch of instruments,” Toney recalled. “I wasn’t really used to hearing it played that way, nobody played it that way.”

In addition to strong support from the Mi’kmaq community, Toney said other communities are now catching on to the song.

To realize their vision to create a fresh and exciting Mi’kmaq-Celtic roots album, Toney has set up a Go Fund Me page (https://www.gofundme.com/f/morgan-toney-album-creation) to raise $2,000. Those who donate $20 or more will be given access to the new single, as well as the album upon its completion.

While he has only been playing the fiddle for a brief time, Toney was able to experience a thrill when he performed recently with virtuoso fiddler Ashley MacIsaac during a virtual Celtic Colours International Festival concert.

“Leading up to Celtic Colours, it felt like a dream,” Toney said. “Ashley messaged me and he said, ‘let’s do a set together.’ So I said ‘alright, I’ll go for that.’ At first I was nervous, but after I got to know Ashley through e-mail and everything, I was more comfortable leading up to Celtic Colours.

“It was amazing what we did at Celtic Colours. I don’t even have words to explain how I felt but I was glad on that stage. And for a guy who’s only been playing fiddle for a year-and-a-half and getting asked to come, in my books, the grandest stage of them all, was phenomenal.”

Toney expects the video for the new single will be available next month on YouTube.