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Natalie MacMaster keeps her ground

By Rick Bell, January 2004

Leave it to the people back home to keep you grounded .

Despite the international acclaim, beside the fact she can draw from the A-list of Nashville's top musicians for recording sessions at the drop of a hat, Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster isn't about to get above her raising. Family and friends in her native Nova Scotia won't allow it .

While Jennifer Lopez may have laid claim to the just-plain-folks phrase she's still Jenny from the block, the pop diva has nothing on MacMaster, who's truly just Natalie from Cape Breton Island .

MacMaster, 30, is steeped by the generations before her in Cape Breton's rich Scottish culture, carrying forward the region's traditional music and dance that dates back some 200 years .

Any notions of a swelled head after weeks of fans' adulation on the road or performing alongside the likes of Béla Fleck or Edgar Meyer in a studio for her latest album, "Blueprint," on Rounder, are quickly dispelled when MacMaster returns to Cape Breton Island's thriving music scene. Though she's a standout among Atlantic Canada's many great musicians and dancers, there's a no-nonsense reality about returning to her roots along Nova Scotia's rugged east coast .

"I was on the road about 150 days in 2003 and did about 100 shows," says MacMaster from her current home in Lakefield, Ontario, about 70 miles outside Toronto, which also happens to be the hometown of her husband, Donnell Leahy, a well-known Canadian fiddler in his own right .

Apparently the show count wasn't quite accurate - at least in MacMaster's mind. She quickly corrected herself .

"Actually, I did about 125 shows, including the square dances ."

So, in and among appearances with folklorist Garrison Keillor, guesting on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," lengthy West Coast road trips and festivals like Telluride and Merlefest, MacMaster has the time and - perhaps more importantly - the inclination to get back to her childhood roots by playing square dances. Sort of like J.Lo onstage for a wedding at the Elks' Lodge in the Bronx .

"Nothing's changed," says MacMaster, who outside of playing a New Year's Eve show in Ottawa, was trying to lay low for the holidays. "It's just like 20 years ago. They'll just say, 'Hey, there's Natalie.' They don't treat me any differently because of my success. They're as excited about my dance as anyone's. I go home. Home is home. They're super-supportive and always have been. But they haven't changed, and hopefully, neither have I ."

Yet, MacMaster seems as closely tied to her native Cape Breton's transformation as anyone. Born roughly the same time as the making of a documentary titled "The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler," MacMaster's career seems to have mirrored the area's re-emergence as a musical and cultural hub .

MacMaster likes to credit the Cape Breton Fiddler's Association, which was created shortly after the documentary was screened in the early '70s, for nourishing her career in the 1990s. Growing up in a family at the heart of the region's musical and cultural history, MacMaster began playing the fiddle at age nine. Soon after she was playing traditional square dances and variety concerts .

As is the case with traditional Cape Breton music, MacMaster's playing is closely tied to dancing .

"The rhythms you use for the feet are the same as you use for the music. It's all tied in, the language (Gaelic), the dancing, the piano, the fiddle, everything matches," MacMaster says .

After becoming a proficient dancer, MacMaster learned the individual Cape Breton approach to the violin, which stands out for its bowing technique and repetitive structures known as "cuts" or triplets. MacMaster began playing beyond Nova Scotia's borders when she was 12, touring the festival circuit in Canada and the United States. She released her first record in 1989 at the age of 16. Two years later, she released "Road to the Isle," which garnered several music awards in Canada .

"Cape Breton is a real unique place because of the tradition," MacMaster says, touching on local history regarding the Highland clearances and the Scottish migration to Nova Scotia. "The fiddle tradition here is now considered more traditional than in Scotland. It's a bit more of an older style ."

It's also everywhere on the Cape, she added .

"There are more fiddlers per capita in Cape Breton than anywhere in the world," she says. "A lot of people take up the fiddle for environmental reasons. I got it both ways - environmental and family ."

And how. Chief among her fiddling and dancing bloodlines is her uncle, Buddy MacMaster, a local historian and fiddling legend whom MacMaster calls "Cape Breton's most famous fiddler ."

And at 77 years old, her Uncle Buddy is still performing. With tourism being the region's second-largest industry - the paper mill's tops, she says - there's plenty of exposure for local musicians .

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