by Sandor Slomovits
Onstage, Natalie MacMaster is a one-woman Riverdance, constantly step-dancing, prancing, whirling, twirling, stamping, stomping, all the while playing horsehair-sizzling tunes that most fiddlers can't manage even while standing still. When she does play sitting down, her feet continue clogging complex accompanying rhythms. Her whole body exuberantly exudes her love of the traditional Cape Breton music she has heard and played all her life, as well as her joy in sharing it with others. And when she plays the slow waltzes and airs of her tradition, the melodies are so poignant, her playing so heartfelt, that lyrics are superfluous to convey the feelings. It doesn't hurt that she also looks like Meg Ryan and frequently flashes smiles that radiate all the way back to the cheap seats.
MacMaster's music is grounded in Celtic dance rhythms jigs, reels, strathspeys, and waltzes and she plays them all with authority and authenticity, expertly managing the intricate bow bounces, trills, turns, and ornamentations of the Cape Breton strain of that genre. But she has also taken this centuries-old music and brought it into the vocabulary of modern world music.
Nothing has been lost in the translation. Her arrangements of traditional tunes, as well her own compositions an ever-growing part of her recent repertoire retain the driving rhythms and lyrical melodies of the originals, while seamlessly incorporating elements from styles as far flung as rock, Latin, jazz, and even flamenco. MacMaster has long collaborated with other masters of diversity such as bassist Edgar Meyer and banjoist Bela Fleck, and she's shared the stage with, among others, the Chieftains, Paul Simon, Pavarotti, Santana, and Faith Hill. Hers is eclectic Celtic for purists and radicals alike.
When you think of Natalie MacMaster you can't help also thinking of family and dynasty. She is the niece of famed Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster, who started her on the fiddle when she was nine years old, and when she returns to the
Ann Arbor Summer Festival at the Power Center on Thursday, July 3, she will be accompanied by her husband, Donnell Leahy, a brilliant fiddler in his own right and frontman for the highly popular Canadian family band Leahy. Quite likely, Natalie's mother will also be along, as she often is on her tours, helping to care for Natalie and Donnell's two young children while the couple are onstage.
If it's not too much past their bedtime, the kids may be staying up with the rest of us, thrilling to the music of their parents music with ancient roots, blooming in the present and branching out into the future. And someday they may be passing along to their children the rich heritage they are inheriting from their parents.
[Review published July 2008]