As family road shows go, the Natalie MacMaster-Donnell Leahy Celtic Family Christmas packs quite a punch: two veteran fiddling parents, a fiddling choir in the making with seven kids aged seven months to 12 years, an actor to set the scene, and a crack quartet to back them all up.
“It’s not something we planned or imagined when we first got married,” chuckles MacMaster on the line from a their opening tour stop in Victoria. “But life evolves. However it’s happened the kids play, too, and when they come on stage with us for a few minutes of the show it’s a real sweet moment. We’ll see what the future holds for them but I’m sure they will have a life filled with music.”
Of course MacMaster and husband Donnell Leahy are no strangers to music as a family recreation. MacMaster has been playing fiddle since the age of nine and marks 30 years since her first recording this year, both factors that grew out of the kitchen party tradition that her family took part in as she was growing up in Nova Scotia. Leahy was part of the eight-member Ontario-based family act The Leahys who first put their strong footprints on Canada’s Celtic folk scene in the 1990s.
“I grew up in the thick of that tradition for sure,” MacMaster recalls, “and I guess that family feeling is part of what we’re sharing as we tour with this show. It was once considered average and normal, but as you turn into an adult you realize it’s a very special upbringing to be so immersed in a rich music culture, particularly with the fiddle.”
This year’s show also involves a new spin courtesy of Leahy, her husband of 16 years now. On top of material from the couple’s A Celtic Family Christmas album released in 2016, she says he’s always coming up with new ideas and more exotic additions to the repertoire.
“For a few years now he’s been exploring how we could make the show a little more theatrical because our show is not just about what you see on stage. It’s also touches on the deeper meaning behind it and the genealogy and culture. This last summer he saw the play Billy Bishop Goes To War and he came back raving about this actor. One thing led to another and now that actor William Colgate is out on this tour and we’re exploring a whole new world. We’re really pleased that he has melded in so well.”
Colgate wrote his own material based on conversations with MacMaster and Leahy, drawing on their family histories, pondering what Christmas is all about with a touch of humour and sentiment. About a third of the music in the show comes from their album while the rest is a mix of traditional and original tunes in a Celtic folk vein.
This year Leahy has also stirred in some new tunes from the great French jazz and tango accordion virtuoso and composer Richard Galliano, transposed to the fiddle.
“And he plays the bejeebers out of them,” she notes.
In the past he has delved into Gypsy violin, bluegrass, jazz and classical music of a sort and his taste for the exotic adds an intriguing contrast to their shared careers that starts with the couple’s differing fiddle styles. Leahy’s style takes in a bit of French, Irish, Russian and Hungarian styles in addition to his own take on Cape Breton twang. She’s centred more around the Cape Breton sound she grew up with, which borrows chiefly from Scottish fiddle traditions.
“I could try that but it just wouldn’t resonate as well. Donnell just has a sound and a quality and a passion and taste and flair to sell that approach and make it his own. It can be a challenge, too, because when we play together we have to be careful that we’re not stepping on one another, not covering up the other’s nuances. And I’ve noticed in our travels that Canadians are really united by the fiddle. It’s really impressive how it seems to bring out the fiddle fans coast to coast.”
‘Plans for another album’
Between the two champion, award-winning fiddlers they’re always looking for ways to refresh or enliven the show, focusing on Christmas without forgetting the rest of their oeuvre.
“We’re always working on new, old tunes including older traditional music that I’ve not recorded before but it’s new for us. We have plans for another album that we worked out last spring but lord, give me the time. We’re waiting for time to get in the studio.”
Her band spills over with experienced players like Cape Breton pianist Mac Morris who goes back almost 25 years now with MacMaster. Cuban-Canadian guitarist Elmer Ferrer, P.E.I. bassist Remy Arsenault and transplanted American drummer Ben Whitman fill out the touring group.
You sense that the success of the show is still a bit of a surprise to MacMaster since it sprang from a simple motive — to share their own family Christmas experience on stage.
“Everybody has their own path and we’ve been open enough to allow it to be what it can be and go with it. It’s turned out to be a beautiful story that we never could have dreamed of.”
Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy present
A Celtic Family Christmas
Where: Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $40 – $76 from Ticketmaster (1-855-985-5000 or ticketmaster.ca)
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