Seeing things anew

One of my favourite photography tricks is to shoot the same thing repeatedly — on different days, in different weather, and over a period of years. Somehow repeated attempts to photograph very familiar things forces one to see them differently, or anew.

Last week I stayed on the south side of the Toronto islands for 7 days, taking daily strolls on the beach and photographing the same shoreline. It was rainy the first day, blustery the next, snowy for two more, blindingly sunny and serene, then on the final day, stormy again.

On that last day I walked out against the wind onto the decommissioned Pier near Gibraltar Point and took this photograph. And… wow. It seems to have resonated with many who see it, because it became a minor sensation on Flickr. 21,700 views, 200 favourites and counting make it my most successful photo since the mid-2000s. Thank you Nature, and persistence, and Artscape Gibraltar Point !

Prince Edward County, vanishing cultures

I was recently in Prince Edward County, wine-tasting and relaxing. It was lovely, but I was most intrigued by the many, weathered graveyards that I passed on the side roads. Who were these people and where did they and their culture go?

Prince Edward County is a vibrant hub of agriculture, overflowing with produce and home to acclaimed vineyards and cheesemakers.  But there’s little evidence of the Scottish or Irish communities that must once have thrived there. Carleys, Bairds, Simmonds and Farrells once lived here, and likely still do, but I didn’t see any listings for Irish or Scottish ceilidhs or dances. Prince Edward County’s culture seems to have moved on, to emphasize different things. Perhaps its proximity to Ottawa and Toronto and Montreal, or its location along the St Lawrence Seaway and the CN train lines, contributed to its cultural assimilation.

Clearly, I need to do more research to reach any conclusion. But it does remind me that fostering Gaelic language and musical culture in cape Breton is as much about fostering community as it is about workshops and books. This is something that, Taing do Dhìa, promoters of Gaelic in Cape Breton already know, and it’s something that other minority cultural groups in Ontario must recognize.

Archives and the future of Gaelic song

I LOVE archives, and I’ve always used them to learn Gaelic songs and familiarize myself with the repertoire. But recently, I’ve been taking a critical look at the use of archival recordings as a cornerstone of today’s singing practice- in the way they represent, contextualize, and embody Gaelic song in Cape Breton.

In contemporary Cape Breton, Gaelic singers turn to recording archives as cultural storehouses, learning tools and representations of the Gaelic song canon. They invest archives with authoritative power and enter into active dialogue with their documents. But philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote that archives are repositories of traces, evidence of past individual experiences rather than monuments representing collective memory. Archives are indeed potentially static manifestations of cultural practices; they represent a body of tradition that appears cohesive to those outside the community but which might reflect a limited aspect of the more amorphous and dynamic living canon, for archives do not easily reveal the kaleidoscope of individual styles and repertoires one experiences firsthand.

As an ethnomusicologist who got into scholarship as a singer first, I’ve learned reluctantly to join my singing friends in Cape Breton in placing my trust in first-hand experience, turning to Archives as a mnemonic device or memory prompt, or a clue to a mystery I must keep working to solve.

(to be continued..)

“Cùm Gàidhlig Beò”- Keep Gaelic alive

These days Gaelic language in Nova Scotia is gaining strength again, and there are many exciting and encouraging developments in Gaelic language education and development. But for many decades during the early 20th century, Gaelic declined significantly.

Peter MacLean was born in 1913 and grew up in the Gaelic language, but also lived through many of its changes. Jeff MacDonald of my own generation has strong feelings about why it is important to keep Gaelic alive.

The Scots in Cape Breton

More info on this soon: I’ll be teaching a new course at University of Toronto’s Celtic Studies (St. Michael’s College)

SMC377H1F : The Scots in Cape Breton An examination of the ways in which Scottish immigrants shaped the culture of Cape Breton and by extension Canada, with particular reference to language, literature, music and folklore.

I can’t wait to share my passion for these people and their culture with a small group of interested students, and I’m itching to get started on planning the course.