Thursday, September 4, 2008

Off the Map

“Where would you go to listen to music tonight?” Diane asked. The bonnie lass behind the counter of the seaside hamburger stand had no idea. She was just visiting from the wilds of Alberta, she told us, and had only been in the small town of Inverness, Nova Scotia for a few months. She called back into the kitchen for her boyfriend. A few moments later a rangy dude appeared, dirty grill-rag over his shoulder, a mop of hair surging out from under his baseball hat. Diane repeated her question and his lean face broadened into a smile.

“Music? Good question.” He flipped through a thin newspaper that was draped over a pile of well thumbed fashion magazines. He looked up. “The Red Shoe.”

“The red shoe?”

“Yah. The Red Shoe Inn. It’s just down the road in Mabou. They’ve got a fiddler tonight. This one plays traditional Gaelic tunes. The Red Shoe Inn, it’s on the main road. You can’t miss it.” Our faces must have been the very picture of wary disbelief because he immediately tried to reassure us. “It’s a good place. You’ll like it.”

The sun was bright and warm, though well past its apex. It had already been a long driving day. I was weary. Diane was crabby. Nonetheless, we dutifully climbed back into the bus and drove on. Since arriving in Nova Scotia a week back we had yet to see what Diane considered to be good music. And this was precisely the problem.

During the drive to The Red Shoe Inn, I considered our travels on the back roads of Nova Scotia, and thus far we had found little to write home about. The roads had been narrow and rough. The bus was developing a troubling new repertoire of squeaks in its suspension system. And the big sights had been remarkably unremarkable—we felt as though we had driven a long way to gaze at the rocks and trees and water of the Oregon coast.

Of course, the problem wasn’t with Nova Scotia. The problem was us. And the problem with us was simple: We were outsiders. It’s not that we wanted to (or even could) shed our “outsiderness” until we became Nova Scotians, rather we wanted to experience something in this far-flung corner of the world not found elsewhere. We wanted a true understanding of the place. So Diane hit upon the notion of music. She wanted to see live music. Local music. Authentic local music. She wanted a musical experience that one could only find in Nova Scotia.

This in mind, our week had started on a promising note. On our first full day in Nova Scotia, taking a southern swing toward the Bay of Fundy, we passed through the home town of world-renowned ‘70s singing sensation Anne Murray.

Ms Murray wasn’t in town and we didn’t stop. It was just as well, since in these parts time seems to have done just that. Stop.

Truth be told, the clocks here aren’t set to the 17th century. But they haven’t exactly leapt into the 21st, either.

Then again, some things in Nova Scotia are timeless. The tidal waters in the Bay of Fundy, like clockwork, rise and fall some 40 feet twice daily…

…which means even a not-so daring man can walk to this distant island during low tide.

But I digress. Other than the fading star of Anne Murray and the bright lights of Top 40 radio, the music scene in this part of Nova Scotia is non-existent. So we took aim for Cape Breton, the northern-most island of Nova Scotia. Diane was told that Cape Breton was famed for its Celtic music. The roads were rough, the sights muted under wet and cloudy skies, and within a few days we were officially off the map.

Cape Breton is a rugged place. It was primarily settled by the Scots, and the living vestiges of these Gaelic roots are everywhere.

We stopped at a tourist information office for a lead on the local music scene and left with a few maps, a slick calendar of events, and knowing advice in regard to a show called, The Spirit of the Isles. “It’s managed by a fella who went back home to retire,” the lady in the tourist office told us. “He worked many years on Broadway doing The Lion King. By all accounts it’s an excellent show. Music, drama, dance, a bit of comedy.” We weren’t sure which show she meant—The Lion King or Spirit of the Isles. We would have to get to the little seaside village of Louisbourg before nightfall if we wanted to find out.

Louisbourg turned out to be a sleepy fishing village and home to a once-great French colonial fort. The fishing isn’t what it used to be, the town is little more than a huddle of houses and trinket shops along a long strip of pavement called Main Street, and the fort is a relic from a bygone era. But the people are friendly enough. Over seafood chowder in a seaside diner, the long-faced but chirpy waitress told us that we could not have picked a better night to visit Louisbourg. “It’s been rainy and foggy all week,” she lamented. “Today’s the first sun we’ve seen in ages. Good thing, too. They’ve fireworks planned this evening and a free concert after.”

Much encouraged, we asked her about The Spirit of the Isles. “Aye. Tommy came here to retire. Poor lad. He’s done nothing but work since. He was ten-odd years on Broadway, you know. Phantom of the Opera. Cats. It’s very good.”

Did she mean Cats or Spirits of the Isles? It was impossible to say. We bought tickets anyway, and soon after the lights dimmed we knew the answer. In the spotlight, twice a day, five days a week, all summer long the spirits saw out Celtic crowd-pleasers from afar…

… and inflict off-off-off Broadway slapstick up close.

Which is to say it was better than Cats. By the time the spirits relinquished the stage, the skies were dark. A full moon was on the rise. And the music of fireworks was in the air.

And that was the problem. Music was in the air.

Loud music. Rock-n-roll music. The very best of the ‘70s. Smoke on the Water, Cocaine, Momma’s Got a Squeeze Box (Daddy Never Sleeps at Night). Yep, we heard them all. What’s more, the beer even came in cans.

Strangely enough, the next morning Diane wasn’t satisfied with our local live music experience. We had taken in two music shows in a single night and still she wanted something more. So we continued northward in search of authentic local music, this time taking care to avoid all tourist information offices along the way. Not that we came across many offices to avoid.

By nightfall, through weather that rolled around from sour to sunny to warm to sour again, we arrived in the no-stoplight hamlet of Ingonish and a clean little hotel tavern. It was a Saturday night, a wedding party had commandeered the place, and a man by the name of Cyril was scheduled to play.

So Cyril played. The place filled up with wedding drunks, squeaky-clean backpackers, weekend sightseers, and cyclo-tourists. To Cyril’s credit, by the second set everyone was heartily singing along. With ironic interpretations of American hits like Hotel California, Cyril sank the crowd deep into their beers; and with lusty Nova Scotian sea shanties he brought them back to the high ground of their beloved island. Cyril played the crowd and we loved him for it.

In the light of the next morning, I was satisfied that we had seen the essence of Nova Scotian music. Diane begged to differ. We had missed the high season by a month and she was convinced that we had missed the best that Cape Breton had to offer. She was inconsolable.

Agreeing to disagree, we drove up the far eastern side of Cape Breton, made the turn, and rolled south down the western side. Along the way, we took comfort in the road-side distractions common to the pursuits of travel. In these parts, distractions take the form of whale watching…

… high stepping with the local kids…

…commiserating with some old friends while waiting for a turn to dance with the pretty girl…

… and taking in some harness racing, trackside.

Which brings us back to Inverness, a seaside hamburger stand, the road to the Red Shoe Inn, and the prospect of some local fiddler squealing out the likes of Life in the Fast Lane followed with a sing-along of Taking Care of Business. We had no illusions.

The Red Shoe Inn proved easy enough to find, located as it is on Mabou’s one and only main street. Inside, we discovered a bustling little pub that prides itself on serving up local fare and, in a rare twist, championing local music.

The music was lively, raw, and fast. The tunes were long reels of notes that looped around and around in a dancy, improvised pattern that harkened back to an era when fishermen mended nets fireside through dark winter days while their womenfolk wove coarse wool into thick quilts. This was not a tourist show in a large auditorium. This was not a weepy sing-along in a hotel pub. This was not a cover band rock-out. This was the live music experience Diane had been searching for.

Between sets, we struck up a conversation with the pub’s convivial manager, Angie. Once she found out about our experiences with Nova Scotian music, Angie revealed to us a local secret, something not mentioned in any tourist brochure. If we would layover for a day, we could invite ourselves to a local square dance the following evening. During the summer, she told us, a square dance is held every night of the week. The dance is held in a different town each night, and each dance night brings something different to the floor. Some nights are for families. Some are for adults only. Some are formal. Some are more relaxed. Regardless, they always start at 10 p.m. sharp and run until 1 a.m. The dance she had in mind for us would be both fun and relaxed. Using the local vernacular, she assured us that we would be received with céad míle fáilte - one thousand welcomes.

At the bar, the wait staff gave us advice for some local hikes. As well, we made a new friend in an American man named Mayhew, a utilities consultant, urban organic farmer, motorcycle enthusiast, and philosopher. He had traveled from his home in Boston specifically to catch the local music scene. Mabou, he told us, is considered to be the epicenter for Celtic music in Cape Breton. Who knew? Suffice it to say that the choice to stay over was an easy one to make.

Of course, the next day’s hike offered unparalleled vistas…

… the nostalgic colors of hearth and home…

… and up close wildlife sightings the likes of which we had never before seen.

As for the dance later that night? We drove 10 miles down a dark and winding country road. We had no idea where we were until we came upon wide spot in the road, a sea of parked cars, and a brightly-lit community center.

Once inside, we discovered old timers mixing freely with young adults who were barely old enough to legally open their first beer. We also discovered that the dance party was already underway. Unfortunately, we had no idea of what was going on. We had been promised a square dance, but this was unlike any square dance we had ever seen.

The stage had room for two musicians—a fiddler and a keyboard player. No caller was present to lead the crowd. Simply, the music started up and the dancers haphazardly trickled onto the floor in pairs. The leisurely pace of the dancers was strikingly at odds when set against the frenetic tempo of the music.

The dancing itself began when enough couples were on the floor to form a small circle. They joined hands, male and female altering, and like an accordion, stepped in to squeeze the circle then out to let it breathe. Eventually another small group formed. And another, and another. Then, without warning one of the circles broke, couples united, and began to spin. Fast. Then another circle broke. Then another. Until the dance floor was a sea of spinning couples. Every move was well practiced, and no one missed a cue.

Then, according to its own rhythm, each circle reformed, its members dancing in and out as if breathing, then again broke into spinning couples. This patterned repeated to the loop of the music. Then, after a few cycles, one circle of dancers simply ceased to dance. Then another stopped. Then another, until all of the dancers stood around in casual clumps of chatting individuals. At some point the music stopped, too. No one left the dance floor.

It was all very strange. A few minutes later, without warning, the music began anew. The same small circles reformed and the dancing continued, though this time their steps increased in difficulty, the breathing circle transformed into an allemande weave, and the pairs spun off into a wild, blurred spin. Once again the circle reformed. Once again the patterns repeated, and after a few loops through the sequence, the dancing petered out on its own. The music stopped and the dance of circles became stands of chatting friends.

After a few minutes, the band struck up yet again, the dancers reformed their circles, the steps yet more complicated, and as the circles spun into couples and spun back into circles again, the small groups somehow combined into one giant, high-stepping reel. The individuals had become couples, the couples had become small circles, and the small circles had become a one large community.

After a few runs through this pattern, the music stopped, the dancing stopped, and the floor cleared. The set was complete. Maybe twenty minutes had elapsed.

The dance sets went on, unabated and unchanged, until 1 a.m. A few of the braver men accosted Diane and lead her on a spin around the dance floor.

No one asked me to dance, of course. But after a few hours of watching, after drawing courage from Diane’s practiced steps, I sussed out a firm sense of the patterns and bravely took my best girl out for a whirl.

I’d like to thank Mayhew for the pictures. As you can see we really did dance. Likewise, you can see that we weren’t any good. In fact, we were terrible. We made countless rookie mistakes that caused many a disruption to the shopworn patterns. But we were corrected quickly enough, usually with a friendly smile, and somehow, by the good graces of a playful god, we made it through a complete three-dance set.

It was none too soon. For about this time the house lights came up. It was time to call the night a success. But the party held one last and most curious surprise. Before the band broke down their instruments, they dug into a furious jig. The crowd pulled back to form a large semi-circle. But nothing happened. For a long time, nothing happened. And then one brave soul stepped into the glare and danced.

He wasn’t the only one to dance. He was just the first of many. The crowd laughed and clapped and joked and cheered. The dancers jumped in, tapped and stepped, each according to his or her abilities, each in his or her own way - something of the form of Riverdance.

After a few more dancers took the floor (and just as easily relinquished it), we realized that this wasn’t a competition to see who could dance the most gracefully. Likewise, it wasn’t a contest for a prize. Simply, it was a celebration of community in the guise of dance. We had never seen anything quite like it.

On the bus ride back to Mabou, we knew we had experienced something rare, if not extraordinary. Yes, we had done nothing more than attend a simple square dance. But we had also witnessed how one local community reaffirms its identity, from generation to generation, through the language of music and dance. And, in our own small and insignificant way we had even been welcomed into it, if only for one dance. We had found the music we were looking for - and so much more.

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