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Hands Across the Water 

Fiddling on the edge of the Americas with Natalie MacMaster

It's the end of the world as we know it. Natalie MacMaster's hometown of Inverness, Nova Scotia, is about as far east and north as you can get in North America, out on Cape Breton Island, some 300 miles as the crow flies--even farther by lobster boat--from the northernmost coast of Maine.

But Sunday night, MacMaster brings her fiddle inland to Colorado Springs, where she guarantees to set the crowd a-steppin' as she moves through a repertoire of songs from her new release, In My Hands, featuring traditional Scottish-flavored tunes from Cape Breton mixed in with her unique take on everything from Latin rhythms in "Flamenco Fling" to techno in "Space Ceildh." MacMaster's energetic performances draw on her personal tastes and discoveries from her early experiences growing up surrounded by music and her later opportunity to tour the world, building musical bridges wherever she goes.

For MacMaster, the music was a vital part of her culture growing up. In fact, it was nearly the lifeblood passed from generation to generation in her family. She described her family as "extremely" musical in an interview with the Indy from her home in Halifax while preparing to launch a U.S. tour this weekend in Colorado.

"My mother is a Beaton. The Beatons and the MacMasters, in Breton, that's it, that's all there is," MacMaster said, referring to a musical legacy long on tradition from both sides of the family tree. "I got a double dose of it. My dad and my mom, they just love it. They're full of music. We used to go to places and listen to it. Mom would have music on all the time in the house."

MacMaster can trace her influences back at least a generation further on each side of the family. A tune on In My Hands opens with a recording of her maternal grandmother. "I wasn't rich enough to get a violin when I was young," Margaret Ann Beaton says as the track opens, "but if I had the money, boy oh boy, I would have been a violin player. My God, I was alive with it."

"My grandmother grew up on a farm," MacMaster said. "I know she always wanted to get a fiddle, and she just never could get one."

Things were a little better in MacMaster's day, and she got her first fiddle at age nine, a gift sent from her Great Uncle Charlie who was living in Boston at the time.

"It wasn't for me actually. I picked it. He just said, 'Here's a fiddle.' He sent it up to Cape Breton for any of the MacMasters. I said, 'Yeah, I'd like to try.' And I tried, and I loved it." She learned a tune on it that first night, and she has kept the family tradition going ever since then, taking a great deal of encouragement from her Uncle Buddy MacMaster, one of Canada's great treasures.

"He's so solid," she says of her uncle's fiddling style. "I mean, his timing is just like a metronome. And he's got lift. ... Usually something with so much lift will speed up or it will get reckless or something. But he's just got this consistent steady pace, it just gets higher and higher, but it stays steady. He's just a great player."

When you see MacMaster in concert, you'll understand how inseparable her love of dancing is from her love of music. "Dancing is very much a part of what we do," she explained. "Dancing is a big part of the music in Cape Breton. We were playing for square dances for years. I believe that's why we have the timing that we have."

What makes her music unique, however, is her ability to blend her strong roots influences with an eclectic taste in new and contemporary variations that have helped to redefine traditional music. MacMaster cites Mark O'Connor, one of America's best kept secret maestros, as her greatest influence. She shares O'Connor's approach to music, often fooling listeners who are surprised to learn that she hasn't had a lick of classical training.

"I don't even listen to classical music. But I listen to Mark and I've always taken particular note of his intone and his vibrato," MacMaster said. "He's not a classical violinist either, but compared to the music of Cape Breton, his sound is very, very refined."

O'Connor appears on In My Hands with MacMaster, dueting on his "Olympic Reel," which was written for the Atlanta games. These days, she is a regular instructor at his annual fiddle camp outside of Nashville.

"I was bound and determined to see and hear him play live," MacMaster explained of the way their relationship started. "I read somewhere that he was having a fiddle camp, the first ever Mark O'Connor Fiddle Camp, and I said, 'That's it, I'm going.' And I did. I went as a student. He heard me playing, and he's invited me back as a teacher every year."

Though she is quickly gaining recognition as one of the foremost fiddlers of traditional-based contemporary music and is firmly established as a gold-selling artist in Canada, she sees plenty of room for improvement. "I'm terrible with positions," she said of her left-hand fingerboard technique. "I really need to work on that. And fiddling in flat keys. I can do it and I do it, but it's not nearly as solid as just regular keys, so I need to get strong in that. Also, my bowing. I need more practice on different bowing techniques."

MacMaster attributes her contemporary tastes and her exposure to other musical cultures while touring as the special ingredients in forging her musical mixtures. "It's a subconscious thing," she said. "You're just hearing other stuff. It goes in. I mean, I am a Cape Breton fiddler, without doubt, and anybody here will tell you that. But I have my own style, for sure. As with every person, it comes from their own experiences and their own adventures and music that they're listening to. That comes into play whether you want it to or not."

One experiment she does not anticipate returning to is including her own vocal on In My Hands. "I felt so exposed and intimidated," she said of the spoken work title "song" that opens the album. "It's scary, because you're doing something that you've never done before." She feels she's run her course with it and doesn't expect to move toward singing any time in the future.

But the experimenting will continue, one way or another, as MacMaster continues to find new ways to express the music she is instinctively drawn to. "I listen to lots of types of music. I'm into pop, and I like the Gypsy Kings and I like this that and the other thing. I have every capability of doing music that's like that, I just need to come up with it," she concluded. "In a way, you're experimenting how to go about doing it, but the actual concepts and that, that's just me. 'Here's music I like to listen to. I'm still playing my Cape Breton stuff, but here's me trying other types with that, in combination with that.' And it's fun. It's so exciting to me; it makes life so exciting!"

-- owen@csindy.com

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