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Fit for the Fiddle 

Natalie MacMaster rocks out Nova Scotia trad music.

Michael Flatley, the Lord of the Dance, has taken his share of critical brickbats. He's been called an egotist and a self-absorbed blowhard. His show has been labeled pandering, smarmy, too risque, and a commercialized corruption of Irish musical/dance traditions.

But one thing that no one has ever said about him is that he's a poor judge of beauty and talent, when it comes to the women he employs for Lord of the Dance. So it must have been quite an honor for Nova Scotia fiddle player Natalie MacMaster to have been invited to play for Flatley's theatrical extravaganza.

She turned down the offer. MacMaster was just too busy at the time. She did, however, manage to keep a date in New York City with Joan Osborne and the Chieftains for a benefit show honoring Luciano Pavarotti during Grammy week. Why would a folk musician from the sparsely populated Cape Breton region of Nova Scotia be too busy for the glistening Flatley? How did it happen that traditional Scottish fiddle playing wove its way into the pop music fabric? Even MacMaster can't tell you.

"It certainly does surprise me," MacMaster says, when asked how she went from playing ethnic folk songs in small dance halls to knocking audiences on their kilts in theaters around the world. "It will never cease to amaze me how the music of our youth, which I thought was only meant for us, has taken off the way it has."

MacMaster isn't the only ambassador of trad music from Cape Breton. Ashley MacIsaac, who had the same fiddle teacher as MacMaster, has been gathering all sorts of acclaim for both his musical skills and sense of showmanship. The Rankins, a family act, has also claimed a following away from its Canadian maritime base. MacMaster will concede that such PBS fare as Riverdance and its offspring, Lord of the Dance, have done much to popularize Celtic music; she'll add that it's more than just the lush productions that have made the world take notice.

"People who wouldn't think twice about listening to a fiddle player will go to

Riverdance," she says. "But that is just part of the story. Celtic music is entering the mainstream."

Part of the reason is the demeanor of the performers. MacIsaac, for instance, takes a rock-and-roll attitude toward performing, stomping his feet furiously on the stage and flailing his upper body

as his bow attacks the strings with a fury that's draining--almost painful--to watch. MacMaster isn't that manic, but she will never be mistaken for Isaac Stern, or even Vassar Clements. She will crisscross the stage as her body gyrates and her long, curly, strawberry-blond hair flies around her head. She's definitely conscious of the movements.

"The way I play best is sitting down," MacMaster says. "That is the way I learned to play fiddle, in a kitchen chair, and it's the way I do it best. But when I'm performing, I don't want people sitting around, waiting for the concert to be over.

"For people in Nova Scotia, the music would be enough. But for folks who never heard a Cape Breton fiddle player before, I want to rock it out a little bit."

MacMaster has released three albums in Canada--Fit as a Fiddle and No Boundaries, which went gold in her native country, and My Roots Are Showing, released in March. She has A Compilation, a collection of songs from her first two albums, widely available in the United States.

Her hometown is Port Hastings, where her mother still lives and runs her worldwide fan club. Like most of Cape Breton, the ethnic flavor is overwhelmingly Scottish. The isolation of the region allowed old-time music to sustain itself with

no outside influences. "I hesitate to call [the music] Scottish," MacMaster says. "It's what you would have heard in Scotland many years ago. It's not the music of Scotland today."

She learned from her uncle, Buddy MacMaster, a locally popular folk musician, and from Stan Chapman, who must be the proudest man in the province for having taught two of Canada's most successful acts. Both her uncle and Chapman are still alive and fiddling. "Cape Breton is very musical," MacMaster says. "It is not as though everyone there likes fiddle music, or that fiddle music is all you'll hear, but it's the music that's most associated with us."

Natalie MacMaster. Friday, May 7, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 West Ninth Street, Warehouse District, $12 ($15 day of show), 216-771-2583.

More by Steve Byrne

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