Natalie MacMaster the fiddling master

By Kevin Rothbauer

"I need my Mommy."

Just three hours before taking the stage at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, Natalie MacMaster sat in her dressing room downing an apple cider-flavoured Neo Citran.

"There are 10 guys on the bus," she explained. "Eight of them have a cold, so it was bound to happen."

The illness didn’t to slow MacMaster down as she reinterpreted the fiddle in front of a packed house on Wednesday.
It’s not a nice time to have a cold," she noted. The Calgary show was the last on the western leg of her Canadian tour, but by no means does that indicate a rest. The next morning, MacMaster left for a tour of the us. She then heads home for a 10-day stopover in Cape Breton during which she will have little time to relax and visit her family. While in Nova Scotia, MacMaster will film a segment for CBC’s The National, participate in the Celtic Colours festival, and have herfirst thespian experience.

"I’m filming an episode of Pit Pony. It’s my first acting gig. Guess who’s acting with me?" She pauses, knowing the answer is obvious. "Ashley MacIsaac."

For those who don’t catch the teasers during Hockey Night in Canada, Pit Pony is a family-oriented CBC series based in 19th-Century Nova Scotia.

"I’ll be dressing differently," she said. "I think we’re in a fiddle contest–I win, of course. I think we fall in love in the end."

MacMaster and MacIsaac are cousins in real life, but that shouldn’t pose too many problems on screen.

"I don’t think we kiss. We’re third cousins, so that’s still okay."

The contest atmosphere, therefore, may prove to be the hardest part of the episode for MacMaster. Contests and friendly rivalries are what the Western Canadian fiddle community revolves around, but the same is not true in her home region.

"I’ve only played in two contests in my life. It’s not the thing to do. Cape Breton doesn’t have contests. It’s what everybody does outside Cape Breton. We just play–we don’t compete. Every community has little events all summer. In the summertime, there’s no shortage of gigs, and in the wintertime, there are tons of square dances to play for."

This winter, MacMaster won’t be playing for a lot of those square dances (although she will be involved in "The Biggest Square Dance in the World" during Celtic Colours) because of her constant touring in support of In My Hands, her latest release.

In My Hands showcases her immense talents by combining traditional fiddling with more attention-getting, mainstream styles. It follows the format of her 1997 release No Boundaries, but is perhaps even more adventurous.

"If you listen to No Boundaries, In My Hands sounds like a continuation. I play fiddle tunes with other styles of music–flamenco, pop, techno," she explains. "I knew I wouldn’t do another traditional album after [1998’s] My Roots Are Showing. The next album will be different again, probably another traditional album. I’ve got two worlds to satisfy, both of them within myself and both within everybody else."

MacMaster knows to expect different things commercially depending on the style of the album she puts out.

"There’s a lot more chance of–I hate to use the word success because My Roots Are Showing got me my first and only Juno. [In My Hands] can √ět into way more avenues."

With the latest album’s experimental mix of genres, MacMaster has received airplay on MuchMusic and CMT as well as commercial radio–something that wouldn’t happen with a more traditional album. MacMaster acknowledges, though, the importance of balancing the two, which is especially evidenced in the title track from In My Hands. The song combines traditional fiddling with radio-friendly pop melodies while MacMaster sings her own lyrics about the passing down of traditions through music.

"One [style] makes me appreciate the other. I’m more partial to the traditional stuff. If someone told me I could only do one, I’d pick traditional. Fortunately, I can do both."

On her way to Calgary, MacMaster slipped some old cassettes that her mother had given her into her tape player. The tapes were of such renowned Cape Breton masters as her own uncle, Buddy MacMaster. They served to remind Natalie of why she’s really doing this in the first place.

"I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the best music in the world.’ When you’re on stage and there’s so much to think about, you lose touch with the music, you get away from what you grew up with."

Perhaps, then, those in attendance for Wednesday’s show have the old masters to thank–and the wonders of Neo Citran.

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