Award-winning fiddler and step dancer Gillian Boucher has been performing around the world since she was 15. The Cape Breton, Nova Scotia native has a passion for her Celtic heritage as well as for collaborating with fellow musicians at home and abroad. Tomorrow night she will be performing in Wagmatcook as part of the Celtic Colours International Festival.
What is your heritage/background?
Well, where I come from we’re all quite well versed in where our people come from, so that question can open up a very long conversation! I’ll give you the short version though. My mother’s family is of Scottish decent, my grandfather’s family the MacLellans came from Morar on the West Coast of Scotland and my grandmother’s family the MacNeils from the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides region. We know that my Scottish ancestors arrived in Canada in the mid-1800s, but our information about the family before they came over to Canada is limited as there was little documentation, though we can trace names back to about the year 1800. Both families settled just north of Broad Cove on the West Coast of Cape Breton Island, in the St. Rose and Dunvegan area in Broad Cove Parish. On my father’s side, the Bouchers arrived from Mortain in Lower Normandy in the early 1600s and after three generations settles in Arichat and St. Peter’s on Cape Breton Island and Have Boucher on the Western mainland of Nova Scotia, which is where my father is from. My father’s family identifies as Acadian-Métis, with our Mi’kmaq ancestry dating back to the early 1700s. I identify as Scottish and Acadian- Métis.
What was it like growing up in Inverness County in a family steeped in Cape Breton music and language?
I was born in Inverness but grew up mostly in Broad Cove and a deep immersion in the Cape Breton Scottish culture. As a young person, your perspective is limited to what you are surrounded by, though, having said that, my family certainly made a concerted effort to expose me to the music and language as there was the serious reality that during that time that we were in danger of losing much of our cultural practices. A perfect example of that is found in the fact that my grandparents on both sides of my family were born into Gaelic and French speaking households, yet I don’t speak either… it took one generation for that to happen. My childhood, and I know quite a few others in the community who had the same experience, was spent taken to square dances, parish concerts, lessons upon lessons, and the kitchens of older fiddlers so I could learn the ‘old way’ of playing tunes. There were a lot of elders in my life, and they were always eager to teach, whether it was Danny Hector MacEachern teaching me the different figures of the square sets, Alice Freeman always asking me how I was doing in Gaelic or Cameron Chisholm taking me through the Skye Collection, tune by tune, every Sunday afternoon. Those experiences really affected me and greatly shaped me as a person, instilling a deep respect not only for my elders, but also for tradition, culture and how it is passed on from generation to generation. Granted, I was a restless young person that couldn’t wait to fly the coop, but as an adult and in an increasingly culturally homogenized world, I look back on that time and appreciate the special and unique childhood I had growing up in Inverness County.
Do you have a favourite memory of your grandfather, famous Gaelic storyteller and singer, Lauchie MacLellan?
I was quite young when my grandfather died. He had all of his children after the age of 40, and so he was older when I was a child. I remember his old car and I remember people stopping by my grandparents place when I was young and them drinking tea—though I’m sure there was something stronger in the pantry—and speaking Gaelic. My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller, but stories, tales and how you told them, well, it was just the way people were and it still is present today. I hear it when I go home, when I talk to my mother on the phone, the way the sentences are structured, and of course, the wit. One of my favourite stories and one that I’ve heard many times was about a trip into town with my mother, my grandfather and myself in my mother’s old Oldsmobile, a pretty fancy car that had voice alerts and warnings, a detail my mother neglected to tell my grandfather when she left him in the car with me while she went into a local shop. Within minutes, “The keys are in the ignition. The keys are in the ignition.” was repeated over and over again. I was sitting in the backseat and I was only about two years old at the time. My mother came back into the car, and my grandfather, white as a ghost said, “Christine, my God you’ve got an intelligent child there, she’ll need protecting. The child is speaking.” My mother was a little confused at first but eventually understood and tried explaining that it wasn’t me in the back seat speaking, but that it was the car. “Christine, you’re trying to tell me that the car is speaking.” The explanation made no more sense to him than a two-year old speaking full sentences! I love that story, and told in the ‘Cape-Breton-way’, well, there’s nothing more enjoyable. We come from some entertaining folk indeed. To me, my grandfather was just my grandfather, but I do know that when people in the community spoke about him it was always with the greatest respect and I remember him being honoured at different cultural events for his contribution to the local Gaelic community. I always knew that there was something important in the language and in the stories, something that gave me a sense of importance and pride, almost a sense of sacredness, in my heritage and that it had to be preserved and protected. I recently re-read Brigh an Orain: A Story in Every Song which was written by my grandfather and compiled and translated by Dr. John Shaw, in which there are many stories, songs and history of our family. The book is used as a university textbook for Scottish studies and the stories and songs just warm my heart and I can hear his voice when I read them.
When you first started to play violin, was Celtic music a major form of expression for you?
Celtic music was always played at home, and I first started step-dancing when I was five years old, so I was of course listening to fiddle music quite closely starting from then. My mother was also an Irish-music lover, so I grew up around a lot of the old Irish songs as well. My first introduction into playing music was piano, also at the age of five, and was classically trained throughout my childhood and late into my teens. I was a pianist first actually. My sister Sheena and I started going to the Gaelic College when I was 10, she would have been eight. We had to study three main subjects and of course Gaelic was mandatory for me, I was already a pretty accomplished dancer by then so piano accompaniment was my next subject and I had to choose a third. We borrowed a small ¾ size fiddle from Mabou fiddler Rodney MacDonald, who was teaching me dance at the time, and so I took that to the College with me and Sandy MacIntyre taught me my first tunes. I don’t really remember learning the fiddle, it came quite easily to me and the following Autumn I was enrolled in lessons with Stan Chapman and the rest was really history. Lessons with Stan Chapman, weekly sessions with Cameron Chisholm and playing with friends at the Gaelic College in the summers was what life was kind of all about between the ages of 10 and 14. I studied very hard, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens when I really started thinking and feeling about expression through music. Before then, it was something I just did. I mean, I loved it very much, but I didn’t think too much about it. It was when I starting dealing with things that a lot of teenagers deal with… emotions, love, my parents’ divorce… music was my comfort, and in all honesty, I found a lot of comfort then in my piano and found great joy in playing Bach and Tchaikovsky, though at the same time I’ve always had a passion, for playing ancient Celtic slow airs. Really, it wasn’t until I started travelling and didn’t have access to my piano that my violin and Celtic music became my main form of musical expression.
How has your playing evolved over the years and through your travels?
I will always be content that an instrument is the best passport in the world! By the time I was 15, I was spending my summers travelling and playing gigs. I had some wonderful friends in the Washington, DC, area and so each summer in my later teens I would go down there for a couple of weeks. I collaborated with Irish musicians and got to explore different parts of the country. The seed for musical and travel exploration was firmly planted! During this time I was also becoming aware of the fact that I had this whole other side of my history that I didn’t really know much about. Yes, I was Scottish, I played Scottish music, but I was also a “Boucher”. That realization in conjunction with the fact that I was a rebellious teenager, I started feeling like I didn’t really want to carry the “tradition bearer” flag. Shortly after high school graduation I moved to Edinburgh where I lived for 3 years. I approached my time in Edinburgh as a curious student, immersing myself in the local traditional music community, learning new styles, tunes and collaborating with some great players. It was fascinating to be among such innovative, progressive players with such an open approach to traditional music, which at the time wasn’t really a theme in Cape Breton where there was still more of an element of Cultural protectionism going on. It changed my playing a lot, as well as my outlook on traditional music. Over the years, I can’t really say that my travels have really affected the general direction of my music. I’m a Celtic fiddler and I always will be. I’ve collaborated with musicians from all over the world, but not as someone trying to learn different cultural styles, but rather how to find a place where such different styles can meet and work together. It’s sometimes assumed by people that after three years in Turkey, my most recent escapade (!), I must play Turkish music. Of course not! Traditional music can take a lifetime to learn… I’ve been working on my Celtic fiddle music for 23 years now, and I’m still learning. That’s not to say that you won’t hear some Turkish elements in a future recording, you probably will. I was surrounded by the religion, the food, the people for a long time so there is no doubt that some of those sounds have seeped into my subconscious and will find their way into my music at some point…I’ve always been open to different elements and flavours finding expression in my sounds, but I’ll never stray very far from what I do, and that’s Celtic music. I have no ambition to be anything other than that and there’s still so much exploration to do in my genre. I’m also at a place in my life where I have kind of come full circle and I’m finding great enjoyment once again in researching the music of my heritage. I’ve been studying my grandfather’s songs recently and I’ve been doing research on Acadian and Métis music as well. It’s a funny thing, travelling and living in different countries in search of …. inspiration I guess … brought me right back to the start. Playing my music for people who have never heard Celtic music before, answering questions and telling stories about our history and having people find so much fascination with it all, it really gave me this new found respect for all of it.
What inspired you to form the cultural fusion music group, The Celtic Umbrella?
You know what? Selfish motivations entirely… I just wanted to have fun! I was living overseas, and although I was still touring in New Zealand and doing some work in the UK, I was hungry for a new project and really wanted to collaborate with a group that wasn’t entirely instrumental. I also wanted to work on something that lived within the walls of the Celtic music genre, but explored its many varieties, trying together my love for Irish music, contemporary Scottish music, Cape Breton music, Acadian and Québécois music. We went through a few line-up changes during the early years and had our first official performance with the new line-up, Cassie & Maggie MacDonald and Mary Beth Carty, at a festival in Joliette, Quebec, a couple of years ago. It was a complete smash and we’ve since established a great fan-base in the province which has been really, really wonderful. I simply love the Quebec audiences and they respond to our fusion with open arms… it’s been a total hit! The group is planning an album in the near future but until then limits performances to festivals and corporate gigs. Taking a rather un-established four-piece group out on the road is financially draining, not to mention everyone in the group has flourishing solo careers and so finding time when we’re all free to work together is challenging, but my goodness, when it happens, it’s total magic! I mean… what more could you ask for than four stunning and talented women brining the house down with their music?! Ha!
Have you and the fellow musicians enjoyed performing as The Celtic Umbrella?
We have ridiculous amounts of fun, both on stage and off stage. The girls are a riot. Finding four people that can work and travel together easily can have its challenges for sure, but we all get along wonderfully and we’re all so passionate about what we do. We collaborate and work together well. Everyone contributes ideas equally in the group, we’re all really strong at arranging each performance and we love, love, love clothes J! The music comes first, but the wardrobes are a close second!
What has been one or two, of many, highlights during your vibrant career to date?
Being a self-employed musician that has worn many hats over the years, the many trials and tribulations along this bumpy road can sometimes get you down. But it’s questions like this that make me sit and reflect, and when I do, I realize how blessed I’ve been over the years. When I think about some of those “wow” moments though, I think about being a young girl, aged 15 from Broad Cove and getting that phone call that I’ve been invited to come play for the Green Linnet Records 20th Anniversary Gala in the Catskills in New York state along with Buddy MacMaster and Wendy MacIsaac. Whisked off to the event at such a young age, surrounded by my musical heroes, it was such an amazing opportunity and something I’ll never forget. Years later I was performing with the Mary Jane Lamond Band at a festival in Western Canada, which in itself was an amazing thing having been so influenced by Mary Jane’s music during my teenage years, and finding myself on stage with Eileen Ivers and Solas, two groups that I totally idolized. That surreal feeling, like, “wow, how did I get here?” and then you just sink into it, enjoying the music and the moment… its magic, and I’m smiling now just thinking about it. A most recent highlight was when I was asked to perform in Ankara, Turkey, for the Canadian Ambassador’s Canada Day Celebrations which involved collaborating with the Black Sea Dancers and Horon group. No one spoke English, but we managed to play together and I quickly picked up their dance steps and so they dressed me in a traditional Turkish costume and I was all over the national news performing as a Turkish Horon dancer! That was pretty surreal to say the least!
What is the state of Celtic culture in Nova Scotia do you think? What can we be doing better to celebrate or promote it?
I can only say in my very humble opinion that I really feel like the Celtic culture in Nova Scotia has a vibrancy that can only be achieved through years of hard work and effort by so many people. Institutions active in promoting the music, language and culture have made Nova Scotia, in a global sense, synonymous with a thriving Celtic culture, and it’s amazing. But it’s not just the exposure of Nova Scotia to the rest of the world, it’s exposure of the rest of the world to the Celtic culture in Nova Scotia as well. Take Celtic Colours International Festival for example. We don’t just have people coming from all corners of the globe to hear our music, we have musicians coming from all over the globe sharing their music with us and collaborating. I remember a time when this ‘revival’ was still quite fresh and there was a fear that introducing different Celtic styles might affect how the Cape Breton music would be preserved, but that hasn’t happened at all. Yes, there has been collaboration, but when I listen to the young players today, I hear strength in their music and a sense of pride in their tradition and in keeping that alive. There are so many people contributing to trying to keep the Gaelic language alive and it’s simply inspiring. The awareness of how important the survival of the language and music is to the people that it matters to, and especially in the communities where it is most concentrated, is an important part of the community development agenda and I can only hope that government support in this regard continues. Very few children are growing up in Gaelic-speaking households, let alone Gaelic-speaking communities, and so education is the key to its survival, which requires support and funding in local schools and institutions such as the Gaelic College, which has done an amazing job in promoting and preserving the Celtic and Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia, naming only one institution out of many, of course.
What do you love most about sharing Celtic culture (and other cultural expressions) with others?
Well, I guess there’s kind of two elements that can be discussed with regards to sharing Celtic culture with others, and that can be through performance and through teaching, both of which I do regularly. I must admit though, when I started going to places and playing the fiddle, showcasing my music in a way, in front of audiences that weren’t familiar with the style, I was a little self-conscious and kind of shy. Over the years, my confidence grew, and I started realizing how special it was for others to experience something so culturally different. That goes back to what I said earlier about how travelling has made me reflect and appreciate my own heritage more. When you’re so immersed in something as a child, you sometimes think everyone grew up the way you did which sounds silly, but the perspective of young people is limited by what’s around you and what you know. Sharing Celtic culture has not only opened educational opportunities, it’s also been a medium by which I’ve been able to relate to other people as well. When I was meeting my partner’s family for the first time in Southern Anatolia, they were a little apprehensive. They were nervous about communication because we didn’t speak the same language and they were nervous about the fact that I was a foreigner, and in all honesty, when you’re only exposed to North American culture through TV shows it can sometimes come across as culturally void and less scrupulous in comparison to a rather conservative society. After a lovely dinner I decided that I wanted to share with everyone a bit about who I am and where I came from. I had my partner translate and I talked about my history, the migration of my Scottish and French ancestors, my childhood experiences learning the music of my heritage. I realized that the values I had learned from my upbringing in Broad Cove, the respect for ‘the ways things are done’, my respect for my elders, these unspoken values that are so deeply engrained in our culture and that go far beyond music, can be universal and resonate with others who hold their cultural values close to their hearts as well. Witnessing the importance that I held for my own history broke the ice and swept away the fear that I would disregard the importance they held for their own. It brought us closer and gave us all the opportunity to learn and be more accepting. Bringing these two cultures from worlds apart, together, has been the most precious thing that holding my traditions close to my heart has given me for sure. And sometimes there are more similarities than you think… Turkish tea is just as strong as a cup from Broad Cove, only we like a little splash of milk, that’s all. J