Hugh Allan “Buddy” MacMaster rightly earned his title as the dean of Cape Breton fiddlers. From his early boyhood days spent imitating the fiddle style by rubbing two sticks together, to the countless square dances he led with his music inside packed parish halls, to his recent public recognition as one of the world’s greatest traditional musicians, Mr. MacMaster is fairly credited with not only bringing Cape Breton fiddling to the world stage, but preserving the region’s musical traditions.
Known as King of the Jigs, Mr. MacMaster was 11 years old when he played his first tune, The Rock Valley Jig, after finding his father’s fiddle in a trunk in the family’s home in Inverness County on the western side of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.
Some years later, Mr. MacMaster played his first dance at about age 15. Over the next four decades, his fiddle playing was a regular feature at house parties, weddings, dances and benefits throughout the region and on CBC-TV shows such as Ceilidh and The John Allan Cameron Show. But music remained mostly a hobby until Mr. MacMaster retired from the Canadian National Railway in 1988, after 45 years with the company as a telegrapher and station agent. In 1989, he released his first of several recordings, Judique on the Floor, and went on to play full-time as a professional musician, gaining an international reputation.
Endlessly generous with his time and music, Mr. MacMaster taught, scoured old music books to rediscover and revive forgotten tunes, and remained forever faithful to the fiddle music he first heard in his parents’ home. He was known for mentoring younger players, the most notable being his niece, Natalie MacMaster, an internationally renowned fiddler, and her cousin Ashley MacIsaac, who brought Cape Breton fiddling to new audiences when they emerged on the scene in the late 1980s.
“He really did believe in giving to other people and not letting them down,” Ms. MacMaster said. “He really did believe in the duty that he had in sharing his God-given talent.”
As Mr. MacMaster liked to say: “The music really belongs to the people.”
An unassuming, kind and humble man, he shied away from awards and public recognition. Despite his modesty, they kept coming his way. Earlier this year, Folk Alliance International gave Mr. MacMaster a Lifetime Achievement Award, placing him in the company of past recipients Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Stan Rogers. “I was surprised, especially at my age, to get this award when I thought I was all through,” he told the Halifax Chronicle Herald.
Mr. MacMaster suffered a heart attack and died on Aug. 20 at his home in the tiny community of Judique, two months shy of his 90th birthday, leaving behind his wife, Marie, two children, Allan and Mary, and a large extended family. He had to stop playing the fiddle in recent years when arthritis made his fingers less nimble and his health deteriorated.
Natalie MacMaster remembers as a child hearing her uncle play in her parents’ kitchen. He’d often stop by the house on his way home to play a new tune he had just learned. Later, when she started playing fiddle she listened to his recordings over and over again, pressing stop and rewind on her cassette player, while she tried to emulate his sound.
“I’ve copied Buddy’s style more than anyone else,” she said. “He had this amazing rhythm. In the drummer world they call it a wide groove or a big pocket. He never rushed an ounce. But his tempo was very lively.”
Some of his gifts included his ability to pick pieces from the Scottish music canon, or turn a lesser-known tune into something special, Ms. MacMaster said. He’d infuse the tunes with personality, characteristic bow work and quick grace notes. She and others frequently refer to his nuanced, buoyant style as “the Buddy MacMaster lift.”
Mr. MacMaster’s musical style comes from a tradition that began in the Scottish Highlands and crossed the ocean where it has been preserved in the rural communities of Cape Breton Island, remaining, some would argue, even more true to its roots than modern Scottish fiddling,