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Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster, left, mentored many younger players, including his niece, internationally renowned fiddler Natalie McMaster. (Murdock Smith)
Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster, left, mentored many younger players, including his niece, internationally renowned fiddler Natalie McMaster. (Murdock Smith)

obituary

Fiddler Buddy MacMaster brought Cape Breton style to world stage Add to ...

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,

Dawn Beaton, artistic director of the Celtic Colours International Festival, remembers the joy his music brought to her as a young step dancer. She and her sister played Judique on the Floor so many times while dancing that they wore it out. They eventually had to replace the cassette tape.

“He did the most iconic version of [the tune] King George the Fourth,” she said. At an annual step-dancing festival held in the community of Port Hood, he was the fiddler all the dancers wanted. “Every little girl got up and asked for Buddy to play King George the Fourth.”

Born in 1924 into a Gaelic-speaking, musical family in the northeastern Ontario town of Timmins, Mr. MacMaster was the second eldest of eight children. His parents, Sarah Agnes and John Duncan MacMaster, had moved from Cape Breton to the mining town so John could work in the mines. In 1929, the family returned to Cape Breton’s Inverness County, where John resumed work at the mines.

Mr. MacMaster’s father played the fiddle, but he didn’t hear him play often, instead he learned his first tunes mainly from Judique fiddler Alexander MacDonnell, and revered players such as Bill Lamey and Winston (Scotty) Fitzgerald when they visited the MacMaster home.

He says, however, that his love of music came largely from his mother, who sang to him from birth. She would lilt, often referred to as mouth music or “jigging,” with a Gaelic inflection peculiar to the area, and always encouraged people to play music in the house. Several of Mr. MacMaster’s sisters became accomplished piano players and would accompany him when he played publicly.

“I’d be lying in bed jigging tunes,” he once said in an interview of his childhood. “Then I got two sticks of wood and would be rubbing them together pretending I was playing the fiddle. My grandfather, Alain Iain, was up at the house and he saw me at this, so he whittled the pieces of wood down to resemble a violin and a bow. Somewhere along the way I got away from that. I guess I was getting older, saw it was foolish to be rubbing two sticks together.”

His first paid gig came when he was about 15 years old. “I was asked to play for a dance at the Troy School,” he recalled in the book Buddy MacMaster: The Judique Fiddler. “It was just a little dance, you know. Anyway, they gave me $4. I had to pay my way on the old bus to the dance and then on the train to get home the next day.” On the train ride home he met a man he knew who was impressed by his earnings from the dance. “You did well,” he told Mr. MacMaster.

“In Cape Breton, step-dancing and square-dancing, I think, has a lot to do with the way we play,” Mr. MacMaster told Fiddler Magazine in 2000. “You have to give it a lift or a lively feel to make the dancer feel like dancing or perform better, you know. Then when you see a dancer responding to your music, that sort of puts you in a better mood to play.”

At a typical dance, Mr. MacMaster would play from his repertoire of hundreds of tunes with precision timing and impeccable correctness, all from memory. He put so much energy into each performance that sweat would cover his short-sleeved, collared shirt. A young woman, named Marie Beaton, who frequented the dances where he played, caught his eye. The couple married in 1968. By that time, Mr. MacMaster had been a regular player on Cape Breton’s dance circuit for close to 20 years.

In the 1940s, his fellow CNR workers loved to hear Mr. MacMaster play reels and strathspeys over the wire connecting stations on the line. When the station agents were saying their good nights at the end of the late shift, Mr. MacMaster would play a tune and agents up and down the line would listen in on their headsets. Finding time between trains, he would often practise his fiddle at work. The train stations, with their traditional plaster and lath combined with Douglas fir panelling, made for good acoustics and were wonderful places to play.

“At least three generations [of fiddlers] have looked up to him as the gold standard,” said Joella Foulds, executive director of the Celtic Colours International Festival, where Mr. MacMaster performed about 40 times over the years.

Wanting to ensure that the traditions of his music were passed on, he taught not only close to home, but in the United States and was one of the first Cape Breton fiddlers to be asked to teach in Scotland. Down the road from his house, at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre, people came from around the world to learn to play like him.

“One of the things on their bucket list, they would say, was to meet Buddy,” said Frank MacInnis, vice-president of the centre’s board. “Among the fiddlers, he was looked up to by everyone.”

Generous with his time, Mr. MacMaster received countless calls to play at community events and fundraisers. He often played these events for free, sometimes attending up to three events a day in the summers. Soon-to-be-married couples also sought him out. “I’d get calls to make a booking for a wedding,” he recalled in Buddy MacMaster: The Judique Fiddler. “I always got a kick out of that. Because sometimes they would give a date and I’d say, well, I’m booked that day. There would be a little pause and I could hear some talking in the back[ground] and they would come back and ask if another date was open.”

Outside of music, he was an active community member, serving as a municipal councillor, chair of the local school board and community college board member.

For his work as an ambassador of Canadian music, a mentor and a leader of the Gaelic renaissance in Canada and abroad, Mr. MacMaster was admitted to the Order of Canada. He also received honorary degrees from Cape Breton and St. Francis Xavier universities.

Mr. MacMaster’s funeral will be held at 11 a.m. on Aug. 25 at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, an old, stone structure, near his home in Judique, N.S. Inside the sacred place, which traces its roots to the Highland Scots, his fidelity to his ancestors and the music he loved will be honoured.

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