Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘J.P. Cormier’

Sharon’s Salon

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Sharon Urquhart’s hair-dressing salon was a modest addition built to a small bungalow in Grand Anse, Cape Breton, a wide spot in the road between Port Hawkesbury and St. Peters. The salon, someone once said, looked like a Norman Rockwell painting — men getting their hair cut, women under bee-hive hair dryers, pets and kids coming and going, everybody talking.

The talk was not trivial. Sharon was a born intellectual, and she loved to talk about books and ideas, music and travel, gardening and politics, and particularly the theatre. She had a degree from Dalhousie in theatre, and she refused to be kept from theatrical experiences simply because she lived in the country and never learned to drive. Instead she would scoop up her husband and her daughter and organize a trip to see Cirque du Soleil, Peter Pan, The Rolling Stones, Ben Heppner, Les Miserables. Halifax? You bet. Toronto? Fine.

“She always knew what was going on culturally,” recalls her cousin and close friend, Ken MacInnis. “And she could always get tickets to anything. She was famous for it. Speed dial was her friend.”

“Sharon had an artist’s soul,” says her friend Denise Saulnier. “She did hair design for her clients, but she also ran a mini art gallery in her salon where the ‘show’ on the walls changed with the seasons. She loved painting, sculpture, music, dance. It’s not surprising that she studied theatre – a field where all the arts come together at once.”

Carpe Diem, said the motto from Horace painted on her wall. Seize the day! In her youth she hitch-hiked across Canada, worked in Toronto and returned with a German luthier named Johannes Sturm. A luthier in Cape Breton is as important as a farrier at the Preakness; the last time I was in Johannes’ shop, he was massaging a guitar while J.P. Cormier anxiously looked on.

When their only daughter was born 12 years ago, Sharon and Johannes made sure that Ava learned to fiddle and step-dance, playing at concerts and festivals across the island. And so the little bungalow with the hair salon became a focus of another generation of gifted young people. Ken MacInnis’ wife Mary remembers Sharon as a momma duck, always followed by a flock of ducklings: Ava and her friends, nieces, a sister-in-law, more friends, other children.

An intensely social woman, Sharon was an active player in the United Church and the school advisory council. She created extravagant floats for local parades, and built haunted-house sets inside the fire hall at Hallowe’en. Hair-dressing suited her perfectly, bringing her a constant stream of personalities, conversations and ideas, and she was exceptionally good at her work. My wife Marjorie, a city-reared woman with an extensive experience of ruinously-fashionable hair-dressers, never had better hair-care than she did with Sharon, who also became her cherished friend.

Sharon delighted in learning, and she was a tireless researcher. In her encounters with ideas, she had a warrior spirit, fearful of nothing, always willing to face and tell the truth. Over the sinks in which she washed her clients’ hair was a big mural of Narcissus — a reminder to us, perhaps, not to be too preoccupied with our own appearances.

Her salon often doubled as a counselling office. Finding themselves alone with Sharon, people would unburden themselves in the most intimate way. Sharon listened, commented sympathetically, made suggestions, and kept her mouth shut. But if someone said something nice about you, she made a point of passing it on.

Last fall, Sharon learned that her slight cough was a symptom of lung cancer. She fought it valiantly. In March, her small community organized a spectacularly-successful day-long fundraiser for her and her family. On June 10 she died. She was only 51.

In 18th-century Paris, a “salon” was a scene of brilliant cultural conversation, “conducted” by an inspiring host whose guests strove both to amuse one another and also to refine their taste and knowledge. What Sharon really did, said Marjorie, was not to operate a salon, but to conduct one. Yes, exactly. We have lost someone who helped us all to find the very best that was in us. What a loss. And what a legacy.

– 30 —

The Celtic Kids

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

The youngsters just keep on coming, and it’s a lovely thing to see.

In 1971, when I moved to Cape Breton, I didn’t realize that I was immigrating into the Canadian Gàidhealtachd – the only remaining Gaelic district outside the British Isles. I had been raised in a Scotch broth so dilute that I knew nothing of the music, the heroic legends, the poetry or any other aspect of the culture of my ancestors.

Cape Breton was a revelation. At my first Broad Cove Concert, I heard someone on stage crack a joke in Gaelic – and 15,000 people laughed. These folks were Scottish in a way I could barely imagine.

And then there was the music. Hearing Celtic music was like coming home for the first time. I didn’t stop loving Bach, the Beatles or the blues – but this new music reached far inside me and plucked strings of emotion I had never known were there. In some mysterious fashion, it was my music, and it spoke immediately to my character, my temperament, my spirit.

But the music, it seemed, was in danger. A film-maker named Ron MacInnis had recently aired a documentary called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, and the island was reeling at the idea that the jig might be up, so to speak.

And so began a concerted effort to celebrate the music and enlist a new generation of players. Led by Father John Angus Rankin, the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association was formed. It organized a couple of spectacularly-successful mass concerts at Glendale. The Association also encouraged a gifted teacher named Stan Chapman, and by the 1980s, a whole crowd of Chapman’s young students was taking the stage at the Scottish summer concerts – Jackie Dunn, Tracey Dares, Kendra MacGillivray, Stephanie Wills, Wendy MacIsaac, Glenn Graham, Rodney MacDonald and others.

I remember being particularly delighted by two teenage players at a Big Pond concert: a slender girl with tumbling blonde ringlets and a very proper young man in white dress shirt and red tartan tie. Both of them played like angels on fire. The girl was named Natalie MacMaster and the boy was Ashley MacIsaac.

The Chapman Generation is now in its thirties, at the height of its power. This month, the Celtic Colours festival included a concert in Judique called “Wendy’s World,” centred on Wendy MacIsaac, and featuring many of those same young people. Mary Jane Lamond sang, Stan Chapman was in the audience, and Ashley MacIsaac delivered a blistering, passionate performance which prompted his cousin Wendy to remark that he was “simply the best fiddler in the world.” At that moment, probably nobody in the hall would have disagreed.

So we’re all right today. But what about tomorrow? Who’s coming along now?

For me, that was the big news from Celtic Colours this year. The show in D’Escousse featured the Alberta band The McDades – and also the remarkable Jerry Holland, one of the most eloquent and melodic of all the fiddlers. But the show was opened by 16-year-old Krysta MacKinnon of Dundee, already a self-confident and accomplished performer – a fine player now, with a long future ahead of her.

The concert in St. Peter’s consisted entirely of musicians 26 or younger. Two were from Scotland — Calum Alex MacMillan and Catriona Watt, a piper and Gaelic singer respectively. The other six were Cape Bretoners. There were four fine women fiddlers, all of whom were also step-dancers: Leanne Aucoin, Rachel Davis, Beverley MacLean and Chrissy Crowley. The youngest player, Douglas Cameron, was just 13, already a veteran who described himself as an “all-purpose” fiddler, capable of handling weddings, dances, concerts or whatever other assignments might be handed to him. But when he was asked to step-dance, he resolutely shook his head.

But the most remarkable performance of the evening came from 23-year-old Jason Roach, a pianist from Cheticamp. Cape Breton pianists are superb musicians, but almost all confine themselves to “chording” – accompanying the fiddlers with pulsing rhythms, liquid runs and great sweeping chords. The only major exception I know is Dougie MacPhee, a legendary figure precisely because he is an accomplished solo performer, playing the tunes with his right hand while accompanying himself with a powerful rhythmic left hand.

Jason Roach does the same thing. He has studied with some of Cape Breton’s finest pianists, notably Maybelle Chisholm, and he also has a degree in music from St. Francis Xavier. He is a dazzling performer who plays at sizzling speed, with arms and fingers of rubber. Yet he also has a musicality which serves the tunes rather than overwhelming them. I have never seen anything like him. Like J.P. Cormier on the guitar, Roach does things on the piano that I wouldn’t have believed possible.

The kids just keep on coming. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

– 30 —