Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy: Visions from Cape Breton and Beyond
Fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy are Canadian treasures. The Canadian husband-and-wife musical team, who have won numerous awards and accolades over several decades, travel with their six children, who often perform on stage with them. They are considered the “reigning couple of Celtic music” and have worked separately and together with Alison Krauss, Yo-Yo-Ma, Shania Twain, Bela Fleck, Faith Hill, Carlos Santana and The Chieftains. The two combine their Cape Breton heritage with French, Celtic and Cajun styles, for a show with dazzling fiddling and footwork.
While the Leahys live in Ontario now, the music of their native Cape Breton is never far from their hearts. MacMaster, who is a member of the Order of Canada, follows in the footsteps of her uncle, the late fiddler Buddy MacMaster. Leahy began performing as a child with his 10 siblings in the well-regarded group Leahy, for which he was the front man. The group was the subject of an Academy Award-winning 1985 documentary, Leahy: Music Most of All, which won for Best Foreign Student Film.
MacMaster, who could step dance before she could walk, has said that the fiddle brought them together, but that she was in awe of Leahy’s large family that was able to put a band together. Certainly, she never envisioned that one day, the two of them would have a family of music-loving kids who wanted to share the stage with them.
Both MacMaster and Leahy have deep roots in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. The area is well-known for the traditional fiddle music brought to North America from the Scottish Highlands. MacMaster first picked up a fiddle when she was 9 and released her first album, Four on the Floor when she was 16. Leahy, raised by a fiddler father from Ontario and a step dancing mother from Cape Breton, started in the family music business early on. The Leahys also maintain a beef farm that was started in Ontario in 1825 by their Irish forebears.
MacMaster and Leahy have won numerous awards, both solo and together. Their album sales have exceeded 1 million and they have multiple Grammy and Juno, the Canadian Grammy equivalent, awards. They were also awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Trent University in Canada in 2006.
Still, it’s all about the music and the dancing, the tunes from so many cultures, the fiddling, the guitars, the bagpipes and accordion. Only about 40 percent of their show is the two of them playing together. For the rest, they take turns or play alone. Alone or together, when MacMaster and Leahy take the stage, it’s all about the music, then energy and the fun.