Having grown up in a family of fiddlers, Rachel Davis is well aware that there are some aspects of Cape Breton tradition that you mess with at your peril. And yet, with the whole world only a mouse click away, she and her colleagues in Còig have access to influences far beyond anything earlier generations of islanders could have imagined.
The lure of the new and the call of the past play out in occasionally surprising fashion on the quintet’s debut, Five, and Davis says this is a good and necessary thing.
“We really like to keep a bit of a mix,” she explains, on the phone from her home in scenic Baddeck, Nova Scotia. “We all have a lot of respect for the Cape Breton tradition, and we’d like to keep that as our base. But you need to keep everything fresh, and mix things up with your arrangements and your chords, and try to do things that maybe no one else has done.
“It’s a very fine line, I guess,” she continues. “You want audiences around the world to enjoy it, and you still want people at home in Cape Breton and in Nova Scotia to enjoy it as well—people who might be more along the lines of wanting to hear the more traditional stuff. Like my grandfather, who’s 91. I wasn’t really sure what he would think of the CD, but he actually really liked it! I was pretty glad to hear that.”
Davis’s grandfather, Clarence Long, is an acclaimed fiddler in his own right, and the younger musician learned the basics of her craft while hanging out in his Baddeck barbershop. There’s lots on Five that Long would presumably have no trouble assimilating, including “The Oracle”, the Scott Skinner strathspey that serves as an opener; “Nach Muladach Muladach Duine Leis Fhèin”, an ancient milling song that Davis sings in Gaelic; and “MSR”, an epic collection of marches and pipe tunes. Elsewhere, though, Davis and her colleagues Colin Grant, Jason Roach, Chrissy Crowley, and Darren McMullen show that they’re well aware of what’s going on in other forms of traditional music—and beyond.
Davis explains that she and multi-instrumentalist McMullen are the band’s explorers; recently, they’ve been checking out high-energy Scottish renegades the Treacherous Orchestra as well as the avant-grass quintet Punch Brothers.
“All these groups that are taking the more traditional sounds of Scottish music or bluegrass and pushing them forward, we definitely have them as a big influence, for sure,” she explains. “We listen to a lot of that.”
That said, neither Davis nor Còig intends to move too far from the community-hall culture that they call home. “My favourite thing, still, is to play for step dancers and play for square dancers,” the fiddler relates, “and I know it’s something that Colin and Chrissy really like to do as well. So, yeah, we always try to make the timing good and snappy so that people will enjoy dancing to us.”
Còig plays a Rogue Folk Club show at St. James Hall on Thursday (August 14).