CELTIC MUSIC has two main branches -- Irish and Scottish -- and both branches have twigged their way all over the world. The loquacious Irish get better press, but the more reticent Scots have seeded their music throughout North America. This weekend Alexandria is celebrating the 17th annual Virginia Scottish Games, with authentic Scottish music to be supplied by a great number of musicians from our own area as well as two of the best folk instrumentalists in Canada.
The Canadians -- fiddler Buddy MacMaster and pianist Doug MacPhee -- are both from Cape Breton, and they play the traditional Scottish dance tunes with dazzling dexterity. Each tune repeats the same theme again and again with subtle variations, and the two Macs not only fly through the fast figures with impressive precision, but they also add the personal signature of percussive accents within each phrase. These unadorned instrumentals may seem a bit austere to the uninitiated, but anyone attuned to Celtic music will soon be hypnotized by these virtuoso performances.
"Cape Breton's Master of the Keyboard" is the latest album from MacPhee, a young ethno- musicologist at the University College of Cape Breton. Accompanied solely by guitarist Blaine Aitkens, he plays strathspeys, jigs, reels and hornpipes with a jaunty authority. The highlights are a pair of tunes by Cape Breton composer J. Scott Skinner. MacMaster's "Judique on the Floor" is a major event, for it is the 64-year-old railroader's first solo album after 52 years of playing dances, concerts and festivals as Cape Breton's leading fiddler. Accompanied solely by pianist John Morris Rankin, MacMaster plays 40 of his favorite tunes and proves why his house-concert tapes have been such prized possessions in folk circles for years.
Maggie Sansone of Annapolis plays hammered dulcimer, and her new album of Celtic music, "Mist & Stone," marks her best work yet. She leads an all-star band of area Celtic musicians (from such groups as Helicon, Ceoltoiri and Sodabread) through 22 Scottish, Irish and Galician instrumentals. Sansone emphasizes harmony in the light touch of her own playing, and her ensemble arrangements also milk the harmonic possibilities of the traditional material as she sets the sustaining instruments (viola da gamba, fiddle, concertina and penny whistle) against the percussive instruments (hammered dulcimer, bodhran, harp, guitar and cittern).