Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Cape Breton import spreads Celtic sound

Canada's Cape Breton was "discovered" by John Cabot in 1497, but it wasn't until the 1700s that the island off the northeast coast of Nova Scotia became home to waves of Scottish immigrants.

About a decade ago, when Celtic music gained mainstream popularity through such shows as Riverdance, Titanic, and Lord of the Dance, Cape Breton and its thriving musical scene were discovered anew.

One of the groups that has been spreading the Celtic sounds of Cape Breton - including a concert tomorrow night at Owens Community College - is Slainte Mhath (pronounced SLAWN-cha VA), a Gaelic term meaning "good health to you."

"Celtic music is something we've always been doing, but suddenly it became mainstream," said Ryan MacNeil, Slainte Mhath's keyboardist and singer, in an interview last week.

Few people are able to decipher the band's puzzling pronunciation at first, but MacNeil said the unusual name has its benefits. "A lot of people actually told me that they saw a poster and came to see us because they wondered what it was all about," he said.

Slainte Mhath was formed in 1995 and the current lineup features MacNeil, his brother, Boyd MacNeil, on mandolin, guitars, fiddle, and percussion; Lisa Gallant on percussion, fiddle, and step-dancing; Brian Talbot on drums and percussion, and John MacPhee on bagpipes and Irish flute.

"There's a great tradition of Celtic music here [in Cape Breton]," MacNeil said. "The music is 200 to 300 years old and it's just a strong tradition that keeps going. It's passed down from one generation to the next."

The MacNeil family is a good example.

"There are six people in my family and they're all musicians," Ryan MacNeil said.

While the MacNeils and their Slainte Mhath colleagues are masters of traditional acoustic Celtic music, they also like to inject some electronics and electricity into their songs.

"I'd say our music is a little bit funkier," MacNeil said. "It still has a lot of traditional aspects, but there are a lot of beats and sounds over the traditional music. There are younger listeners in our audience who would never listen to traditional Celtic music. I'm 29 and I can relate to this music."

One of the hallmarks of a Slainte Mhath concert is audience involvement, MacNeil said.

"It's a challenge for us, to get people up out of their seats. We usually get them dancing."

Slainte Mhath will be in concert at 8 p.m. tomorrow in Owens Community College's Center for Fine and Performing Arts, 30335 Oregon Rd. in Perrysburg. Tickets are $18 from the box office, 419-661-2787, or

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